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Watch out for the wollypops.

The average quotation isn't a lot of help around the house. "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute," is an elevating thought, but not much help when the washer quits. Or take "Oh, to be in England, now that April's there." It has a lovely sound, but it's not something you can really say when your wife's mother comes to visit. Not much help either is "Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime," particularly when the boss is coming for dinner and the plumbing is stopped up.

It seems to me there's a place in our lives for some of the homely sayings that never make anthologies. When I was a boy, for example, we had a young and inexperienced hired girl who came to stay with us. The first morning she cooked soft-boiled eggs for breakfast, and when she tried to open them, she had a touch of stage fright. She took a spoon and hit the first one about a quarter of an inch from the end. Then she gave an ineffectual tap a little farther down.

My father took the egg from her and sheared off the top with an easy flick of his knife. "Never be afraid of a soft-boiled egg," he told her.

Since then I have had many harrowing experiences--trying to assemble a tricycle, carving a duck for company, having a conference with a child's teacher, tearing a strip of adhesive tape, gift-wrapping a lamp, costuming a small daughter for a Thanksgiving pantomime. And when I've been most convinced that the world was against me, my father's words--"Never be afraid of a soft-boiled egg"--have carried me through. A man who has truly overcome his fear of a soft-boiled egg can face the rest of life's problems with dignity and grace.

This is the earliest quotation in my collection, but not the only one to stem from my father. A number of years later he happened to be on an airliner that was forced to make an emergency landing. He was describing afterward how calmly the passengers received the news. "After the stewardess made the announcement," he told us, "nobody said a word! We just kept right on talking."

Technically, this is known as an Irish Bull--the oddest form of misstatement in the language. I feel fortune in having two of these. For the second one I'm indebted to my wife. At dinner, while cautioning one of the children about stuffing his mouth, she said, "Don't you put another thing in your mouth until you've swallowed it first."

This was Gabe, the three-year-old. We also have Roy, who is five, and Sheila, who is eight. One time they were opening boxes of Crackerjack, and Roy's prize was a cardboard sled which Sheila wanted very much. When she opened her box, she got something else. She was furious. Roy was a bit more philosophical.

"Well, Sheila," he said with a shrug, "that's the way it goes. Sometimes you get the cardboard sled, and sometimes you don't."

It was Gabe who supplied me with another noteworthy item. The first time he was given a dish of apricots, he was surprised to find the stones in them. "Hey, man," he said, "there's pieces of wollypops in there."

This is an expression that applies to a lot of things besides apricots. It can be used to describe any experience where something wet and sticky turns up where it isn't supposed to be. I find occasion to use it almost every day.

In truth my children have contributed most of the choice quotations in my collection. Roy decided one time he wanted a tractor--not a toy, but a regular farm tractor.

"I'm sorry," I told him. "I don't have enough money."

He said, "And what's your other reason?

I said to him, "I don't have another reason."

He said, "You always ought to have two reasons."

Then there was the time I was playing a game of checkers with Sheila. She made an incautious move, and I jumped two of her men. She swept all of the checkers off the checker board.

"I don't think you're being very nice," she said. "You're trying to win."

I've thought about that quite a lot. I've decided that that's the reason I find so many people so hard to get along with. They're all trying to win.

It was Gabe who called my attention to a flock of birds one time when we were out for a ride. They had risen up from a field we passed and were fluttering wildly back and forth. I asked him what they were doing. He thought for a moment.

"Oh," he said finally, "they're just birdin' around."

I've tried to translate this remark into more general terms. What it means, I think, is a lot of frantic activity to reach a goal that isn't there. If you've ever attended a political convention, or a dedication ceremony, or a testimonial dinner, you may have wondered what all the people were doing. Now you know.

Another time we had guests who brought their little girl with them. Roy came into the room where we were talking and wanted to know where their daughter Amy was. Her mother said she believed she was in the bathroom.

"Well," Roy said, "whereabouts in the bathroom?"

For a child of his age I thought this showed a delicacy of expression and social awareness that was unusual.

And there was Aunt Clara. She became very annoyed one time because the mailman was late. "I was watching by the window," she said, "and he didn't come, and he didn't come, and he didn't come."

I don't think we ever found out why he was late--probably just birdin' around somewhere.

This is the sort of thing you have to expect in life. You wait for something you've set your heart on, and it doesn't come, and it doesn't come, and it doesn't come. At such a time it's always comforting to have a few quotations to fall back on.

As a matter of fact, the pathway of life is a rocky one and strewn with pieces of wollypops.

But that's the way it goes. Sometimes you get the cardboard sled and sometimes you don't.
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Title Annotation:use of expressions and quotations in daily life
Author:Stanton, Will
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
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