Some laws are meant to be broken.  Some laws are meant to break us. Take Stapp’s Ironical Paradox and Murphy’s Law, for example.

Murphy’s Law sagely observes that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. If you haven’t heard of Stapp’s Ironical Paradox, recognize it possesses even greater insight into the human condition: “The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”

I first learned about the anthropomorphic Murphy when I was talking to my brother Nate, who is a commercial air conditioner and heating contractor. He tells me Murphy “shows up all the time at the job site.” When I asked for a good story, like a time he dropped heavy equipment on his foot, he took a moment to reflect and said, “Well, there was that time I was nearly crushed by an airplane hangar door.”

He then proceeded to tell me story after story about him and Murphy – like the time Murphy brought service instructions written entirely in Italian to a major installation. Murphy and Stapp work together to send him the wrong parts and routinely damage parts during loading and shipping. Forklift impalement is a thing, he said. It is unclear whether it is Murphy or Stapp driving the forklift. Because Murphy and Stapp are always looking over his shoulder, Nate has learned to fix equipment using various parts of wrong parts. He calls these constructions “Frankenfridges.”

I first became aware of Stapp’s Ironical Paradox on Sunday mornings when my daughters and I used to go out for breakfast at a fast food chain. For several weeks in a row the crew got our order wrong and I’d have to go back and tell the cashier, “We ordered a chocolate milk but we got a white milk” or “I didn’t want ham on my egg sandwich,” or a minor complaint like “This isn’t our order.” The manager, who my daughters and I got to know on a first-name basis, would invariably make his way to our booth, apologize and deal out gift certificates like a dealer standing behind a card table in Vegas. For a week I’d walk around with a wallet crammed with gift certificates that paradoxically only got fatter with gift certificates the more I went back and used them.

My oldest daughter recently had her own unpleasant run-in with Stapp. She was looking for a dinosaur toy to give as a present and found one online in a store 45 minutes away. As she grabbed her car keys,  I suggested she first “trust and verify” by calling the store and checking to see if the toy was actually on the shelf.


“Yup, we have them,” the clerk who answered the phone told her after he went to go see. “I count 11,” he said.

My daughter returned two hours later, empty-handed.

“They didn’t have any dinosaurs,” she said.

“But I thought the clerk checked?”

“He did.”

“And?” I said.


“So I complained to the manager,” Cecelia said.

“And?” I said.

“He gave me a gift certificate.”


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