Commentary: Rules to live by

In the early 1980s, my parents bought a microwave. On my first trip home after its acquisition, I noticed that it was unplugged and its door was open.

“Mom, is your microwave broken? It’s almost brand new!”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Well, why is it unplugged?”

“Because I don’t want the light inside it to be on all the time.”

“If you shut the door, the light goes off.”

“I know, but then it won’t get dry.”

“Why is it wet?”

“Because the instructions say to wipe it down with a damp cloth after each use.”

This meant that, every time my parents wanted to use their microwave, they had to get down on their knees and snake its cord through the stuff on the bottom shelf of the cart on which it stood and plug it in, and then reverse that procedure when they were done. Thus, did this marvelous 20th-century invention—this device that revolutionized cooking, which became the mother of latter-day culinary convenience—become about as convenient as lighting birch shavings with a flint to start the dinner fire.

After complimenting my mother for her punctiliousness regarding the oven’s owner manual, I suggested that this wipe instruction was in the realm of Rules No One Actually Follows, like written cautions against using rubber rafts as flotation devices. I stopped short of accusing some misanthropic copywriter of making it up out of whole cloth, bereft of any scent of true necessity.

Well, as one might guess, my parents continued this relationship with their microwave the rest of their lives. Which is fine. It was none of my business to start with, and going down on bended knee in front of the device before and after heating their food was their genuflection to technology.

Humorist James Thurber wrote about an aunt of his who religiously covered up the unused wall sockets in her house with tape because she was convinced that electricity leaked out of them if she didn’t. We all have rules to which we cleave.

There are as many reasons for rules as there are rules. In addition to those of our own making, some are mandated on our behalf. We call those “laws,” and many of them are as silly as wiping down a microwave after each use. For example, in the interest of safety, Minnesota prohibits texting while driving. A great idea, but a foolish law, because we still allow talking on cell phones while driving, which creates a state full of people driving with one hand while holding a phone to their ear with the other. Go figure. (I’m going to stick my neck out here and guess that the cellphone lobby had something to do with this.)

In the same vein, cars now have screens on their dashboards that display encyclopedias of good and useful information—everything from instant mileage computation to passengers’ hat sizes—all accessed by taking eyes off the road. This is worse than texting because those screens are generally down and to the right of where the driver should be looking.

Unfortunately, irrational laws don’t stop with driving: Minnesota doesn’t allow food sales in liquor stores or liquor sales in food stores, a law that makes absolutely no sense. Also, Minnesota doesn’t allow off-sale liquor sales on Sundays: can anyone say “separation of church and state”? And, for more than 40 years now, the United States, in its “war on drugs,” has been locking up users (along with sellers), who would fare better for fewer taxpayer dollars in treatment. This has gained us absolutely nothing but the world’s highest incarceration rate.

OK, I’m getting a little heavy here, which was not my intent, so let me return to lighter fare. In the winter, we rug up within an inch of our lives to go into our heated garages and get in our heated cars. Then, still coated, hatted and scarved, we shop for hours in heated malls, stores and skyways. This is more of a custom than a rule, but it makes no more sense than anything else I’ve written about here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to reveal that I, being warm-blooded, have traditionally gone out in my car in the winter laughably underdressed. The fact that this is every bit as foolish as overdressing—and more dangerous—was driven home to me this winter when, in subzero weather, my keyless fob failed me and locked me out of my car dressed only in a T-shirt, pants and Birkies. Mind you, I had by then finally wised up and started carrying winter clothes in my car in case of emergency and, boy, did they look warm and inviting piled in the back seat. I could see them clearly through the window.

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