Embracing Senility

A friend of mine proceeded half way home with lunch in hand after being delayed four minutes by an old, senile man who insisted upon checking his sandwich order. Shortly thereafter, she realized that her own turkey sandwich lacked an all-important ingredient – namely the turkey. They say that it’s counterproductive to turn back once you pass the halfway-home marker, and so she did what any other ordinary American would do – bitterly ate the lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich and swore off ever going back to that deli again.

I find that I too have been swearing off delis and the like more often lately, and even sympathize with the frustration that seems to suddenly grow into stubbornness after hitting an invisible age sinkhole. These moments have the defining property of revealing one’s future days of twitches and quirks to not only yourself, but to strangers as well. They validate a suspicion we’ve had since we were fifteen that some day we would be as un-cool as our parents were.

No matter how many times I promise myself, a few months will go by and the deli will start to smell better again; and during one weakening moment while I’m finding myself starving, it’s inevitable that I will fall to the temptation of forgiving them for their betrayal and give the relationship another chance – selling my principles for a roast beef and havarti. By this time, the damage has been done, however, and a newborn fear of commitment to this relationship has led to an artless Neanderthal ritual of checking my own sandwich before surrendering rank in line. Others in my predicament can sympathize and, by this time, will have graduated to a paranoid delusion where all deli workers are closet PETA terrorists bent on bankrupting our hamburger stands. Public embarrassment cannot even stop us from forcing a grinding halt on the line to verify that our poultry has been properly demonstrated on the sandwich – they’re only strangers anyway.

Incidents of senile compulsions among us “pre-elderly” provide us thirty-somethings with a transition Mother Nature seems to have planned all along as a practical joke – plans to introduce us to middle age decrepitude through a series of drive-thru cashiers asking us to pull over to the side. Growing old was never intended to be an easy process, but what we weren’t aware of is that it’s also an initiation. A twenty-year hazing period to condition us into our expectant old age, and usually with unreasonable force, like a cattleprod to a hamster. Should we crack under pressure, our future will know us as miniature Nebuchadnezzars barking about condiments for the remainder of our degenerative lives. To overcome is to merely find maturity from this mess of a transition and save the barking for important issues – like overpriced pizza [1].

Marks of Wisdom

As a society who doesn’t typically honor our elders, we’ve been conditioned many ways to believe that post-generation idiosyncrasies involving such public displays of stubbornness are considered deficient and sometimes even obtuse signs of senility rather than those of maturity or experience. But true wisdom would tell us that if an individual is this thorough and preventative in the little things that they are even more likely to be so in much bigger things too. Throughout our rude introduction to maturity, I can only imagine will be many successes and failures to experience, and much to be gained by learning from past mistakes, small and large. My friend might have chosen the road less traveled and adopted the old guy’s wisdom in checking her own sandwich, which would have prevented the initial stress of turkey burglary and the future self-inflicted backlash of passing (and smelling) the deli for several months. It could have also saved the self-loathing upon realizing that all attempts to single-handedly bankrupt a company are doomed to silent failure. But the cost to exercise this wisdom would have meant tolerating a younger, less patient individual behind them sighing out loud as if to signal the influx of chaos caused by this character flaw.

Perhaps the small, gray hairs of wisdom in life do in fact manifest themselves in the form of men who would return a defective light bulb for failing to live up to its 3-year warranty.

Should we ever question the sign of genius our twitches are, we can recall history as a comfort that we are in good company in our senility. Charles Dickens insisted on facing his bed North when he slept to align his body magnetically, which made for better writing, so it’s likely that he was also a heavily loathed customer at hotels. Chopin wore a beard on the left side of his face, but very few noticed as his audience only ever saw his right. He probably complained a lot about painters shooting his bad side, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he too demanded a bowl of green M&M before performances. Suddenly our mundane acts of hanging up and calling back compulsively until the line isn’t busy anymore don’t sound so absent-minded – until we realize we’re dialing our own phone number, that is.

Accepted Wisdom

There’s a good reason most of us reach to the back of the cooler to get fresh milk, ask for a sample of potato salad before we buy, or make the cashier repeat our McOrder back to us. We’ve found simple wisdom in minor eccentricities to be of profound value in the prevention of larger inconveniences, and because they require such little intelligence to fathom, many peculiarities have become widely accepted practices. Wisdom seems to turn to ridicule, however, when our wise experience requires too much intelligence for most people, or too much investment that those behind us are inconvenienced by our avoidances. Our quirks draw attention from the more simple-minded individuals who don’t understand them, like a dog watching you in the bathroom. Worse still, we don’t understand them either, and spend a lot of time trying to see the wisdom in the odd things we do.

