Monthly Archives: December 2009

Will Everyone Please Stop Being So Nice?

After last week’s post about my painting ordeal, I got a few messages from incredulous readers asking how we could have started building a house in May and not be finished in December.   Especially when the builder said it would take 8 weeks. 

I’ve been asking the same question.

The answer is bizarre, but true:  Everyone is just too nice to get the job done.

No one wants to make waves or hurt feelings.  So things just sort of end up in gridlock where nothing gets done except for lots of cell phone calls and text messages.

I think a lot of it has to do with the schooling process.  Kids today are constantly being told to share and to be nice.  Everyone deserves a chance and everyone deserves to be heard.  And everyone deserves recognition and to get their own way.  Although there are evil things in the world like bullies and peanuts, most of the time everything is nice.  Confrontation is a no-no.

The result is a bunch of people who have not been trained for it, being forced to come to terms with reality.  In the real world, things don’t go according to plan.  Conflicts occur.  But they are not prepared to deal with it. 

Solution?  Denial.

The coping strategy I observed most frequently during the building process was an attempt to reconstruct reality from, well, reality, into something approximating what we want to have happen.

That is all well and good and noble, but unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way.  These attitudes about niceness and conflict resolution do not create harmony. They create hypertension.  Consider the following exchange.

Me:  So.  When will the plastering be finished?  We can’t paint until the plastering is finished and the painters must start on Wednesday.

Builder:  Well, then I guess the plastering will be finished on Tuesday.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  But then on Wednesday morning I get a call telling me that the plastering isn’t finished.  Not only is it not finished. it is days from being finished.

So I call the builder to attempt to understand this gulf between expectation and reality.

Me:  (use your imagination).

Builder:  You mean they’re not done?  I told them to be done. 

It does no good to remonstrate.  You can’t hate him.  Strangle?  Maybe, but he’s just  too nice.  I had given him a non-negotiable timetable.  He didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me that there was no way in hell the plastering would be finished when I wanted it to be.  It was easier to present me with a fait accompli and then commiserate about those lazy plasterers.

The same behaviour was repeated throughout the project, but it has gotten especially complex and almost ritualistic near the end.  Like all people who are paying for a building project, I now have a list of things which aren’t done, but which, in my opinion need to be done.

The builder doesn’t want to do them.  That’s partly why they weren’t done in the first place.  Normally you wouldn’t think that would be acceptable behaviour.  But, once again, it is what is being taught in schools.  My nephews once brought home a letter from the principal to all parents saying, in essence, that (1) kids don’t like doing homework, (2) parents don’t like cajoling kids to do the homework and (3) teachers don’t like being told by parents that the whole concept of homework is stressing everyone out.  So, the principal, like a modern day Solomon, had decided that henceforth there would be no homework. 

Problem solved.

This same sort of logic is followed by the builder with respect to finishing up loose ends.  He doesn’t want to do those things, he doesn’t want to hear me nag him about doing them.  Therefore, they don’t need to be done.

I’m serious.  Either I can do them myself or just live with them.  Consider the following exchange:

Me:  The side door is warped.  You can see daylight at the bottom when it’s closed and it doesn’t fit flush in the frame.

Builder:  Can you close and lock it?

Me:  Yes, but . . .

Builder:  So what’s the problem?

My niece, who teaches at a pre-school, says that one of the biggest hassles comes at the end of the day when it’s time to put away the toys.  The challenge, she says, is that there are always a few toys left lying around that no one will take responsibility for.  “Montana played with it last, she should put it away,” or “It’s broken.  We shouldn’t have to put it away,” or “I don’t know where it goes.”

This behaviour is rife during the building wrap up phase:

Me:  You didn’t put the runners on the sliding doors.

Builder:  I couldn’t because the painter was going to have to take the doors off.  Plus you were having carpeting installed.

Me:  Yes, I know.  But the doors are now painted and rehung and the carpeting is in.  So could you put the runners in?

