14 August 2012

Why No Time? 1/2

Personal issues and a little window into my world....

To the anonymous who is praying for me and all others likewise engaged....
As always, thank-you.
This is just a personal note. Nothing profound, but an explanation regarding my lack of web activity.
We're fine, I'm just insanely busy. This summer has been especially bad in terms of 'after-hours' work. I've been dealing with the electric company which is a nightmare. In fact, that job I just cancelled. I did so because it has been a dreadful experience and it has reached the point of absurdity.
One day when I get to my 'Life in Babylon' series that will basically be a small book...I hope to share and elaborate on my observations and experiences regarding the Christian interacting with our economic and social system. I have much to say.

I also have several other clients who seem to be burning up my time with email....endless questions and modifications.
I get home at say 600....eat, spend time with kids...we're reading Exodus, and have just finished studying Alexander the 'Great', the same Alexander who is a Beast in Biblical categories. We're now moving on to Seleucids and Ptolemies. With the older kids I'm still working through Church History. We're up to era just past the so-called Glorious Revolution.
These things are critical to me. There's little point in pouring my time into writing if I neglect my children. The years with them are going by so fast. Only now do I realize how short our time is with them....
Then about 830 or 900 I sit down to work on drawings, email clients, pay bills, or deal with something else.
And the day is over before I know it. I get up in the morning and work on stuff. I'm making progress, but without larger time blocks...the progress is slow.
Being self-employed has a lot of detriments and benefits. It's very different than working somewhere and punching a clock. One thing is I do have some control over my schedule and at this point I have enough work that I'm actually trying to trim down my schedule. I've wasted many hours with two clients....one the electrical job and the other some remodeling. The one job has proved a horrible experience in dealing with the electric company and trying to set up an inspector.
As I said, I've dropped the job entirely. It's not worth my time.
Thus far I haven't made anything and I've wasted a bunch of effort. I sent the following letter to the client this morning.........
Unfortunately this project is not going to work out. I'm not sure what exactly is happening but Penelec in my book is a reprehensible company.
I could wax philosophical about the problems of public utilities in the hands of private monopolies, but suffice it to say on a practical note they are nothing less than a nightmare to deal with. It's so bad, it almost sparks a seed of conspiratorial suspicion on my part.
There are electrical contractors who have established 'contractor' accounts with Penelec and then there are the handful of people like me who do 'Service' work, are fully capable, and yet because our area is rural...don't encounter these projects but once a year or so. Thus it has been with me.
And I've had my share of troubles when it comes to installing new 'services'. Not just with the Penelec bureaucracy, but with no-show inspectors, which really puts you on the spot. My work is not the issue. I've never had even a hint of displeasure with any inspection electrical or otherwise.
It has been whispered in my ear on more than occasion that these events are not accidental, but a subtle form of protectionism on the part of a shadowy group we might call...the electrical establishment.
All kidding aside, I just about gave up on doing services a couple of years ago and thought this time...I would give it a go.
Alas, but I have plunged into yet another nightmare. After several hours of wasted time on phones, trying to navigate the awful joke they call 'customer service'... I have been defeated.
For days I have called the W--- Line Office, left numerous messages and couldn't get anyone to answer my call. The voice mail identification was ambiguous and I began to wonder if even had the correct number. Suppressing the imprecations wishing to pour from my lips, I called the Penelec 800 number once more, endured a long spell of transfers, 15-20 minute hold times and finally....in frustration when I got a person on the line I said....
'Cancel the accursed thing!'
Of course then I had to try and get the $110 back. I felt like Kafka in a dark alley dealing with dark minions.
If I engaged in such practices I would be rightly called a thief...but they, with large placarded buildings, painted trucks, and uniforms are granted a social legitimacy someone like me can only dream of.
I didn't exactly get it back, but I was able to get it transferred to my residential Penelec account which I always very deliberately pay late...because in truth I loathe them and the political economic system they represent.
Of course about two hours later...the Line Office calls and leaves a message:
"Yeah, this Andrew with the Penelec Line Office. I'm returning your call, but I see the order has been cancelled, so I'm not sure how I can help you. Give me a call back if you have any questions..."
Indeed. I've only been calling him since Wednesday, leaving several imploring messages....pardon my scepticism.
Anyway.... this afternoon I mailed a cheque for $--- to you and also enclosed your key. I wanted to get that to you....right away. I have your ----- address....it was on the cheque you gave me.
After offering to you my profoundest apologies I can only suggest that you contact a proper 'electrician' to do the work. There are a few guys around who do a lot of 'Services' and can perhaps help you out.
One option, which Penelec has introduced to cut costs allows for the electrician to do the 'disconnect' himself. Of course this is very dangerous and entails purchasing 'lineman' equipment (flash vest, gloves, non-conducting fiberglass ladder etc...) Thus far I have had no interest in expanding my 'services' into that realm. I'm sure it saves Penelec a lot of labour money and time, but I'm not inclined to work with live wires and I have a feeling my wife and my insurance company would not be overly exuberant either. And I doubt Penelec will chip in when I get zapped....nor are they likely to help out when I suffer stroke from trying to deal with their customer service (Orwell would be proud) agents.
With regard to employing other local contractors...I would only caution....check their insurance status. I'm licensed by the state, which in Pennsylvania basically means you carry liability insurance (in case I burn your house down, or you're injured on my worksite) and being licensed provides homeowners a venue or forum to lodge complaints. I'm happy to say I have no insurance claims and no complaints.
There are many unlicensed men operating in our area. That doesn't mean that they're 'no good'...but it likely means they're not carrying any insurance. Something to consider.
Caveat Emptor. But of course we're not allowed to practice it when a monopoly like Penelec runs the show.
I hope you can find someone who can take care of this for you. I talked with a couple of contractors I know and they too have basically given up on the electrical service end of things....too much of a headache, or they (like me) are unwilling to deal with the line coming in from the pole....and yet feel funny about charging the homeowner for the disconnect fee.
So....if you find one of these other men, you might be spared the disconnect fee....but, they will probably charge a bit more than I do for labour. In the end, the price should be about the same.
Again, my apologies and truly, I hope you fare well.

