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Below the Beltway

I am on the phone with Becky Madeira, communications vice president of Hostess Brands, the conglomerate whose baked products include Drake's cakes, Hostess Twinkies, Ding Dongs and, most to the point, Wonder Bread. I have interrupted Becky on a family vacation in Maine because my question is of such gravity it cannot wait.

Me: Why is Wonder Bread flagrantly upsetting the delicate balance of the universe?

Becky: I do not know. Tell me.

Me: The world is a complicated and terrifying place. Death can visit anytime. So we rely on certain verities to remind us that anarchy does not always reign, that some things are, and remain, constant. There are physical certainties, such as gravity, which always pulls down, never up. There are biological constancies -- we all have navels and really ugly pinkie toenails.

Becky: True!

Me: There are also immutable rules of human behavior. For example, when you try to call someone on a cell phone, and get voice mail, and start to leave a message, that person will invariably call you back as the phone is pressed almost against your eardrum. This is not pleasant, but it is at least something we can rely on; in a perverse way, it is comforting. My point is, one of these comforting eternal verities is the simple mechanical paradigm, "Righty, tighty. Lefty, loosey." Do you see my point?

Becky: Sure, I guess, so far.

Me: I am holding in my hands right now a loaf of Wonder Bread, just purchased from Safeway. I notice, to my delight, that unlike many similar products, it is not cinched shut by one of those slotted plastic discs that break the second time you use them, nor by those plastic tongue-into-hole devices with shark-tooth serrations, which can close but never open. No, your product has a twist-tie, the oldest and very best closing device, for which I congratulate you. However

Becky: Are you going to complain that there is no inner bag?

Me: I noticed that but am frankly unconcerned; the bread is fresh. What deeply concerns me, however, is that the twist-tie opens clockwise and closes counterclockwise. Righty, loosey; lefty, tighty. Ma'am, are you aware of how malevolent that formulation is? There is comfort in familiarity. There is such a thing as syntax, and it is important. In the universe, as in literature, order matters. Dickens did not write "Times it worst the was best it was the times of of." Did he?

Becky:

Me: Now, my research suggests this lamentable condition exists in the package of other breads, as well -- Arnold's and Stroehmann's among them -- but yours happens to be the one I am holding, which is why you are on the hot seat.

Becky: Oh, no.

Me: Oh, yes. Can you justify this outrage?

Becky: No. I was unaware of this. I will have to talk to some people and get back to you.

(45 minutes pass)

Becky: I have spoken with our bread guru, Floyd Snell. Floyd knows bread. Floyd lives bread. It turns out that there are two production lines for bread, with one operator in between them. The loaves face outward, toward the twist-tie machines: one on the operator's left, one on the right. The machines face each other. That means one loaf is approaching its machine from the left, and the other is approaching its machine from the right. Since the physical mechanics of the twisting procedure must be identical for each loaf, it is necessary that one machine twist clockwise and the other counterclockwise. So, basically, our twist-ties go in both directions. You just happen to have bought a righty-loosey one.

Me: That is a boring and philosophically unsatisfying answer.

Becky: I am sorry. Let's start from scratch. Ask the question again.

Me: Why does my Wonder Bread twist-tie the wrong way?

Becky: Actually, it turns out we go both ways.

Me: But why?

Becky: Sorry. Don't ask, don't tell.

Me: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Becky: You're welcome.

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