Surprises and expiration dates

I love surprises.

Wait. Let me rephrase that. I love pleasant surprises. An unexpected letter, package, or phone call from someone I like is a pleasant surprise. So is coming home from work and seeing the dishes have been washed by someone else. And if that dish washer is actively preparing dinner when I arrive, that’s even better.

Other pleasant surprises I’ve received over the years include getting an unanticipated refund from an insurance company, unannounced visits from old friends, and finding 15 twenty-dollar bills hidden inside an old water bottle I had consigned to a trunk in the attic at least a decade before its discovery.

Some surprises I can do without. Lengthy power outages, mice scurrying out from under the refrigerator, and doctors, dentists, or auto mechanics uttering the words, “We found something else,” are three examples of unexpected occurrences that prompt consternation rather than joy.

It’s unsurprising my morning bowl of generic Cheerios is both tasty and nutritious, since the “Best if used by” dates (“Nov0724” on the cereal box and “June 24” on the milk carton) indicate the ingredients are reasonably fresh.

Figures printed on grocery items used to be called “expiration dates” until some marketing guru suggested “Best if used by” dates sounded less dire. Prior to expiration dates there were only two methods of determining food safety. One was seeing; if bugs were crawling and/or flying around the fruit or vegetables in question, you probably didn’t buy them. The other was sniffing; if the meat, fish or dairy products smelled like rotting flesh, last week’s garbage, or the inside of someone’s stomach, you definitely didn’t buy them.

Sometimes those dates don’t matter. While reorganizing the pantry last week I found an unopened package of Wheat Thins with “13July21” printed atop the box. It turned out they tasted exactly like Wheat Thins. That was another pleasant surprise.

Imagine how much easier it would be to purchase a car, for example, if it had an expiration date stamped on the lower left corner of the windshield.

The same should go for other big ticket items. Judicious consumers would love to have mandatory expiration dates printed on refrigerators, stoves, computers, washing machines, microwave ovens, furnaces, and similar necessities. If the product in question expired before its printed date, the consumer would receive a new one, free of charge. I can’t imagine anyone being opposed to this sort of radical reform, with the possible exception of makers of refrigerators, stoves, computers, washing machines, furnaces, and similar necessities.

Commuters and vacationers could travel with far more confidence if airplanes, train cars, and ocean liners were equipped with expiration dates.

Maybe requiring expiration dates on the nation’s roadways, bridges, tunnels, railroads, and airports would be the most efficient way to keep America’s infrastructure safe.

But the ultimate spot for expiration dates is people. Imagine if everyone were born with an expiration date printed on their forehead? Scientists will probably figure out how to do that before long. But perhaps a “Best if used by” designation would be more appropriate for human beings. It would certainly make roster selection for professional baseball teams both simpler and more cost- effective. The same would go for employers filling key positions, and also for those searching for long (or short) term personal relationships.

If every person had a visible “best if used by” date, this fall’s presidential election ballot would probably look very different. But if human expiration dates were a reality and each party’s presumptive nominee was still the same as it is now, that would be a surprise.

And not a pleasant one.

Andy Young
May 17, 2024

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