The Handy Headshaker

Picking up on the thread of a theme from earlier posts, I've been paying closer attention to criticism lately. Some think that I am too critical in general, but in a talk show world, anything short of glowing affirmation is often seen as a personal attack and insult. When I criticize, it's of something that to me seems avoidable or fixable and I am always willing to suggest an alternative. Having said that, I have retreated from criticizing people or things that are unwilling or unable to change.

I look like a grinning fool compared to one unique brand of critics. Have you ever noticed that handymen, plumbers, window, roof, flooring, other construction workers and other very blue collar guys have are always dumping on their colleagues' work? It seems like no job is complete until the expert-on-site puts his hands on his hip, shakes his head sagely. Then he will launch into one of these wry rants:

Whoever did this didn't know what he was doing.
Whoever did this didn't follow the building code (or other guidelines).
Whoever did this cut corners.
Whoever did this didn't know what he was doing, didn't follow building code and cut corners.
Whoever did (technical jargon) should never have done that with (other technical jargon that sounds vaguely irrelevant) like that.

Followed by: this should never have passed inspection and whoever did it should have been fired and you are lucky it didn't kill you. If it was done a long time ago, then a mini-lecture on the history of how bad things were done in the old days is forthcoming. If it was done recently, then they don't do things like they used to, how hard it is to hire good people and maybe a tablespoon of outrage. The Handy Headshake does not happen only in case of one having a problem and therefore inevitably inviting the guy to find some failing or error. This also happens when one is upgrading something or having work done on something that by all appearances is perfectly fine.

If you have not run into this often, turn on any home improvement show. They rip up an old floor and find incompetence and laziness. Inspect a roof leak and discover subterfuge and deception. Inspect a house and discover the results of alcoholic new construction crews. Apparently no one has ever built anything correctly ever and everyone else involved in building things is a complete moron. And building inspectors are all corrupt or too incompetent to breathe properly. I challenge anyone to mention an experience with a handy person who comes to do a job and marvels at the excellent worksmanship of everything. I bet Bill Gates has people fixing stuff in his ginormous mansion saying things like "I don't know what they were thinking when they installed this, but you never leave insulation so close to the can of a recessed light!"

Can you imagine doing this in your job? Shaking your head at every single piece of work that someone else has done mostly because you were not the one who did it? There are those who try to pull such things in office environments and other jobs, but it doesn't work because the other person is right there and often the complaints are bogus. For example, it would never work for the topping person at Subway to complain about the toasting job done on the bread, or the way the meat is laid out.

Now, some of this may be done just to boost the credibility and billing rate of the current expert-on-site. Maybe it's done to induce the customer to frantically throw money at the guy in hopes he corrects everything. Or maybe there really are no standards and these guys are all repressed art critics. Since they are usually agreeable and likeable guys, they are not the can't-be-pleased-everything-snobs, another critics group of note. And it's too prevalent to be some common personality trait.

Of course, often following on the heels of this wise dissection of the previous guy's poor workmanship (it's never the materials that fail, is it?) is the handy guy not knowing how to fix the problem, repair the damage, make right what once went wrong. How fast can a handy guy go from criticism to saying "let's see what happens if I do this" or "I don't know if this will work"? How can nearly all these guys can be genius enough to spot crappy worksmanship but clueless enough to not be able to suss out the proper remedy?

Once you notice the wry critic act about to begin, you will find yourself hard-pressed to not smile. The smart-asses amongst us may try to join in, or even pre-empt the headshaker by doing their own. Please don't do this. Also, don't call them on this little act: it's as impolite as snarling at salespeople that you have approached when they try to build some goodwill with you by making small talk.

Now, you might think that this post has come about because of some recent run-in with the handy type. Think again: I decided to do this when I have not any recent such experiences to make it more generalizable and to show that I do not have any kind of ax to grind. I actually find this complaining kind of adorable and reassuring. In fact, if one of these guys can't find anything to complain about, there is only one conclusion you can draw:

He's the idiot everyone else is complaining about.

Playing better is one giant leap for humankind

For those who accuse the ToT of being too negative, pessimistic, etc. I am going to keep throwing back at you some of the really positive things I notice in the world.

Today, I give you an advancement in playgrounds. New York City, a place I am gaining more respect for over time, is on its way to installing a better playground. A father and architect named David Rockwell is trying to make playgrounds more kid-friendly. The one planned in the NYC will have pulleys and foam blocks, allow you to move buckets of sand from one place to another, play with water and generally engage kids on a deeper level than the old standby of swings, slides and climbing equipment.

Some may ask: what is wrong with slides and swings? Aren't they good enough, it's just a playground after all. My response is: why not try to improve it? Don't we all remember being kids and wishing that the playground had more to offer? The monkey bars and sunken tires of the 1950s and 1960s era gave way to the wooden quasi-castles and rope bridges of the 1980s, and they were a huge improvement. Then the 1990s came with plastic tubes to crawl through, kid-size rockwalls and entire hideaway spots and neat surprises. As our understanding of kids and child development expands, why not keep up to speed with the playthings?

