Richard Saul Wurman Was Right

In which an important tenet of information theory is illustrated, the strange wisdom of Quentin Tarantino is honored and The Author thankfully avoids killing a general contractor

Years ago, long before Richard Saul Wurman redefined himself with TED, he was my favorite information theorist–or as he preferred to call himself, information architect. And one of the many Wurman-esque things that has stuck with me is his observation that “people only understand things in terms of what they already understand.” This has served me well in terms of all kinds of writing and, in truth, has probably helped me produce more successful work than I otherwise might have. So yes: Namaste, Richard Saul . . .

But now let’s jump-cut to a remodeling project gone wrong. Over the past couple of months, I’ve had my screened porch remodeled. It was one of the archetypical domino projects: What started out as a-small-repair-due-to-a-leaky-pipe expanded to why-not-replace-the-wall, which morphed into a-new-floor-would-be-nice that, in turn, became now-the-screens-will-look-tired-better-do-them-too. So yeah–big-time Project Creep at its dubious best. Bottom line, everything wound up being redone, thus making it the world’s most expensive repair of water damage.

Don’t worry–I’m not here to obsessively share every step of the job. Because that would be the moral equivalent of 15 old-school slide carousels containing holiday snaps of a place you have no interest in featuring people you don’t care about. Suffice it to say that everything went splendidly (if way too slowly) except for one thing: the bead board ceiling.

And I’ll even shorthand the bead board problem: 221 countersunk screws so badly filled that 95 percent of them were still clearly visible in the finished job. Here’s an even shorter description–Fucking Aesthetic Disaster (FAD). Given this, it’s also vital to know something pertinent about me: When it comes to badly executed projects by purported professionals of any sort, I make Steve Jobs look a go-along nice guy . . .

Jump-cut again to the general contractor and me standing on the “completed” porch. He had stopped by under the impression that I’d be settling up with him on the remaining 50 percent of the bill. He was, of course, delusional in ways I’d not seen since the heyday of blotter acid in San Francisco. So we were both standing there, mugs of coffee in our hands, surveying the project: floor, check; new wall, check; rebuilt bulkhead, check; new screening, check; new molding, check . . . But then sadly we ran out of the non-controversial, well-done portions of the porch. There was nowhere left to go except to slowly raise our collective gaze to the FAD that was my bead board ceiling.

There were many things the general contractor could have said at that point, each offering varying degrees of claimed ownership of the problem–even if only implicitly. However, he chose to probe the limits of my annoyance in an attempt to take the smallest possible responsibility. Thus taking a sip of coffee, he asked with an awkward cheerfulness, “Well, whatdya think?”

I, in turn, took a sip from my mug as I simultaneously searched for a diplomatic response and my Happy Place. And as usual, I failed miserably at finding either. “Well, here’s what I think–it’s the fucking ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. It looks like it was installed by blind, rabid, meth-addled chimpanzees with spit, a blunt army knife and a crowbar in-between wanking jags. That’s what I fucking think.” I gave him a dangerous, tight-lipped smile and then pulled on my coffee again. Contemplate those limits, mofo. After which I said nothing, having long ago worked out that it’s always instructive to let the other person fill the engineered silence.

The general contractor simply stared. My liver/fava beans/chianti moment had instantly forced him to cast aside Plans A through F of charming his way out of this. A hat-in-hand offer of a five percent discount coupled with back-slap was now so not the way to go.

“Errr . . . uh, well . . . um, yeah, I take your point. And I want to make this right–I’m going send Fred back to make this right.” Fred was the original installer of the FAD.

“Why the hell would you do that?” Okay, I hadn’t seen that coming.

“Well he’s responsible for this and I’ll make him fix it for you.” I noted that the general contractor had suddenly made himself blameless because now it was All Fred’s Fault.

“No, you won’t be sending Fred back precisely because the Fucking Aesthetic Disaster you’re looking at is either Fred working at the bleeding edge of his incompetence or–worse–in a deeply comfortable groove of I-don’t give-a-shit. Sending me either the same moron or the same guy who can’t be bothered is not the way you’ll make this right. Are we clear?”

This was not going well for the general contractor because a maniac was suddenly standing between him and a four-figure settling-up. “Well, what do you want me to do, then?”

Remembering Richard Saul Wurman’s tenet, I tried a new approach: “What I want from you is Winston Wolf . . . I want you to send me The Wolf.”

“Who the hell is Winston Wolf?”

“Ever see Pulp Fiction?

The general contractor was perplexed at that this seeming change of topic. “Well, yeah–sure . . .”

“Remember when Vincent–John Travolata–shoots the guy in the car? Who do they call?”

He pondered this for a moment. “Um, Harvey Keitel–they . . . they call Harvey Keitel.”

“And Keitel plays Winston . . .”

“. . . Wolf!” the general contractor said, momentarily pleased with himself.

“And what does Winston Wolf do for a living?”

“He’s the clean-up guy . . . for when things get out of hand.” The general contractor was now deeply into this; it was if a pub quiz had suddenly broken out in front of him.

“Exactly. And that’s what I want–Winston Wolf. Because from where I stand, Fred is John Travolta, and he’s just shot my bead board ceiling in the fucking face–the construction version of blood and guts is everywhere. So what I need is a professional clean-up guy.”

The general contractor began to look cagey as he tried his best to play dumb. “How do you know I have somebody like that?”

“I know it because you subcontract all the time, and people tend to be morons and so it follows that a percentage of the guys who do work for you absolutely shoot their jobs in the faces. So yeah, you have a really good clean-up guy somewhere, and I want him here. Send me The Wolf.”

Like a beaten man laying all his cards on the table, the general contractor said, without even pretending to think, “Yeah, okay–I’ll send Phil out next week. He can’t come sooner, because . . . well . . . he’s busy.”

“Cleaning up after someone else, I’m guessing.” At this, the general contractor averted his eyes . . .

Jump-cut one more time to today, as I write this waiting for Phil The Wolf to show up and make right my bead board ceiling. I imagine that just like Harvey Keitel, he’ll come with trash bags and clear me from the area with a curt professionalism. After all, there’s metaphoric blood and brains to attend to and damage to  seamlessly repair–and all this will require Phil’s undivided, specialist focus.

If there’s any kind of silver lining to this sad tale of power exchange and Wurman-eque explanation via classic film, it’s this: The chance, however slight, that Phil will arrive in a 1992 Acura NSX, wearing Harvey Keitel’s tuxedo.

I’ll let you know.