I’m losing it in public

Write for Advice

Airport foul-ups, traffic tie-ups, rude taxi drivers … I’ve had it!

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2009

Dear Cary,

I am married with three children, and have a responsible and professional job as a writer that puts me in the public eye a bit. The other day I took two of my kids on a weekend flight (to meet my wife and the other kid) and we flew through the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia. I chose to drive in part because that terminal has a really cool short-term parking lot, close to the terminal. We could get out, and stroll right onto the plane.

But the parking lot was closed for repairs and it threw me. We had to go to a farther-away parking lot and take a shuttle bus and I couldn’t stop complaining. When we flew back, I couldn’t find the shuttle bus back to the parking lot. I dragged my kids from one part of the terminal to another, complaining to everyone I could find, asking why they had to close the parking lot, how inconvenient it was for me. The signage was unclear, and I sort of knew where the bus stopped, but I insisted on walking over to the taxi dispatcher to find out where the bus stopped, instead of waiting for it, and sure enough while I was complaining to him the bus came and we missed it.

So we took a cab and the cab dropped us off across a busy street and I dragged my kids across and another attendant asked me why the cab had done that. I started ranting, of course, about why they closed the parking lot. He said, “Don’t do this to your kids, man. Don’t do this in front of them. I am 60 and I have grandchildren.”

I tried to argue with him that I was right. That they shouldn’t have closed the parking lot because this was the one time I would be using it.

He said, “Everybody gets inconvenienced. Get over it. Don’t do this to your kids.”

I exploded. “I will NOT get over it!” He gave up listening to me.

And only then — did I feel happy.

Walking the final steps to the car, my oldest child started complaining on my behalf. “They should never have closed the parking lot.”

And only then I was able to say, “No, that guy was right. I was wrong.”

But I know this pattern will happen again. It happens just about every day. Some little thing is wrong with the world and I cannot stop ranting about it. A computer breakdown, a car breakdown, a problem with a call center, a credit card slip-up, a piece of lousy signage. Something. If it doesn’t work smoothly and easily, frictionlessly, I can’t bear it. I only feel better, it seems, when I have made someone else as uncomfortable as I feel.

And then I feel better.

I don’t know how long people will tolerate this or if I’m doing damage to my kids. I know I damaged my relationship with my wife this way. But I don’t want to stop. This seems like a much better way to deal with the problems of life that I can’t control. The only other alternative is to give in, accept it. And I won’t do that. It feels like losing.

What do you recommend?

Ranter

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Dear Ranter,

Well, I’m going to say this to you even though it sounds like a dumb cliché. It’s something those of us in recovery say to each other. We say, “To surrender means to go over to the winning side.”

We willingly abandon “our side” because “our side,” for all our loyalty to it, is given to behaviors that are, at their core, selfish, juvenile and kind of crazy. We are initially afraid to go over to the other side. We don’t know what it’s like over there. Our side at least is familiar. But we surrender. When we find ourselves in intolerable, hellish conflict, we surrender; we admit that the airlines are bigger than us, that the manufacturers of ceiling light fixtures and track lighting are bigger than us, that the designers of mass transit hub signage are bigger than us. We admit that no matter how crazy it seems, maybe there is something to be learned here. Maybe there is something about patience and acceptance.

All the same, I celebrate your spirit of outrage! I do not see how anyone with a critical intelligence could go through one day on this planet without being appalled and outraged at the world’s failures to live up to our expectations — and to its own potential! But the world ignores our memos pointing out its manifest sluggishness to correct deficiencies, its shortsightedness in planning freeway exits, its seeming indifference to quality control and continuous improvement, and the lack of proper signage in public transit stations. The world stares back at us like a sullen teen, reveling in its own incompetence.

I’m getting steamed just thinking about it. Take track-lighting components. It’s a long story, but I’m finally installing some track lighting in the kitchen that I bought three years ago and had installed elsewhere in the house before the remodel. Sunday I was sitting on the ladder looking at two T-connectors I bought three years ago, and I was remarking on how well-made they were — how, in my admiring opinion, they were better than they had to be. I was quietly rhapsodizing about the brilliance of America’s manufacturing tradition, picturing some worker  constantly improving the product, constantly thinking how to keep the production consistent. The T-connector I was looking at was a thing of beauty and utility.

