On being ... tricks of the trade

By Ingrid Sapona

As a kid, I was more inclined to spend time doing crafts than reading a book or playing sports. I don’t know if it’s because I liked working with my hands or not, but I also always liked learning about how things were made. So, I was more likely to watch shows like This Old House than the Brady Bunch.

This Old House made a lasting impression on me in a couple ways. First, I was amazed by the fact that there were specialized tools for all sorts of things. I mean, a miter box for cutting right angles – how clever is that! And then there’s the router. To this day, I think routers have to be one of the most fascinating tools. Hell, even the dictionary definition of router makes them sound cool: a machine with a revolving vertical spindle and cutter for milling out the surface of wood or metal (according to Merriam-Webster.com).

The other thing that left a big impression on me was the idea that every trade has its own tricks – those little extras the lay person simply doesn’t know to do, or doesn’t think would make a difference in the finished product. Tricks of the trade don’t necessarily make things easier. In fact, often they’re additional steps – things you can skip without causing any real problems. But, doing them always pays off because the finished product looks better and more professional.

Though I’ll never be converting an old farmhouse into a stylish inn (like the folks always seemed to be doing on This Old House), the show left me with an appreciation for the little tricks and techniques that elevate competent handiwork to the level of craftsmanship and gave me a thirst for learning about such tricks with regard to projects I undertake. For example, in high school I used to do a lot of needlepoint. I reached a level of skill that many admired and that I was pleased with, but I was always striving to make my work more professional looking.

One day I was showing a project I was working on to a woman who made a living selling her needlework. She commented on the fact that I used black to outline part of the design. She then suggested I try dark brown, explaining that black draws the eye in and therefore de-emphasizes the rest of the design. Dark brown, she said, offers the contrast necessary for the outline effect, but it doesn’t create a visual distraction. That afternoon I bought some dark brown wool and tried it. I was astounded by the difference. It was a simple trick, but one I’d never heard, or read, about and would never have come up with on my own.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any projects with my hands, but this spring I needed to repair some gashes on my boat’s hull that happened last fall during haul out. I was nervous about doing the work because the last time I did such work was during the first season I had the boat. Back then, not knowing anything about fiberglass, much less about the “gel coat” finish, I asked around and learned as much as I could about how to do the repair. I did an ok job, especially when viewed from a distance, but every spring when I’m washing and waxing the hull, my handiwork mocks me. And, given the location of the gashes, I worried that if I didn’t refine my gel coating technique, the boat might end up looking like something only a mother could love.

So, over the winter I took a fiberglass repair course. It was great because it demystified the processes and helped me get over my fear of the chemicals involved. The hands-on work was also useful because it helped me get a good feel for using the materials. Of course, I was well aware that practicing on a horizontal flat surface in a temperature-controlled setting (the classroom) was very different from working on a vertical curved surface (the side of a boat sitting in a cradle) outside in early March.

Because the course was only four weeks, we didn’t have time for more than the basics in terms of practicing finishing techniques, but the instructor was enthusiastic and eagerly shared his knowledge and experience. As we were working away, he shared many tricks of the trade. We didn’t have time to try most of them in the classroom, but he suggested we try them on our own boats.

One trick he mentioned was to polish the finished surface with a particular brass polish. When he suggested it, many who were familiar with the product were skeptical because they thought doing so might leave a yellowish tint. Though I was familiar with the polish he mentioned, I didn’t have any at home. But, when I was out buying all the stuff I’d need to do my boat repairs, I also picked up a can of the polish, figuring I may as well give his suggestion a try.

Well, you probably know where I’m going with this. I diligently followed all the steps we learned and I applied every trick he mentioned – including using the brass polish – and I’m thrilled to report that the gel coat work turned out terrific. Besides being proud of my workmanship, I’m grateful for having had a tremendously skilled instructor who graciously shared so many tricks of the trade.

