Slightly off center: Achieving relevance

December 30, 2009

Dennis Hinkamp

Do what you can—just pitch in and help.
by Dennis Hinkamp

If you want a job that gives you real satisfaction and elicits appreciation, become a plumber or tow truck driver. Seriously, most of us are mired in jobs that require a lot of daily rationalizations to achieve relevance; our jobs represent a tiny cog in some big machine that might in only some abstract way help anyone.

I was reminded of this last Satur­day evening. There we were, a feckless collection of liberal arts graduates and technically challenged Frisbee-throwers trying to figure out how to get a car out of a snowy gutter. We were close to either a dented car or painful back injury when along came a random tow truck driver. This Angel of 5th East assessed the situation, hooked a cable to the car and pulled it out in about three minutes. He neither asked for money nor berated our incompetence. I like to think he left feeling very right with the world.

I wish my life were more like this. Crafting a clever paragraph just isn’t the same thing.

I used to be part of a writing discussion group until I started describing writers as a bunch of self-absorbed misfits—at which point I was accused of self-loathing. I prefer to think of it as being perceptive and in touch with oneself. The last thing you need when your car is stuck in the snow is a writer. Writers are really only good when your car is unstuck and you are sitting in a warm home with functional plumbing.

Although no plumbers have appeared as magically as the tow truck driver last Saturday night, I would also like to publicly thank them this holiday season. Plumbing has always meant cursing, bruised knuckles and puzzled trips to Home Depot for me. It is a comforting daily modern miracle that all you plumbers make it possible for the good stuff to come in and the icky stuff to go out.

So my New Year’s wish is that we can all find small ways to be helpful despite ourselves. Really, the best part of my day is opening a door for someone with two arms full of packages. There is no awkwardness of whether you are doing this for a woman or a man; if they will be offended or think you are hitting on them. If you open the door for someone without a spare hand, everyone is happy.

A few ways to be useful even if you are a liberal arts major:

Start with shoveling an extra 10 feet of the sidewalk beyond the precise GPS-surveyed borders of your property. Maybe your neighbors will reciprocate and everyone’s job will be easier.

Pick something up that you didn’t drop and do it without resentment. We are all living in the same Dumpster, and just maybe your selfless act will encourage others to do likewise.

Put your shopping carts back in their corrals. It will make the parking lot safer and make the minimum wage shopping cart wrangler’s job a little easier. Besides, you need the exercise.

Keep your exasperation to yourself. Sure, you had to wait two minutes longer than normal for your burrito, but don’t take it out on the food service worker by heaving a big sigh or acting all put out. You probably have a cell phone with 1,200 apps; just entertain yourself for the extra two minutes.

Dennis Hinkamp wishes everyone a safe, happy and helpful 2010.