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Journal SarahAnnAlien's Journal: Journal Problems #4: Oil Change

Okay, this time we're going to try a little experiment.

So, today, I went to get my first oil change *ever*. I drove up to the oil-change place, and sat in my car looking confused until an attendant came. I explained to him that this was the first time I had ever had my oil changed and that I didn't really know what to do. To make a long story short, everybody was really nice to me, and I got my oil changed, plus a rather expensive cabin air filter...

Ok, stop. What are you thinking right now? Based on my previous experiences, I'm sure that there's at least one person out there who's thinking something like this:

Gee, Sarah just got her car, she hasn't been driving all that long, and she's never had it serviced before... she doesn't know what to do... she probably doesn't know much about cars... I should really try to help her.

Dear Sarah,

You probably got ripped off. What you don't know is that those oil change places offer to change your oil very cheaply, but then they will try to sell you all kinds of stuff you don't need... particularly if you're a woman. And I can't believe you told him you had never had an oil change before! That told him immediately that he could sell you just about anything and you'd buy it because you don't know any better.

If you needed a new cabin air filter, which you probably didn't, you could have gotten one at any auto-parts store and installed it yourself, and saved a whole lot of money.

The next time you think your car might need something, you have to call me. I'll explain everything you need to know and keep you from getting ripped off again, ok?


Now, if I'm not mistaken, that's actually good advice. Maybe a bit blunt, but otherwise, good advice, and a generous offer of help. I should be grateful when someone offers me something like this.

But when I get an email like this, I immediately get angry, and frustrated. It usually takes me several days to calm down, and another couple of days to figure out how to respond to such a message.

Why does this happen? What's going on here?

Let's dig a little deeper and see what we can learn.

Back when I was just starting to think about getting a car, I started asking people in real life about their cars. How do you handle maintenance? Do you know a good mechanic? Where do you get your oil changed? How much does it cost you? How does the process work? See, I knew that there was more to owning a car than just driving and getting gas, and I *knew* that I didn't know how this fit into people's everyday lives, and I knew that I would need to learn about it. So I did the blindingly obvious thing: I asked people.

I do know how oil changes work. I used to help my Dad change the oil in our cars. It's not difficult; I could certainly do it myself, although I don't really have a place to work on my car, and if I'm not mistaken, the apartment complex doesn't allow that kind of maintenance in the rental agreement. But that didn't really matter, because everyone I asked, including people who had garages and lots of tools, said that they just go to some random quick-oil-change place because it's just easier than doing it yourself.

I made a particular effort to ask single women how they handled their maintenance needs, to find out how things were different for them, figuring that this would give me better advice than hearing, "oh, my husband handles all of that..."

Everyone told me, "yeah, you just drive up, and they do it, and it only takes ten or fifteen minutes... and of course then they try to sell you everything under the sun... I never let them do anything other than the oil change; the rest of it gets done when I go into the dealer for my checkups..."

And of course, sadly, auto mechanics have a somewhat dubious reputation, particularly when they're dealing with women. I remember that in one book I read, a transsexual woman said, "You haven't really become a woman until you've been treated in a condescending manner by an auto mechanic!"

So I more or less had some idea of what things would be like.

My car's owner's manual claimed that, in relatively mild driving conditions, I could go as long as 6500 miles between oil changes. My location, and the kind of driving I do, would certainly qualify for that, I'm sure, but I decided I'd try to do it more often, say, every 3000 to 5000 miles, in the hopes that this car will last me a long time if I make the effort to keep it in good condition.

Then of course, I hit 3000 miles... and then 5000... and then 6000... and then 6500. By last week, I was at 7000. Sigh... well, I had the best of intentions! What happened? Well, partly, I was busy, and the October through December time frame was just one thing after another, so I just didn't get around to it. But there was another issue... I guess the best way to describe it is that, in a life where all sorts of mundane things are new experiences for me... I just get tired sometimes. New Thing Overload. So I really needed to wait until things quieted down a bit before I tackled the big intimidating Oil Change Thing for the first time.

Having asked around, there were no particular recommendations as to where to go; people often said, "I go wherever I have a coupon for!" So I figured I'd just have to try someplace and see what happened. I picked one down in one of my old neighborhoods, mostly because it's a neighborhood that I'm comfortable with and I know it's reasonably safe. It also happens to be next to Home Depot, and I needed to pick up a couple of things.

As I drove up to the oil change place, it wasn't entirely clear what I was supposed to do. There were about eight lanes leading to eight different service bays. Was I just supposed to pick one and drive up to it? Hmm, that little detail hadn't been one of the things I had asked about. I just pulled up and waited... eventually somebody came to talk to me.

I told him that this was my first car and that I'd never taken it for an oil change before. I did this on purpose. One of my girlfriends had described having the mechanics guide her as she drove the car into the service bay, and said that it made her very nervous. I get nervous about those kinds of tricky maneuvers too... and I wanted the service guy to know it, so that he didn't make some assumption that led me and my inexperience to crash into something or drive my car right into the big pit, instead of over it.

