Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Right v. Wrong, Home Depot-style

We are five days into summer and so far I've had very little success in my role of sage-like father figure.

Take, for example, our experience at the Home Depot.

As a family, we have run out of money. Despite being a longtime in the making, this situation still crept up on us, leaving us dazed, frustrated and looking for a way out. One which might involve me getting an actual job, though I am not convinced that at this point in my life I am at all employable. Today I answered two ads on Craigslist. I am qualified for both jobs. And yet, so are legions of 27-year-old go-getters, none of whom have weird gaps in their resumes.

Stay tuned.

Our financial woes have forced us to radically scale back what was to be a summer of high-impact home improvements. Gone are grand plans for a new bathroom, windows and a backyard deck. In their place is the humble aroma of sweat equity. Fifty dollars at Home Depot will buy you 40 feet of crown moulding, which can then be installed at no cost, by the homeowner himself. By "himself," of course, I mean "herself." Because she was born a contractor's daughter.

Flush with the inexpensive success of the kitchen and dining room, Sandra Bullock and I decided that it would be a simple add to continue into the hallway with our crown moulding, and perhaps add some new baseboards as well. We would slap the moulding in place, then paint. Simple.

But did you know that you can purchase the materials needed to change a boring doorway into an attractive archway for well under $100? You can do this online. The work itself should be simple!

This particular fantasy, which seemed cute and harmless when measured against last month's fantasy of six-figure stock option riches, sadly turned out to be no more real than the unrealized stock proceeds. One week later, our simple hallway project is less than halfway done. I spent all of last week peeling 100-year-old wallpaper from our disintegrating plaster walls in thin strips resembling pencil shavings.

Which led us, my Jawa and I, to Home Depot.

Roger A. Hunt mentioned recently that he thought I was a "man of principle." Living where I do, it is inadvisable to ever claim moral high ground, and in fact I struggle to keep a straight face just typing the phrase "man of principle." But it is true that I don't like it when I see things that seem obviously hypocritical (like perhaps, the hijacking of the word "progressive" to mean "clinging to a 40 year-old political and social agenda"), mean or downright wrong. And as the father of an impressionable Jawa, I try to take seriously the responsibility of teaching him how not to be a jerk.

Unlike the man at Home Depot, who told me a blatant lie in order to get in front of us in the line that materialized when Jewell, the cashier, opened up another register. The incredibly helpful Jawa and I were toting 15 feet of baseboard, 16 feet of razor-sharp cornerbead, one gallon of Flush Puppy-endorsed Zinsser primer (which, sadly, has nothing at all to do with William Zinsser's excellent book On Writing Well), two tubes of silicone filler and 12 pounds of spackle when this guy reached the line at the very moment we arrived.

It seemed to me that he was part of the group in front of him, a dad and three kids, so I asked, "Oh, are you with them?

"Yes," he said, as he pushed his cart in front of ours, "Thank you."

Then the dad and his three kids, who, it quickly became obvious, had nothing at all to due with this line-cutting guy, went on their way, leaving my man to take his turn, having worked hard manufacturing lies to get there before the bald, unshaven chump and the adorable kid behind him.

"Hey!" I said, "You're not with them."

"No, I'm not." He said this blankly, with no inflection or expression. A statement of fact. Implied was that yes, he had lied, yes, I had fallen for it, and the success of his lie meant that he had earned his spot in line in front of the hapless me.

"You lied," I said.

He said nothing. Turned his back, denying me the opportunity to enjoy, for just a few more seconds, the sight of his thick moustache and graying blow-dried hair.

What could I do? Like the grinning old guy who threw his wrapper nowhere near the garbage can in front of the Excelsior branch library the other day, he felt no fear of my reprisal. That guy at least smiled and waved at me when I pointed out that he had missed the garbage can. This guy just gave me his back, methodically unloaded all 17 of the small nozzles he was buying, paid and went on his way.

"That guy lied to me so he could cut in line," I told Jewell, when the Jawa and I finally reached her. She smiled. "Oh," she said.

I am a father, and my young, impressionable son, sometimes a demonstrator of questionable ethics himself, witnessed this entire incident. So now what am I supposed to tell him about the rewards of doing the right thing, even if you don't immediately or obviously benefit from it, just because it's the right thing?

Apparently, you can lie, cut in line, whistle a little tune, go on with your day, then go home and enjoy the reflection of your oversized moustache in the mirror with a clear conscience.

And don't tell me that karma will get this guy in the end. When Rex Moore, terrifying and obnoxious all-CIF linebacker at El Modena High School from 1980 to 1982, married a USC cheerleader while I shivered, broke and alone in my bedroom in Boston, 3,000 miles away from my girlfriend, who was cheating with one of my friends anyway, I realized that karma is a meaningless construct, designed to keep people from complaining when good things happen to people who don't deserve it and in a passable mood when bad things happen to them even though they consider themselves good people.

But who cares if a guy lies and doesn't care when you call him on it? The real problem here is that my son saw this happen, and with it, the difference between right and wrong got a little bit blurrier for him.

So I had to explain to him that what he'd just seen sucked, and that just because you can do something isn't always a good reason for doing it. This is important, because he's at an age where he can't really see beyond his own needs.

Like our friend at Home Depot, he often feels that the ends justify the means, whatever they may be. If that means telling Mommy that she really needs to come home early because he misses her, when his real motive is to get her to agree to buy him the Bionicle that Dad just denied him, so be it. It's dirty work, but someone has to do it. And I'm the bad guy, pointing out that his true motives are absolutely transparent, but perhaps forgetting to cut him more slack than I give to Home Depot liars and library trash-flingers.

As if living isn't hard enough, you throw some parenting on top of it and you have plenty of reasons for your hair to fall out. That's what I need. More reasons to lose more hair.


Blogger Syl said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Syl said...

I don't believe Karma is about retribution or punishment. It is more about the law of cause and effect. This man lied to you. If you saw him again, you would mistrust him. That's the effect. If the Jawa lies to his mom again to get her to come home, she is less likely to believe him next time. Lies breed mistrust, that is the lesson to be learned.

I believe you were given the opportunity to teach your son how to behave. You were polite and let the man go ahead of you since you thought he was with the other party. You also called him on his lie, which was also a good lesson. Some people believe that people who cause us grief are actually Buddhas in disguise who are here to help us learn. Maybe he was one of your 10,000 Buddhas.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous the hammer said...

I like the way Syl thinks. Jawa is a smart kid. He knows right from wrong and doesn't need to learn that lying to manipulate is ok. Re the Bionacle, just tell him that his birthday is around the corner.

3:22 PM  
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