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June 21, 2006

The economics of time and money — and how confusing their values can wreak havoc with your life


Jeanne Marie Laskas (above, with her children) is an author who writes the "Significant Others" column for the Sunday Washington Post Magazine.

I rarely even bother with the Post magazine, so dismal and boring is it, but for some reason I paged through it a couple weekends ago and happened to read Laskas's June 11 column.

I was fascinated by her tale of car trouble — not so much for what she intended it to say as for what it showed about her: namely, how a very smart, savvy woman can apply such awful judgement in her everyday life.

Long story short: she'd recently had her oil changed at a garage near a mall about an hour from her house.

When she got home she found that her car was leaking oil all over the place.

She called the garage and they told her to "just bring the car back in."


1) The last thing you should dream of doing is taking your car back to the bozos who screwed it up the first time.

2) Especially if doing so requires you to call a tow truck to have your now-malfunctioning vehicle towed back to that place an hour away.

But Laskas somehow didn't twig — all she saw was that the oil change screw-ups were going to make it right for her.

So she

1) Waited forever for a tow truck to show up at her house

2) Endured an hour-long monologue from the driver (though she did get a column out of it) as she sat beside him during the journey to the garage

3) Apparently waited at the garage while they fixed what never should've required her presence that second time

4) Made the hour-long drive home

What was she thinking?

Why didn't she simply have a garage she trusted — near her home — fix whatever wasn't right?

Was wasting the better part of a day worth more than whatever that would've cost?

I think not.

People make the mistake of valuing money over time.

It's no contest: time is far more valuable than money starting the moment you're born.

And the differential only increases as years pass and you grow older.

Until, near the end, you'd give everything you have for just a little more time.

Too late — you lose.

Or, as they say in my country: game over.

The column follows.

    Tow-Truck Driving Man

    A jaw-dropping journey inside a guy's head

    The tow truck is finally pulling up the driveway, thank God, so, really, the only thing I'm concerned about now is making pleasant conversation.

    The driver hops out, smiles, says his name is Mike. He's tall, muscular, with a goatee. "What's the matter with your car, and why do we have to take it so far?" he asks, bluntly.

    I explain about the garage I recently used when I was multitasking at the outlet mall, which is about an hour from my home. I had just wanted an oil change, but what I got was a car that regurgitates oil in a most violent and overt manner. "They said to just bring the car back in," I say.

    "Let's do it," he says.

    Well, I'm sort of disappointed we got through that story so fast, seeing as that was my main topic of pleasant conversation. What are we going to talk about for an hour? Riding in a tow truck is nothing like riding on a bus or a train, where there are expectations of silence and anonymity. Or even in a taxi, where the seating arrangement gives everybody an excuse to zone out. No, in a tow truck you sit in the front, right there next to the driver, the two of you on a shared journey.

    Mike hands me a clipboard, asks me to sign. All at once he winces, says, "Awww!"

    "You okay?"

    "I banged my knee the other day climbing into the other truck," he says. "Now that I'm 30, the injuries don't heal as fast." He says he has a girlfriend, 18, who's making fun of his limp. "I say to her, 'Someday you're going to be hobbling around, too,' and she says, 'If you're still with me when I'm all gimpy, just do me a favor and shoot me.'"

    He laughs, shakes his head.

    "I have pre-arthritic knees," I say, meekly.

    "My mother does not like my girlfriend," he says. "But she didn't much like my wife, either."

    And so we begin our journey, zooming several million miles an hour on back roads I've never been on before. I learn a lot about Mike's mother, who married a man 17 years older than she is, and so, really, she has no room to criticize Mike. That's the way I see it. Mike is not asking me about the way I see it. He says his friends tell him constantly how lucky he is to have a job that allows him to just drive all day. He says he does feel lucky, but no one realizes how much goes into it. "Alone all day with your thoughts," he says, "there's a lot that goes into that right there.

    "Whew, I'd get in trouble if I lived in this town," he says, referring to some attractive women walking down the street. Then, "Whoa, sweetie, you were a lot prettier before you got so close."

    I get the feeling I'm not really here. Or, that the place where I am is in a man's head. This truck is Mike's mind, and I happen to be riding in it while his thoughts swirl.

    "Yeah, I met my girlfriend when she first started working at the convenience store," he says. "But I was still married then. I don't know why I got married. One day you're dating, and pretty soon you're married with kids. It happens to everybody. Why should I be any different? I love my kids. My mom says I should get custody. But I don't want to do that to my girlfriend because she should have time to be a kid herself. On Monday the wife picked the kids up; an hour later she's calling me to come get them: 'I can't do this! I need space!' I was at work, so I told her I'd send someone over. I called my mom, but she wasn't home. Finally, I called my girlfriend, and she went over. That was a bad idea. They got into it. Later, I said to my girlfriend, 'Why did you beat her up on the porch like that?' She said, 'Where should I beat her up?' It wasn't funny then, but it's funny now."

    He's thinking about getting his girlfriend a puppy, to get her used to the idea of possibly raising kids. He really wants to marry her but doesn't want to ruin her life, like his mom says he might. He wonders what to do with the engagement ring he got for her, if it's fair to lure her with a diamond.

    "I can't believe I think this way about a girl; I used to just be normal, but something about her has me all messed up."

    I want to . . . speak. I want to say, "Give love a chance!" I want to put up a little red flag about the situation on the porch. But I'm not really here. This is like a reality TV show, only this isn't TV, and there will be no further episodes, and now here we are at the garage.

    He opens the door for me, all chivalric. I thank him for the journey. I consider asking for his card, or for the location of the convenience store where the girlfriend works so I can find out what happens next. But I know the boundaries. He's a tow truck diver. I'm a customer. Nothing personal.

June 21, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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