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from the
Montpelier Times Argus

Stephen Morris
           Addressing life's big little questions

April 10, 2005

I recently joined a list serve of my college classmates. I thought that a list serve which is like a group e-mail whereby you can send a message simultaneously to everyone participating might be a good way to catch up on life and times. But I was wrong. No one swaps memories or jokes. Instead they pontificate on the big picture, taking on subjects like the state of liberalism in contemporary America and the changing perception of Western culture by the Islamic world.

All the e-mails, called "posts," offer well-written, articulate and thoughtful observations on the Big Picture. My problem is, and always has been, that I am not a big picture kinda guy. It's not that I am brain dead. It's just that, let's be brutally honest here, no one really cares what I think about our policies in the Mideast, whether the Fed should raise interest rates, or . Nor should they because I don't know what I'm talking about, and I refuse to let this column be sullied by research.

Instead I devote my intellectual energy to the issues that really matter and where I am regarded as a seminal thinker. These are life's big little questions.

Here's one. Let's say you are going to the store, or caught in a traffic jam, or have just come to a railroad crossing with the gate down. Do you turn off your car engine or not?

That's a tough one. If you are like most people you say, "It depends."

"Depends on what?"

"Depends on how long the engine will be running?" Well, duh, that's the crux of the issue.

When the railroad cars are streaming by, you don't know how long the train is. When you dash into the quick stop, you don't know how many people will be in line in front of you. You don't know if one of them is going to buy a scratch off lottery ticket, win a free one, then another.

So when you give your lame answer, "It depends," let me counter by saying that each and every one of us needs a strategy for how long to leave the car running. This should be factored by the age and make of car, the number of cylinders, the current price of gasoline and the probabilistic likelihood that you will reach the point of universal reversal, the moment when you suddenly snap off the ignition because you can't believe this train will ever end, only to see the caboose go flying by, leaving you in a silence that is marred only by the people behind you, all of whom had the infinite wisdom to keep their cars running, honking.

It's more complicated than you would think, as is life's next big, little issue: which way to put the toilet paper, so that the first square exits on the side of the roll towards the wall or away?

The number of public restrooms where the toilet paper is installed incorrectly complicates this issue. There is only one way this is properly done away from the wall.

The reason for this is as clear as the mud on my face. The angle of the human forearm when making the sharp tug that separates the sheets from the roll is more likely to be complete from the front of the roll because the arm ends up parallel to the floor, precisely at a 90 degree angle to perforation, increasing the likelihood of a clean severance. All it takes is one of those big pulls that results in the toilet paper wrapping up on itself to make you realize the sheer folly of having the open end next to the walls. Hoo boy. End of discussion.

While we are in the bathroom, should the toothpaste tube be rolled neatly from the end? Or, kept flat with the contents pushed from bottom to top? Or, as one household member here appears to do it, squeezed from the middle, apparently with a pounded fist as if to see how far toothpaste can be propelled?

The answer is, rolled neatly from the end. I have spoken. There will be no more discussion.

And, finally, there is the grand daddy of all big, little questions paper or plastic?

A lot of people think they know the answer to this, and give their answer automatically at the checkout counter, but I assure you this is no simple matter. We could lock a team of NASA rocket scientists in a room for a month to debate this and still not emerge with a right answer.

Here's how I see it: Plastic is good because it's light. It's made from some nasty petrochemicals and is not biodegradable.

That's bad, but you can reuse plastic bags for everything from drying seeds to carrying wet bathing suits. Plus, they are compact. You can stuff a zillion of them into a trashcan. If you take them to the dump, however, you will be paying for disposing of them, not to mention the gas to transport them.

Paper is nicer aesthetically and makes you feel like you have gotten more for your money. It has a nice rigidity and a flat bottom that makes it more stable when left on the counter, but you're in big trouble if something leaks. I save my paper bags to put on the garden as mulch. Getting this additional use makes me feel good about paper, but it sometimes strikes me as entirely wasteful that these lovely bags, used but once, are being laid on the ground and covered with straw.

Paper or plastic is not an easy question, and I suggest you do not take it lightly. The next time you are asked at the checkout, I suggest you think it through. Do your research, discuss it with the cashier and your fellow shoppers. Sure, you will aggravate the people in line behind you, but it's a small price to pay for doing the right thing.

Your decision might be the critical factor in determining the price per barrel of crude oil in the Mideast.

Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer from Randolph. He is one of the founders of The Public Press:

published in Montpelier Times Argus on 10 April 2005

Stephen Morris

One Step Consulting
100 Gilead Brook Road
Randolph, Vermont 05060

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