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Question: Why, when you’re waiting for a lift (having already pressed the “call lift” button), does someone always arrive after you and insist on re-pressing the button?
Answer: Everyone knows that pressing the lift (elevator) button more than once is futile, including those who do it. Part of this behavior stems from good old-fashioned self-reliance. Even though you’ve clearly pressed the button once (the button is illuminated; the indicator light displays the elevator’s progress) the interloper, whom we’ll call Bob, doesn’t trust you. Not a bit. You are a stranger to Bob. Your efficiency, reliability, and hidden motivations at the elevator bank cannot be verified, and so the button must be pressed again. No offense, but Bob will handle this himself, just to be sure.
And yet to truly understand the root of Bob’s action, we would do well to consider other futile activities in his life.
Bob Pressing the Pedestrian Crosswalk Button
In all likelihood, the tiny plastic boxes attached to poles at busy intersection corners, the ones with buttons in the center and signs that read “Press Button and Wait for Light to Turn Green” despite the conspicuous absence of wires connecting the box to anything controllable, are placebos. The makers of the dummy buttons know that Bob is naturally inclined to grow impatient or ignore traffic signs and make a run for it. The button, and more importantly the sign, accomplishes two things. 1) By pausing to consider the instruction, Bob is given time to curb his suicidal, traffic-hopping impulses. 2) He is given the illusion of control. Bob is liable to press the button and wait for the light. Where he had previously intended to seize control by defying the “Don’t Walk” warning and dashing into the road, he now believes that true control is at his fingertip. Even if Bob suspects the button is a placebo, he’ll probably stick around to prove himself right.
Bob Honking in a Traffic Jam
Tooling home from work in his sedan, Bob encounters a thicket of brake lights. Traffic stretches up the road and around the bend a quarter-mile away. No big deal. Bob’s a patient man and this is surely the result of drivers rubbernecking past a fender bender. Ten, fifteen minutes and he’ll be pedal to the metal. The cars ahead of him accordion apart, compress, and decompress as drivers drive for twenty feet, coast ten, idle, ribbon out, stop, creep a couple of yards, and finally throw their cars in park and wait. Bob consults his watch in steadily decreasing intervals. He scans the radio for interesting ads. He listens to the news repeated on the hour. He hears the traffic in the opposite lane generating wind at 80mph. Finally, he pulls around the bend and sees a previously hidden stretch of traffic, twice as long as what he’s already covered. All at once he has to urinate. His stomach growls. Night falls. Something must be done, something bold, something final. Bob honks. The action is a stress-reliever and Bob is momentarily assuaged, until he passes out from hunger, wets himself in the dark, and rear-ends the car in front him.
Bob’s Perpetual Cable TV Channel Surfing
Like most members of Western Civilization, Bob has cable and lots of it. There’s a big dish riveted to his roof, lending his otherwise insignificant single-story home a slight Millennium Falconish quality. Sitting in a stout, leather chair and wearing nothing but a look of desperation and his favorite pair of polka-dotted socks, Bob begins his quest for Something Watchable. Bob had heard the old complaint a thousand times: so many channels, nothing to watch. This isn’t the case at all. On a single pass, Bob discovers eight programs he would genuinely like to watch and nine more he wouldn’t mind. An extra pass through all 197 channels reveals another two that he would like to watch and seven he might partially enjoy. Now, of course, he has to narrow them down. With a total of 13 shows he’d like to watch and 16 more that he’d enjoy, maybe even grow to like, the hunt begins in earnest. He passes through the 197 channels eight or nine more times. Every pass refines his palette. Soon he’s narrowed his choices down to three he’d like to watch. He makes another pass as a precaution, finally settling on Channel 81. The program ends. His hunt begins again.
Bob Opening and Reopening His Refrigerator Door
Inside are milk, soda, juice, and beer. To eat, he has a choice of pasta salad, a pack of hot dogs, half a turkey club, pickles, plums, a block of cheese, a slice of pizza, lettuce, celery, butter, hamburger meat, and condiments. He knows this. He’s opened the door before—a minute ago, in fact, right before he opened up the pantry. He opens the refrigerator door again and peeks around, stooping low and altering his vantage point. Pasta salad, pack of hot dogs, half a turkey club, etc. Bob shuts the door. He’s pretty sure he wants to eat the turkey club. But does he have pickles? He opens the refrigerator door. Yes, pickles. He shuts the door. What about chips? He opens up the pantry. Out of chips. He can’t have half a turkey club without a side of chips. He’s not an animal. He stands in front of the fridge. He weighs his options carefully. He checks the freezer.
Bob Refreshing His Email Inbox
He must have friends. He clicks SEND/RECEIVE. No new messages. It’s been over an hour. He surfs the web for 20 seconds, closes the window, maximizes Outlook and clicks SEND/RECEIVE. He asks his co-workers if anyone’s having server trouble. His internet connection, Bob explains, doesn’t seem to be working. “Will you send me a test email?” he says. Seconds later, Bob receives an email. Subject header: test. The word is lowercased. He opens the mail, his heart a-quiver, only to find there isn’t a message. “Thanks,” he says. “At least we know internal mail is up.” His co-worker laughs across the hall at a funny photo someone has sent her as an email attachment. “You’re getting external mail?” Bob says. His co-worker nods yes, unable to speak because of her delighted laughter. Bob looks back at his screen. SEND/RECEIVE. SEND/RECEIVE. SEND/RECEIVE. A message arrives. Subject header: Make Friends Online—Free Trial!
Bob Hitting the Snooze Bar
6:00 a.m. Bob, more unconscious than asleep, not so much unconscious as partially dead, swats at the alarm hard enough to scare the cat all the way into the litter box across the room, where it crouches in the dark, contemplating something foul. The alarm goes off again at 6:10, is swatted senseless, resurrects itself at 6:20, dies again, and rises like the fabled phoenix at precisely 6:30 in the morning. Bob, acknowledging the terrible necessity of waking up, of facing his repetitive and cyclic life, of mastering the ultimate futility of pressing on in spite of sickness, loss, depression, and mortality, rises like a worm in rain. He showers, eats, and heads to work, staggering to the elevator bank to take the lift upstairs, to his job, to his life. He sees the elevator button already lit. He hits it anyway.