Tuesday, April 24 , 2018, 6:22 pm | Partly Cloudy 56º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 118) — Stop Making Left Turns

Oblique Divorce Strategy #14 — Stop Making Left Turns

"A Woman of Independent Means" by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey was published in 1978 and has been in print ever since. It’s an “epistolary novel” taking the form of a series of letters and telegrams written by the protagonist, Bess Steed Garner.

For thirty-five years I’ve been paraphrasing and pontificating Bess Garner’s wisdom because she says things that my mother might have said when I wasn’t listening.

Even though Bess is fictional, she can be annoying in an especially motherly way; however, she isn’t my mother — and she isn’t your mother — so it’s easier to appreciate her wisdom.

One online reviewer put it aptly, “Bess grows because of her losses.” For Checkov and other Russian writers, those who haven’t suffered are not to be taken seriously.

Given the opportunity, I’ve frequently paraphrased an aphorism I remember as part of a telegram from Bess printed in all caps and addressed to one or all of her children. I recall it saying:


Early this summer I took a car trip with my brother, Bruce, and there was an opportunity to interject Bess’s maxim into the conversation.

I am accustomed to and not annoyed by the way he often attempts and usually succeeds in “one-upping” my attempts to make astute observations. One-upsmanship, informed by Stephen Potter's book of the same name, was considered great sport in the house of our youth. 

With respect to left turns, Bruce enlightened me: FedEx had an employee contest that offered to pay $100,000 to the person making the best suggestion for improving business.

One guy scribbled “Don’t make left turns” in pencil on a scrap of paper and dropped it into the box. In a show of good faith, FedEx conducted a mini-experiment where they had a few drivers record the amount of time it took to complete their normal route.

Then, they designed and timed an alternative, no-left-turn route under similar conditions. Management was surprised to discover that a somewhat longer route avoiding left turns could be completed faster than a shorter route that served the same customers.

The conclusion was that it is actually faster to get to wherever you want to go without making left turns.

According to Bruce, the FedEx experiments eliminated the qualification, “SO LONG AS YOU AREN’T IN A HURRY.”

I was trumped, but I’m not sure I was one-upped because the proscription against left turns survives, or was I trumped by not being one-upped?

It doesn’t matter because I want to believe that I’m beyond being trumped or even one-upped.

I’m sure the conversation continued with one of us saying that since the idea was good enough to use throughout the company, paying the employee a mere $100,000 was cheap on the part of FedEx.

If I had been on my game, I could have given Bruce a cue that would have compelled him to say something like, “Oh, FedEx also gave him a 75 percent raise and promoted him to VP.”

Then I would have asked, “VP of what, Bruce?”

He would have replied, “Vice President of Imagineering — what else?”

I would have rolled my eyes and shaken my head but, if challenged at this point, Bruce would have at least a dozen replies, including: “Why would it bother you or anyone else if I describe the world as I think it should be; the world as it could be?”

∙ ∙ ∙

To write this column I checked two things: (1) what the book said about left turns and (2) Bruce’s FedEx story.

I was surprised to find that the text I’ve been paraphrasing for so many years does not appear in a telegram, and it is not in all caps — nor is it addressed to Bess’s children.

And while I remember the reference to driving cars was implicit so that the statement was unmistakably metaphoric, that was wrong too.

After two sentences in the second paragraph of a letter to a “Mr. Ferguson” that begins page 34, Bess writes:

“… My husband bought me an automobile of my own last month and though it was terrifying the first time I took the wheel, I now find the experience quite exhilarating. I of course proceed with the utmost caution and plan my routes carefully in advance to avoid left-hand turns. But as long as I am not in a hurry, I find I can reach any destination by turning right.”

I’m surprised I didn’t skim right over these three sentences mistaking them for a worn-out joke about women and driving rather than an instructive metaphor. Was it intended as metaphor?

Yes, it was. Even after 34 pages you know that when Bess writes, there’s a difference between what she says and what she means; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the latter.

Here, for the literal minded raised by straight-talking mothers (you probably spend life wondering why so many people don’t say what they mean), is the metaphor revealed.

The familiar proposition (the metaphier*) comes from the experience of driving a car (or riding a bike, etc.). We are told or reminded that the shortest distance to get from A to B often requires you to fight the flow by making left turns.

You can get to the same location by deliberately avoiding left turns and thereby engaging with the flow, but it might take longer.

The object of the demonstration (the metaphrand*) is nothing less than the way to live your life. You can go with the flow as long as you are patient and as long as there isn’t a compelling need to deliberately buck it.

The reference to automotive travel is more explicit and the comparison to life is more implicit than suits my taste, so I intend to continue using the same paraphrase with attribution to Elizabeth Hailey despite the inaccuracy because I’m confident that it’s what she meant to say.

(She’s a living author and could correct me, but I’m also confident that she is utterly indifferent to my interpretation of her work.)

∙ ∙ ∙

Here’s what I discovered from Google about my brother’s account of the FedEx exclusion of left turns from delivery routes: It appears to be, ah, bullshit!

As far as I can tell, the story has nothing to do with FedEx.

UPS advises drivers that it may be faster to avoid left turns against traffic. It’s not a policy or even a rule of thumb.

The one driver I questioned explained, “We are always getting safety tips and that’s one of them. Driving is the driver’s responsibility and ultimately depends on the driver’s discretion.”

If there’s a metaphor in that, I don’t see it.

∙ ∙ ∙

The point is simply that there are life tasks you can complete more easily by going slowly. Divorce takes longer than most think it will.

You go slowly whether you like it or not, so STOP MAKING LEFT TURNS and you’ll still get to the end — and you will be in better shape when you arrive.

∙ ∙ ∙

If you believe my brother, you might conclude that you would complete the experience of divorce faster by taking the longer and apparently slower route. I think the conclusion is probably sound, so my brother gets credit if his story helps someone find and adopt this attitude.

Here’s another conclusion: it’s just my personal opinion, but over the years I’ve gathered a lot of evidence suggesting that my brother, Bruce, is definitely a perpetuator and possibly the originator of urban myth. If so, our parents would have been proud.

*The only place I’ve ever seen the use of the terms “metaphier” and “metaphrand” is in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), and both terms are useful.

None of the books mentioned in this column are available in the Santa Barbara Public Library; Amazon has them all.

Anyone interested in Bruce’s mind can see it exposed in a blog post I wrote last year.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #15 — Get a tarot card reading without thought or delay.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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