Angels & A-holes
Joy with the Generous; Run-ins with the Ruthless
Editor’s Note: Writer Tim Munkeby has a brilliantly simple notion: the world, he believes, tends to be made up of two very distinct types, or traits. Type #1: those whose consistent actions and behaviors toward others and the universe might best be described as “angelic.” Type #2: Those who act and react in ways that most often lead to—for lack of a better or inoffensive word—a-hole-ishness. (That actually isn’t a word, but if you sound it out just right you’ll get the gist.)
The Reporters Inc. is excerpting some of Munkeby’s insightful observations about the good and the bad, the nice and the naughty, the kind and the cruel…the Angels and the A–holes…among us.
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BY TIM MUNKEBY
We all run into a-holes. I’m sure you’ve wondered, as I have: why do people do a-hole things? Why would anyone want to be an a-hole?
Then there are the “angels” — which most of us are when we’re not too lazy or in too big a hurry to go out of our way to do the decent, right thing at the right time. I’m not talking about saving souls, but those daily acts of kindness that make life worth living among other people.
But let’s start on the dark side.
A-hole Exhibit A: Auto Industry A-holes
OK, let’s assume cultures are dynamic. They change…either evolve or devolve, I guess you could say. Evolve to benefit the community at large or devolve to benefit only a certain population of that community. My little rant is, of course, related to the latter.
They say (not just me) that “information is power.” So, the question is: is it OK to use that power to benefit yourself at the disadvantage of the community at large–other people? If you think that’s a bit skeptical, a little iffy, we might find some behavior you might feel is a-hole-ish, if we look. My point, which many of you might disagree with (which is fine, of course) is that if a culture allows for a-hole behavior to be rewarded, it’s the entire culture that’s the a-hole.
Let’s consider the auto industry now, especially the servicing of cars, specifically at dealerships.
In the beginning, I’m sure that culture was: “We’ll service and take care of your car if you buy it from us. After all, who knows your car better than us? We made it.” Sounds reasonable, right? I’m going to say that culture devolved and now rewards a-hole behavior.
I learned it early. My second car, at 17, was a Volkswagen Bug. I had a cousin who worked at a VW dealership in the service department. I asked him if I brought in my Bug, would he work on it? He said no way, they charge too much, he couldn’t guarantee that he’d get my car, and that their favorite ploy was to do a brake job whether I needed it or not.
I asked, “How would I know whether it really might need new brakes?” He said I didn’t have enough knowledge about cars and wouldn’t know.
It appeared that I was dealing with a culture in which I might not be able to trust the participants.
I found a guy around the corner from where I lived. He changed my oil and tightened my clutch and said nothing about the brakes. I found him not real friendly but honest and I trusted him. He was from a different culture entirely. And I was able, thanks to him, to be able to avoid dealerships for years, even when I bought my first new car and, let’s say, they implied I needed to service the car there to fulfill the warranty (which was not true, fortunately).
But, then I got entrapped: I bought a Jeep and with it, I’m told, “free” oil changes! Yet after my first free oil change, I go and get my car and find a bill for a couple hundred dollars: several unsolicited but “necessary” actions taken, like the installation of new wiper blades (I had purchased new blades, literally, the previous week from the same dealership).
There was also a note saying that my cigarette lighter/plug- in wasn’t working and they had spent an hour and a half on some machine trying to locate the problem, but quit because they were afraid it would get expensive. So they’d only charge me for an hour. (Honestly, I’m not shitting you, it was a fuse.)
The next day I called the service manager and told her I wasn’t paying for anything and that I was simply content with my free oil change, thank you. She said she would credit my account for future servicing. I pointed out that that wouldn’t work since there would be no future servicing.
During my second “free” oil change, they take my car and tell me it’s time for routine maintenance (during which I’m sure there would be finding a number of crucial problems needing fixing–and I’d have no idea if they were necessary or manufactured). So, I say get me my car, I’m done with free oil changes.
I then asked the service manager if the “service specialist,” the buffer between me and the actual guy doing the work, was paid on commission. I was told, “Oh, no!” Then I asked if the service specialist made more money if there was more servicing done. “Well, yes, of course” was the answer.
One…bad…idea. One bad culture that sure seems to have devolved–if you believe using ‘knowledge’ to take advantage of people is an a-hole thing to do.
One final example involves my neighbor up at my cabin, Peewee (who really is a peewee), a retired mechanic. While driving my Toyota MRII Spider, the clutch started to slip. I’m in Minneapolis when it happened but I call Peewee to see if I could drive it back up to the cabin for him to take a look at. Unfortunately, he’s not there.
So, I take it to a Toyota dealership and I’m told that it needs a new clutch immediately. What do I know? I tell them to do it. They also tell me there’s these little manifold things that are part of the muffler that are bad, but it’s all one piece so it’ll cost $400 to fix. I tell them just do the clutch.