Builder:  No.  The painter should do it.

Me:  But the last time he was here, the carpeting wasn’t in.  And he’s long gone.

Builder:  Then the carpet guy should do it.  And anyway, I’m long gone, too.

Me:  But he says he doesn’t know how.

Builder:  I’ve never heard of a carpet guy who doesn’t put runners in.

All of this is said with the most congenial I-really-want-to-help-you-but-you-are-being-unreasonable-and-asking-the-impossible-why-don’t-we-go-get-a-coffee-and-talk-about-my-upcoming-fishing-trip tone of voice. 

I ask you, how do you contend with that? 

Call me a wimp, but my strategy is to just give up and do it myself. 

As I thought about it I said, Ha ha, good thing this kind of behaviour only applies to builders.  Can you imagine if doctors had the same attitude?

But then I realized that pretty much every profession, other than lawyers, terrorists and doctors operates this way.

I don’t know about your broker, but mine hasn’t told me bad news in a long time.  (He lets the statements do the talking).  “It’s just a temporary adjustment.” 

Airline pilots have it down to a science.  You know you’re in trouble when you hear, “Well, folks, as soon as we have maintenance take a look at a little problem, we’ll be underway in just a couple of minutes.” 

And my dentist:  “This is such a small cavity I normally wouldn’t use novocaine at all.  But just to be on the safe side I’ll give you two shots.”

Please, no more Mr. Nice Guy.  I’m a big boy, I can take the truth.

Michelangelo Had It Easy

This week’s post is a little late and I have been gratified that some people have actually noticed and dropped me a line wondering what I was up to.

I have a good excuse—we’ve been having a sort of Rimbaud period over the past week or so. 

Earlier this year, we decided to build a small house on the farm we are restoring.  The property had been a dairy farm for decades and most of the vegetation had been cleared to make pastures for cows to graze in.  We are getting rid of the cows and replanting the pastures with native trees. 

The farm is about an hour away and has electricity but no running water or anything remotely resembling shelter.   That means that toilet facilities are limited, even though the cows have been merrily using most of the property for that very purpose for years. 

All of that created practical limits on what we could accomplish in a day and we decided that a small house would greatly improve our productivity.  The operative word is small.  Nothing fancy.  The garage is bigger than the house.  We were told it would take eight weeks.  Two months.

So when I tell you that we started the process in May, you would naturally think that we have been weekending in the country for the past few months. 

Not so. 

It’s a long story, but we drifted into December, the house was still a shell and we started to panic.  Vendors (e.g., painters, flooring people, concrete driveway layers) were telling us that if they didn’t do whatever it was we wanted them to do by X date, it would have to wait until January because things were going to shut down for the Christmas holiday.  The builder kept saying “No problem.”

But nothing continued to happen. 

Eventually, we couldn’t find a painter who would agree to do the work before January 2010.  So my wife and I decided to do it ourselves.  And that’s where I’ve been.  Painting.  Plus we’ve had three different sets of overseas guests, three family members travelling overseas, my birthday and getting ready for Christmas to work into the full time painting schedule.  We had to be finished before the floor guys came and we had one week.

We approached the decision to do the painting more lightly than reasonable people should have.  I’ve done lots of painting in the past.  I figured, It’s a brand new house.  How hard can it be?

To paraphrase Geena Davis:  It’s hard.  It’s very hard.   It is no coincidence that the first four letters of paint are pain!

It is one thing to repaint a bedroom.  It is quite another to paint a new house.  You can’t just walk in and paint.  You have to fill in nail holes and gaps.  You have to sand inequalities in the plaster.  You have to put on undercoat.  And then two or three coats of final paint.

And let me tell you.  Very small bedrooms have very small closets which take longer to paint than the bedroom.  In fact, I think that one of the closets was actually a Tardis because of the bizarre adventures I seemed to have in there.  The laws of space and time (and geometry) didn’t seem to apply.  Don’t get me started on bathrooms.

