Societal rules are hard to get rid of, even when there is no particular reason for them. Consider greeting cards, which I almost never use anymore because they're stupid in most occasions?
When I was growing up, cards accompanied everything. At birthdays, we would sit down and the birthday celebrant would get a pile of presents and cards given to him or her. We'd be there at the birthday party and the kid would pick up the present I brought, and his mom would invariably say "Don't forget the card!" because taped to the top of the present I gave him was a card. So the kid would have to open the card, and read it, and it would say "Happy Birthday," in so many words, and he would say "Thanks" and then open the present and say "Thanks" and I would say "Happy Birthday!" to which he would say "Thanks!" and the whole thing seemed kind of stupid after a while, so I stopped giving greeting cards for the most part, and now I only give a card if I'm not giving a present to you, and I pretty much don't do that, either, because cards cost a lot of money and if I don't know you or care about you well enough to give you a present, I'm not going to want to spend a couple bucks on a card.
In fact, if you get a greeting card from me, that's what you know about our relationship: I don't see you, in the pattern of my life, as being important enough to merit an actual present, but you are for some reason entitled to the most minimal thing that I can give you, which is a pre-printed card. ENJOY!
But greeting cards have become an established custom in our society, used even when there's no need to use them, like when my dad comes for Christmas and gives us all Christmas cards even though he's sitting right there in the room, with us, and could say "Merry Christmas" if he wanted to.
Society has lots of little customs like that, rules, things we do without thinking about it. We have rules for everything it seems, except where we need them, and the rules we do have don't really help us at all.
Consider this: there's a societal rule that when you first see someone you know, you are supposed to greet them and say something like "How's it going?" or some such.
For EVERY PERSON YOU MEET that day for the first time.
Which makes it hard for me to get into my office in the morning. I have to pass two, sometimes three people just to get to my office, and I'm supposed to at least say hello to those people as I pass, but just saying hello is minimal participation in society. Plus, just saying hello isn't possible if I'm doing something that obviously seems unimportant, like getting a cup of coffee in the breakroom; if I'm doing that, I'm expected to do more than say Hi and then silently leave, because I don't want to be rude.
This custom wastes more time than I like to think, and I'm not talking about "wasting time" in the monetary sense; I don't worry too much that my staff is wasting their time and my money making small talk about nothing. If they, and I, were not spending 2 minutes trading (un)pleasantries, we would be doing something else nonproductive, like looking at our Fantasy Football leagues to see if we managed to get Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. (We did, and we are very happy even if others in our league said it was nuts to draft him fourth overall.)
No, I don't worry about that, because most of the people who work for me are going to get their work done and be as productive as I need them to be, and they will "waste" a certain amount of time, "waste" being in quotes because I, as a boss, do not think that a little down time talking about your kids or looking at the Internet or reading a magazine is a waste; I think it makes people more productive and, anyway, they're going to do it so you can drive yourself nuts trying to get them to stop or just work it into the system, the way the gas station I worked at in the 1990s sanctioned employee pilfering by telling us we could take whatever we wanted of some stuff, but not all, and marked off what was okay to steal.
(We still took the other, non-okay-to-steal stuff, too, but we took less of it, which I'm going to assume was the point.)
What I worry about, when it comes to waste, is the wasted time spent having this conversation:
SOME GUY AT WORK; Hey, good morning. How's it going today?
ME: Okay, I guess. How about you?
SOME GUY: Okay.
When I could be having this actual conversation I had with that guy the other day:
SOME GUY AT WORK; Can I ask you a question?
ME: That depends. Answer this: are robots alive? And if you say no, answer this: is a paramecium?
Either way, no work is going to get done for a while -- SOME GUY and me have both decided that we're not going to work for a few minutes, but rather than use our time to ask silly questions, we use our time debating when something is alive or not.
(Also, later that same day, me and ANOTHER GUY AT WORK created an entire 1980s movie that involved one of our staff members' husbands taking a test, failing, but getting offered a job while he studies to retake the test, and then finds out that he's working for a multibillion dollar company that is creating a world-destroying robot. Since he's upset at the world, he decides to stick with the job, which causes his wife to leave him, but he for some reason builds a failsafe into the robot and then, near the end of the movie, he's going through the empty house and he finds the robot buddy he built as a kid. Inspired, he and robot buddy go to stop the world-destroyer, doing so just in time, but sacrificing robot buddy. However, his wife takes him back and she's pregnant and Bill and Melinda Gates stop by to offer him a job producing robot buddies for the third world. Cue end credits!)
