I have a problem with directions: I follow them. It’s stressful.
As a kid I apparently had the opposite problem. My parents still talk about it like survivors of a natural disaster. They would give me a simple task, the sort of thing that a half-hearted Cocker Spaniel could do, and I would get lost. To be clear, I would get lost in instructions with a single step.
They might tell me to throw an envelope in the garbage, for example. I would take it, excited to be helpful, but then set it on a nearby chair so that I could tie my shoe. In those few seconds, I would think about how I wanted to hunt for nails in the nearby construction site. Then I would go play outside.
A little while later, one of them would ask me if I’d done what I’d been told. I’d say that I had, because I had clearly tied my shoe, and that was the only part of the experience I remembered. They would patiently correct me by saying that they had found the envelope where I left it, but I wouldn’t have any clue what they were talking about. My shoes didn’t have envelopes.
They eventually tried to create a sort of training game, the sort that probably taught the Cocker Spaniel to follow directions better than I did. Whenever we were somewhere and needed to wait, they would fill the time by turning the surrounding area into a kind of obstacle course. They might say, “Walk to that tree, go around it three times, then skip back.” I would dutifully skip to the tree, but have no idea why I was there because the tree wasn’t big enough to climb.
Of course, I wasn’t always innocent about it. For example, if my teacher handed out a hundred multiplication problems, I would do three, figure that I knew how to do the other 97, and spend the rest of the time pretending that my pencil was a rocket ship. (Apparently, in my conception of the world, rocket science didn’t involve any pesky repetition.)
Somewhere along the line though, something convinced me that directions were important. Actually, that doesn’t really do justice to my problem. Something convinced me that directions were sacrosanct, to be followed at all costs, lest everything happy and beautiful in the world be destroyed by mysterious and incomprehensible forces.
For the record, at least in my experience, most directions aren’t crafted well enough to have that kind of responsibility. When they say things like “shake well,” “apply liberally,” or do anything “thoroughly,” I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. What standards are the manufacturers assuming? Maybe I shake less efficiently than they do, or am inclined to be satisfied too quickly. Maybe I lean toward stingy application and don’t know it. What does thorough even look like?
As another example, as I’ve gotten older I’ve encountered a lot of those medicated creams that are supposed to help with the aches and pains that arise from not being a teenager. They all warn me not to apply to sensitive skin, which is the least helpful instruction that they could possibly include. All skin is sensitive; that’s what skin does! Whenever I overcome my objections and use them, usually because my wife is encouraging me not to be a basket-case, I worry about the odd tingly feeling they cause. What if my skin is the wrong kind of sensitive? It isn’t as though I can tell how the creams feel on others.
All of which brings the story to my wife’s and my first anniversary. (How can you go wrong with that kind of set-up, right?) I wanted to spoil her and take her out to dinner, and when it comes to spoiling my wife, it’s hard to go wrong with pizza. (I have he best wife, but she’s taken, so don’t get any ideas.)
She’s from a part of the world that’s known for pizza quality, but we’ve moved to a part of the world that’s known for some dead people and discolored plants. Finding a good enough pizza restaurant was a challenge. We eventually discovered a place started by people from her part of the world though, so I knew that I wanted to take her there to celebrate.
There are four important things to know about this restaurant. First, it was in strip mall in a busy section of town. Second, floor to ceiling windows comprised the entire front wall. Third, it was arranged like a horseshoe, with an entrance on one side, then a loop around to the exit on the other. Fourth, it didn’t have the fastest service. Looking back on it, I should probably add another reason to have a merciful wife; I didn’t exactly take her out to someplace classy.
Either way, we ordered our pizza and sat down to wait in our favorite booth, which happened to be in the front corner beside the exit. Everything was going fine–we were enjoying each others company–but as time went on we started looking around for new things to talk about. That was when my wife saw something outside that caught her attention, which was when my problems started.
Just on the other side of the door was an old newspaper vending machine, but instead of newspapers it held a magazine about local fashion which promised to include coupons. Aside from quality pizza, I would have been hard pressed at the time to find a better siren song for my wife than the combination of magazines, fashion and coupons. They were free too. Naturally she went outside to get one.
People without my direction-related oddity probably don’t realize the peril we faced at that moment. I didn’t realize it at the time, because I naively assumed that everyone follows directions scrupulously. My wife didn’t realize it because she naively assumed that I wouldn’t be a ridiculous jerk. Then came the peril.
My wife collected her free magazine, turned around to come back inside, and discovered that the exit door had no exterior handle. I was only about a foot and a half away, so she motioned for me to open the door from the inside. I looked at her as though she were asking me to blow up a bank full of adorable puppies, then helplessly said to her through the glass, “It’s an exit.”
Oddly, she looked back at me as though she thought I didn’t understand what she wanted. Some property of the window must have prevented the passage of deep and important truth. She gestured at the door again and responded, “Let me in.”
I swear that what I said next was intended to be helpful. I pointed to the far door, the one at the other end of the line of windows, and explained, “The entrance is down there.”
The window interfered; what she heard was “I hate you.”
This repeated for about two minutes, because we’re both really stubborn. Customers at the neighboring ice cream shop started telling her that the door wouldn’t open because it was an exit, apparently thinking that she simply didn’t understand it. Helpful passersby started pointing out the restaurant entrance too, trying to help out the crazy lady confused by a door. My wife turned an alarming shade of purple from embarrassment and started to cry. I squirmed in my seat because I didn’t want to disobey the large door label.
Eventually she went down to the entrance door, but as you can imagine, our light-hearted conversation took a bit of a detour for a few minutes. I thought it was a testimony to my moral fiber that I refused to blow up the bank of puppies, but my wife disagreed. I can assure you, if you’re ever in this situation, what you don’t want to do next is try to convince your wife that you’re right. I’ll let you guess how I found that out though.
Fortunately, my wife is merciful, so that wasn’t out last anniversary. Nevertheless, I would probably do it again. I have a problem.