The Car and Uncle Jim

The family needs a new car. The old one is increasingly unreliable. It eats gas, and costs a ton in maintenance. What’s worse, if you drive it very far, it eventually overheats, stranding you for hours out in who knows where. Everyone agrees the car isn’t working anymore. It was made back in the 1930s, lacks modern safety systems, and doesn’t even resemble a contemporary automobile. They can’t keep driving it. But that’s where the agreement ends.

The obvious choice is just to get a modern car like everyone else drives. They know it will work. They can estimate its up-front and recurring costs. It will get the job done. The problem, you see, is Uncle Jim. Jim is prone to reaching rigid conclusions on any issue he feels is an important one but does not see the point in becoming very well informed before doing so. And Jim is adamantly opposed to the whole “modern car” idea. While he agrees the existing car has some problems, his solutions are not forthcoming. When pressed, he says vague things about letting the car be itself and waxes about the “freedom of the open road.” Jim seems serious, and this is all it takes to make some family members wary of doing anything rash.

To keep the family peace, Jill suggests buying a quirky car that has many modern features but retains the look and feel of the old car. The new one would have seat belts, would be unlikely to overheat, and would at least get somewhat better mileage while perhaps reducing major maintenance expenses. Retaining that old look and feel would come at a price, however, relative to doing the obvious thing and buying a boring car. Parts are harder to find, and so cost more, and there’s no guarantee that suppliers and mechanics will be plentiful enough to have meaningful choices (and thus inexpensive ones). It’s likely this quirky car will have … well some quirks. And so they can expect to be back in the shop a few times early on to fix unexpected problems and to tune things up. But at least it’s safer, and Grandma (who is the one who often needs to drive long distances) won’t be stranded anymore.

Jim is livid (despite the fact that he had suggested getting this very car a decade ago in an attempt to scuttle the purchase of different car he didn’t like). Instead of pointing out some very real concerns and suggesting alternatives, Jim argues that buying this car would be an evil act — he doesn’t explain the moral valence of a decision about buying a car — and is really a clever attempt by Jill to wrest control of the family. “Why are you attacking our beloved car? The one that brought the children home from the hospital. The one that took all of us to our proms. I’ve never been stranded before, and people can decide for themselves if they want to risk it. This new car is just a ruse for you to drive us all around and only go where you want us to go.” When asked directly what he would do instead, Jim says, “Not THIS! How about some common-sense steps to improve our car-driving experience. Thats what I’d do.”

With no reasonable alternatives and laboring under a perception that the family’s narrow support for getting a new car at all would evaporate if the choice were made to try to get a more ordinary car, the family buys the quirky car.

Predictably, the car isn’t perfect. When the tail-light malfunctioned, Jim pronounced the whole new car idea flawed from inception, despite the fact that the old car had no tail-lights at all. Jim tries again and again to convince the family to take it back and retrieve the old car from the junkyard. All the while the family is in the middle of several other important crises, and it is perfectly obvious that whatever its flaws, the new car is no worse than the old one. When Aunt Cindy announced she was expecting her third child, people asked how she was doing, if she’d thought of a name, and when she was due. Jim looked at her and said, “If we don’t take that car back, we’re all going to die.” To a few of the crazier relatives, he suggested that the pregnancy was a smoke-screen to distract attention from the car crisis.

Every Sunday morning — no one knows why — Jim is still invited to deliver the dinner blessing, and every time he says the same crazy things. But boy is he entertaining.