I know some may think that my fascination with learning tricks of the trade is a manifestation of a somewhat unhealthy striving toward perfection. Or perhaps it’s a reflection of an abnormal fear of remaining a jack of all trades, master of none. Could be… or maybe it’s just an appreciation for detail and for a job well done.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... nickeled-and-dimed

By Ingrid Sapona

I use the same company for my phone, internet, and digital t.v. service I pay a flat fee and I save (if you can call paying about $150/month saving) because I get “bundling” discounts. When my March bill arrived I noticed it was a bit higher than normal. On closer examination, I saw that the internet service charge was $5 more than it had been. I phoned and, after numerous questions and being put on hold for quite awhile, the customer service rep said there was a billing error and somehow that month I didn’t get all the bundling discounts I should have. He told me they’d credit me $5 on my April bill but that I should pay the current bill in full.

When I got the April bill there was no $5 credit, so I phoned to complain. After 20+ minutes on the phone, the customer service rep once again assured me I’d be credited next month. After hanging up I was very irritated, in part because between last month and this month I spent at least an hour (time digging out previous bills and time on the phone to straighten it out) dealing with this $5 error.

Compounding my irritation was the thought that maybe I should have just paid the $5 and let it go because, clearly, my time’s worth more than $5. But, truth be told, I also knew that part of what was nagging at me was the thought that maybe my knee-jerk reaction to fight such overcharges comes from worrying I’m not as financially as secure as I’d like to be or, worse yet, that such disputes are a manifestation of being a penny pincher.

After calming down, I realized I’d be a happier person if I didn’t let things like this bother me, so I began thinking of techniques I might try to cultivate more of a sense of equanimity. One idea I came up with is to set a dollar amount below which I wouldn’t quibble. In other words, borrowing a concept from my accounting friends, I’d set a personal “materiality threshold” and I’d only spend time on issues involving amounts over that threshold. But what amount should I choose? I decided to ruminate on that question for a few days.

As it happens, the very next day I got a parking ticket. They’re doing repairs to my condominium’s garage and the management company arranged with the City for residents to park on the street overnight, so long as we displayed special permits. Despite the fact that I prominently displayed the permit on my dashboard, I got a $40 ticket! I was livid.

No sooner did I sit down to write a letter about the ticket than I thought of my materiality threshold question. Though I hadn’t yet settled on an amount, it took me less than three seconds to decide it certainly was something less than $40. Besides, I’m a fast typist and it wouldn’t take me long to write the condo management company telling them I expected them to deal with the ticket.

The following day’s mail brought yet another opportunity for me to either practice developing equanimity, or to narrow in on a personal materiality threshold. This opportunity came in the form of a $29 late fee applied to my April Chase Visa bill. In March, Chase had returned a $53 cheque I wrote on a U.S. dollar account I have with my Canadian bank. In the past, they’ve accepted payment from this account. I phoned Chase immediately to find out what the problem was.

It’s a long story but it has something to do with the fact that my Canadian bank recently issued me new cheques that apparently can no longer be cleared under the U.S.’s clearing system. The upshot of that 45+ minute conversation was that I had to get a U.S. money order to pay Chase. Getting the money order and mailing it with a letter explaining that the problem wasn’t my fault took two more hours.

Fast forward to the other day and my April bill with the $29 late fee. Naturally, I phoned Chase for an explanation. They said the fee was because the March payment was late. I couldn’t believe any late fee was charged, much less $29 on a $53 bill! I again explained it wasn’t my fault that they returned the cheque and I asked them to waive the fee because I’ve always paid in full and on time. After 55+ minutes on the phone, it was clear Chase wouldn’t budge. (I’ve already cut up the Chase card but I can’t afford to jeopardize my credit rating by simply ignoring the $29 fee, regardless of whether I think it’s fair or appropriate.) They suggested I ask my Canadian bank to reimburse me the $29 since it was their change to the cheques that caused the problem.

So, what to do? I’d already spent nearly an hour on the phone with Chase about this damned $29 (not to mention the time I spent on the phone with them in March). Do I take up the matter with my bank or do I bite the bullet and forget about it?

Well, I’m sorry to report that equanimity didn’t triumph, but I am getting closer to nailing down my materiality threshold. (Clearly it’s something under $29!) I took it up with my bank and, thankfully, it took less than an hour of my time and my bank reimbursed me the $29.

To be honest, I don’t know if setting a materiality threshold is the answer, but the way things are going lately, I worry that if I don’t, I may end up being nickeled-and-dimed to death.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona