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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

July 9th, 2021 by dk

I was at Jerry’s Home Improvement in Springfield a couple of weeks ago buying some loose screws. The fellow next to me grabbed a pen from the “clean pens” receptacle, marked his purchase bag for the cashier, then replaced the pen in the same receptacle.

I thought to myself, “Hygiene theater notwithstanding, you monster! Now the ‘clean pens’ receptacle has at least one dirty pen.” (Yes, even my thoughts contain dependent clauses. I blame my liberal arts education for this, though the cause and effect of this malady are admittedly blurred.)

I had witnessed the same sterile stylus slip in the bulk foods aisle of Market of Choice the week before. I was in the granola section, so we can be sure this monster marker misanthropy is not limited to a small portion of the ideological spectrum.

Shortly after the dirty pen debacle, a friend of a neighbor asked if he could throw some of his extra trash bags into my recycling bin. “No!” I said, swallowing the exclamation point. He assured me that no one would know. I didn’t tell him it was too late for that. His thoughts probably don’t include dependent clauses.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

If nine people put their dirty pens in the right place and one doesn’t, the actions of the nine don’t matter when the eleventh user grabs a pen. How many errant trash bags does it take for an entire truckful of recycling to be detoured to the dump? Not many.

All people are created equal, but the choices each person makes do not have equivalent impact. We know the cliché about a few bad apples, but we don’t often think of ourselves as stuck inside that barrel. But we are.

Every free society is held together with a two-part epoxy. Trust and transparency combine to form the bonds we rely upon. We’re that eleventh pen-user, relying on the ten who came before us. If one ignored the rules, the other nine could have ignored the rules too; the result would be the same.

I chose the dirty pens to make the point because we all agree it’s a small thing, and epidemiologists no longer believe most people can catch the coronavirus from a used plastic pen. I didn’t really think that fellow beside me at Jerry’s was a monster.

Other instances have more severe consequences. Condominium owners in Surfside balked at paying large repair bills recommended by structural engineers. Two years and multiple board member resignations later, the overdue maintenance work was about to begin when the tower collapsed, probably killing more than 100 residents.

Will America ever have a free and fair election again, so long as there is a vocal minority insisting that the results cannot be trusted? Transparency without trust will not create a bond between us. Trust without transparency won’t either.

How do we remind the tenth pen user to consider his or her impact on the eleventh? It’s up to each of us. I failed. That exclamation point is still stuck in my craw.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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