I get back to my cabin and Peewee cusses me out: the clutch only needed an adjustment you fool, he admonishes me. The manifold thing: $60 to fix.
Angel Exhibit A: Angels Fighting Addiction
This is, I’m aware, not politically correct but, in my humble opinion, if a guy drinks until he loses his wife and kids, maybe his entire family, I’d call him an a-hole.
When you marry you’ve made a commitment and agreed to a responsibility to another human being. And if children are involved, well…there’s even a larger, more profound responsibility. In my ignorance of the disease, it certainly doesn’t seem to be very healthy or upstanding to try to drink sufficiently to forget about the responsibility. Certainly dignity needs to be restored.
Well, I know a guy, my friend Mike, who has the disease, was blessed with remission, and believes that alcoholism is fixable. Mike and I met in high school on a double date. Mike eventually married his date, but she left him. Alcoholism was in his genes and so he had to quit drinking. Fix it. For the kids, for himself.
In 1981, Mike acquired an old apartment building, now referred to as ‘”The Mansion,” and converted it to a recovery community of sorts. A man could live there if he previously drank too much, was a chronic visitor to detox, and maybe living on the streets…but only if he got a job and quit drinking. Tough love was employed.
The program is called “Breakaway.” Not breakaway from the drug, but from the cycle and the system that made them sick.
Mike’s second wife, Chris, also a recovering alcoholic, now runs Breakaway day-to-day. The Mansion currently houses 44 men. More than 4,000 men in the past 34 years have had the opportunity to be rescued by Breakaway. That’s Mike and Chris’s mission: “Rescuing men and restoring families.”
Rescuing…a good word. A good thing. Breakaway men being led back to a life of responsibility. Hardly an a-hole, Mike is clearly an angel. Chris, too.
Because what’s more angelic, and more rewarding, than helping people?
A-hole Exhibit B: Bosses with A-hole Attitudes
Even as a high school teacher during my first career (13 years), I considered myself self-employed. I did what I wanted to in my classes, and principals, who might have considered themselves to be my bosses, pretty much left me alone… except for my last year and a half.
Some schools had been closed in my district due to declining enrollment and there were too many administrators with seniority, so they got dumped into my high school and were now reassigned to be assistant principals in charge of departments…mine being Language Arts/ Social Studies.
Every morning, this particular assistant principal (a-hole) stood by my door as I wandered in, usually on time for homeroom at 7:35 a.m. We were supposed to be at our desks at 7 a.m., I guess, according to our contract. I even admit to getting there at, maybe, around 7:40 once in a while, but always before 7:55, when homeroom ended. Besides, I had my student assistant, Desiree–a cool gal–transferred to my homeroom, and she took attendance every day anyway, which is what homeroom is really for…that and for students and teachers to wake up.
There he was, the assistant a-hole, every day, waiting at the door to my room, looking at his watch. I mean didn’t he have something better to do? I never mouthed off but I’d make a face or something when I walked in the room, and the kids would all laugh. Although I’m sure this pissed him off, it was a great way to bond with the homeroom kids, wake them up, and get them on their way to a higher education. I wasn’t concerned about being there at 7 a.m. because I coached, directed a play, and did the literary magazine. Since I was often still at school at 7 p.m., I didn’t worry about 7 a.m.!
So, at year’s end, the assistant a-hole has to write an “evaluation” of my performance during the year. All he wrote was: “Tim wasn’t at school, on time, once all year.” I have to admit to being a little proud: I mean a perfect record!
Anyway, despite the fun, I became pretty sick of the assistant a-hole by the end of the year. And with schools closing and teachers (NOT administrators, who don’t TEACH and administer very little) getting laid off and losing their jobs, morale was low. I’m thinking, “This evaluation is certainly not good for MY morale.“
So, to make a point, I requested a meeting with the main man–the head principal, along with our assistant a-hole. I mean, not being totally witless, I realized the a-hole has brought my transgressions to the big boss, who it seemed wasn’t too concerned since I hadn’t heard anything from him.
We sat down and I mentioned that the soccer team I coached went undefeated; the play (improvisational – worth a lot of brownie points) was a huge success; I had built up the creative writing program from zilch to two competitive classes, and the literary magazine sales had increased from 30 to 300 in the first year, to more than 500 in the last year.
But all I get is: “Tim wasn’t on time for school once this year!?”
I look at the assistant a-hole and ask him what time he leaves school. He responds: 2:35 p.m. (on the dot) when school is over. I point out that much more happens after he leaves at 2:35 (and goes home and sits on his fat ass –of course I didn’t say this, only thought it–but with my Catholic upbringing it was just as bad) than between 7 and 7:35 in the morning. (We all knew from his bored secretary that he read the paper every morning until wandering over to my door.)