Although it was the Christmas season, I put my iPod on repeat and listened to Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions. 

Crucifixion music just seemed appropriate in the circumstances. 

It’s really hard to decide what is the worst thing about painting.  Especially when you are doing it to a deadline. 

First of all, there are no shortcuts.  You have to do things in a certain order and can’t jump ahead, no matter how hideously painful, boring or frustrating a task is.  Most are all three.

And everything takes longer than you think it should.  Take nail hole filling.  How hard can that be?  You’ve got a little hole and all you have to do it stick some putty into it and smooth it off. 

I discovered that there are virtually an infinite number of things that can happen when you are up on a ladder and trying to introduce putty into a little hole.  The putty comes premixed in a little box.  It looks like cream cheese.  You might want to remember that for next April Fool’s Day.

Anyway, the first challenge is to get some on the putty knife.  Invariably you get too much so you spend several minutes playing around, with no hands on the ladder, to get just a little dab.  This has the effect of knocking little balls of unused plaster back into the box.  They solidify and become totally useless and prevent you from accessing the real putty below.

Once you get a nice sized dab, probably 50% of the time, it will fall to the floor as you extend your arm toward the hole.

If, by some chance, you make contact with the wood surface, odds are you’ve missed the hole.  So then you sort of smear the putty around, trying to get it into the hole.  The amazing thing is that sometimes it goes in and fills the hole nicely and sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s sort of a random outcome, like rolling dice or swatting flies.  I have no idea why.  Sometimes you manage to fill a hole and it looks perfect but you can’t resist one more swipe with the putty knife and when you look again, the hole is empty. 

Clearly, normal laws of physics do not apply.

Then you have to deal with the residual putty left on the wood.  If you scrape it off you risk unfilling the hole.  So you decide that it will be better to sand it off later.  But that requires a second pass around the room on a ladder.  And guess what?  That so-thin-it’s-translucent film of putty on the wood virtually requires sandblasting to remove.  And you can’t do it.  And it will show up no matter how many coats of paint you but on it.  But I digress.   And we’ve only filled one hole.

Then there is squirting gap filler into bigger holes between boards and walls and places like that.  Gap filler comes in a tube and you are supposed to use a caulking gun to extrude it into holes.  I’ve seen those DIY guys do it on TV and they sure make it look easy.  But it’s not.  The stuff has a mind of its own.  When you want it to come out of the tube it won’t, no matter how hard you pump the trigger of the caulking gun.  But the minute you manage to fill a hole and take your finger off the trigger, the thing is spewing gap filler all over the place like Old Faithful.

And I don’t care what they say.  It doesn’t stick to wood or plaster.  It only sticks to human flesh.

Then you have to mask things you don’t want to paint.  Again, the tape is designed to stick to everything but the stuff you want to mask.  It tears when you don’t want it to and stubbornly refuses to tear when you want it to. 

Oh, and I almost forgot.  You have to take the doors off.  And you have to take the knobs and hinges off to paint the doors.  And worse, you have to put them back so they work after you’ve painted them.  It’s harder than you can ever imagine.

Only then can you start painting, and your sense that you are on top of the situation and that it is all downhill from here is tempered when you realize that you have to do what you are about to do at least three more times.

But it wasn’t all pain and boredom.  I learned some things as well.  I learned that paint stings when it gets in your eye.  And it tastes very bad. 

I guess it wasn’t all bad.  No, wait.  Yes it was.  For one thing, everything hurt.  I had blisters on my hands and tennis elbow from nonstop use of a paint roller.  I had sore legs from clinging to the ladder for dear life.  My back and neck decided to complain about everything I was doing to them.  Michelangelo had it easy.  He got to lay down while he painted the Sistine Chapel.

But Tom, you may be saying, that only accounts for one week and you’ve been out of sight for longer. 

True, that.