That is the sweet morsel at the heart of human advancement and humanism. We keep finding that our capacities are greater than we once thought and not only can we handle more and doing it better, we're better off handling more and doing it better. Kids are the epitome of this realization: they are savvy little scientists who use play, imagination and fantasy to deconstruct the world, examine how it works and doesn't work, and then put it back together. And have fun doing it.

Three year old Micro Trackball is always killing off his superheroes because it's how he explores the concept of death. He has no real idea of what it means, but he role plays it on pretend people (or pretends it happens to real people "when I die...") to learn what it means and what it doesn't. No amount of explanation from his parents or big sister substitutes for having Superman 'die' over and over again. Minnie Trackball, at seven, is doing much the same thing by 'fortune-telling' where she uses these silly paper things to predict your car, job, best friend, favorite color and a bunch of other odd things. She's play-exploring what it means to be grown up (and driving us nuts in the process).

The adult world is slowly waking up to the idea that kids are not stupid pets who have to learn to become smart - the smarts are there and they hit the ground learning, if only the adults wouldn't get in the way. This doesn't just work with the preschool set and older, but infants too.

Now the new playground may fail. The little people will vote with their feet and let the city know. But it's always worth it to keep trying. Someone will see this playground and will be inspired to improve on it. That is how progress happens. That is how Rockwell came to design this park. Every generation of parents should stand around and marvel at their kids' schools, toys and opportunities and say "I wish we had this when we were kids."

Now if someone would put effort into improving playgrounds for all us adults too, we could make the world better at a faster pace. The IDEO folks are doing it, but they haven't got to my office just yet.

Trackball's first annual snapshot

Resolutions are for the somewhat deluded. They at least are cognizant of the need to change, but are deluded enough to make a half-hearted attempt. If you need/want to make a change, you shouldn't wait for the calendar to flip to get started. Anything that has to be resolved will likely not take root, much like posting a mission statement on the wall: if it's not ingrained and omnipresent, a one-time declaration isn't going to make it happen.

Growing up in My Shire, the new year was always greeted with rounds of well meaning and ambitious toasts and promises and plans, none of which ever happened. It was ultimately depressing to hear the same fantasies from the same people year after year without any execution. It was almost like stating that some personal problem would be addressed was sufficient. Now I know that lots of people feel that the new year is the time to make a fresh start and they make an effort, but all that happens is they all clog up my gym for the next six to eight weeks. By March they will be back to where they were in December - on their couch watching Survivor.

However, at least they try. Some people have either given up on self-change or they no longer feel any pressure to do what is right in their lives. The idea of self-improvement has lost a lot of its luster recently, despite the ever increasing sales of self-help books and paraphernalia. (Maybe people believe that reading a self-help book constitutes all they need to do to self-improve.) People in their 20s and 30s, especially those with helicopter parents, aspire to be the same as their parents rather than to do or be something better. They just don't want others to expect much from them.

I hate that.

There is a growing feeling that one's shortcomings shouldn't be dealt with, not even ignored, but should be proudly displayed as means of self-identification. Obese, racist, misogynist, illiterate, mediocre, homophobic, mean, bankrupt, etc. have somehow morphed into integral parts of personality rather than hangnails to be dealt with. People use the victimhood culture to blame their problems on others, or the ceaseless parade of 'flawed' characters in popular entertainment --Jack Bauer-- or their increasingly placating religious beliefs to justify behavior they know is wrong ('everyone has to have a vice').

I hate that even more.

There's a dark and deep line between giving up on changing parts of oneself that are not changeable and eschewing any improvements as impossible just to let oneself off the hook. I realize that there are several parts of my personality and presence that need work. That work has been ongoing, and some of it may be ultimately unsuccessful as things that seemed changeable are really unchangeable.

Some have said that my intolerance of other's foibles (and my own) is a big failing of mine. As a humanist who believes that humans can improve themselves and their world, this is a religious belief not a failing. High expectations are not a sin in any moral code I subscribe to. Go ahead and try to ding me for thinking that you and I can be better and do better than we are now. I dare you.

With that resolution crap resolved, I do think New Year's is a good time to set down a time capsule of sorts on where one is and what is going on. Forget trying to leap the moon today, just reflect on where you are. Could be interesting to collect them over the course of years and see how things change. Here is where ToT is at right now:

  • Been using the Dvorak keyboard layout for a year now and feel comfortable enough with it that I am back up to my old typing speed but without the carpal problems.
  • Going to get laser eye correction surgery and dump the eyeglasses that have been on my face since the mid 1980s.
  • The HDTV has been procured and the beginning pieces of the Lair are ready to be assembled. (It will have a retro gaming center with TV, VCR, Nintendo and Super Nintendo.) Someday the Lair will have HD.
  • The first novel is in it's second draft and is awaiting feedback from its first readers.
  • The Mac experiment has produced some mixed results, but so far more good than bad.
  • Tried Aikido but it just wasn't for me.
  • Still manage to play: with the little Trackballs, with video games and with Legos