Friday, September 23, 2005

So, are YOU a control freak, too?

So, I’ve been slacking here of late. Perhaps because my girlfriend was in town from San Diego. We had a great weekend together, including a dinner with my Team in Training compatriots and catching The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Funny movie.

I’ve also been enjoying the premiere of the fall television season and I think I’ve stumbled onto something very interesting: Americans are control freaks. Yes, control freaks. Look at the show Threshold. The main character is a “contingency” specialist. When aliens do show up, she’s instantly the “most important person in the world” because she wrote the plan on what to do when aliens show up.

Then there’s E-Ring, the new show about the Pentagon where Benjamin Bratt races around the building trying to figure out if we have subs near China that just happen to have SEAL teams aboard. At the start of the show, a spy of ours in China transmits a text message to a sub, which transmits it to the Pentagon, which transmits to a guy at the CIA, who opens this cool spy safe, pulls out a sealed envelope with a little pull string and removes the stop secret “evade and escape” plan for this spy. Cool, eh? It’s another contingency plan.

And I have to say, I love the idea that our government might have all these secret contingency plans. It makes me feel safe, you know? So, of course, I have to ask, where was “Operation Toilet Bowl,” otherwise known as the contingency plan for a Category 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans? Or Houston? No one factored in that cars would run out of gas on the highway, or overheat? No one factored in that gas stations would run out of gas to sell on the highway? Where was the folder with that in it!?

So while I was watching these shows, I caught a Saturn commercial. They’re pitching their no-negotiation policy, low prices, etc., and it occurs to me that this is the work of another control freak. I wonder, though, was it because some guy at Saturn was sick of having cars sold too cheaply or because he figured a lot of folks were stressed out by the idea of going in and negotiating for their car. Maybe they just want to be promised they are getting a good deal and know that they can’t do better. Viola! Stress relief. And who can’t use a little stress relief?

Later, I was reading a review of the new movie about Edward R. Murrow and noticed that, in the still, everyone in the picture was wearing a white shirt. That, of course, was the “uniform” of the day. But it was also a form of control. Look like your business colleagues and you fit in better. Fit in better, work together better. Ross Perot (where is he, anyway?) used to have a stringent dress code at EDS. Michael Ovitz at CAA had a dress code and requirements about what kinds of cars agents could drive. I once read about a CEO who owned five of the same suit, five of the same shirt, etc. He wore the same outfit every day. He said it was more efficient not to have to wonder what to wear every morning. I’ve read about other managers who have no chairs in the conference room; it keeps meetings short.

I was chatting with my gf about the show House the other night and about why that show is so popular. I figured it’s because we would all like to (1) be the smartest person in the room, and; (2) be able to say whatever we want and get away with it. And isn’t that about control? Take Tony Soprano. Why do people like this guy? He’s a pig who murders and cheats on his wife. Yet there’s definitely an appeal. He’s got power, people fear him, and he says whatever he wants. Essentially, he’s in control.

So what does this say about us? Why are we so eager to be in control? Why do these figures who are in control—or seem to be—appeal to us so much? Is it because our daily lives are so out of control? I don’t claim to know the answer, but I’ll think about it while I’m carefully sorting my paperclips later.



moorewords said...

We start our lives being controlled, forced through the birth canal. That first cry of rebellion expresses our displeasure in being forced into an unwanted path. What's one of the first words a child says? "No." The effort to control in return is established. We are all control freaks in the beginning. Some of us are just paddled into submission and learn the lesson too well.

Nancy said...


Being born is just that, being born. It's a biological function with no one having any control.

I know when my kids were born I had no control over it and neither did they. I know they would have preferred to stay in the womb given adulthood isn't all it's cracked up to be when you are a teenager.

I know when my oldest sons went to war I would have loved to have controlled that, kept them home and safe. My sons would have liked to have some control over that whole thing too.

House is a good show for the reasons Andrew gives, because he can say and do almost anything he wants and he gets away with it because he is thought to be brilliant but abrasive. I do think they go over the top a bit in the show because in the real world no one, no matter how brilliant would get away with what he does for very long.

The fact of the matter is...

We are all controlled by someone in our lives. That's just a fact of life and to fight against it will make one crazy. I control what I can and let go of what I can't.

Life's like that, out of control sometimes.

There was a scene in Parenthood with Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen. For those of you who haven't seen it, Steve Martin was very much a control freak while his wife, Mary Steenburgen, was better able to accept life as it came. They were in the kitchen getting ready to go to their daughter's play and having an argument about something else that didn't warrant an argument; Steve's character was just feeling out of control.

The grandmother came in and told them a story about a date she had had with her deceased husband at an amusement park before they were married. She told of people riding a roller coaster and feeling sick and afraid afterwards, choosing instead to ride a merry go round next. But to the grandmother, it was just a ride that did nothing other than go around in circles. But the roller coaster, now that was interesting and exciting. It did more than just go round and round. It went up and down, around corners. She said she had never experienced anything so frightening yet exhilerating at the same time. She said she preferred the roller coaster to the sedateness of the merry go round.

I think I do too.

I also think one of the best signs of maturity is the ability to let go when you can, with the understanding of life being out of our control sometimes. How boring would life be if we could control every single aspect of it?

Bernita said...

Oh fiddle, moorewords.
When a condition applies to everyone, no pathology applies.
What are you going to blame next? Gravity?
Our appreciation of "control" might reflect our first social groupings, where the strong leader meant group survival, but it's a question with a hundred answers - all of which might fit.

randyjean said...

We grasp at whatever little we can control because it makes us feel that much safer in an uncertain world.

Shadow said...

My mantra: "Control is an illusion." There is no such thing. Witness New Orleans, etc.

I agree that the illusion of control helps us cope with the randomness of life, from hurricanes to an irritable boss.

Laura said...

Our government is run by uncreative, plain-talking folks...they should hire some writers to think up the worst case scenarios to avoid disasters...and have those neat envelops with pull strings...

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