The Shell Answer Man
Who remembers the Shell Answer Man? Shell Answer Man 1978
When I was growing up, the Shell Corporation ran a series of TV commercials that lasted for almost three decades. In each one, the immaculately dressed Shell Answer Man offered handy dandy tips about cars and driving.
Boy, back in the day, that man was an automotive authority, an icon on par with Mr. Clean or Captain Kangaroo. He was so ingrained in the pop-culture that even now, when a family member gets a little too preachy, too much of a know-it-all, they earn the moniker.
The Shell Answer Man’s voice was deep and commanding, like news anchors of yore, long before groovy colorful socks and hair gel spiking. He knew about the two second rule, taught us little ladies to get estimates in writing, recommended the most efficient fuel for your engine (Shell, in case you were wondering.) I’m certain the Shell Answer Man could mix a killer martini while changing a spark plug or poach a sockeye salmon in the dishwasher while rotating my tires. I imagine him, like a navy-blazered version of the Marlboro Man, riding full gallop, lifting the rifle sights to his eye as he takes down an elk with one shot.
As the mother of four children and the wife of a man who, lets just say, is not so observant when it comes to the domestic realm, I have recently found myself identifying with the Shell Answer Man. It’s a lonely gig. I am pretty much on my own ice floe when it comes to home maintenance and repair. My wonderful, intelligent husband has an advanced case of acquired onset marital blindness. He could literally walk into our home, with a geysering, backed up septic system, and he would NOT notice. Not only would he step over the river of toxic sludge on his way to the toilet, but he would flush, all the while wondering why the house smelled weird.
And did I mention that my husband isn’t exactly Ty Pennington when it comes to home repair? His solution invariably involves duct tape and super glue, whether it’s a broken phone or that poop spewing septic. You should call my husband if you want explanations for things like why the Sunnis and Shiites have been battling for thousands of years, but you do not want to call him when something breaks.
Perhaps you also get questions like these in your household? Where is my wallet/keys/head/glasses/clean laundry/shoes/eyesight/wallet/keys? When is dinner?/ is it cold out?/ where are the pretzel thins?/ how many people live in Kazakhstan?/when will we solve world peace?/global warming?/the Iraq war?/Korean missile launches?/cure cancer?/cure Alzheimer’s?/fix the health care crisis?/where is the toilet paper?
These are versions of the kinds of things I get asked all the time. OK, maybe not the global stuff, but honestly, I don’t think my family even hears the kinds of questions they ask. It’s all become like breathing, or large intestinal cramping, an involuntary, cerebellum driven behavior.
Recently, a family member, who shall remain nameless, asked, “Is your sister teaching yoga today?”
I don’t know,” I answered. (This is my new go-to mantra when I’m questioned out.)
“Is anybody teaching?”
I hesitated. What I desperately wanted to say was “No. There is no one teaching. Not a soul. We are currently walking a half-mile with our rolled yoga mats for kicks and giggles because there is absolutely NO ONE teaching yoga and we cannot think of anything else to do.” But I didn’t say that. Out loud.
If I flip the script here, and stop looking at this as a form of laziness, I guess I should be flattered that my family views me as some kind of oracle, a wise, omniscient tribal elder. Or a live version of Google. I should take it as a compliment that they assume I have answers when it comes to wars and famine, pestilence and disease and mostly where people have left their flip flops and car keys. In fact, like most mothers I know, I do have that third eye thing. I can pretty much tell you that the raisins are on the second pantry shelf in the far right back next to the choke cherry homemade jelly from the neighbor’s wife that needs to be thrown out.
The one-sided questioning eventually got so bad that I decided to track the number of requests in one day. Maybe the results would demonstrate just how difficult it was to be the Shell Answer Man?
Thirty minutes into my experiment, secretly scratching hash marks on a piece of paper, I was already punching past 20. I gave up. It was too depressing. Did I really expect it would change their behavior? I imagined those surly teen looks, their sneering lip curls, the total exasperation. What was the point?
In the end, I have come to understand that this is my doing. I’m the enabler. Somewhere along the way I must have anointed myself their Shell Answer Man of household details, unimportant objects and occasionally overarching global issues. Why hadn’t some more knowledgeable soul pulled me aside long ago and taught me to feign more helplessness, grow long nails, play dumb in the kitchen and make them all read the directions?
But here’s the thing. I’ve actually grown into my Shell Answer Man mantle. All of this perceived knowledge is sort of cool. And in the blink of an eye, with a little good fortune, they will soon be creating their own little families, answering the same rhetorical, mind-numbing questions, locating the lost stuffed animal or pacifier at the back of the crib, wondering, at 3:00 AM, if they will ever really sleep through the night again in their whole entire lives.
And in those moments, when the world is dark and hushed, perhaps they will briefly think of me and recognize, with alternating bursts of insight and gratitude, that part of love is simply enduring, holding fast at the roots so you can bend at the branches. And when all else fails, you can always make up your own answers.