John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 5, 2008

New generation learns important principle from elder

That’s an illustration of Murphy’s Principle of Loss, I told my nephew recently after I found my belt in my suitcase where I had put it in the first place.

But first I had looked in the bedroom at Annie-Glenn’s Bed and Breakfast. He was staying there during a weekend visit at his grandmother’s with his parents. I stay there when I am not in New Orleans. When we are sometimes both here at the same time, we rearrange.

Murphy’s Principle of Loss is related to Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong it probably will.

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Murphy’s Principle of Loss, as I practice it, states that an object that I am looking for will remain invisible to me until I have announced to someone else that I have lost it. Then it will magically become visible either where I put it in the first place — and where I know I have already looked — or where it belongs.

Happens again and again.

So familiar am I with this principle that I have learned to take shortcuts when I lose something around this office. After a perfunctory search fails to locate the missing object, I pick up the phone and announce over the intercom, “I have lost my (mittens, mind, or whatever is momentarily missing). If anybody sees it, please tell me.”

Works every time. After a few moments, it magically reappears on my desk or in the drawer or wherever, looking just like it has been there all along. And it has. But only after I made the announcement admitting that I couldn’t find it did it become visible.

Murphy’s Loss Principle is demonstrated most mercilessly when we suspect that something that we are looking for might have been thrown in the garbage and the garbage sack is still in the outside can.

I am so distracted by the thought that I might have thrown it in the garbage that I can’t settle down and search meaningfully anywhere else until I have ruled out the garbage. It’s sort of like getting on the phone intercom and announcing the loss.

So I often go to the garbage sack first, dump the reeking contents out and carefully paw through the refuse until the possibility of the lost item having been thrown in the garbage has been ruled out.

Then and only then can I go back inside and find whatever where it will have magically reappeared while I rooted through the garbage.

The good part Murphy’s Principle at its most merciless is that it works as well at the office as it does at home. Plus, office garbage is usually drier and less aromatic.

Murphy’s Principle of Loss. Learned only in the great classrooms of life.