Have you noticed how difficult it is to do anything these days without being instructed how (or how not) to do it? Please turn to Page 5. Do not dry-clean. To open, pull tab. Do not expose to sunlight. Insert key and turn.
Some things should come with instructions. Prescription drugs should. Relationships with men should. Bottles of shampoo should not. If you need to be told, "Wet hair. Apply shampoo and lather. Rinse. Repeat," you should not be taking a shower alone.
I'm not sure when all this idiocy started, when people became sdense that they had to be told "Open Here" on the perforated corner of a box of laundry detergent. Did we take a national stupid pill so powerful that we would have to be asked, "Did you remember to enclose a check?" every time we paid a bill? Or be reminded that the post office will not deliver unstamped mail? In America, mind you, the country that put men on the moon, we Americans have to be reminded to refrigerate bottles of salad dressing after opening.
Manufacturers today seem overly concerned that someone will use their product incorrectly and sue them. It seems far-fetched that some products could be used incorrectly. Take, for instance, the electric hand dryer.
FOR BEST RESULTS, the instructions begin, SHAKE EXCESWATER OFF HANDS. OK, I'll go along with that; maybe some people would hold a little pool of water in their cupped hands and feel smugly triumphant over technology when the dryer didn't make it disappear.
PUSH BUTTON. RUB HANDS BRISKLY UNDER AIR STREAMReally now. Who do they think they're talking to?
TURN NOZZLE UP TO DRY FACE. You might have see 8 Madonna dry her armpits this way in "Desperately Seeking Susan." I'm sure some hand-dryer manufacturer cringed when he saw this unapproved use of the equipment.
Maybe I'm being overly critical. Maybe people would stand therperplexed and dripping if they didn't have some guidance. It's unlikely those people would have mastered washing their hands in the first place, though, what with that tricky combination of soap from a dispenser, hot and cold water, and the intricate puzzle of rubbing and rinsing.
The signs that could help us we usually ignore. How often havyou pulled a door labeled "Push," and vice versa? Or used the express lane when you had seven items instead of six or gone through the "Cars Only" lane on the turnpike when you were driving a pickup?
Illiteracy is a major problem in this country, but it doesn't let yooff the hook. For those who aren't able or can't be bothered to read, we have symbols. Never mind that the blocky stick people on restroom doors don't resemble any male or female forms you've ever seen. They're symbols. I would like to suggest more relevant, easily recognizable restroom symbols for the new decade: a smiling stick man walking freely up to a stick urinal, and a frowning stick woman waiting in a long line of other #F frowning stick women, all looking at their watches.
As small children we became conditioned to listen and look fosignals to tell us what to do. Merely crossing the street became a challenge unequaled by all the other rules and regulations of childhood.
Why, the schools even hired a special force of crossing guards just to enforce the rules. ("Look right, look left, look right again!")
And why, if They (the authorities!) go through all the trouble oinstalling WALK/DON'T WALK lights at pedestrian intersections, don't they clear up the ambiguity of DON'T WALK? If they mean STOP DEAD IN YOUR TRACKS BEFORE YOU GET CREAMED BY A SEMI, why don't they say it? DON'T WALK is hardly a forceful command, and it can be interpreted to mean anything ranging from SKIP! to THINK PONDEROUS THOUGHTS to GO BUG THE CROSSING GUARD.
In school, we had to ask permission to go to the restroom. If wwere sick, we had to bring a note from home. We changed classes at the sound of a bell.
Not even the teachers were immune; over and over again, they had to listen to the same pearly voiced woman say, "Advance the filmstrip at the sound of the tone. Do not advance the picture before you hear the tone," as if she were worried that some daredevil third-grade science teacher would flip through the pictures at breakneck speed and leave us forever confused about the difference between aphids and stink bugs.
I think the filmstrip lady has taken on some extra work lately. Shscolds you if you leave your telephone off the hook too long. "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and dial again. If you need help, please dial your operator."
Similar idiocy occurs on most answering machine tapes. By thitime, most of us have left messages on an answering machine. At least once. Once is all it takes to figure out the system, so why do people insist on leaving such stilted, dire warnings for us? Cute or serious, corny or professional, people are always worried about our missing that damn beep.
Instruction-giving has moved beyond the mechanical aspects olife and invaded the complex realm of psychology. If you want advice on anything from marriage to divorce to dealing with death and everything in between, someone will happily give it to you. Check out the self-help section of any bookstore. (Did self-help sections exist 30 years ago?) Alcoholic or xenophobic, you can read all about it if you'll only shell out $20 for the hardcover.
Just the other week I had a fight with my boyfriend, the firssnarling, ugly fight of our relationship. After cooling down for a day, I regretted some of the painful things I'd said to him, and went wandering through my local card shop thinking maybe I'd find something I could send him to show how sorry I was. Indeed, there was a whole section called "Making Up with a Spouse/Lover." Cards were arranged in categories from "First Real Fight" to "First Fight Over Money" to "First Fight over Whether to Raise the Children Catholic or Not." I even found a card specifically for my needs, "First Snarling, Ugly Fight," which said all the things I needed to say in neat little verse. It had a picture of a pouting kitten on it. All I had to do was sign my name.
I couldn't do it.
I bought a card with a picture of Elvis on it. Inside, it said"What's shakin', baby?" I found it in the "Lighthearted Greetings" section.
I couldn't help it. I can't have someone telling me how to live mlife.
CHARLOTTE LATVALA is a free-lance writer living in Pennsylvania.