Because even though we made the flooring deadline, we are still painting the garage (and it’s bigger than the house).  Plus there has been other excitement.  Today is Christmas Eve and they just turned on the water and electricity and gas yesterday.  But the kitchen appliances, which were supposed to be here two days ago have gone walkabout and are wandering around the Auckland warehouse system like a refugee laden ship that no one will claim, the hot water heater won’t work, there seems to be water leaking from somewhere and the garage door won’t close all the way.

In retrospect, painting seems so uncomplicated.


Merry Christmas!

Festive Cognitive Dissonance

Today I thought I was experiencing an interesting episode of cognitive dissonance.   That term gets thrown about quite a bit, so I figured I’d check it in the dictionary to make sure I had it right. 

Sure enough, my dictionary defines cognitive dissonance as psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.

That pretty much describes it, except technically, I didn’t hold the incongruous attitudes—I was just reading about them. 

Incongruous Idea Number One was encountered in an article about how businesses, because of the recession, were being forced to cut back on Christmas parties. 

A lot of my friends say that they aren’t too bothered by that.  They would rather their employer just give them the money that they would have spent on a Christmas party.  Their attitude is “I see my co-workers day in and day out.  No offense, but I’d rather celebrate Christmas with people I associate with by choice.”

Nevertheless, the office Christmas party is pretty much a social institution and apparently during the boom time, extravagant parties became de rigeur.

But times have changed.  John Thain, who used to be the CEO of Merrill Lynch was quoted in the article as saying “Everyone is pretty sensitized to the fact that excessive consumption or excessive anything is not acceptable.”

He should know.  In his last year at Merrill Lynch he earned $84 million.  That’s $40,385 per hour if he worked a normal work week (but a more reasonable $9500 per hour–if he worked 24 hours a day all year).  He also made headlines because he had a $1400 wastebasket in his office. 

A lot of firms are showing this new sensitivity to excessive consumption. 

Goldman Sachs, still feeling bad about wanting to pay $16 billion in bonuses after getting a government bailout, announced with some fanfare that they have cancelled their Christmas party for the second year in a row. 

So the picture looks pretty bleak and some companies are worried about the devastating effect on morale that Christmas party cancellation will have. 

One wonders about the morale of the people who won’t be going to a company Christmas party because they don’t have a job.


 Then I happened upon Incongruous Idea Number Two.  It took the form of an article on out of control spending on high school balls and proms.  The article called the prom support business a ‘recession proof industry.’ 

The article didn’t say if companies in that industry are still having Christmas parties, but it did say that parents are spending large on end of school parties, proms and balls.  You would think that modern parents would have enough to worry about already, but now they have to make the cruel decision—fork out a lot of money or let your kid be consigned to the world of the irredeemably uncool.

This is current news in the southern hemisphere, where it is the end of the school year and where the recession is as persistent as in the north.  But the market for high school formal attire alone grew by nine percent, and that is just in Sydney.

A survey of kids revealed that girls spend on average $1300 and boys spent $840 on prom prep and bling.  Clearly there is an untapped market for accessories for the boys.

Where is the money going?  In addition to fancy gowns, other must have items on the shopping list include makeovers, artificial tans, a photographer and a limo.  And these dos aren’t held in the school gym.  Fancy downtown hotels are doing proms in the ballrooms where they have wedding receptions.  In fact because more people graduate from high school than get married, the hospitality industry is thinking that the prom business will be bigger than their wedding business.

Think about that for a minute.

The article continued by saying that for 77% of the kids surveyed, prom planning was the number one thing on their mind when they started their last year of high school.  So much for having your whole life ahead of you.

And here is where it gets really interesting and where the cognitive dissonance with Incongruous Idea Number One comes in.  The article talks about a book called Prom Night:  Youth, Schools and Popular Culture by Amy Best.  The book states that the growth of the prom industry was the result of “the rising purchasing power of youth culture.”

A guy who is cashing in by starting a prom franchise business agrees.  “. . . teenagers of today have more expendable cash than previous generations . . . and far more sophisticated tastes.”