The true test of wisdom behind the quirks we’re exhibiting cannot adequately be measured in their time and will most likely remain a thankless and misunderstood act of self-preservation. It once took 19 years before a certain complaint was heard that BAND-AIDs were difficult to open, leading to the little red pull strings in 1940. The benefits may be apparent to us today (namely, the not bleeding all over the place while trying to get the package open), but if we were the operator trying to deal with that phone call, we would have failed to catch the reasoning for nearly two decades. And it was only after more complaining about people needing one BAND-AID for the first cut and a second one for the cut inflicted by the red string that brought forth today’s latest innovation of breakaway seals. The genius of our strange behavior will sadly only be recognized after we’re already dead, like works of art or B-list actors.

Stupidity, on the other hand, seems to be noticed immediately. This can be observed by simply walking around the second most popular place to congregate on Sunday morning – Wal-Mart. If there’s anything capable of adding on new triggers to our compulsively precise minds, it’s in the total lack of precision in others. If other customers were the extent of our problems, we might have turned out alright.

Litmus Test

There seems to be an inverse correlation between the quality of service at a business and the level of senescent compulsion exhibited by its patrons. Fronts with employees who do their job better are more likely to gain their visitors’ trust over time, and so paying attention to the number of customers checking up behind the clerk can be a good litmus test when first getting to know a place. Businesses can, and should, use this approach too to analyze their own quality of service. If a business has an unusual number of customers with ticks, chances are it’s because they’ve been burned there a few times and don’t trust the place.

Customers initially bring their ticks with them into new terrority, but a business that’s got it together seems to have a disarming quality that, over time, builds trust up in these compulsive customers to a place where they feel safe leaving their oddities at the door. Even the most paranoid individual will jump at the chance of saving time and further embarrassment if they have faith that they simply won’t get screwed again. After all, it’s the employees that bear the responsibility of healing wounded patrons who feel obligated to taste the tuna, feel the bread, and check for onions. It’s also the employee who wields the power to cause those ticks to fester and propagate through added stress by simply neglecting their job. Indirectly, our compulsions are managed by whoever’s in charge.

The best places to visit seem to always have the right people working for them and keep the poor performers hidden from customer visibility. Some might go the extra mile and hire to a better standard, offering more than minimum wage as an incentive to enjoy doing their job. People who really want to be in the food business understand what you want, do it right, and then tell you “Thank You” for the opportunity to serve you. Very little sandwich checking occurs at establishments with this kind of staff, and most of us are willing to throw a couple extra bucks away to enjoy the serenity. In contrast, the ones with unusually pedantic customers are likely to have the wrong people or skill set employed at one or more stations. An abundance of customers auditing their order carefully is a good sign of poor communication skills at the counter, and customers living a life of tomato verification are a hint at a lack of concern for detail or work ethic in the kitchen. If customers aren’t walking away smiling, chances are it’s because they don’t want to be there any more than the employees do.

Given time, quality of service will play a key role in defining the culture and atmosphere of a new establishment by dictating what type of people can tolerate a visit on a regular basis. Quality of service helps set the mood for the minimum and maximum levels of stress, time, and emotional endurance needed to execute a successful visit. These translate into a determination based on profession and character makeup. Therefore, the culture itself and how annoying people are can therefore also serve as a marker of how well the place is taking care of customers.

A straw started cracking shortly after we became independent and conscious of our own time and finances, the splintering of which seems to be controlled more on our surroundings than mind rot. It’s no surprise that we as consumers have developed so many anomalies. Quality of service has become scarce in recent years, and it’s become cheaper to take an approach to staffing that accomodates customer loss, in the same way that staffing a kitchen for death row inmates is budgeted for customer loss. As more of us develop these nervous twitches, however, the insensitive dives start to fail, bringing the good businesses forward and – at least temporarily – allow us to recover for a while. Yet another trick from Mother Nature, starting the whole cycle up again.

Playing Nice With Others

Regardless of where these mannerisms are exhibited, one thing holds universally certain: no matter how alike they are, an individual’s twitches are emphatically incompatible with anyone else’s. The problem of too many individuals with peeves in the same room have in fact led to many Starbucks brawls and are responsible for at least one Slovak revolution. While identifying with our own issues, we’re still miserably handicapped at understanding them when we see the same thing playing out in others. Witnessing our own compulsion is completely foreign to us, like sharing a cab with a transvestite [2], and causes us stress even though we’ll exhibit the same twitch once it’s our turn in line.

To identify with someone else’s idiosyncrasies would mean we’d have to admit we understood and could justify our own; and this would require us to embrace our own senility. Justifying our behavior is the last great booby trap before becoming oblivious to it, and to sympathize with others would prevent us from enjoying the bitter anger when they do the same thing. As long as we still get angry, we can use retaliation as the reason for our mannerisms, instead of admitting there really is no rhyme or reason to our methods. Otherwise we’ll start networking with others about our disgruntled points of view and our worst fears of becoming a clan of degenerates checking our food together will have become a reality.

