By Cliff Ennico
There’s an old vaudeville comedy routine that goes by the name “That’s good. That’s bad.”
This routine was (at least for my generation) made famous by the late Archie Campbell, a country comedian who performed on “Hee Haw” and other comedy-variety television programs of the 1960s and 1970s (for an audio clip of Campbell’s performance, go to YouTube and search Archie Campbell “That’s Good That’s Bad”).
The routine, a dialogue between the comic and his “straight man,” basically went like this:
A: It was a beautiful day yesterday, so I went out and took a long walk.
B: That’s good.
A: No, that’s bad.
A: I wasn’t looking where I was going, and I fell into an open well.
B: Oh, that’s bad.
A: No, that’s good.
A: There was a big bag full of gold coins at the bottom of that well.
B: Well, that was good.
A: No, that was bad.
A: Well, I had no way to get out of the well, you see.
B: Yeah, I guess that was bad.
A: No, that was good.
A: Well, I yelled really loud and a guy came by and threw me a rope, so I was able to get out of the well with the bag of coins.
B: Well, that was REALLY good.
A: No, that was really bad.
A: The guy was an IRS agent.
You get the idea. Each step of the story is deceptive; you never really know if it’s good or bad until the next step.
Which is, of course, a lot like life.
Things happen that appear to be good or bad at the time but turn out to be exactly the opposite, often for surprising reasons.
Take the automobile, for example.
The automobile has been blamed (especially lately) for much of the world’s ills: traffic congestion, pollution, cancer, global warming — you name it.
But here’s something about the automobile you don’t know: It led to one of the greatest advances in human health the world has ever known.
Hear me out. Before the automobile, people rode in wagons and buggies powered by horses, mules and other farm animals.
What do farm animals do? They eat, and they poop. Very frequently.
Walking down a city street in, say, 1880, you were constantly picking your way around massive piles of poop. Roads weren’t paved, and sidewalks (if they existed at all) were made of wood and so were difficult to clean. When it rained, you couldn’t tell where the mud ended and the poop began.
People wore thick boots, and women wore high heels to stay above the muck. You couldn’t escape the stench, or the flies and other vermin that tend to be attracted to piles of poop.
Not coincidentally, people in 1880 were dropping dead left and right from diseases you probably never even heard of: diphtheria, dysentery, whooping cough, typhoid fever — diseases that were caused or made worse by having to navigate massive piles of poop every day.
Enter the automobile. Which, of course, offered many new ways to kill you, such as carbon monoxide, crashes, gasoline fires and drunk drivers.
But no piles of poop.
By 1930, with the automobile firmly established as our basic means of transportation, the diseases listed above were on their way out. City streets were a lot cleaner and were paved, because automobile tires needed paved roads.
Don’t get me wrong; during this same time period, there were massive improvements in medicine. And public health initiatives during the early 1900s made for cleaner water, air, food and drugs. But by eliminating animal waste as a byproduct of everyday life, the automobile contributed to a dramatic improvement in human health.
So, was the automobile a good thing, or a bad thing?
It’s often impossible to predict the consequences of an action, or an event, when you are living through it in real time. What seems bad at the time may actually have good results. The opposite is also true: The road to Hell is (often) paved with good intentions.
Sometimes, by trying to do good, you end up hurting lots of people (unintentionally). Sometimes, by trying to make tons of money with a new product, service, business model or innovation, you end up doing good for the world (unintentionally).
Sometimes, the best you can do is launch, see what happens and hope for the best.
For those of you who think I’m secretly writing about the recent presidential election — well, maybe I am.
But before you emigrate to Canada when the results are announced (hopefully sometime this month), consider this: In 1980, the U.S. elected a Hollywood movie actor as president.
Many people both here and overseas thought the American electorate was crazy. They worried that this trigger-happy cowboy would set off World War III.
Well, that election, and that president, didn’t turn out so bad.
Maybe this one will also lead to good things. Or maybe we will end up with a massive pile of poop. History will judge, as always, in hindsight.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt."
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