And the other client has proved one of those rare cases where it's just impossible to deal with them. They want fixed prices and an exact plan but they keep changing everything. This about the sixth time I've had to go back and revisit my lists and plan, adjust amounts and re-compute. That in itself isn't offensive, but then trying to schedule this project has proved nothing shy of ridiculous. The want firm dates. I blame this on the 'advice' given by gay men on the Home and Garden channel and all those 'fix your home' shows. They tell you how to deal with contractors. I haven't seen many of these shows but the handful I have seen I've been reduced to tears of laughter watching the way they just smoothly make everything happen and often make it appear to occur at about 20x the real-life speed.
So why can't I commit to a date and please this customer?
The reality is I'm working on another job. I'm 80% done and suddenly the property owner decides he doesn't like the way something looks. Not because of my work, but because he envisioned it in a different way. So we change the game plan and I tear into something else...and find rotten wood or a water line we hadn't expected. So now there's more work. This is fine, in fact financially, it's good. BUT, it just added a week to the project which now means I can't get to the other job when I said I would.
I can't exactly tell the present homeowner or in this case a property owner with rental properties......oh, I have to leave for a week or two and then I'll be back. Sorry about everything being torn apart.
This is why contractors rarely want to commit to dates. It's just about impossible. All I can usually tell someone is that...you're next in line and I'm guessing if everything goes well...a week, or two, or whatever it may be. And....I'll call you as soon as I can to let you know I'm getting close and we can compare schedules.
At this time I've invested many hours with these folks, visiting their home multiple times, spending time with them on the phone...which usually involves repeating for the 8th time everything we've already gone over.
I understand on one level. People have been burned and ripped off and a lot of people have a hard time trusting people.
But this project involves maybe 5 days of work. The money will be okay but so far the headache is driving me to the point of saying....forget it. It's just not worth it.
It probably doesn't help that these folks are good Evangelicals. It may be a surprise to some but often Christians are about the last people I want to work for. It can be pleasant and sweet or in some cases an awful experience of me gritting my teeth, keeping my mouth shut and trying to get out of there.
It didn't help when the guy sent me the following email.......
Prayer needed

We are asking everyone to say a prayer for "Darkhorse" 3rd Battalion 5th Marines and their families. They are fighting it out in Afghanistan & they have lost 12 marines in 4 days.