Here’s where this a-hole story takes a turn toward the angelic. Head principal hands our a-hole assistant the evaluation and tells him maybe he should “revisit it.” My angel of a boss supported an underling teacher rather than a fellow administrator!
Now, I’m obviously not a psychologist, but here’s my take: The big boss had perspective. He attended many of the evening school events, and, I’m guessing, wasn’t–like our assistant a-hole–always at his desk by 7 a.m. He, I’m pretty sure, realized a good teacher was integral to the school, our assistant a-hole not so much.
The assistant needed to justify his job and validate himself somehow, and so he saw a need to make sure I was following “the rules.” I believe he lacked perspective, along with a few other significant traits.
Oddly, the next year I quit teaching halfway through the year (leaving the assistant a-hole, hopefully, to find another doorway to haunt).
Angel Exhibit B: Angels Who Admit and Accept…Are to Be Admired
A few years ago, we were having a family barbeque when our late-arriving daughter Adriann called to say she was about a mile away and would be there soon. In the time it took her to set her cell down, a BMW SUV in front of her slammed on the breaks to avoid a car going through a red light, and she rear-ended it.
She made another call and through tears told us what had happened. My daughter Emily and I hurried to the scene and saw two cars in the middle of the intersection and one off to the side by the curb where a grey-haired man was hugging my daughter, and a young man was pacing nervously.
As Emily and I came running over, the young man approached us claiming the crash was all his fault. He said he’d gotten confused–it is a confusing intersection with several roads converging–and that he’d had gone through the red light. He seemed to be protecting Adriann, not wanting us to be critical, which, of course we wouldn’t have been. The grey-haired gentleman, as it turned out, was consoling Adriann, who was quite upset at having hit his car. He was reassuring her that his insurance would take care of it.
Just then a police officer made the scene and the young man approached him immediately, taking full responsibility for having caused the altercation. Now, an a-hole might have been rationalizing that it wasn’t his fault, that Adriann must have been tailgating, or that the BMW driver should have noticed he wasn’t stopping. Of course, since his car didn’t physically cause the accident, the classic a-hole response would have been to speed off, leaving this disaster behind, maybe continuing on to the movie he and his friends were headed to…probably a sadistic dark comedy.
But, no. This young man assumed responsibility for his actions, admirably admitting blame. When I told him he could leave, that the tow trucks had been summoned, the police seemed to have things under control, he answered that no, he wasn’t leaving until everything was cleaned up and he knew that everything was OK.
He was wearing a Michigan sweatshirt, so I asked him if he was from there. He responded that no, he was a student at the University of Michigan but was from Ely, Minnesota. Since I live on Lake Vermilion and Ely is in my neighborhood, my heart swelled, maybe unreasonably, with pride.
I don’t know what happened to the BMW, but the gentleman wasn’t angry, didn’t blame Adriann, and even gave her a parting hug. The young man stayed until the bitter end–his two passengers, I’m sure, bored and stewing. Adriann’s Escape was totaled.
The only thing I regret was not getting the young man’s name and contact information. I have one unmarried daughter about the same age, and I could have set them up on a blind date.
I’m sure I would have liked his parents.
A-hole Exhibit C: Selfish & Self-Absorbed: The Unapologetic A-hole
Ok, let’s start with the assumption that no one’s born an a-hole. I don’t give credence to the ‘bad seed’ theory.
So, something happens in their lives to make them one, some vitamin/hormonal deficiency causes lapses in normal, acceptable behavior. Or, possibly, some random a-hole acts are unintentional, brought about maybe, let’s say, by lack of sensitivity to others. (We are all guilty of these…although some more than others, I’d venture.)
But this next a-hole is definitely the former, not the latter.
I had decided to take my son, Eric, along on a backpacking trip to Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. A fellow I had gone on several other backpacking, climbing, wild river canoe and white water kayaking trips with was to come along. Other than being a bit persnickety, he was fine. Unfortunately, on this trip he brought along a companion (a.k.a. the a-hole of this story) probably because the guy volunteered to drive us in his new VW van.
First night we drove to Glacier National Park and stopped late to camp for the night. We all took different chores; mine, since I’ve built a thousand campfires and heated with wood for several years, was relegated to the fire. After I got the kindling and some smaller branches roaring, I added some good size logs, good for the night.
When aforementioned a-hole looks at the fire, in a gasp of critical exasperation, he throws a log off and in a huff rearranges the fire. Eric and I laugh. My friend tells me the a-hole is a scout leader, and I immediately have sympathy for boy scouts.
Believing in good communication, and to hopefully ward off a similar future display, I said that I hoped the log throwing didn’t indicate what the rest of the trip was going to be like. A telling silence followed, with Eric nodding his head predictively, as it was indeed indicative.