Also, I was curious to see what they would say, and what they would try to sell me... for me, this was as much a part of the Oil Change Thing as getting the oil changed.

So, the guy told me where to pull up... he didn't ask me to drive it into the bay, whew! He asked what I wanted, and I said just an oil change. He said it would be about fifteen minutes, and I could wait in the lounge. I asked if it would be ok if I ran over to Home Depot really quick instead, and he said that would be fine. So off I went, leaving my car key with them.

Um, threaded rod and nylon washers. No, you probably don't want to ask why. Maybe later.

While I'm waiting to pay for my stuff at Home Depot, the oil change people call me. They're just about done with the oil change, and they're ready to go over the maintenance check with me. Okay, I'll be right there.

So I pay for my junk and run back over to the oil change place. There's my car; they've moved it over one of the big service-pit thingies. The first mechanic is underneath, fiddling with something. He smiles. I squat down and wave at him.

A different mechanic is ready to go over the maintenance checklist with me... okay, you checked this, you checked that, ok, ok... that all sounds good.

But I do have a few recommendations for you... I suppressed a little giggle. Yes, I knew you would...

What do you think I need? Oh, flush this, flush that, change this other... uh, huh... and how much would that cost? Oh, you'll show me later, and give me a discount. Uh huh.

Oh, and you think the cabin air filter needs to be replaced? How interesting... I saw the filter; they had removed it to check it. It seemed to be covered with a surprising amount of dried leaves... hmm, I wonder if they keep a bag of dried leaves around to sprinkle when nobody is looking?

Okay, let's go over to the computer and see how much all this will cost... type, type, type... ok...

Um, no, I'm sorry, I can't spend $274 on an oil change. No, I'm sorry, I just can't. Yes, I'm sure it does need all that stuff (lie... I don't need this crap), but I just don't have the money right now (only sort of true), you know, this soon after Christmas, money is just really tight (we didn't even *buy* presents this year), so, um, I just can't afford to do it right now. No, not even if you give me a 50% discount, I'm really sorry, I just can't right now.

But, um, how much is the cabin air filter?

The price seemed high to me. At least three times as much as it should have been. At least that was my guess; of course, I'd never bought a cabin air filter before, but given other air filters I've bought, the general composition of air filters, and the size involved... I can tell there's a lot of markup involved here. A lot.

Well, I could just go get one myself and put it in; that will certainly be cheaper. They're easy to install; there's one screw to remove, which gives access to the space behind the glove compartment where the filter is installed on my car. I hadn't tried it, but I saw it in the manual, and it looked trivial. And I was going to pass an auto parts store on the way home from the oil change place!

So, should I just do it myself, and keep my money, or let this guy overcharge me and think he's managed to con a woman who's never had an oil change before.

Unfortunately, I knew some things the mechanic didn't know.

See, I meant to get a new air filter almost as soon as I got the car, back in April. It's a certified used car, but the obviously hadn't replaced the cabin air filter, as the air from the A/C was always a little dirty and musty smelling. I meant to just replace it... but had never gotten around to it.

Then back in oh, August or September, I started to smell something really weird coming from the A/C. Something stinky. Something really stinky. Gee, I wonder if there's something wrong; I don't think it's supposed to smell like that. I really need to get that new air filter... but I didn't get around to it.

The stench continued for a couple months, then gradually wore off. I was relieved that it hadn't been some kind of strange and expensive problem with the air conditioning. But, gee, it still smells just a bit weird... I really should go look for a new air filter. Oh, never mind... not this time... it can wait until next week... and so things continued, until December.

It wasn't until just before Christmas that I finally started to feel guilty about not having had my oil change done. And I was about to drive about five hundred miles, round trip, to see my family. Well, I hadn't found the time to get it changed in the weeks before Christmas, and I certainly didn't expect to find it in the last couple of days... so, I decided, well, maybe I should at least *check* the oil! So I popped the hood to check the dipstick...

On top of the battery, I found several small rat turds. And a very desiccated piece of tailbone.

Eeeeeeew! Eew, eew, eeeeeew!

I grabbed some paper towels and did my best to remove the last bits from atop the battery. Most of it has rotted away or fallen off, apparently.

My car has smelled like a dead rat. For months.

So I immediately run to the auto parts store for a new cabin air filter... no, of course not! I have stuff to do. Christmas. New Years. Busy, busy, busy. Besides, it's gone now... and there isn't really much smell anymore.

And now, here I am, trying to decide... should I let this guy sell me an overpriced cabin air filter? The auto parts store is on the way home, for goodness sake! And it will only take five minutes to install. And there's a screwdriver in the glove compartment, and another in the trunk. Just *do* it, and save the money, you silly girl.

Well, but not today... I have other stuff to do today. I'll do it tomorrow, though. For sure. Definitely by the end of next week. Really, really soon now. And then, well, I probably won't have time to put it in right away... I'll just leave it in the trunk until I get around to installing it...

Sigh... no, I won't. I should... but I won't. I won't get around to it. I won't get it done. Just like the last five months I meant to do it. Just like the oil change. I need to work on that... but not today. One battle at a time, ok?