IT WOULD BE NICE TO SEE the message spread if more people could pass it on Nothing has been in the media about these guys because no one seems to care.

They are: Justin Allen, 23; Brett Linley, 29; Matthew Weikert, 29; Justus Bartett, 27; Dave Santos, 21; Chase Stanley, 21; Jesse Reed, 26; Matthew Johnson, 21; Zachary Fisher, 24; Brandon King, 23; Christopher Goeke, 23; Sheldon Tate, 27. All are Marines that gave their lives for YOU this week.

Please Honor THEM by forwarding this. I just did.

Since I really don't want to work for these people but don't know how to politely extract myself I wasn't terribly worried about offending him.
I'm also very tired of receiving these types of emails from people. I've reached a point where I refuse to just sit by and keep silent.
So I responded....
Oops I think you may have included me on the wrong list....

Anyway, I did want to email you. I'm still progressing. Right now it's definitely looking like about another 2-3 weeks. I just can't pin it down yet. It keeps changing. I'll keep you posted as I get nearer to the end-date...and then we can figure out if that's going to conflict with your plans.

When are the floors being done? We can do the ceilings and painting after, but it would be nice to take care of it ahead of time.

Let me know.


He then replied......
We are really counting on you being done by the end of Aug.

I sent that email to all my contacts as a reminder that young men are still giving their all for us.

To which I responded......
The end of August will be a tough deadline. I can possibly start by then...but finish....I don't think that's likely.

Yeah as far as the group email....I guess as a Christian who forms his view of the world from Scripture, I can't agree with some of the assumptions in the email. Thanks for sharing though. My prayers would be quite a bit different.

As far as the media....I'm not sure what news you digest. It's received quite a bit of news.

Well, I don't know what to do about the August end-date. I'll see what I can work out over the next week or so. That would be the cut off for getting to your place and having time to mud and paint everything.

Talk to you soon,

After this we went round and round a bit about the timing of the job. We pulled up a previous email where I had suggested August as a possibility but had also said depending on what happened with a particular project...it could be October.
He didn't want to pursue the US military issue any further. I was kind of hoping he would.


Jim C. said...

Hey John,

I actually looked into some of those names listed in that chain e-mail sent to you and let's just say that one would think in their patriotic zeal these people would get their facts straight. Of all the men listed only two (Bartelt and Santos) were Marines and they both died under different circumstances in different units. The rest were US Army soldiers.

It looks like I'm not the only one to see a discrepancy. Check this out:



Protoprotestant said...

I never even thought to check that out.

THAT is really quite interesting isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Dear Brother, my husband and I can relate! Some people and some jobs are just trouble, and the wise will walk away. My husband would get a bad feeling about the job (all manner of nightmare is probably waiting to be exposed behind that rotten wall they want to replace) or the client (he is following me around telling me how to do everything, or her ex-husband is over here bullying people.) He'd just pass on the job.

He did have a few who never paid. A few he'd never work for again. But others were wonderful and grateful and would refer friends, and we concentrate on that.

It is easier for us, of course, because we have no children depending on us or needing our lives.

When he was let go a few years ago, he started doing handyman work. Not the bigger jobs like you are doing, but the small fix-its and installations that folks can't get the bigger contractors to do, and aren't skilled to do themselves. There was a big niche for this level of work, especially among single moms, widows, semi-handicapped seniors, and rental house owners. My hubby got some regular clients and even some he felt a bond of charitable affection for. Even now, when he has "regular" job, there are two people who will call with problems, and he will take time Saturday to help them out.

We have found with the handyman business, and with direct sales of our farm produce and our beef, that christians can be the worst customers. So sad. Also that a significant number of christians expect you to give them things or services for free, or for a great discount. I'm not referring to christians in needy circumstances; no, those doing well but expect to take advantage of others, or expect to always get something for nothing. Confession: that has been a terrible stubling block of offense to me. I apply the scriptural instruction to give your coat as well to the guy who wants your tunic, and trust it to the Lord.

I commiserate with your frustration about the jobs. I will continue to pray for you. I am confident that you are in the Lord's will and ways.

I appreciate you and your writing! You can lean on us your blog fellowship buddies...you are not alone.


Protoprotestant said...

