Years back, I posted a reminiscence — “Saltines” — in which the object of a childhood hurt became my one-word term for the consequences of naive, misplaced trust.*

My takeaway from that event (back then, takeaway was not yet a corporate buzzword) was that other people are uncontrollable agents harboring unknowable motives; many of them, indifferent to your humanity, can arbitrarily decide to do damage to you.

The experience of having rocks thrown at you — one did hit its target, missing my eye by a rock-width or so — by boys you thought were your friends while you were doing something nice for them (or, as I mistakenly thought, for all of us boys) … in any event, the incident rewired me and, as I now belatedly recognize, hardened me.

I built internal defenses against future betrayals.  I grew to not automatically trust people.  I started withdrawing, ever on the lookout for some signal of caring from the other person before I ventured an emotion myself.  Self-protectively (and probably encouraged by my parents), I distanced myself from classmates who were different from me, which I am sure many sensed and so responded likewise.  (On the other hand, many didn’t sense anything and didn’t care, and so reinforced my detachment from them, there you go.)

As a young man, I came to adopt a bad news slant on life:  self-preservation lay in avoiding people who are bad news, those who would trigger your defenses and drain your energies.  “Spare me from people with problems!” was an oft-quoted song lyric (penned by a friend) that became my mantra.

I developed a kind of litmus test for other people’s otherness —  I would keep track of the number of times (if any) a person asked a question or expressed interest in me, divided by the number of times I asked a question of them.  This ratio was often so embarrassingly close to zero that it made me wonder what I was doing wrong and how it was that I could be the dullest person on Earth.

In the end, I have protected the hell out of myself for decades, but at what cost?  Let’s take stock.  I’ve lived in this city 16 years and 98% of my interactions are either with my spouse or supermarket cashiers.  The people I count as my friends (the ones you share everything and nothing important with) remain the people I met in college.  The sad part, they all live travel-distances away and we don’t interact nearly enough anymore.

It has been my habit to suggest to my spouse, or to anyone who takes personal offense at a random harm or slight, to just get on with it, that the offensive person is just someone who happened to cross your path and wasn’t out to target you.  I often invoked the metaphor of a dog across the street barking at you — the dog doesn’t know you or even care about you, it is just doing what stupid angry dogs do.  So the logical thing to do is just avoid them and don’t take their barking personally.

Well, I thought all that until recently, when I reflected that, given how things have turned out for me, I’m in no position to be giving advice about how to manage expectations and disappointments in human relationships.  In fact, I’m probably a poster child for how to mismanage them.

I’ve been taking things impersonally, while others around me have been living richer and yes more risky but in the end more emotionally-full lives.  There’s a reason I have few friends and the reason is, in fact, me.  Not the dog across the street.  It may be too late but I finally know better, for whatever it’s now worth.


* I searched long, hard and ultimately in vain for a word that expresses the idea of “the shorthand name adopted by an in-group for an important event or shared experience.”
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If only his AR-15 shot tears

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For five decades of my life, I was either an engineer, learning to be one, or getting over it.  But being an engineer did not automatically make me an expert in plumbing, electricity or residential heating and cooling — all of which I’ve had to deal with as a homeowner.

Which brings me to the not-long-ago day that our downstairs gas furnace began making a loud rattle when the heat came on.  I responded like the dyed-in-the-wool engineer I was:  (a) I turned off the furnace; (b) I did a lot of internet searches; and (c) I decided that what I didn’t know about furnaces — and my general wariness about gas, explosions and such — warranted a call to the HVAC outfit that originally installed our system.

The soonest we could get a tech to diagnose our problem was that Friday, four days out.  Lucky us that this was the downstairs system, where our guest rooms are, and that we didn’t have guests who needed to be warm.  So anyway, Friday, the repairman shows up (I’ll call him Jimmy, since he was a guy, of course — we’ve never had a female plumber, electrician or HVAC person) and he proceeds to go about his work as I dutifully stand by, ready to serve by holding a flashlight or offering troubleshooting advice.  Jimmy politely declined all help.

Now, even before Jimmy arrived, I’d figured that the source of the noise was the gas valve.  In a furnace, there are only three things that can move and so could possibly make noise: the gas valve, the blower fan, and the air passing through the ducts.  I knew it wasn’t the fan or the ducts, because there was no noise when only the fan was on.  What I didn’t know was what would cause the gas valve to rattle — a worn-out part (easy to replace), or a bad control board (expensive, perhaps prohibitively so) or some connection between the two.