So, um, yes, I'll take just the oil change... and why don't you go ahead and change that cabin air filter too? Yes, just those two. Yes, I'm sure. No, I'm going to skip the other stuff for today. Yes, I know how important it is... just the oil change and the cabin air filter. Please.

And so, I got my oil change, I got my Very Expensive Cabin Air Filter, I got my new experience. I've now done the Oil Change Thing.

Next time will be less intimidating... in fact, it will be no big deal, because I've gained a huge amount of confidence from this trivial little task. I've successfully dealt with an auto mechanic. I've successfully done the research so that I knew in advance what to expect. I successfully avoided spending hundreds of dollars on services that I didn't really need.

And my car smells just a little bit less like a dead rat than it did before.

For me, this is a big success. A big win. A milestone. I think I did *great*. I negotiated what was, for me, a tricky and intimidating social situation. And I also recognized my own limitations... and found a place for improvement.

Now, if you'll remember, this isn't about my oil change... it's about well intentioned offers of help, and how I react badly to them.

That's two different sets of issues. Well, three, sort of.

The first set of issues: Why do people sometimes make the assumption that I'm a completely clueless idiot? What makes them think that I can't possibly manage anything by myself? Why do they insist that I can't *possibly* survive without their help, particularly in *response* to evidence that I am in fact doing so?

Why do some people fail to recognize the things that are, for me, a success?

Is it my writing style? Is it what I choose to say, and what I leave out? Or is it how I say things? Or the topics I choose to write about?

Does my childlike sense of wonder in commonplace situations make people think that I am somehow hopelessly naive? *Am* I somehow hopelessly naive?

Why do some people assume that I don't have enough common sense to do my homework before going into a new situation?

Do I really seem that dense?

What makes this especially frustrating for me is that, when people fail to see that I do have the basics figured out, I miss out on the *additional* advice they might be able to provide. Instead, they write and tell me what I already know. They help me with the parts that I've already managed to figure out... instead of delivering some new insight that I'd really be able to use.

Should I, perhaps, describe every single experience I have in mind-numbing detail, and explain exhaustively every possible option that I considered, to justify my final choice, and prove that it was at least a plausibly valid choice? Would that, finally, lead people to believe that I might possibly have the basics of a given decision or situation under control? Or is it hopeless? Will some people regard me as somehow fundamentally incompetent no matter what I say or do?

The second set of issues: why do I react so badly to that kind of advice? People mean well, and I know they do. Why do I get angry? Why do I feel insulted? Is it because I'm egotistical? Arrogant? Am I just a bitch when it comes to hearing advice?

What's wrong with me? I don't want to be this way... I want to just smile, and write back, and politely thank them, and let them know that while I really appreciate their help, that the situation is much more in control than they had thought, and I'm fine, really, fine, everything's ok, but thank you for thinking of me. Thank you for caring enough about me to take time out of your day to write me and offer your advice.

And, actually, I *do* react that way. At least that's what people think. But it's an act. A lie. When I get advice like that in an email, I get really angry, I go ballistic for a few days, and then I sit down, grit my teeth, and write back, and thank them very politely.

I don't want to pretend. I want the me I'm becoming to always be thankful, and not to get angry at people who really did try to help.

Bringing this problem out into the open is, for me, a way to end the lie, solve the problem, and try to learn to be the person I want to be.

The third set of issues has to do with why it seems to be that I *always* have this problem with transsexuals. Not every single one... but just about. Maybe I've just had bad luck, or maybe there's something deeper going on there. But those issues can be left for another time.

And a final question I wonder about: why do so many people think that my journal "problem" is about them?

The problem isn't you, dear reader. I'm not complaining about the fact that you once sent me a suggestion, ok? Please don't write to apologize for that! When I've been happy to hear from someone, happy to meet them, happy to get to know them... and then they apologize? It makes me cry.

This isn't about you. It's about *me*. It's my attempt to understand the world, to understand the people in it, and learn and grow from the experience. Please, please, don't take it personally... unless you can learn from it too.

Comments and suggestions about car maintenance Eagerly Accepted. But please understand... I now know the basics of how to get my oil changed! I'm sure there's still plenty more for me to learn, though.

Coupon... Coupon?!?!?!... GRRRR...... yes, I *know* I should try to find a coupon to get the oil change cheaper next time, but, well, I don't get the newspaper, and I checked in my mailbox, and I think the mailman thinks that I've moved away, because I went to check the mail last night, and the box was *completely* empty, and I mean, usually there's a big pile of junk mail in there, and that's why I don't bother to check it very often, because all of my *real* mail goes to the PO box I rent on campus, but I thought the five pounds of junk mail might have an oil change coupon, but no, the box was empty, and now I don't know where my phone bill will go, because they changed the address when I upgraded my DSL connection even though I *told* them not to... and that's why I didn't have a coupon, ok?

Wow, thank you for the suggestion! That's a great idea! I'll try that next time! Thanks!


"The eleventh commandment was `Thou Shalt Compute' or `Thou Shalt Not Compute' -- I forget which." -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982