Thanks for your comments. They are always an encouragement to me. You're right, not everything is negative. I've worked for some great people, and I'm thankful for them. I have a couple of clients that I get along great with and they're projects have got us through more than one winter, that's for sure.
The 'handyman' thing is tough. There is a ton of demand, but it's hard to make it work...unless the jobs are literally down the street. My problem is I'll get a call for about 2 hours of work...easy work, no big deal...but then it's 45mins away. So I spend an hour getting there, work for 2 hours, get stuck chatting for a ½ hour while they write my check, then drive 45mins home....or maybe to the next job if I can make it work. I lost half the day but only got paid for 2hrs of work.
Now I could raise my rates to make it worth it...but people don't want to pay more for handyman work....they want to pay less.
I very much wanted to help out the seniors and other folks by doing that very thing. But I couldn't pay my bills. And then when gas prices went up and that drive alone (in the example) cost me $15 in gas....it's a losing proposition.
Also, sometimes you get weird stuff in old houses. They want you to fix a doorknob that's really not fixable...things like that. And so you sit there and fuss with stuff and sometimes just can't get it to work right. It's no good. So now I'm faced with a dilemma...do I charge them for things I couldn't fix? Sometimes I'll get some older people that (how can I put it?)...well, they're a little goofy....and they'll have say 5 things for me to do. Well, three of them might be kind of absurdities. I can fix anything, but sometimes it means spending some money getting material or whatever.
Anyway, I just feel bad because I spent a bunch of time and yet they didn't really get what they wanted...and I sure didn't.

Protoprotestant said...

I love painting, but it doesn't pay very well either. It's simple, you don't need a lot of tools....and it doesn't occupy your mind very much. Obviously I want to think about other things.
Other than some really tough trim carpentry stuff and portions of electrical work...I can pretty much multi-task and listen to stuff. If I'm wiring up a 3-way switch or something, I might need to pay a little more attention.
I agree with you about Christians, and I also agree that we're supposed to 'eat it' if we're called to do so. But I sure don't go back.
Nowadays I often sniff it out before I get there and just avoid it.
Also, I can't help it. I'll be determined to keep my mouth shut and next thing you know I'm embroiled in some big conversation. I once made a lady cry. I wasn't being mean, but she (an Anglo-Catholic) understood what I was saying a little too well! I thought I was going to have to pack up my tools, but she got over it and we went on to have some good discussions. Actually we were talking about psychology and schizophrenia...and how all that related to Christianity. We didn't see eye to eye.
I guess when it comes to these jobs...if my attitude has become a bit cold and/or mercenary it's sort of because I figure....I work for myself. There are the plusses and minuses that come with that. But one of the big plusses is that I can control my environment and despite the detriments, I'm free. If I feel 'stuck' or 'bound' then what's the point in working for myself and getting all the stress on top of it? I might as well punch a clock somewhere and not have to think about it when I go home.

Protoprotestant said...

Everyone wants me to bend....and I do...a lot. That's the nature of the job. But wow, people don't want to give an inch for my sake.
I get people that want me to work 7 days a week on their project. They push and push....it's all about them.
I know...customer first right?
There's a local guy who used to run the lumberyard and he's a good man. A brother I believe. Anyway some of the other contractors would be irritated with him because his store was closed on Sunday and sometimes they would look for him on say a Tuesday afternoon (ha ha I guess I was thinking of the song)....and he'd be off somewhere with his family. Some people were miffed with him because he put his family and his Church before his business. They actually believed it was an ethical issue. He was 'obligated' to be there for them 8-5/7 days a week.
The world is twisted in how it reasons.
He wasn't neglecting his work. Not at all. He worked very hard at his job...lots of evenings and long days. But he had his priorities right. You have to put some things first and sometimes that means telling people...NO!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm sure fuel prices have cut hugely into any profit margin. And yes, sometimes you can't do what the customer thinks you should be able to do, especially in these old houses.

The Amish by me are like that lumberyard guy: work like dogs all day, but after 4 pm, business is over and they are with their families and friends. No Sunday sales. Some yankees hate that because it inconveniences them, and they say false scandalous things like the Amish are lazy or selfish. Talking trash like this when they themselves are consumed with get-ahead-ism, always irritable and cantankerous, and eaten up with ulcers and such. The Amish are a good example of right prioroties and the quality of life that results from following them. (Yes, I know we can take issue with pietism; nevetheless...)