Playing nice with others who share our own nervous problem can only happen when the entire immediate audience is in agreement. The twitch then becomes a global wisdom – a group byproduct of philosophy and reflection when agreeing the fish sandwich tastes funny today.

Except for the few beautiful moments when the entire customer base is in unity, we’ll have to continue to come to terms with the irritating vibes about our rituals and make getting better at doing them a priority. Once we become proficient enough at acting out our weird practices, our biggest source of frustration then becomes being better at executing them with speed and efficiency than others. This leads to an entirely new generation of pet peeve: people who can’t deal with their own peeves fast enough. Among the senile, people are judged by how proficient they’ve become at beingsenile. It’s just as easy to spot a considerate bag-checker as it is a considerate breast-feeder in public [3], and in both cases we’ll compare our own level of proficiency with theirs. In fact, identifying with our strange behavior is probably the best way to differentiate our ticks from those of the truly hopeless. If we’re at least conscious of our issues and can exhibit them more efficiently than others, we can satisfy our mechanisms without giving a tell of our peculiarity.

The down side is that proficiency opens the door to even more senility. As we become skilled in our daily audits, we allow our particular ticks to become second nature, which inevitably leads us to the subliminal act of incorporating more of them into our life. In a sense, we become more senile just because we’re good at it.

Embracing Senility

Our motivation has always been time. We demonstrate such irregularities to make our lives move a little easier by avoiding time-consuming inconveniences, but we become oblivious when we are so grossly in excess that we generate twice the overhead than had we actually been inconvenienced. This is what the person behind you in line would tell you if you asked them. To have some level of ticks is healthy, and helps avoid abuse by employees who will likely work at a sandwich shop for the rest of their lives. But we’ve got to keep it at bay lest the senile bug will bite us. So how do we embrace senility without it embracing us back?

Even though a majority of the world is not going to be as visionary as we think we are, finding external justification for our peeves feels like a good start to test whether they are baseless or well justified. If your particular ticks are of genuine concern, chances are at least a few of your friends will share the same point of view. If you can find a few people of intelligence who agree that you should triple-check your order at a particular joint, it may very well be a tick worth investing in. Similarly, you may find yourself among a people you don’t wish to be identified with who describe their stool to the pharmacist – this is a good indication of a tick you should abandon [4]. If you don’t have any friends because you’ve become such an imbecile in public, start asking employees if they think it’s weird that you check your mayonaise for thumb impressions. They may end up sharing a story you wish you hadn’t heard, that would more than justify your tick. If not, they’ll at least remember to never stick their thumb in your condiments. In either case, you’ve already established being an imbecile, so there’s no harm done in challenging that claim.

The best way to satisfy your paranoia without actually becoming senile, however, is to just find places that do a good job at what they do and give them your business. Merchants who can disarm you, gain your trust, and take the heavy coat of anal retentiveness off of you long enough to enjoy a good turkey sandwich are well worth the money. Stop giving your money to the places that stress you out and find some that are a pleasure to visit. If you can’t find enough places like this, consider that this is the perfect environment to start up your own business.

Finally, don’t be afraid to fill out comment cards at places that suck or voice your opinion with the manager, and with a little time perhaps others will follow. There’s no need to be ashamed of your strange idiosyncrasies. Everyone’s getting screwed at the drive-thru and it’s about time someone told the owners to fire the whole staff. You’ve earned the right to demand better, so be proud of your weird, senile acts of imbecility and use them. Other customers are behind you in this – and if you identify with this essay, chances are they’re “behind” you in everything you do.

~

[1] You just can’t win with overpriced pizza. If you call in and ask prices first, then you’re cheap and irritating. If you place your order and then cancel it after balking at how ridiculous the total is, you’re cheap, irritating, and a waste of time. Should you decide to swallow your principles and order the overpriced pizza anyway, you’re still being irritating when reminding the employee three times to please include your preferred sauces. Should you find a way to do this pleasantly, you still get flummoxed in the end and then stonewalled when you ask how they managed to forget the sauce after you’ve reminded them three times. You’ll then be forced to wait another 45 minutes (because you’re irritating now) for the driver to return to deliver the sauce for your now-cold pizza. Delivery is just asking to be abused. Place your order and then pick it up. At least then you can take the time to thoroughly check your order at the expense of only a few people waiting behind you. And for goodness sake, take a menu with you.

[2] While sharing a cab with a transvestite can be uncomfortable (depending on their level of resemblance to Liza Minelli), it seems entirely accommodating to receive a haircut from one; this may be related to the correlation of stylist skills as a byproduct.

[3] Considerate breast-feeders will typically cover themselves in public and try not to distract traffic too badly. In contrast, boob-bearing lactivists prefer to advertise their bosom to passers-by as a sign of free speech. I never understood this; however, as breasts typically never say anything political.

[4] Or at least use the Internet.