Oil Change

The hero’s journey to metamorphic disgruntlement

On November 5, the morning after Election Day, I woke to find that change had come to America but my bathroom door still squeaked. This was disconcerting. It wasn’t that I’d expected to find the hinges magically greased; I didn’t think that the vox populi, in the course of expressing its wishes, had somehow exhaled a salubrious and penetrating vapor, an invisible mist that could bind up the wounds of a divided nation and, as a bonus, ease the chafing of cheap old brass. I wasn’t thinking of the hinges at all, but when I shuffled into the can for the first of that day’s many visits, when I elbowed the door shut and heard the metallic whine of protest, which woke the baby in the next room, I realized something: It’s far easier to vote for change than it is to remember where you left the WD-40. Then the older boy came hurtling down the stairs and tuned in SpongeBob on the living-room TV, and, because I love watching that show with him, I forgot about the hinges again. A short while later, on a return visit to brush my teeth, I had occasion to say to myself, Dude, it’s entirely possible that Sponge-Barack PresidentPants will serve two terms, get us out of Iraq, fix the economy, provide universal health insurance, reverse global climate change, and so on and so forth, before you get around to dealing with this door. You might think a person entertaining such thoughts would feel sheepish, and maybe you’d be right in some cases, but I am not so easily sheeped. Besides, what if the house settles or shifts, causing the door to hang differently and operate thereafter in glorious silence? Or what if the baby comes to love the singing of those paint-spangled hinges? What if that sound becomes part of his bedrock conception of home? What if, in later years, the plaintive yowl of an aged porte de toilette functions in his imagination as a kind of auditory Proustian cookie, triggering the creation of a multi-volume literary masterwork that very few people will ever read? I’m just saying, it pays to think long and hard before you go around willy-nilly lubricating things.

There’s Change with a capital C—revolutionary Change, energizing Change, Change of the “Yes We Can!” variety—and then there’s change that might best be summed up by the phrase “Yeah, I could, and I might get around to it, but not if I keep getting nagged, okay?” The two types are symbiotically related, though I can’t say precisely how. If you want to give up cigarettes, for instance, you’re going to need plenty of type A: dramatic declarations, Kevlar-esque resolve, pep bands, cheerleaders, moral door prizes. But to achieve permanent success, you’re going to need some type B, too. You’re going to need to be sick of yourself the way you are—so thoroughly sick and tired that when the cheerleaders are busy flirting with better-looking quitters and the guys in the band are draining the spit from their horns and bumming smokes (those heartless bastards!), the very profundity of your self-fatigue will carry you through.

This idea of weariness-based change may seem counterintuitive, but I believe in it. What’s more, I believe I can feel its oddly exacting power at work among the people. Maybe you, too, can feel it: a massive wave of lethargic momentum… a vast yet nebulous energy field arising from countless souls steeped in wholesome and restorative self-loathing…a whispery chorus of tuneless voices mumbling, “We’re pretty much getting to the point where we’ve about had it with being thought of as waterboarders, CO2 spewers, health-insurance rationers, fiscal-scalawag enablers, and just, you know, all-around numbskulls. Any chance of an amen?”

What will all this torpid fervor bring us? Difficult to say. Still, I’m willing to make some predictions. These will not touch on President-elect Obama’s odds of bringing his Change initiatives to fruition; that’s type-A stuff, and I have very limited experience there. My familiarity with the transformative possibilities of extreme incrementalism, though, is both intimate and exhaustive. Plus, I’m an optimist, sort of. Here, then, is a brief summary of the changes I think we’ll be seeing around here in the next four to eight years. Whether they’ll be consequences of Obamian Change or precursors thereof and contributors thereto, I’ll leave that for history to decide.

After decades of mindshare bloat, weather—that is, weather “journalism”—will be right-sized. No longer will a routine two-inch snowfall be heralded with air-raid horns and apocalyptic vocal inflections. It will be briefly discussed in conversational tones. Why? Because weather-news consumers will realize that for too long they have allowed the threat centers of their brains to be hijacked by impish meteorologists with attention-getting hair. They’ll realize that their dependence on weather-based adrenaline spikes is not only undignified, it’s actually curtailing their ability to reach the higher levels of cognitive function, which, coincidentally or not, is where a guy like Barack Obama spends most of his time.

“Minnesota nice” will cease to be. Oh, people will continue to be as nice (or not nice) as they ever were, but they’ll no longer get all vain and boosterish about it. They’ll recall the hoary maxim “An act of kindness performed for bragging rights is an abomination unto the Lord,” or, if they’re not religious, they’ll hark back to that Statistics 101 class they took freshman year and discover that a geographically based oversaturation of geniality is an indefensible postulate, mathwise. Either way, actual niceness may well increase.

At parties, people will stop talking exclusively about their last trip to Costco. Yes, it’s interesting that you were able to purchase a genuine copper casket and enough Merlot to fill it for less than the price of your first used car, but not as interesting as it once seemed. Perhaps it dawns on you that the drive for cheapness in all things is, in all kinds of ways, cheapening. Or maybe you were struck by a memory from the early 1990s, when you got so into those Joseph Campbell videos—the hero’s journey, the mythic quest, the shining figure of Obi-Wan Kenobi illuminating our mortal path. Maybe you had a vision of Obi-Wan pushing a cart loaded with glucosamine tablets and cheese loaves, and that was enough.

In the wake of a mild stroke, your Uncle Hoot will finally stop telling that story he’s famous for—the one with the inappropriate themes and the racist overtones and the predictable reliance on flatulence as a comedic device. You’ve been wanting that story to be put to rest for years, but now that it has been, you find you miss it. In fact, to your chagrin, you miss it keenly. That story did its part in knitting your family together through 50 years of weddings, funerals, holidays, and hospital vigils. You can’t bring it back, so you’ll have to come up with a new one. It seems unlikely that such a story could begin with a guy who keeps not oiling a squeaky bathroom door, but you might as well give it a shot. Stranger things have happened.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson is wondering if maybe 3-in-One Oil might be better than WD-40.