MARK O’DONNELL WEEK.
(Mark O’Donnell, former chairman of the Michelin Corporation, is also quite the writer. To commemorate the publication of his newest book, Let Nothing You Dismay , we are presenting a week of Mark’s work, past and present. An excerpt from the book, which is right now available for buying and having, ran yesterday, and another will run tomorrow. This piece, below, is something else.)
You know what I miss? How bathtubs and stoves used to have those little feet on them, and you’d lose things underneath them. One of Vera’s flapjacks got under the old Heat Queen and was there for most of the Truman administration. Finally gave it to the paper boy at Christmas, told him it was a flying saucer toy (flying saucers were new then) and he was glad to get it. None of those flippant remarks the delivery people are full of today. Everybody’s a snideheimer now. I blame the television there.
And remember how the little ones used to cut themselves on the metal pieces of Erector sets? Sure, nowadays they wiggle their little plastic men and say “I’m exploding everybody!” — but does anyone actually get hurt? No. Today it’s all video games. Explosions but no consequences. I even hear how they’re going to fight the real wars on video screens now. Never mind getting out in the fresh air. Not like it used to be. Not like the Thirty Years War. Even the kids got in on that one. There was none of this paperwork rigamarole to join up, if you ran away from home you were eligible. And those big blunderbusses, like trombones. I guess today they’d say they were funny-looking, but back then they got a lot of respect. Whatever happened to those Prussians, anyway? Or, Hessians, whoever they were we shot at, or alongside, whichever. They worked hard. A year and a day for a schnitzel and a copper. Not like these mercenaries today. Today, they want the movie rights on the raid and free cable in the bunker.
That Tamburlaine could cut a rug through human flesh, too, without a lot of press conferences. One hand on the reins and the other swinging his, what would you call it, a scimitar? The way Vera used to go on about him, I was almost jealous, but then, I had made ritual sacrifices to Diana at her temple at Aricia, Vera never would let that go. It was for the hunt, but try explaining that to a woman. And the temple architecture was worth seeing. Solid, not like these pre-fab Halls of Fames they have now. It had caryatids. You don’t see those on these new pinky glass boxes with the silly hats. Unless they add them as a joke. It’s all Disneyland now, no sincerity or terror like the Valley of the Kings. There weren’t any flippant remarks around Rameses.
Of course, they couldn’t do something like the hanging gardens again if they tried. Too expensive. Not enough old devil’s-own Babylonian cleverness (Boy, some of those strange musical instruments they dreamed up!). Plus a lot of those fancier plants were killed off by the ozone, or the flood. It’s all hydroponic hothouse flavorless plasticky stuff now. Haven’t had a decent apple since about Day One. That last Ice Age made the food taste funny. Those enormous Carboniferous era ferns, they were lovely to hide from predators under. I suppose they’d wilt in this namby-pamby temperate modern climate.
Oh, that reminds me, the woolly mammoth. There was a classic. I like my elephants with some hair on ‘em. Jumbo was okay, but he had nothing on those Mesozoic babies. And the sloths of today — cannot compare. Mammals were fresh then. Oh, when we were all little tree shrews, remember that? Those little fingers! No thumbs, and we didn’t want ‘em. Life was simpler. Conceptual thought was something we didn’t even think of. Makes me want to go suck an egg right now. I miss the night vision, too, especially when I have to take out the trash.
People are always going Dinosaurs Dinosaurs but they forget those gigantic dragonflies. Used to prey on us when we were grubs, and you know they could scare your tour group today. And that first fish that crawled out of the water. That took moxie. Fish nowadays, no moxie. Spineless. Well, they’re not spineless, just no ambition. Want everything handed to them. No hands back then, so no handouts.
What I really miss is spineless deep sea life. Wouldn’t have that lower back trouble like I have now! That nice primordial soupy solution all around, none of this wind and rainfall we have to deal with up here. To tell you the truth, things were simpler when all life was unicellular, not just a lucky few. Nothing but tiny little wriggling amoebae and the big, big ocean. No appointments. No internal organs. We didn’t even need land masses back then. Time just rolled along. Eons felt like epochs. It was so peaceful. None of those noisy radios like the youngsters carry around now!
Of course, for quiet you can’t beat that long stretch before the Big Bang. That was nice, all that nothingness. So it was chaos, so what? We were young, we didn’t care. Not a lot of rigamarole, and no flippant remarks. Vera says she’s come to like the existence of things, but you know Vera — loves a houseful of knick-knacks. Me, I’ll take the void.
[This piece originally ran in The New Yorker.]