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.
Tom Keefe says
My first car was a tan 1971 Chevy Nova with “three on the tree” and a straight six cylinder engine. I had time, and no money, and actually enjoyed changing the oil, tuning the engine (including gapping and replacing spark plugs) and tinkering with the clutch when it got hinky.
Today I don’t have the time, tools or experience to even consider messing with my 2010 VW Jetta.
I just thank the automotive industry for coming up with the concept of “carefree maintenance.”
Home repairs are a different story. I haven’t surrendered my pride yet in that area. I’m currently waiting for the local neighborhood handyman to come patch up the damage from my most recent “repair” project.
David Murray says
Well, Tom, you get an A for effort. I stopped changing the oil in my car when I cut my hand getting the filter off (by plunging a screwdriver into the side) and black oil poured into the red wound.
I come by my incompetence honestly; not only was my grandfather worthless, but my dad’s entire tool collection fit into a Pringles potato chip can, his tool box.
But mechanical and physical ineptitude sometimes permits intellectual folly. Read David Brooks’ column today and tell me we wouldn’t be better off with some more broadly capable human beings in this country:
“In times of crisis, you get a public reaction that is incoherence on stilts. On the one hand, most people know that the government is not in the oil business. They don’t want it in the oil business. They know there is nothing a man in Washington can do to plug a hole a mile down in the gulf.
“On the other hand, they demand that the president ‘take control.’ They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage.
“They want to hold him responsible for things they know he doesn’t control. Their reaction is a mixture of disgust, anger, longing and need. It may not make sense. But it doesn’t make sense that the country wants spending cuts and doesn’t want cuts, wants change and doesn’t want change.”
They are, and collectively we are, helpless babies, crying for what we don’t exactly know.
Bill Sledzik says
Great essay, David.
I was once pretty handy with things technical, and could probably have gotten your Scout running back in the day. But when I open the hood to my Subaru, I can barely find the spark plugs.
I have similar problems with computer technology — though it’s not nearly as complicated as a 2.5-liter boxer engine.
Point is, we are all douchebags in so many ways these days. Our devices are too complex or too expensive to repair. So we replace them, and charge it to the Visa. The big companies understand this ignorance, so they sell the douchebags a $500 tune-up when a new set of plugs and a fuel filter would do the trick. And don’t get me started on “maintenance agreements.”
Our overall lack of self reliance is troubling, but I suppose it does keep a lot of carpenters, handymen and mechanics employed. But when big explosion comes — as it did in Halifax — I can always rely on my hunting and fishing skills.
On the other hand, if the Outback breaks down, I’m still a douchebag.
David Murray says
Bill, that’s what we each need: A self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses, vis-a-vis douchebaggery.
When the big blow happens, I’ll ride my motorcycle to you. So at the very least, you and I will be able to eat, and we’ll have a motorcycle.
Really, who could ask for anything more?
P.S. Also in the New York Times, Bob Herbert suggests ways that even the helpless can help themselves.
Bill Sledzik says
Sorry, man. I’m a motorcycle douchebag, and I ain’t gettin’ on one of those things. But I am stockpiling ammo 🙂
My theory about the general incompetence you’re describing is a baffling lack of curiosity I see in many people. There are so many interesting details, ideas, methods, and products all around us, yet most people just couldn’t be bothered to learn anything at all. People just aren’t interested, in anything that’s unfamiliar.
I also feel like that whole lifestyle is coming to an end, and the only reason it’s not more apparent is the shear force of will most people bring to their sleep-walking. Yet they too, will have to wake up, or else sleep the real sleep.
I’m personally about the most unhandy person I know when it comes to fixing anything.
It know it shouldn’t be that way. I was a Boy Scout for several years. Spent a lot of time in the woods throughout an Army career. Even went through 3 weeks of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) level C training (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival,_Evasion,_Resistance_and_Escape) at Fort Bragg — which instilled a lot of respect for people who can live off the land for long stretches of time, esp. in bad weather. But it never motivated me to become self-sufficient.
All it really did was gave me some confidence I *could* do it if I had to. And some funny stories.
Tyler Hayes says
Your original article cites the trade-off of “reasonableness,” for all I can gather; I.e. you should — and you and I agree here — go to the local store where they give you better service as long as the price/attitude/condescension is, you know, reasonable.
But jerky mechanics are not your friends. Jerky mechanics are jerks who just-so-happen to have the ability to fix your car/computer/body. I think you took it too far in this article. You’re now arguing that we should be thankful of the negative side of the trade-off in the first article; I.e. you should go to the local store where they give you better service as long as the price/attitude/condescension is, you know, reasonable. And then you should also appreciate the price/attitude/condescension, because that is how you know that these people are “keeping it real.”
After all, there is a better alternative: non-jerky, but-still-just-as-helpful mechanics. They exist. Car mechanics who don’t charge you when they can’t fix a problem. Computer technicians who take an extra 20 minutes out of their time to educate you. Sure, the jerky computer geek fixes the problem, but that doesn’t make us want to be any less douchebag-y as people because the jerk made us feel like garbage. And no one who feels bad wants to go out and better themselves in the very thing they’re bad at.
I do trust the jerky mechanic more. But I do not appreciate him/her more. And as soon as I find a non-jerky mechanic who charges the same, and offers the same great, personalized service, I’m switching. We already see this happening with companies like Zappos. Zappos makes me want to appreciate shoes more. Kind computer technicians make me want to actually review what they teach me — and kind car mechanics make me want to learn what a Knee Assembly is — because they take the time. If they take the time and put out some effort, why shouldn’t I do the same? It validates them and makes me feel better about myself at the same time.
David Murray says
Tyler, you make good points, and you make them well. Let us agree on a Retail Hierarchy:
1. Patient, wise, generous, expert merchants/service providers.
2. Expert jerks who make us feel bad but who we can trust.
3. Pleasant know-nothing corporate cogs like the 17-year-old in charge of the entire electronics department at Best Buy or the clerk at the oil-change chain: “The synthetic oil is twice as expensive but it’s much better for your engine ….”