An Alien Life-Form Buys A Used Car
I’ve spent most of my life feeling as though, for a joke, I was deposited here on Earth as an infant and then thanks to someone’s forgetfulness, was never subsequently rescued.
As a small child I watched my parents each smoking their regular eighty cigarettes a day and imbibing a variety of alcoholic drinks in a desperate but perpetually unsuccessful attempt to numb their obvious misery. Why, I wondered, don’t they instead address whatever is making them so unhappy? Their supposed friends were equally discontent and equally devoted to self-medicating themselves into a perpetual semi-stupor. It seemed to me that adults had been short-changed in the thinking department.
Unfortunately, while adults seemed clueless and self-destructive, my playmates were simply proto-adults with all the consciousness of a sand dune. While, at age four, I was learning to read and write and discover the curiosities of rudimentary arithmetic, they were pushing and shoving and screaming and pinching each other with relentless determination to avoid anything that might be mistaken for thinking. Of course I too enjoyed running around and scrambling up and down the climbing-frame; with my red tricycle I went on unsanctioned trips outside the wire fences of the expatriate compound within which we lived our protected and pampered Western lives. But I was always curious about how things worked and even more curious about why people do all the bizarre things they do despite most of these things being unambiguously self-harming.
They say some children grow up hoping desperately that they were really adopted and that their nominal parents in fact share with them little in the way of DNA. I grew up trying to understand how I could possibly be related not just to my parents but to any of my fellow bipeds. I wasn’t an obviously studious child; much of my time was spent doing things all children used to do before life consisted entirely of being passively slumped over a shiny flickering screen. But I was always thinking, and often trying to puzzle out why things were so totally backward in the world of human behavior.
This tendency was compounded by the fact we moved frequently, so my childhood was scattered across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. As an adult I additionally took myself to Australia, India, Russia, Ukraine, and all across North America. Wherever I went, I saw how arbitrary people’s beliefs were. As beliefs shape a significant portion of our actions, this means that most people spend most of their time doing things merely because those are the things that other people in that location happen to be doing — for precisely the same reason.
For me, much of life has felt like what I imagine things must feel like to an abnormally tall person. Nothing fits properly. I have to curl up my metaphorical legs in order to fit on the dimensions of a mattress made for someone of a very different physiognomy. But for the most part, over the years, I learned to behave so as to fit in as best as possible.
There are circumstances in which that feeling of being a total alien return to me unchecked. One such circumstance arises whenever I attempt to purchase an automobile, which I did earlier this week.
For the last thirty years I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to buy new vehicles of precisely the make, model, and specification that best meet my requirements. I’ve learned to march into a dealership armed with a printout of exactly what I want, and patiently reject each and every attempt to cross-sell, up-sell, and whatever-sell me until the salesperson has fully executed Salesperson Sub-Routine 107 and exhausted all their various pitches. At this point, I once again direct their attention to my printed statement of requirements, they acquiesce, and thereby likely make more commission than they would have done if I’d succumbed to their performed-on-autopilot blandishments.
This time, however, I was buying a used vehicle. Lacking the time to source what I needed from a private buyer, I looked at the online offerings presented by a wide variety of dealerships within a 20km radius of my present abode. I had three very simple criteria. Firstly, the vehicle must have an automatic transmission, because it’s been nearly twenty years since any case whatsoever could be made for taking one hand off the steering wheel in order to stir a stick frantically inside of a food mixer in an attempt to select an appropriate gear before rolling backward or drifting for too many dozens of meters or incurring some other penalty for sticking to ancient technology when something far better is available. I don’t want a steam-powered car, so why would I want one with a manual transmission?
Secondly, the vehicle must have adequate headlights. I am too old and too cantankerous to tolerate the absurd halogen glow-worms manufacturers still inexcusably use as the cheap option when far superior HID or LED lights are now available at nearly the same cost.
Finally, the vehicle must have relatively low miles. There’s no point in buying a vehicle for $X only to spend a significant fraction of $X additionally on repairs.
And that was it. I cared not at all about marque, style, color, seat cover options, or any of the other superficial things that apparently obsess a great many people who set out to acquire a new vehicle.
As Europe is still in denial about the benefits of automatic transmission, requiring this feature limited the number of vehicles available. The requirement for adequate headlights reduced the number further, as did the desire for relatively low mileage. In the end I found eight potential vehicles so I sent off email enquiries about each of them in which I stated the car I was interested in and asked very specific vehicle-pertinent questions, the answers to which would determine what I ended up buying.
I then received a variety of emails that failed to answer any of the questions I’d posed. These missives were, instead, devoted to telling me how wonderful the dealership was, what a wide selection of vehicles they had, and presenting to me a series of Fantastic Value! and Must See! cars that met none of my clearly-stated requirements.
Only one dealership actually answered my email with the information I sought. The others continued to bombard me with “personalized” offers and claims of magnificence. So I went to see the vehicle at the dealership that had actually responded meaningfully to my inquiry and, after a thorough inspection and a shakedown test drive, I bought the car. It wasn’t the sort of vehicle I’d normally buy but it met all three of my requirements. The manager of the small dealership, who was clearly used to all manner of prevarications and obscure requests, seemed a little incredulous but wisely didn’t try to run Salesperson Sub-Routine 107 on me so we concluded the purchase with me leaving a substantial deposit and him guaranteeing to have the vehicle fully ready for collection within a couple of days.
One of the other dealerships did eventually get back to me with an email that actually addressed the questions I’d asked, but as this was nearly a week after I’d made my purchase it was far too late to be useful. The other dealerships continued to send me pointless spam until I blocked all of the sending addresses in order to curtail the deluge.
I don’t know whether Salesperson Sub-Routine 107 works on regular non-alien life forms. I’d like to think it works frequently enough that its appearance denotes a reasonable response to occasional success. But part of me can’t help but consider the possibility that Salesperson Sub-Routine 107 rarely if ever works and is simply executed because that’s just what salespeople always do, regardless of the outcome. Just as my parents and their friends spent their entire lives executing Miserable Adult Sub-Routine 219 for no real benefit.
This is no idle question, because throughout my life I’ve watched people repeating behaviors endlessly without ever once getting back what they hoped for. Yet, instead of changing, they continued to do precisely the same thing, presumably with the desperate hope that somehow, perhaps by magic, the outcome will be different the next time around.
Evolutionary psychology offers an explanation, namely that for 98% of our evolutionary history it made sense to repeat simple patterns because the environmental challenges we faced were relatively simple and unchanging. Once a pattern that was just-about-good-enough had been established by the tribe, it was more energy efficient to simply repeat the pattern than to attempt to find something better that would not necessarily yield a significantly greater reward.
And so, as is generally the case, we’re prisoners of our mental hardwiring, doomed to replay our own versions of Salesperson Sub-Routine 107 regardless of how ineffectual they may be in our modern complex inter-connected world that is so utterly different from the world we’re evolved to cope with. Doubtless I have my own versions of Salesperson Sub-Routine 107 to which I am oblivious, because despite my feeling of being an alien creature I too am a member of our now mal-adapted bipedal group primate species and consequently remain trapped within its many constraints.
And yet, I can’t help but occasionally, when alone in the dark late at night, look out of the window into the starry sky and wonder if this will be the night when they finally come back to take me off to where I really should have been living all along…