Jimmy, bless his heart and abundantly-tattooed arms, was a competent troubleshooter.  He methodically ruled out one cause after the next until the only remaining suspect was the gas valve itself.  So I asked Jimmy, what’s the ballpark cost to replace a gas valve, and he said he didn’t know, but it could be $700 to $800 (wow, I thought to myself) and the service department would get back to me on Monday with an estimate.

The service department had forewarned me, when I made the appointment, that I would have to give Jimmy a check for $110 when he was done.  Maybe they figured I was one of those people who summons furnace repairmen for frivolous reasons, like my house has no heat and we’re all freezing and I can’t afford to pay you, for example.  But forewarned is forearmed as they say, and so my forearm wrote a check for $110 and handed it to Jimmy as he departed.

I was now down $110 without a fix, but the prospect of another $800-plus bill called my inner engineer to attention.  How much could a gas valve really cost?  It’s not like I had a nuclear reactor in my crawl space.  I guessed a new valve might go for $100-$150 — but after a few minutes on the internet, I found that a replacement for the replacement for the original (2005 vintage) gas valve could be in my hands in 3 days for about $80.  Not $800.

Thus forearmed, I waited for the call from the service department.  It came late Monday. The service rep told me that my repair would cost $485.  I asked her for a parts-and-labor breakdown, as I wanted to make sure they had not figured a $250 valve into the equation.  She said she did not have a breakdown at hand and would get back to me.

I gave them until Wednesday to respond but I finally had to chase after them.  Even then, it took two more days to finally connect with Phil in the service department, who still was unable to give me a parts-and-labor breakdown.  It seems they just have their price for a gas valve replacement, as if this was the menu price for a double-scoop ice cream cone.  Phil and I discussed the situation, and we agreed that I would order the $80 valve myself, Jimmy would install it, and I would pay for the labor without any guarantee on the valve.  Fine, I said.

So, two weeks after my first phone call (during which time our guests were just chilling), Jimmy showed up again, this time to replace the valve and get our system back in service.  I didn’t bother to stand around and watch.  It took Jimmy about 40 minutes, after which he went out to his truck to “write it up,” figuratively speaking.

Jimmy came back and announced the total – $160 – but he couldn’t hand me an invoice because he had figured it out on his tablet.  He told me the office would email me a copy.  All right, fine.  I wrote Jimmy a check for $160, happy to have at least “saved” about $240 compared to their original quote.

But this is not quite the end of the story.  I was curious why this service call cost more than the first one, and I got the answer when the invoice arrived a couple of days later:

Not only did this sub-one-hour visit cost $15 more (perhaps to cover the depreciation on Jimmy’s wrench?) but it included a spurious $25 “environmental fee” — which was taxed as well.  To be clear, this environmental fee had nothing to do with any methane gas that escaped when Jimmy replaced the valve — after all, this is North Carolina, not California.

I did a search for “HVAC environmental fee” and learned that heating/cooling firms will, to the annoyance of their customers, charge them an “environmental fee” whenever they have to dispose of something.  (Or, all the time.)  In my case, the item subject to disposal was the old valve, a block of metal that would fit in the palm of your hand.  I could have disposed of the valve myself for less than $25 (about $25 less than $25 in fact, plus tax) but I wasn’t asked.  That’s because the service department preferred to toss my old valve into their scrap-metal bin and inflate my bill by 20%.

The HVAC company we used obviously doesn’t read the online forum “HVAC-TALK” for heating/cooling professionals.  One pro on the forum summed up their consensus attitude toward environmental fees and the like: 

Don’t nickle and dime the customer with little fees, everybody hates that. Leave that to the cable, utility and telephone companies, everyone already hates them.

Figure out how much you need to charge to cover all the miscellaneous BS and roll it into your flat rates.

Exactly.  And while you’re at it, don’t pretend that your “service guarantee” on a repair is worth charging double what the work would cost without one, as it would have in my case.

The bottom line: I saved $240 on my repair but still wound up feeling like I was taken to the cleaners, or shall I say, the heaters.  I can safely say that, due to their pricing practices, this company will not be among those I call if my system needs to be repaired or replaced.  Thank you.

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