Sometimes, I just step in it.
I was 14. Confirmation Sunday. One by one, Mrs. Strand was pinning carnations on each of our white confirmation robes, finishing with a quiet, “God bless you,” to which each of my classmates responded with averted eyes and a quiet, “Thank you.”
Except for me. I looked her square in the eye, flashed a wiseacre’s grin and shot back with, “You bet! ’Cuz I’ll sure be needing it!”
I still remember the awful look on her face.
It’s not a moment I remember with any pride. I meant no harm, but the awful feeling that passed over me — I’ll never forget it.
I stepped in it. Did a dumb, thoughtless thing that offended pretty much anyone aware of it.
It wasn’t the last time, you can be sure of that.
In the interest of full-disclosure and, perhaps, for better understanding, Al Franken is no stranger to me. Since he first ran for the Senate, whenever he’s been in town or in the neighborhood, he’s dropped by the Daily News for a chat — always informal, often pretty much off-the-record. We talked about a variety of things — sometimes policy, sometimes the weather, often family and the experiences we’d had growing up and getting through from day to day. It’s fair to say we hit it off — just a year apart in age, we both grew up in Minnesota in families that knew that no matter how hard you work, life isn’t always fair. I liked him. I still do.
Of course, he’s stepped in it, too.
The again, we all do. And, it seems, particularly for guys, the older we get, getting caught at it is easier and easier to do.
Especially when women are involved.
Y’see, we grew up in a different world, Al and I — and millions of other guys whose age has given them a particular, personal interest in the future of Medicare funding. Growing up it was Ricky Ricardo — “Lucy, you got some ‘esplainin’ to do ... “ or Ralph Kramden — “One of these days ... Bang! Zoom! To the moon, Alice! To the moon!” In our childhoods it was “Father Knows Best,” and we came of age counseled by Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Philosophy.
Mom was at home where she belonged. Good girls didn’t, but real guys were bound to try. Dates were recapped like baseball — first base, second base, and if you had to steal third ... well, it was all part of the game.
A different world — you betcha. The want ads classified Jobs-Male and Jobs-Female. The provision outlawing discrimination based on gender was added to the Civil Rights Act by a segregationist congressman both as a joke and a poison pill to kill the bill: Women and colored people ought to know their place.
Those were ideas, attitudes and principles we took in with our Pablum and strained peaches. They were the jokes we heard told and then repeated; the actions we aped; the standards set that we were expected to recognize and uphold.
Then the world changed. Gradually at first, then in a swirling vortex that turned old certainties upside down and inside out at a pace so swift even the language struggled to keep up with it, ending up in a place so changed our grandchildren would find the world of our youth distant as Tudor England with black-and-white TV.
Times changed and we — at least most of us — tried to change with them.
Tried. That’s the important word here. In a way, my generation and my father’s are immigrants to this cultural landscape. For the most part, we’re happy to be here — it’s a healthier, safer, more civil world than the one we were born to. But for us, getting here has meant consciously embracing changed attitudes, language and behavior. It’s taken effort ... a lot of trying ... and, inevitably, imperfect results.
So, on occasion, we screw it up. Step in it. Do, say, think something that a generation ago was exceptionally unexceptional but now leaves many, many, many aghast.
I suppose some folks will see this as making excuses. Yeah, I can understand that. If you’ve come of age with “Grey’s Anatomy,” it’s hard to imagine a time when doctors were all men.
But at least give us credit for trying. And even more so, give us credit for knowing there’s a difference — a huge difference — between an accidental touch, a misread interpersonal cue or some crude clowning around and intimidation, coercion, assault and rape.