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Published: Saturday, 2/25/2006

We're all soldiers in war against little irritations

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

If fighting junk mail is a war, John Buchholz is a guerrilla warrior.

While some might simply throw the piles of credit card offers and "special" deals in the trash, Mr. Buchholz takes the postage-paid envelopes that come with them and sends them back - complete with random coupons he snips from the newspaper and lead weights out of his tackle box.

It's a satisfying feeling to fight back by forcing the companies to pay the return postage, but there are problems with the West Toledoan's anonymous sneak attacks.

"In a way it's kind of no fun because they don't know who it's coming from," he said.

Maybe it feels a little better, then, when he's able to tell a telemarketer who calls, "Hold on one second," then set the phone down on the couch and go back to watching television until the caller hangs up.

Modern society is fraught with annoyances - cell phone abusers, persistent telemarketers, bad drivers - but for each of them there is someone like Mr. Buchholz who has decided not to take it anymore.

Some of these people seeking payback have become the stuff of legends, many lovingly recorded by Ian Urbina in the book, Life's Little Annoyances (Times Books, $15).

He tells of a woman who replaced her cookies with dog biscuits when a colleague kept stealing them, and of an office that created a Styrofoam cooler called "The Cell Phone Prison" as a muffling home for those cell phones left on someone's desk that begin ringing - usually to the "Macarena" or some other annoying tune.

Mr. Urbina himself once topped off a container of ice cream with salt to help identify - and gleefully punish - a roommate who was pilfering his Cookies and Cream.

The author, who is the mid-Atlantic reporter for the New York Times, said it's just a case of people being creative and proactive to deal with some negative energy.

"It channels the frustration into something rather than just forcing you to swallow and grin and bear it," he said.

People have always had this kind of "scrappy ingenuity," he said, but there are probably more opportunities to use it these days, thanks to the seemingly endless annoyances that come with technology in general and marketing in particular.

"I do think there are probably more annoyances now than there used to be," he said.

Many people just get mad when faced with these little irritations - they scream at the slow driver who gets in the fast lane, or the fellow grocery shopper who insists on putting his or her cell phone on speakerphone. Jill Marie Zachman, an etiquette teacher in Waterville, said it's still important to keep manners in mind.

"You never want to make people feel less of a person, so you want to handle it in a way that is not going to make them feel like the criminal," said Ms. Zachman, whose business is called First Impressions.

She recommends acting calmly and kindly when you address the offender. But being creative can get the point across too, "as long as it's not life-threatening or damaging - things that you could probably laugh about later."

Sometimes, even the littlest things can be unnerving. For Cindy Schultz, of Waterville, it's the misuse of a dot. She can't stand it when a store uses a decimal point combined with a cents symbol. The result is a price of less than one cent, though clearly that's not what the store intended.

"It really bothers me - especially when society puts so much stress anymore on these proficiency tests for the students - that businesses are not showing proper examples," she said.

Sometimes Mrs. Schultz just mentions it to someone at the store or writes it on a comment card. At others ...

"Sometimes I'll X it out on the signs," she admitted.

Carrie White, of West Toledo, hates going to Starbucks because of the way it labels drink sizes. Instead of small, medium, and large there's tall, grande, and venti. Not that she acknowledges it.

"I ordered a small and they told me it was a tall and I said, 'No, I want a small,' " she said. "I refuse to go in anymore because I embarrass myself."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

ryansmith@theblade.com

or 419-724-6103.



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