Friday, September 24, 2010

Tradesmen and Civility

Folks representing various trades have been trooping through our house in recent weeks. A young man from WE Energies installed a new thermostat that allows the company to turn off our air conditioner during a power emergency (in return, they take $50 off our annual bill). An electrician spent several hours tracing a circuit to find where we had “lost our neutral,” which is a bad thing to lose if you are fond of electricity. The furnace technician paid a call when the furnace showed no interest in providing heat. Then there is the guy who is replacing our crumbling front stoop, and the tree service that will remove a stressed ash tree before the ash borers get to it. These expensive visits seem to come in waves, which is why it is good to save for a rainy day.

I found myself recalling the popular images of tradesmen in years past, largely shaped by television situation comedies. The plumber would arrive with a cigarette dangling from his lip and track mud across the carpet on his way to the bathroom. His battered truck would drip oil and transmission fluid on your driveway. And he was required by some mysterious plumber’s code to wear pants slung so low that when he bent over the toilet… Tradesmen never came when they were supposed to. Tradesmen were crude and foul-mouthed. Tradesmen needed to be watched like a hawk because otherwise they would attempt to cheat you. When you called a repairman you needed to gird for battle.

I doubt that any of these popular images ever had a lot of truth behind them. But there is clearly a new focus on customer service in the trades these days. All of the folks I mentioned above arrived when they said they would. Several put on paper booties before they entered the house. They carefully explained what they had done and had me examine the places where they found problems. Each was skilled, knowledgeable and polite. They did not leave until they were certain the problem was resolved to my satisfaction.

I suspect the weak economy has something to do with this high level of customer service. Another likely factor is that the companies providing these services have gotten larger as it becomes less viable to work as an independent contractor because of health insurance and other overhead costs. Larger companies can provide training to their employees, including training in customer relations.

I see some of the same thing in retail stores. Cashiers greet me cheerfully and ask “Did you find everything today?” (“No,” I sometimes reply. “I was looking for world peace and quality health care for all the world’s children.” But I lean a bit towards being a smart aleck). Sadly, as cashiers become friendlier and more polite, customers seem to become ruder, yakking on cell phones while completely ignoring the cashier’s presence. Is our society becoming more civil, or less? I go back and forth, although political campaign ads make it hard to build the case for increasing civility.

Every encounter with a fellow human being, whether with an electrician, a cashier or a friend, is an opportunity to share a bit of kindness and joy. It sounds hokey, I admit, but that does not make it less true. Civility is built and maintained one conversation at a time.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Friends and Neighbors

If you live in a large metropolitan area, you can choose your friends on the basis of shared tastes and interests. If you usually vote Republican, most of your friends will be Republicans. If you are a sports fan, your friends will likely be fans as well. Your friends are likely to have incomes similar to your own, read the same books you read, share the same values.

But if you live in a small community or rural area, your friends will be the people who are simply there. As folksinger Greg Brown once noted; “Nobody in the U. P. talks about ‘forming an intentional community;’ up there you damned well better know your neighbors!” Folks who do not have a lot in common learn how to get along and how to care for one another because they really have no other choice. In this sense, there is more diversity to rural friendships than to urban ones.

We were reminded of this while at our cabin last weekend. Many neighbors stopped by in the course of our time there to chat about the things people at cabins talk about – whether a certain tree needs to come down and who could do it cheaply, etc. We learned that Mel, the gruff and opinionated former Marine on the far side of the lake, had died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, and took our kayaks over to offer our condolences to Julie, whose home we had never been in before.

But above all we spent time with Mark and June, the next-door neighbors who had not made it to their cabin for at least three years. Mark is 93, June 89, and they both have significant health challenges. In all honesty, Mark has been something of a challenge for me through the years. He has a dusk-to-dawn light that shines into our bedroom all night because he is concerned about escaped prisoners (there is a state prison 12 miles away from which no-one has ever escaped, but if one did he would doubtless make a beeline for Sixteen Mile Lake), keeps several guns at his cabin and fires them at random intervals, and is equally dedicated to Jesus and Rush Limbaugh.
Would I have chosen Mark as a friend? No. Am I glad to know him as friend? Yes.

When we arrived I found that Mark had mowed most of our lot. He can no longer drive, nor can he walk far without assistance, he has little sight left, and he certainly cannot get on or off his ancient John Deere lawn tractor himself. But once he is on it he is in his personal version of heaven (he farmed downstate for seventy years), and he was not about to let a property line spoil his fun.

But our most wonderful moment came the evening before we left. We were sitting on our deck, thinking about fixing dinner, when June made her unsteady way over, soon followed by Mark. The beach at Au Train is a glorious one, and they had been there earlier in the day. With her daughter on one side and her granddaughter on the other, June had waded out into Lake Superior until the water was neck deep, then plunged her head under. She was flat-out giddy with excitement as she described the experience. Dinner was delayed by over an hour as I brought out my ukulele and we sang old Baptist hymns together.

We are guessing it will be the last time they make it to their cabin, but who knows? But if I never see them again, I will have wonderful memories of that evening together. Someday, God willing, the aged couple on the lake will be us, and I hope there will be younger neighbors to offer us their hospitality and friendship. Friends and neighbors do not have to have a great deal in common, they just need to be there for one another.