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Following Directions or Kowtowing to the Man?


There are people in this world who don’t like reading instructions or following rules that have been written down about some new complicated device – which these days can be a new car, a new stove, a new refrigerator, a new phone, or God help us, a new computer. I, on the other hand, was trained as an engineer, and so by nature I want to read all the materials that come with any new device before I even think about putting it together or using it.

My wife, whose first action on getting something new is to throw away all those pesky directions that come with things, tells me this is strange, because I’m the guy who hates to follow the rules. It’s true. I don’t like people telling me what to do, and I sure as Hell don’t want some elected or appointed official sitting around making up rules to govern my daily life.

I see rules and regulations as helpful guidelines to make it easier for everybody to get along. And to be honest, the more that other people follow all the rules, the easier it is for me to choose which rules I want to follow and which I choose to disregard.

For example, I don’t stop and wait at traffic lights at 3 a.m. if there is no traffic in either direction and no cop cars in sight. Why would I? I’d just sit there feeling stupid. I don’t think it’s anybody else’s business what I choose to eat, drink, or smoke or how I choose to spend my money – especially not the government’s. And even though I consider myself a safe driver, if traffic conditions allow, I do not obey speed limits. But for some reason, I don’t extend this unwillingness to follow rules to following instructions. I’m sure they’re different, although my wife tells me I’m wrong about that.

We recently bought a new dining room table that’s taller than our old table. It’s a splendid piece of furniture, but Carmela did not like the drab chairs that the retailer had suggested, so we ended up with a beautiful marble table that was too high for our old chairs.

So, she went online, shopped around, and ordered some higher chairs that happened – like almost everything else these days – to come from China. They are very nice chairs, but let’s face it, anything you order from China is a crapshoot.

The chairs came packed in a box with various pieces to put together and line-drawn pictures with a brochure in computer-translated English that misused adjectives and neglected prepositions altogether. I carefully read the directions, studied the drawings, sorted nuts and bolts into little glass dishes, and started putting the first chair together, following each step carefully.

But when it came time to attach the braces at the top of the legs, nothing lined up. I’m not saying things needed a little elbow grease to bend the metal into place. I mean things were an inch or so off.

I stared at the instructions and the line-drawing picture of the finished chair. In the picture, the bottom ring, where you rest your feet, was on the inside of the legs. Carmela didn’t look at the pictures or the instructions. She just said the foot ring should be on the outside of the legs – not inside.

It was an obvious observation, but I was so busy studying the stupid, faulty instructions that I lost my way. Carmela didn’t even look at the instructions. She just used her common sense. Kind of like I do with rules and laws.

Further, the seat – according to the instructions – was supposed to attach to the legs by four bolts. There was no way the four bolts lined up with the four holes on the bottom of the seat in which to screw in the bolts. I tried for a long time before I finally went online and read what other customers had to say. Nobody got all four bolts to line up. Three seemed to be the record; two was the norm.

I attached three seats with two bolts each and got two chair to take three bolts. I tightened them down snugly, and the chairs seem to work. I will check them again to make sure they stay tight, but the chairs are both comfortable and look nice. And, they seem to provide the pop of color Carmela was looking for.

But all this has got me thinking. Carmela says that reading and following instructions on how to put things together is the same thing as “kowtowing to the man,” something this child of the 60s still rails against. I’m not sure that’s really true, but she is insistent.

She says it’s all just a matter of degree.

– George Lee Cunningham

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