So if we had a societal convention which required that instead of asking inane questions, we engaged in truly incredible discussions, society would be much better. Imagine if you were standing at a bus stop and someone came up and instead of small talk ("Didja see the game?") they asked you something that really engaged you, like "If the universe is truly infinite and that one scientist is right that in an infinite system every possible combination of atoms has to arise, then that means that somewhere out there there actually is a world of Krypton about to explode and send it's only son to another planet, don't you think?"
That's why I miss taking the bus.
I've been thinking about breaking up, and setting new, societal conventions since the morning I had to drive to a court hearing about 3 hours away, and because of how early I left, I didn't really feel like eating breakfast. It was 4 a.m. when I left and that's a bit early to sit at a kitchen table in the dark (I would probably have turned the light on) eating cereal, so I left and took my lunch with me, and figured I would just eat my lunch on the way as a breakfast.
Around six a.m., when I started to get hungry, I got the brown bag out of my pack and set it on the seat beside me, and unpacked my breakfast, which was:
A can of soda.
A meatball sandwich.
A cup of yogurt.
A package of my not-yet-patented Kinda Healthy Snack Mix, which is a mixture I make up that's about 50% pretzels or frosted Mini Wheats, and 50% whatever snacks or crackers we've had around the house that I mixed in -- whenever we get near the end of a bag of snacks or cereal, I dump it in the mix and that way my chips-and-snacks eating is interspersed with slightly healthier options.
Anyway, the important thing here is that I was very hungry, but none of that food felt right to eat, and I began thinking about that. Also, I ate it anyway, but it was awkward.
Here is what I thought: breakfast foods travel better than other foods.
The food we eat for breakfast can make the leap to other meals without much trouble, while the food we relegate to other parts of the day has trouble moving backward in time to make a breakfast.
It's not that there are no barriers to breakfast foods moving to other meals; there is still a societal convention that some things are for breakfast and some things are not. Cereal, toast, eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.: these are breakfast foods and in our collective mind we make them best eaten before, say, 11 a.m.
But they can move to other times, and breakfast has been doing that for a long time now, establishing a beachhead in other meals the way Christmas is slowly Katamari Damacying every other holiday.
I suppose it began with brunch, when breakfast decided to edge its way into lunch, taking over the word and kind of the time. Before brunch, which was invented in the 16th Century (which I know because that's when everything was invented) there was a clear demaracation between breakfast and lunch, with meal times set by the Magna Carta:
Dawn-8:00 a.m.: breakfast.
Noon-1:00 p.m. Lunch.
5:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m. Dinner, or supper, if you want to ignore the fact that dinner and supper technically refer to two entirely different meals.
That's weird, but true. In the olden days, dinner was eat at lunch, and supper was eaten at dinner, with dinner being a big mid-day meal and supper being a snack, but somewhere along the lines, probably around the 16th century, we all stopped eating our big meals at mid-day and started eating them at night, and so we started calling supper, dinner, and had to create a whole new word for what used to be dinner, so we came up with luncheon, which is funny because nobody uses that anymore, we haven't got time to say luncheon so we say lunch.
Okay, want to see how smart I am? I just checked, and according to the Oxford Dictionary, luncheon arose in the 16th century, and was probably derived from the Spanish word lonja, which means slice. It wasn't until the 19th century that we shortened it to lunch, so for 300 years we called it luncheon and we are probably on the cusp of a new era in which we will shorten it more, so by about 2100 we will simply sit down to lun, only by then we'll be taking it in pill form anyway and won't have to sit down, which is good because we'll all be living on other planets by then and they may not have as much gravity.
Societal conventions can just shift, but they take a long time. Consider the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which is taking place even as we speak, incorrectly, around the Great Lakes.
The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is a gradual shifting of the way short-vowel sounds are pronounced, and it's happening around the Great Lakes, where from Milwaukee to Buffalo people are starting to repronounce words.
I say repronounce because there can't be a mispronunciation, can there, if everyone in society agrees that's how a word should be pronounced? If we all tomorrow, or even a majority of us tomorrow, decided that for the letter P we should, instead of making a plosive exhale, instead clap our hands, then that's how P would be pronounced.
The Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which I read about on Slate, is a lengthening of some vowel sounds, like the a in cat stretching to sound like yeah, and a shortening of others, so that but sounds like bought. And it's happening so gradually that people there don't realize it, and don't understand their own dialect when it's repeated back to them.
That is amazing enough: a dialect new enough that native speakers don't always understand it, but more amazing is that it took hundreds of years to happen: the pronunciations of short vowel sounds (which themselves didn't always exist) were set centuries ago... around the 16th century, seriously, ... and have been that way more or less until people in Milwaukee started talking like extras in Fargo.
For the record: I grew up around Milwaukee, and I have never heard anyone talk like a Bill Swerski Superfan, so I always thought those accents were exaggerated, but the article on Slate says that people who speak with the vowel shift don't hear it, and so I am probably just tone deaf.