The thing that ended up upsetting me the most was the way a-hole treated my kid, who was 15 at the time. Eric became his errand boy, his slave, bossing him around. If Eric had to fill the coffee pot, for example, with water, a-hole either disdainfully dumped some out or sent him back for more.
A-hole bitched the entire first leg in the Banff mountains about having to carry the heaviest pack because, being the proclaimed cook, he was carrying the kitchen. So I insisted, against a-hole’s “No, no, that’s OK” laments, that we weigh our packs.
You guessed it. His was the lightest. So, pissed off and, I imagine, embarrassed, he takes off ahead of us.
We had all earlier decided to stop at a ridge overlooking Amethyst Lake and then head down to the campsite at the lake. We didn’t come upon a-hole anywhere along the trail, which had been fine with Eric and me. But when we got to the ridge there was no sign of a-hole. It was dark, we were beat, and the mosquitos were coming out strong.
We assumed that a-hole, in a shamed rage, had already headed down to the lake without us. It was a good two hours down. So, we started the trek. When we got there…no a-hole. Eric and I say F-it, but my friend convinces us we have to head back up and look for him. We agree, mainly because a-hole has the food.
So now, dead tired after a 10-hour hike in the most rugged mountains in the world, eaten alive by a variety of insects, in the dark we head back up the trail. When we get back up, no a-hole.
At this point Eric and I are ready to eat berries for dinner, and don’t care if a-hole has provided dinner for a grizzly, probably making a lot of boy scouts’ day. Eric and I set up camp near the ridge, I hate to say not caring what happened to a-hole.
But my friend heads out and an hour later comes back with a-hole, dragging a-hole’s pack! Then a-hole has the audacity to start screaming at us for walking right past him while he was napping…total b.s. I get in his face and tell him to shut the F up, or I was going to beat the shit out of him.
We’re on the way home. We’re sharing driving responsibilities, of course. When my friend is done with the first shift, to sleep he lays on the bed a-hole had made on the third seat of the VW van. He shuts the curtain a-hole had arranged, and a-hole starts screaming: how can he see with the curtain shut! So, my friend opens it, and that is that…UNTIL a-hole takes his turn to nap…and he shuts the f-ing curtain!
Eric and I crack up at the absurdity. We both scream, “How can I see with the curtain closed?”
Who needs a-holes in their life? We never saw the guy again.
A side note. You may think it was the trip from hell, but an interesting thing happened: my son and I totally bonded, as friends, as adults.
Now, in figuring out what made him an a-hole, I’m tempted to go back to how he was raised. Could it be that he did nothing right, or good enough, for his father, his mother, both? And maybe grandpa was the same to a-hole’s father? Maybe this despicable trait goes all the way back to the beginning? That’s what I’m going with.
Angel Exhibit C: Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: An Angelic Master Class
For this “Angel” I’m keeping it all in the family.
My wife Mary had to drop out of high school her senior year as we were starting our family a little early. Unfortunately, Christopher Jon was born prematurely not long after we were married and didn’t make it. (At around three pounds he most likely would have made it today, but in 1966 they didn’t do a whole lot to help him.)
Although people said, “Oh, my, you wouldn’t have had to get married,” we never thought that. We really didn’t think we had to get married, but we chose to. Of course it might have been smart to wait until I graduated from the University of Minnesota to have another child, but in 1967 Eric Jon popped out.
Despite having cut her high school days a little short, when we later lived in South America, in Colombia, Mary taught 4th grade at Colegio San Carlos, a Benedictine school in Bogota. It was generally thought to be the best school in the country. The rector, a wise, marvelous man–Father Francis–told Mary that teachers were born, not made.
In preparation for Mothers’ Day this year, Eric Jon (the angel of this story) called the private high school Mary had attended all those years ago and told them her story.
So, on the designated day, Eric picks up Mary and me for an “event”–we had no idea what it was about–and we were driven to Mary’s old high school. We’re met at the door by the activities director who gives us a tour of the new additions to the school.
I’m thinking, “If this is some kind of fundraising pitch, they better think again.”
We end up being guided into a “visitors’ parlor” and to our surprise find ourselves facing our children, their spouses, grandchildren, a number of friends, and some of Mary’s old classmates. One of Mary’s best friends approaches with a bouquet of roses and Mary (to once again prove she’s much smarter than I am) senses exactly what’s happening and says: “Am I going to graduate?”
Well, there was applause and tears all around. Even the school president, who awarded Mary her 49-years-past-due diploma, had to wipe his eyes.
As for Eric Jon, I guess sometimes an “angel” is born not out of “human kindness,” but out of human love.
You can read all of Munkeby’s Angels and A-Holes musings at http://www.timmunkeby.com/angels-and-assholes/
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