From a psychological perspective, I may have crossed over from cognitive dissonance to post-traumatic stress disorder after trying to process that statement.  One has to ask where this expendable cash is coming from.  Unless McDonalds is paying more than we think, it’s got to be coming from the parents whose companies are cancelling Christmas parties. 

Am I the only one who sees a problem here?

And that’s before we even begin to address the question of “far more sophisticated tastes.”

News That’s Hard To Swallow

Quick. What was the biggest news story of last week?

I don’t know about where you are, but down here there was some background noise on Afghanistan and the economy and something called Copenhagen. But mostly we got the lowdown on Tiger Woods’s driving (and juggling) skills. Also, Susan Boyle’s album set an all time sales record and a media firestorm was unleashed when a local commentator opined that she looked “retarded.”

But there was another story that emerged and had unusual persistence. You know how sometimes you hear or read something and for the next few days, every time you turn around, there it is? That happened to me this week in the form of the BIG news that children are still swallowing the pull tabs from aluminium cans, in spite of the cans having been redesigned to solve this very problem.


It was on the radio. On TV. It was on the after the news program that talks about burning issues of the day.

So I decided that someone was trying to tell me something and I did some research on the matter.

You may recall that in the really old days, you needed a can opener to open cans. Because so many fishing trips were ruined because fishermen forgot their openers and couldn’t open their beer cans, manufacturers invented the pull tab.

Saving the thirsty fishermen had several unintended consequences.

Although it hurt the can opener business, it spawned untold community drives to collect pull tabs to pay for medical care for sick children.

It doubled the amount (but not volume) of litter as both the tabs and the cans were thrown out.

And most importantly, it created a health hazard in the form of ingested tabs. Yum yum! I remember seeing cool people open a can and then dispose of the tab by dropping it into the can. People tended to forget what they’d done, hence ingestion.

In order to combat the litter and ingestion problems, can manufacturers invented the undetachable tab with which we are all familiar.

Problem solved.

Apparently not, because according to the news story, between 1993 and now, 19 kids in the Cincinnati area have ingested can tabs. That’s 1.3 per year, give or take. There were no deaths and “few” of the cases required surgery. Clearly this is news of global import.

Each of the articles and reports I saw and heard included the suggestion that perhaps it was time for can manufacturers to revisit the whole can tab issue to eliminate this grave danger to our youth.

Well, who am I to say whether that’s a good idea or not. But I thought I’d do a little math so I could determine how passionate I should be about the whole issue.

The math was interesting and fun because first I had to extrapolate the Cincinnati experience and find out how many aluminium cans are used a year and all that. I had to use a spreadsheet because I didn’t have a calculator that calculated to the number of decimal places I needed.

The bottom line is that the odds of ingesting a can tab are 723,472,022.12 to 1. Call it 700 million to one. And you don’t even die. And probably don’t need surgery.

Before we run out and redesign the can (and we all know who will pay for that), it’s not a bad idea to see how this risk compares to other stuff we have to worry about. It turns out that you have a 6,600 to 1 chance of hurting yourself while shaving and a 2,000 to 1 chance of fatally slipping in the bath or shower. Even the odds of getting struck by lightning are a whopping 576,000 to 1 compared to can tab danger.

Not only that, there is a 1 in 5,000 chance that an asteroid will have a catastrophic collision with the Earth in the next 100 years. And you have a 1 in 370,000 chance of choking on food and a 1 in 700,000 chance of a fatal dog bite.

And get this. You’ve got an 18,000 in 1 chance of getting murdered and a 20 to 1 chance of being a crime victim. I don’t know about you but I’m getting less worried about can tabs by the minute.

The headline that we got:

“Aluminium Can Tabs Still Pose Health Risks”

was designed to get our attention. And it did. It may even be true, but equally true would be a headline that read:

“People Are 39,000 Times More Dangerous Than a Beer Can.”

And maybe we should be focusing on fixing that problem first.