I think that we're in the middle of a Great Breakfast Shift, too, similar to what happened when Dinner moved nightward. Breakfasts, from what I can gather using historical references (Old "My Three Sons" episodes) used to be a bigger meal, just as lunch/dinner used to be a bigger meal, but it's been shrinking down. From the "important part of this complete breakfast" of the 70s, we've dropped breakfast from a whole meal down to a bar, and breakfast, in turn, has been stretching out into the rest of the day, moving its boundaries to include neutral times under the rubric of brunch, and jumping into other meals with restaurants boasting that you can "get breakfast 24 hours a day," and that not seeming weird at all to eat a pancake at 7 o'clock at night.
It doesn't work the other way, though. If I were to go to dinner with you, and we sat down at the table and I ordered pancakes and sausage at 8 at night, you might at first think it a little odd, but you probably wouldn't think much about it, for very long. It would not be remarkable, in the sense that you probably wouldn't go home to your wife or husband and say "So we were going to have dinner, and he ordered breakfast! Weird, right?" and cut off all contact with me.
But consider if we met for breakfast, and I ordered spaghetti and meatballs. Or chicken and dumplings. I don't think you'd treat it the same way, and I'd be forever marked as that guy who ordered supper for breakfast.
No, when breakfast foods emigrate to other meals, they do just fine: you can even get waffles as snacks, at fairs, although they call themselves funnel cakes. I no longer think it's weird if Sweetie wants a bowl of cereal for dinner, and sometimes I just make toast for a snack, but that's me.
On the other hand, when lunch and dinner foods want to get into the Breakfast Club (HA!) they have to disguise themselves: pizza must dress up as breakfast pizza, throwing on a wig of eggs and bacon, while cake squeezes itself into a muffin shape to get onto the breakfast table.
Dinner foods can't even get into breakfast without an escort: Steak has to ride on a bagel with an egg on its side to make the cut, and some foods may never get into the exclusive society that breakfast now constitutes: can you imagine a time when we will have, say, a complete Thanksgiving dinner... for breakfast?
(I can, and now I kind of want that. Plus toast.)
Come to think of it, they had toast at Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving, remember?
Even if you don't remember, they did, and while Peppermint Patty objected, that was probably a watershed moment for breakfast. I can imagine all the breakfast foods at their breakfast convention, cheering as the speaker (probably French Toast) says "We made it into a Thanksgiving Dinner! Next stop, Christmas!) and the crowd goes wild and tosses Hash Browns into the air.
I'm picturing, as I write this, the phenomenal series of books/television shows/movies that I'm going to write about the Apocalyptic Battle between Breakfast, and Christmas: the two strongest forces known to the Universe, squaring off in a final battle to determine which shall be the predominant paradigm for all the species to follow. Will we forever sing carols and go about with glad tidings on our lips, dodging stakes of holly? Or will we instead live in a world where all the glasses of orange juice sparkle and the butter melts just right on the toast, at every meal for all time?
(There will be a cameo appearance, in the third movie, by Liam Neeson as "Porridge," and he will come out of retirement to lead a final charge of the Breakfast Foods against Christmas Citadel, only to be slain by Peppermint.)
(Oh, and SPOILER ALERT!)
What other meal could inspire such flights of creativity?
Breakfast will get you by hook or by crook -- a phrase which doesn't have anything to do with breakfast (yet), but instead refers to the practice of allowing peasants to pull from the king's forests whatever dead wood they could reach using a shepherd's crook or a reaper's billhook -- and has demonstrated the staying power necessary to compete with Christmas for dominance. It's versatility and ingenuity have allowed it to survive and expand: Dinner had to merge with supper to stave off luncheon, which found itself truncated, but meanwhile, breakfast just goes on expanding and incorporating new foods. I wouldn't be surprised at all if within a decade we see Breakfast Spaghetti, and I'd be even less surprised if that was served on a stick -- but if that happens, it'll be because breakfast took over dinner entirely and the only way spaghetti could survive was to join it.
Breakfast is clearly The Best Meal, and if you dare to argue the point, expect a late night visit from a little group of thugs known as doughnut holes: any group of guys capable of convincing people to eat negative space as a snack can surely change your mind about where they belong in the pantheon of meals.
On the other hand, the World's Largest
Waffle (made on the iron above) was only 98 cm across, while the
world's largest pizza was 121 feet across, so in that final
battle, it may be that Breakfast and Christmas destroy
each other, leaving Pizza to stroll in like Laertes in Hamlet,
surveying the ruins and taking control.
(Was that Laertes? Probably. Who cares? Let's just
say it was Laertes and be done with it.)