Last week I wrote about my gratitude to big companies for producing things that small companies can't, and for keeping small companies on their toes.
"Now if only the large car mechanic shops stopped small shops from making me feel like a douchebag for not knowing what a Knee Assembly is," wrote Tyler Hayes in the comments section. "Or if Geek Squad did the same with freelance computer technicians."
I began to respond, but my comment soon turned into a blog post of its own:
Small-shop mechanics have the ability to "make us feel" like douchebags by simply letting us be in touch with the fact that we are douchebags for relying so heavily on machines that we don't begin to understand.
I've done a lot of reflecting on this, because I owned a wheezing 1964
Scout that after 10 years I'd only begun to know how to work on. Once I
broke down in the middle of some cornfields—oil streaming out of the
dashboard—and a farmer picked me up, called another farmer who towed my
car to the house of a third farmer who doubled as a mechanic (and a
pilot), and the motor was fixed in no time flat. I have seen the
douchebag, and he is me.
And he is we.
We don't understand how the economy works—quick, define derivative!—we don't know know half the ingredients in the food we eat and we're citizens of a nation that's been at war so long that not only do we not know whether we are winning, we have stopped trying to find out. "Hey, who's winning, us or Germany? Ah, who can tell? Pass the mustard."
That our society is chockablock with similar douchebags doesn't make us less douchey. We are douchebags—absentminded eggheads in an overspecialized society. And most of us are bad eggheads. We're physical Stephen Hawkings's, with mediocre white-collar minds. Helpless, thoughtless babies who call a plumber to unplug the bathroom sink, but simultaneously think the former editor of the Harvard Law Review, Barack Obama, should roll up his sleeves and plug the hole in the ocean floor. "Obama put too much trust in business and technology," pundit Howard Fineman said the other day on TV. Douchebag!
We get reminders of our helplessness every time life gets elemental and survival comes into the picture. I'm not into blaming victims, but I've studied the Halifax explosion of 1917. Someone should do a comparison between how the citizens of New Orleans responded to Katrina and how the bewildered but more generally capable citizens of Halifax organized themselves after their city was leveled one morning and sealed off from the outside world by a blizzard that afternoon. There would be similarities, and there would be differences.
I've known men and women who could think abstractly, read books, love music and fix cars, build houses and catch fish. I've always thought of them flatly as superior creatures. What can I offer as collateral, my golf prowess?
So those jerky mechanics are actually friends, for reminding you, gently, that you don't know everything—that, in some very likely circumstances, you really won't know anything. The jerky mechanics are the ones you can trust, because they insist on keeping it real.
The mechanics you can't trust are the ones who call you "boss" and actually fix what you tell them might be wrong. Or the corporate mechanics, whose core contribution is making you, the customer, feel perfectly right to depend, for your life and your way of life, upon something whose nature you don't understand.
My grandfather was a big executive at Armco Steel in the 1930s and 40s and 50s. I didn't know him, but it's a family joke that, when anything broke in the house—whether furnace, toilet or window blind—GaGa's first response was, "I don't know anything about it." And his second response was, "Mother, call the man."
The joke about one guy too important to be bothered with daily details has become an American reality.
We're always saying that immigrants are doing the work we're unwilling to do.
We flatter ourselves.
The word, in most cases, is unable.