Monday, April 05, 2010
Yesterday I picked up my 2006 VW Jetta GLI from my mechanic for the third time in six weeks. That's just the latest in a series of mechanic visits for this car which we've owned two years and for around 36,000 miles. Problems include(d) a burned out clutch (after 6000 miles), the evaporation system, the cam shaft, the fuel pump, the ignition coils, constant and unresolved electrical issues, a key that no longer locks or opens the doors remotely, dashboard illumination working only fleetingly, the right front parking light that has to be replaced every three months, and no AM radio in the car (meaning no Brewer's games). Naturally according to VW none of this is under warranty except the latest mechanical failure on the manual fuel pump – which reared its ugly head 206 miles after the warranty expired. Long discussions with VW customer care yielded nothing more than apologies and the offer of a $750 credit for me to buy or lease a new VW! That's like saying "I know the last batch of pizza sent you all to the hospital, but we'd like to offer you a $5 coupon to get more." After over $5000 spent in repairs in two years, we're ready to sell – anyone interested? I can offer no assurances and obviously no warranty, but I will knock off $750 from the sale price. That's got to be as good as buying it directly from VW.
While I can stomp my foot, hold my breath, and mutter "It's just not fair" the fact is I've run into The Rules. Rules exist for many reasons – to insure safety, to protect one party's interest, to provide a framework for conducting business and social responsibilities, to mitigate lawsuits, and to give referees something to do and fans something to shout about – but rules can't create fairness. This fact doesn't stop people from expecting fairness especially when it comes to youth sports. As one with lots of experience with rules, I can vouch for their inherent unfairness in many cases. For example, at the Under-14 US Youth Soccer State Championship Bryce's team was in the finals. Bryce had played a great game, stopping every potential goal. Unfortunately the opposing GK was equally adept. Near the end of the game, a blasting shot from the opponents deflected off the crossbar, sailed straight up into the air, and while everyone was doing pirouettes in the box trying to locate the ball, it descended onto the forearm of Bryce's teammate. The ref declared a hand ball in the box and awarded the team a PK. Despite Bryce going the right direction and actually getting his fingers on the ball, it crossed the line and proved to be the winning goal. Was that fair? No way. Did it follow the rules? Absolutely since calling a hand ball is at the discretion of the referee.
That kind of agony can be found at tryouts where dozens of rules won't help when your son or daughter is cut from the team of friends he or she has been on for three years. How often have we asked either ourselves or out loud "What does that kid have that my kid doesn't have?" Or "Why should that kid from outside of our town get to be on the team and my kid who has been loyal gets uninvited?" Anyone who actually reads a club's rules about tryouts will read a rule patterned along these lines: The coaches have the final say about who makes the team and who doesn't. That decision is made at the coaches' discretion and is based on which of the players coaches feel will make the best fit and provide the best chance at team success. That rule overrides loyalty, friendship, and potential hurt feelings. The ephemeral quality known as talent absolutely trumps every bit of quantifiable fairness.
The "what ifs" of life guarantee that no rule is fair. When I'm not writing blogs I'm a college writing teacher. Every semester I design a syllabus which sets forth the guidelines for issues such as grades, absences, assignment deadlines, and extra credit. I can guarantee that my first hour of class is spent listening to the "what ifs" of the students because they have located a loophole in my "rules" which doesn't account for whatever event they feel challenges the fairness of the class. I think I could put down as my guidelines "everyone will get an A, you can miss all the class you want, assignments are due whenever, and extra credit points will be awarded for breathing" and I would still have hands raised, "what if I do all the work – can't I get a higher grade?" or "what if I die?" or "what if I have someone else do my work?" We've all stood at a team meeting and either witnessed or been a part of the "what i" discussion. "What if my son has an ACT test during a scheduled game?" "What if I can't find white socks with red stripes? Can I just get white socks?" "What if my daughter can't come to Tuesday practices?" "What if we can't afford to go to a tournament in Florida?" "What if piano lessons don't end in time to get to practice right at 5:30 p.m.?" Even Hammurabi couldn't write a set of rules to fairly cover all those circumstances.
My favorite story about fairness occurred with my husband and our youngest son when Bruce was the coach of Robbie's 10 year old baseball team. There were no umpires, so the coaches served as such, and on this particular occasion Bruce was the home plate ump. Robbie hit a long ball which was bobbled several times in the outfield. Robbie, who can lay claim to great speed, rounded the bases quickly, salivating over the possibility of an inside the park home run. As he neared home plate, the opposing team finally scooped up the ball and threw it into home. Robbie crossed the plate, the catcher caught the ball, tagged Robbie, and Bruce shouted, "Out!" Robbie was clearly safe. Both teams knew he was safe. The parents knew he was safe. There are satellite photos showing he was safe. But Bruce, not wanting to show favoritism, saw him out, so out he was. The rules in baseball state that the umpire is always right even if he is your dad. There is nothing like the stone cold silence of a 10 year old on a car ride home continuing through dinner into breakfast the next morning to make you question the very nature of fairness.
When we run into the immoveable force of The Rules, we quickly lose our innocence. We learn that rules can't insure fairness because they favor one point of view, and in many cases that's not ours. All we can do is take a deep breath and hope that the next time the scales will tip in our favor. It's also a lesson we need to teach our children. Things won't always go their way and no amount of rules can prevent disappointments. In the end, each unfair circumstance eventually fades in the face of successes which will probably elicit "It's just not fair" from someone else.