So I go to the store to pick up a couple of straight connectors and the first one breaks. I get it replaced and the new one is completely defective. I attempt to modify it so it will work and the copper tab breaks off. I’m going to have to go to the lighting store on Saturday for the third time. So I look up what I can on the Internet about the company, trying to figure out what went wrong.

I have no idea if the quality of its track lighting components has anything to do with its acquisition by another, larger company, and the departure of its CEO and his replacement by a longtime executive of the acquiring company.  Maybe I just got a bad batch.

But in my head a story forms. Primitive people such as myself are known to make up stories to explain our experiences. In the story I make up, after being acquired, the company had to meet shareholder expectations and consequently the expensive longtime workers were laid off and younger, cheaper workers were hired, and they figured, hey, how hard could this be? They found cheaper, faster ways to make these little straight connectors, which is fine for them and their bottom line except making them that way means they break easily and so people like me buy stuff that breaks and we have to go back to the store three times. And we get angry and who do we get angry at? The store employee? The store employee can’t do anything about it. Maybe we should be mad at the person who is making half a million dollars a year running the company. And maybe we should say a prayer for all the longtime skilled workers who lost their jobs and lost their houses and packed their cars and left the industrial Midwest for California — Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward. And maybe we should mourn the priceless knowledge and expertise that has been lost in the bullshit diaspora of the skilled American worker, now seeking work in Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward, because rumor has it they make things there too, and the skilled worker who used to make real things that work well and don’t break is trying to explain why that knowledge is so valuable, and the financial wizard running the company is looking puzzled.

“What did you do in your last job?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them,” says the worker.

“What was your growth model? How did you maximize shareholder value?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them. What else do you need to know?” says the skilled worker.

But here is the thing, my friend. I share your outrage about shoddy manufacturing, poor transportation services and inadequate signage in public transit hubs. But you and I need to shake it off and move on.

Another example from my recent experience: Over the holidays I was delayed in my  flight a full day each way. Flying from San Francisco to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., the takeoff of the final leg was delayed eight hours, and then, late at night after a long day, after flying an hour out of Houston toward Fort Walton, we turned around and headed back to Houston. Around midnight, we hapless travelers lined up at the customer service desk in Houston. Because it was a weather delay, and out of the company’s control, the person behind the counter handed me a toothbrush and said, Good luck finding a hotel.

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I felt powerless, insulted, deeply abandoned. I was still recovering from surgery and was in pain. It sucked in so many ways I don’t even want to go into it.

But what was my role? My role was to recover and move on. My role was to surrender — that is, to go over to the winning side. And what was the winning side doing? The folks on the winning side were going about their business, treating these delays and mix-ups as the natural friction of the world. That’s what most of this stuff is, I think. It’s entropy. It’s the world’s natural resistance to our will. We push and it pushes back. We work toward order while entropy works toward chaos. Your will works against the grain of the world and the world resists and out of that resistance comes friction, heat and dust.

That’s not to say you have much choice. How can you avoid creating friction unless you are a monk who never leaves the house and never has a better idea for how to do things? The question is: Is your will the harmonious will of a wise self guided by its sense of its proper place in the world? Or is it the distorted will of the ego and its need for symbolic satisfaction? How can you tell? Sometimes through prayer and meditation and the occasional stroke of good luck one can know whether one is just exerting the idiotic, self-important, power-hungry will of the ego, or is doing the right but difficult thing and just encountering the natural resistance of the world. Sometimes.

But sometimes stuff just has to get done, and you will be in chaotic, insane friction with the world, and you have to put on your dust mask and your safety goggles and get the job done. You may be moving a tree stump. You may be creating a new company. You may be trying to get your kids on the plane. There will be traffic changes and holes in the ground. There will be friction as you rub up against the world, as you abrade the world and the world abrades you back. Such is the state of air travel today. Such is the state of home repair. Such is life. You encounter resistance and setbacks and howlingly insane incompetence and covert resentment from service personnel and all manner of cultural revenge and subterfuge and psychological sabotage and you have to take the hits and pick yourself up and keep moving toward that hill. You have to recover and keep going, with a smile. It’s never going to stop. It’s not going to get any easier. We have to surrender, shake it off, remember what we’re here for, and get the job done.

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