Virtue & Mischief: The empty box test


By Tim Swensen - Virtue & Mischief



My wife and I occasionally wonder how the amigos would do if we left them to their own devices for an extended period of time. If we left, say, for a month-long vacation in Florida what might we find when we returned? What would they do (or not do) while we were away? Could they function at all?

Would they ever get out of bed? Would they wear matching socks? Would any of their dirty clothing somehow miraculously find the bottom of a hamper (as opposed to a random spot on the bedroom floor)? Would they shower? Brush their teeth? Would they manage to get to school? How many dirty dishes would we find littered throughout the playroom and bedrooms upon our return? Would they even notice we’d been gone?!

Our children, God love them, are pigs. I write that without rancor, for I was much the same when I was a boy. When I was in high school my father—frustrated and perhaps disgusted with the appearance and odor constantly emanating from my room—commanded me to leave my door shut until I left home at age 18. “At that point, Timothy, we’ll fumigate or hose it down or sell the house or whatever,” he informed me.

So I get it. I relate, at least to a point. I understand that it’s really, really, really, really difficult to shut cupboard doors, to (consistently) flush the toilet, to turn off lights (even after you’ve been reminded dozens of times), to put dirty underwear and socks in the hamper, to haul dirty dishes to the sink. My wife, alas, does not get it. She has always had a slightly obsessive-compulsive bent, shall we say, a predilection for organization and neatness that is rare. I have no doubt that when she was a young girl in school, she had separate folders and notebooks for each subject and some sort of color-coded scheme and filing system that informed her where everything was or needed to be, when assignments were due, and what grades she had received. She was the young lady that my buddies and I made fun of to her face, but perhaps secretly admired every time we searched in vain for that missing paper that we’d absent-mindedly wadded up and left underneath our bed along with that week’s edition of Sports Illustrated. Even as we rationalized (or cursed) our stupidity and sloppiness, we mused “I’ll bet Krista Schultz would never have lost that paper!”

So it is with considerable consternation and bemusement that my wife witnesses the amigos’ sloppiness. It vexes her. It is beyond her comprehension. She finds it difficult to fathom that their attention span measures somewhere between a nanosecond and the length of a Cheetos commercial. And of all the amigos’ vexing, messy peccadillos, the one that has bewildered her most is what I’ll refer to as “the empty box riddle.” It confuses me, too.

Let me explain: You could enter our house this very moment, open a randomly selected pantry door, and pluck out 4 boxes of any foodstuff you wanted. The odds are far better than 50-50 that at least one of those boxes is empty—its contents totally consumed and the empty box placed somewhat neatly back in its original spot in the cabinet. For the love of all that is good and holy—WHY????

The other night Krista and I were in the kitchen together chatting about our extremely long and difficult week. The children were dispersed in other locations of the house, and we enjoyed our

relatively rare interruption-free conversation. At one point she opened the cabinet and retrieved a box of something—graham crackers, I think.

She shook her head in disbelief and wagged the box in my direction. “Look at this, Tim! Empty. Empty!” she said with even greater emphasis. “Why do they do that? I mean, how hard is it to just take an empty box, shuffle fifteen feet into the laundry room, open the trash can, and plop it in?”

“Well, to be fair,” I offered, “it’s…you know…pretty hard.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Seriously. It’s ridiculous. Cereal boxes, cracker boxes, snack boxes. Every day I find a new empty box in here. I don’t get it,” she hissed. “We should do an experiment.”

“Yeah. Like what?”

“We should just leave the empty boxes in the cabinets. Never replace them. ‘The Empty Box Test.’ I wonder how long it would take before they’d notice they had a bunch of cardboard in there with no food.”

“Interesting question. Let me think about that a minute before I place my bet. Say, would you hand me the Cap’n Crunch?”

She found the box, smiled, and handed it to me. “Enjoy the Crunch-dust,” she said. “It’s empty.”

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By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief