Monday, April 13, 2009

American idle. Part 2.

Picking up where we left off the other day...

As it turned out, I had to rent a second car before leaving for Vegas. (Another long story.) Upon reaching the rental counter, I ask, as I always do, "How much of a hold do you place on the credit card?"

"Just the cost of the re
ntal," comes the reply, "plus $50."

"Are you sure?" I ask this because past experience makes me dubious.

"Yes, sir."

When I get home and check my account online, there's a $250 hold for a $23 rental.

Here, in brief, are a few more highlights from just the past week or so:

  • I buy a not-inexpensive Paula Deen percolator that, no matter what coffee I use, cannot be induced to make coffee without grounds in it. It goes back to the store...
  • ...where the sales clerk screws up the return, explaining cheerfully that because she input the information improperly, she'll have to issue a store credit. When I explain that I paid cash and I'm therefore expecting cash back, she sighs and summons a manager in a tone of voice that suggests someone has just slipped a long strip of extra-coarse sandpaper into her undies.
  • The reason I need the percolator in the first place is that each of the past two electric coffeemakers I've bought, by Mr. Coffee and Black & Decker, broke or otherwise began malfunctioning within a few months. (Sorry, I don't see why I should have to spend $150 or more for a coffeemaker in order to get one that works.) The latter one, to which I reverted after returning the Paula Deen model, literally takes 20 minutes to make an eight-cup pot of coffee. And yes, I clean it.
  • The laptop on which I am typing this post crashed after just 90 days. That's not as bad as the fact that the recovery disks that came with the machine, which supposedly restore the computer to first-bought condition, introduce all sorts of errors that remain with us as we speak. (Every time I restart the damn thing, it spends a maddening two minutes looking for C:\Windows\System32\cmd.exe, then tells me it can't find the command that "hides" it.)
  • I could list at least a half-dozen additional snafus, major or minor, but I'm pressed for time todayI'm due to meet my grandson at the (unheated) heated pool that the condo complex lists in its promotional matter—and I think I've already made my point anyway.
The bottom line is that I find myself wondering: Can anybody (a) make or (b) do anything right anymore?

Forgive me for generalizing, but my gut tells me these aren't random events. And to the extent that I'm correct in that assessment, I blame complacency and the overall quality of American life. It strikes me that there are (too) many sectors of society where people just drift along, sleepwalking through their days. There's little initiativelittle sense of ownership or personal investmentand there's zero extra effort. Indeed, I think in many settings you'd be hard pressed to find any effort. And though one doesn't want to overreach, I think this is linked to the American sense of entitlement and, yes, optimism: the idea that life is basically good, "it'll all work out" somehow regardless of whether or not you try, la-di-da. I'm not suggesting that we should execute or even cane customer-service clerks who foul up easy returns (well, maybe cane them), but I sometimes suspect there'd be a lot fewer mistakes if we did. There's such a thing as life being a little too free-and-easy.

Apropos of which, some time back I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about the climate of Happyism that has infected the American workplace. The theory behind occupational Happyism is that cheerful, relaxed workers are more productive than uncertain, anxious ones. I point out in the Journal piece (as well as in my article in the current issue of Skeptic) that there is no hard evidence for that assumption; it's another one of those intuitive notions that "sounds good,"* and is very much in keeping with today's "theories" about positivity and empowerment. In truth, what little evidence there is seems to point the other way: that people do better at whatever it is they do when they're on their toes.

If there's an upside to the current economy, maybe it's the fact that many folks are losing their sense of security about their jobs. Maybe we'll all begin taking our responsibilities more seriously.

* much like the notion that pumping kids full of self-esteem will make them better spellers and number-crunchers. Uh, not quite.


Noadi said...

This will make me sound exactly liek the geek I am but have you tried Ubuntu Linux? I put it on my laptop a couple months ago and don't miss windows at all.

You aren't imagining things, quality and service have gone down significantly. Why is up for debate, maybe the fact that many americans want to find a deal and get things cheap that we've sacrificed quality. Once people are willing to accept lower quality for cheap they stop expecting as high a level of quality for things which are expensive.

Dimension Skipper said...

The bottom line is that I find myself wondering: Can anybody (a) make or (b) do anything right anymore?

I hear ya.

My own little frequently muttered life question is "Why do even the simplest things seem to require so much effort anymore and become so tiresome?" No doubt some of it's just me and my mindset, but I refuse to believe that the world can't shoulder at least some of the responsibility somehow. Sometimes even a simple life is just plain exhausting.

Anonymous said...

Happy workers may not always make good workers, but one thing is certain: frustrated and cranky journalists make entertaining bloggers. :)

Anonymous said...

And as it often is the case, today's Quote of the Day on SHAMblog seems tangentially providential (if that makes sense):

I don't like work...but I like what is in work—the chance to find yourself.Joseph Conrad

Anonymous said...


Simplify, my friend. How do you simplify coffee? No, not instant (hey, some standards should never be lowered!).

Buy a coffee press. Boiling water; coffee grounds; and push the plunger. Simple. I learned this from a missionary in Indonesia.

Dealing with stupid, lazy humans who just show up for work - I can't help you there.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Dealing with stupid, lazy humans who just show up for work - I can't help you there."

All you have to do is ask to speak to a supervisor, who will likely be only marginally more intelligent and motivated. Remember... they hired the stupid, lazy person who caused you anguish in the first place.

Coffee? I agree about the French Press. But if you're not into rituals first thing in the morning, try a Poly Perk. Cost about $10, and ugly as a bucket of wet hair, but they work, and will continue to do so long after their appearance has deteriorated to the point where you hide the thing even when the plumber comes over.

RevRon's Rants said...

"The bottom line is that I find myself wondering: Can anybody (a) make or (b) do anything right anymore?"

Certainly not the geniuses you describe! And their biggest obstacle to ever improving is quite probably the fact that they actually consider themselves geniuses, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. :-)

Debbie said...

I third the French Press suggestion. Best coffee ever, easy-peasy, cheap...I won't go on. You get the picture.

And Macs. Traded in my PC a few months ago, and don't anticipate going back anytime soon. I can do everything I did on my PC and more, easier.

Mike Cane said...

>>>The bottom line is that I find myself wondering: Can anybody (a) make or (b) do anything right anymore?

Yes. Oh wait. You mean IN AMERICA?

Christ, I think if people had to wear badges to show the shit that's in their bloodstreams, you'd have all of your explanation right there.

From pot to Prozac and everything else. Really, before all this crap, those people would do the right thing: fail and fall to the bottom until they learned.

Now, we get, "Duuuuude, chilllll."

Do you remember the Monday Car Syndrome? Word was in the 70s, do NOT buy a car made in Detroit on Monday. After a weekend of drug and booze, no one could do ANY good work on a Monday.

I'd REALLY like a law that said EVERYONE on the public payroll had to take a public piss test to see what's in their blood. Including and especially those in ELECTED positions.

Mike Cane said...

Steve, I rest my case.