* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the week off. This column has been slightly edited since it first ran in January 2002.
I sure feel smart sometimes. That goes for my husband, too. For example, lately we’ve been celebrating our decision to buy land in Coloma, and we’re getting serious about plans to build a cabin. My husband is so excited that he’s already buying lamps.
Recently, he found one on the Internet at a great price, but when he telephoned the company, the last unit had just gone out the door.
He asked if the lamp would be available again soon, but the woman on the phone said the model had been discontinued. Instead of hanging up, Bob did something he had never done before.
He kept speaking with her. Then he gave her his name and phone number.
“If anyone returns a lamp or cancels an order,” he said, “could you call me?”
An hour later, his phone rang. One more lamp had been discovered.
“A few years ago, I never would have thought to leave my name,” Bob reported with pride.
I’ll admit that we spent the next two minutes congratulating each other, telling each other what good shoppers we are and stuff like that.
It’s great to feel that you’ve learned how to get things done. Bob and I still don’t seem to be able to save the right paperwork for a rebate, but in general, as we grow older, we’re gaining practical wisdom, if not the more ineffable kind.
“We’re going to be so smart by the time we die,” I concluded.
Then came another incident. This type was more difficult, because it involved service, rather than buying a product.
We had hired an engineer from Placerville to fill out a form for the building department regarding our proposed cabin. The engineer we selected spoke on the telephone in a smooth, gravely voice that would have made me suspicious in a spy flick, but I accepted his word that this was a small, easy job that would only cost $100.
Two months and numerous phone calls later, as rain moved in and complicated our building plans, we were still waiting for the small, easy job.
The engineer, who seemed to forget his promises as easily as James Bond forgets his last girlfriend (and I forget which hunk played James Bond), he finally said that the document would be ready “in 24 hours.” When it didn’t arrive, Bob and I agreed on stronger action. I would drive to Placerville to confront the engineer.
A few years ago, I would have been useless for such a task.
As a teenager, I literally cried whenever I had to assert myself. (I have a distinct and mortifying memory of sobbing to a hairdresser, “it’s really my turn.”) Even in my thirties, I was a wimp who burned in silence when someone cut in front of me, no matter how long the line.
But I’m more capable now, and like James Bond when he gets a new gadget from Q, sometimes I can’t resist a chance to try my new wings.
I had never met the engineer, but I drove 60 miles to his office, marched in unannounced, and asked to see him right away. He didn’t come out for 15 minutes, during which time the receptionist kept glancing back at his office.
When he finally came out, pasty-faced, with a handshake that felt like a battery running out of juice, I got no apology for the long delay, but I did secure a promise that the document would be ready the next day. I attempted to add more pressure by indicating that my husband would pick it up in person.
That worked. The next day, as my husband drove away from the office, he phoned me with the document in hand. We congratulated each other.
Two days later, a letter arrived. Mr. Dead Battery had come to life for the bill. (Two months for the document; two days for the bill.)
I opened the envelope. $175. Almost twice the quoted price. Damn.
I had to admit it was my fault.
Because I had been determined to get the document but afraid to fully confront the engineer, I never discussed the cost. I should have anticipated that a person who is irresponsible about timing, will be the same way about money.
And that’s not all.
One month later, when we got the plans back from the building department, we discovered that the engineer’s calculation had been wrong. I should have anticipated that a person who is irresponsible about timing and irresponsible about money, will be the same way about math.
Perhaps I will not be smart by the time I die.
James Bond can foil the bad guy and stop the war in every movie — in just-released “Skyfall,” I hear he does it on guts rather than gadgets — but such astounding competence is still out of my reach.
This just proves I’m going to have to live twice.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org