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Michael Perry: Aphorisms

July 23, 2018 GMT

A long time ago backstage at a state fair in Petaluma, California, a country music roadie told me, “If you see food, eat it; if you got 10 minutes, sleep.” The concision and clarity of that advice is capable of vaporizing a decade’s worth of self-help books. It is a phrase tattooed upon my soul if not my skin, and just last weekend I deployed it on a young stagehand acting tentative in the presence of free scrambled eggs.

I remember also a rainstorm that struck while I was running a forklift for a local sawyer famed as much for his bar fights as his straight 2x4s. He was built like a walk-in beer cooler and was known to polka with women balanced upon his beef-quarter shoulders. I was a churchly teen who had yet to kiss a girl, let alone sport one bodily about a tavern, and so I suspect it was as much overcompensation as work ethic that drove me to continue running racks of lumber even as the rain hammered down and the rest of the crew ran for the shelter of a beat-up van. Shortly the side door cracked, the sawyer’s head emerged, and he bellowed, “HEY! Even a chicken has enough sense to get in out of the rain!” Thus encouraged, I bailed off the forklift to join them inside the muscle-packed van thick with the scent of sweat and wet and sawdust and bar oil, the rain ringing off the roof like tympani.

And then there was the ranch boss in Wyoming, who, upon overhearing me confiding to another ranch hand that I was entertaining overtures from a young woman who had at that time accumulated a reputation for escapades far exceeding my ability to keep up, let alone reciprocate, fixed me with a steady gaze and said, “Son, run like you was bein’ shot at!” Naturally, I ignored him, which I do not regret, because how else might I have learned for certain that he was right on?

It was from this man’s father — the original ranch boss — that I first heard the phrase, “A fish factory stinks after three days.” Later I would discover the words were not original with him, but every time I hear them they evoke an image of him standing on the hot gravel driveway of the ranch yard, the dust from the wheels of the dismissed character in question still hanging in the air. Trust your instincts, I learned, and in case of uncertainty, give it three days.

When I directed the young stagehand to eat them eggs and grab a nap last Saturday, I felt seasoned and wise. Later he will learn what I have learned, that we cannot live by aphorism alone, that context and complication will have their say, that time reshapes us all. Specifically I was dozily eyeing the free doughnuts beside the free eggs while absently pinching my gut just above the beltline, and considering exactly when “If you see food, eat it; if you got 10 minutes, sleep,” transformed from my credo to my default.