On the night my son was born, I was a couple hundred miles away, hurtling north on the New Jersey turnpike trying to get home in time. I had my mother next to me, but my wife was alone in Morristown, NJ, where we lived. She wasn't due for another three weeks, and I had been in my hometown of Columbia, Md, for a dental appointment.
Aren't there dentists in New Jersey? I'm sure there are, and probably even good ones. But for most of my life, since I was a very young child, I've had the same dentist: my father. He's actually a very good dentist, and besides our familial relationship, if I were any normal patient I'd probably want to keep him even after I moved away.
[Image credit: Rego Korosi]
He's very fast, a skill you have to experience in a dentist to truly appreciate. I once needed a couple fillings and a root canal. For most dentists this would have required three or four separate visits. For my father, it took less than 20 minutes, and the work was perfect, fast and nearly painless. He loaded me up on nitrous, Novocain and topical anesthetics, and it was actually a pleasant afternoon.
My son was due on February 18th or so, but was actually born on January 29. On January 28th, I had severe tooth pain. Severe. Tooth pain is worse than any other pain you can have, in my experience. I've broken my ankle, ruptured an eardrum while SCUBA diving, had internal surgeries, and experienced many of life's more physically painful surprises. I'd live through any of those again to avoid the tooth pain I was feeling. I drove three hours south to have my father take a look. Could be an irritation, could be more serious. Rather than try to be too aggressive and remove the tooth, he cleaned and inspected the area and sent me home. I was back in Jersey the same day.
The next day it felt even worse. Painkillers couldn't help. On a scale of 1-10, I rated this pain an 8. A compound fracture in my leg had only been a 5. My father x-rayed and found a cracked tooth. He pulled it, and the pain went away very quickly. Less than an hour after my appointment was over, I got the call from my wife. THE call. The one where she says this is not a test, this is not a drill. THIS is the real deal. I picked up my mother on the way back up north and hit the gas.
I didn't make it. When I passed exit 3 on the turnpike, my wife called from the delivery room to tell me my son had been born. I got to the hospital an hour and a half later, before the two of them had settled into the recovery room for a couple day's rest.
If I had used a different dentist, I might have been there. If I had found someone local in New Jersey, instead of driving 200 miles to Maryland, I might have been present. I could spend a month with a psychologist wondering why it was so important for me to use my father as my dentist, and why I have such trouble finding someone else to handle my teeth, but it wouldn't help. For whatever reason, real or imagined, I like seeing my father for dental work, and in my head he's the best dentist for me.
With that in mind, can you imagine how pissed I get every time my parents buy a cell phone without asking me? I review consumer electronics for a living! It's my job to help people make buying decisions. Yet, it has never occurred to my parents to call me for tech advice.
This comes up all the time, and it always bugs me. My mother bought a Kindle without consulting me. A fine purchase, but what she really should have bought was a Kindle DX. My father bought a 13-inch MacBook Pro recently. It's twice the machine he needs and three times the money he should have spent. An iPad would have made him even happier.
Both of my parents use cell phones that are 3 years old or older. I offered to help my father upgrade recently, and he refused. He didn't need anything newer or better than what he had. My mother, on the other hand, was intrigued. She doesn't use Facebook, not yet, but she is sending more text messages and e-mail. She talks to my sister, who recently moved to Amsterdam, over Skype. She's looking for something better than her LG VX8700 (the LG Shine flip phone). Something with a keyboard, but not too complicated.
I've seen a ton of phones recently that would fit the bill. Simple, quick messaging phones. Phones built for the eyes and hands of a soon-to-be retiree. She needs something easy, but also responsive. Maybe an iPhone would be easy enough, but the smartphone, app-store mentality might be overwhelming, and she doesn't need the extensibility nor the Web browsing power of a real smartphone platform.
She called and left me a message from her new LG Ally. I didn't know what to say. It's not a bad phone. It's actually solid. It runs Android. Android will be far too complicated for my mother. She might end up liking this phone, but there are probably a dozen other phones I would have recommended first. There are almost a half dozen on Verizon alone, and half of those are also LG phones. I'm not biased against Verizon, Android, or LG. I just think this was a bad choice.
This got me thinking about why my parents never come to me for tech advice. My mother is a nurse and my father is a dentist. When I have any medical question, I ask them first. They aren't my only source of advice, but they are usually my first source. Part of that is because they are my parents, and part is because, after more than three decades knowing them, I've come to trust their opinions. So why won't they come to me for advice in my area of expertise?
Clearly the problem is with me. Part of it is simple snobbery. They think I'm a technology snob. I don't talk tech with them at home, over thanksgiving dinner, so most of what they know about my tech knowledge comes from the products they see me using. This makes me seem like a snob. I have a collection of the best smartphones. I have an overpriced laptop and a matching iPad. I spent weeks researching my point-and-shoot camera.
I'm a snob, but I don't make impulsive decisions. I don't own a watch because I can't afford the ones I would really want. I can't afford a great television set. I can't invest in a new gaming platform, so I'm pretty lean on gaming consoles right now. I'm not a glutton. I don't buy everything. I'm also far from wealthy. But when I do buy something, I try to buy what's best for me.
My parents see that and think I'm only choosing the best products on the market. Sometimes, they take that information and run with it. "Oh, Philip owns a MacBook Pro, so that must be the best. We'll buy one too." Sometimes, they act inversely. "Oh, Philip talks about the Apple iPhone, but that seems too complicated. Last time he recommended an LG phone for me. I'll just buy a new phone from LG. That should be good enough."
Remember the days when you could say to yourself, "Well, my last car was a Toyota, and I was really happy with it. Whatever I buy next, it's going to be a Toyota"? Me neither, but my parents do, and they make lots of decisions that way.
Part of me wonders whether it would be tough for a parent taking advice from their kid. Would it be a blow to their egos? My sister is a trained chef. Sometimes they call her for cooking advice. Sometimes, they cook fancy things on their own, then call her to brag about their success.
Maybe it's more personal than that. Online, my reviews and recommendations are supposed to be more clinical. I'm writing for a broad audience. Maybe to my parents, I'm more unpleasant and grating. Maybe I'm condescending, or confusing? Everybody has baggage they've carried from their childhood home. Maybe I'm unpacking my old baggage when they call for tech advice, and I don't realize it. Whatever it is, I've clearly made the experience so unpleasant that they'd rather risk spending almost two grand on a computer they don't need than spend 20 minutes on the phone asking me for advice.
Most importantly, though, I think this speaks to the very emotional nature of decisions that we usually perceive as rational. I can't tell you why I stuck with my father as my dentist. I can give you plenty of rational reasons, and they would all be true. But I'd be deceiving myself if I didn't admit there are probably subconscious reasons at play, as well. In the end, I knew the risks and I made my decision to drive 3 hours south while my wife was 8 months pregnant. I played Russian roulette and spun the chamber twice, returning to Maryland two days in a row.
In the same way, having the best cell phone is not as important to my parents as keeping me out of that decision process. Or, I should say, what I value in a great cell phone is not worth more to them than what they value in the piece of mind they will have not asking me for cell phone advice. Honestly, that's okay with me. The important thing is that they are happy with their purchase, and that might be different from buying the best phone. Sometimes, it's not our purchases that make us happy, but our happiness that drives us to purchase. In the end, as long as we're happy, does it matter how we got there?