Sunday, September 26, 2010

Faith and Hope in Charity

I support a handful of charitable organizations. Each month, I try to make some room in the budget to support some worthy cause for the less fortunate and disadvantaged. I'm not all full of myself about it. I just feel an obligation to help out those less fortunate than myself, because there but for the grace of God, as they say. I should know. I've been there myself. I used to have a developmentally challenged son who was afflicted with cerebral palsy and, earlier this year, I got a taste of what it's like to lose my job and a sizable portion of my family's income. When shit happens, it sure is nice to come across somebody with a shovel.

I've noticed, though, that the more I give to charities, the more of their unsolicited mail fills my mailbox each week. That's because most charities have an irritating habit of sharing their mailing lists with other charities. It's like feeding seagulls at the beach. You start by tossing a few tidbits to one or two gulls and, before you know it, you're swarmed by a whole flock of them, some of which crap on your head.

I understand that the charities do this to make a few extra bucks. I also know that most charities provide an opt-out check box in itty-bitty little fine print on the reply form that you send back along with your cheque, that tells them not to share your contact information with others. I do suspect that at least some charities don't actually check whether their supporters have checked this checkbox when checking in the cheque, because I make a point of always checking it, yet I still get reams of stuff from charities that I've never heard of, and have never supported. Even if they do honor the opt-out check box, I still say "don't be punishing those who are good enough to support your cause by encouraging others to flood their mailboxes with junk". At most, there should be an opt-in box, asking donators to specifically give their permission to share their info, and that info should not be shared unless said box is checked.

My other bone of contention is the silly "gifts" that many charities send in hopes of encouraging people to support them. By "gifts", I mean the calendars, the note pads, the greeting cards and the return address stickers. Oh my gawd, the return address stickers! I have a whole freakin' drawer full of return address stickers! I'd better not move for the next ninety-two years!

The greeting cards are the next most common irritants, especially around Christmas time. In the past week, I received no less than four envelopes stuffed with Christmas cards from different charities. I didn't need them, even though a couple of sets were, admittedly, quite attractive, because I have two shoe boxes full of charity-provided greeting cards, most of them for Christmas, that I've collected over the years! I'm flattered that you think otherwise, but I'm sorry to have to admit that I just don't have that many friends! I'm covered until Christmas, 2061!

I shred all the stuff that I don't keep, partly because it has my name and address, etc. on it, and partly because it takes up less space in my waste basket after being shredded into tiny strips of paper, yet I completely filled an entire waste basket with just one week's worth of charity Christmas cards. I pity the trees that died in vain.

Some charities go completely over the top. I've received tote bags, pens, desk calendars and even an umbrella for cryin' out loud! I can't help but wonder how many of these packages these charities mail out and how much it costs them. Why don't they just keep their junk gifts and put the savings into their cause?

As it happens, at least one charity which writes me regularly must have heard this very question from others like me, because they've explained it. Quite simply, they say that it works. Sending out this crap seems to increase donations, and the extra money that it brings in more than offsets the money that they spend in sending it. In my case, at least, they sort of shot themselves and their peers in the foot by admitting that because I've since resolved to stop supporting any charity that inundates me with junk gifts, now that I know that rewarding the behavior only encourages more of it.

I don't mean to denigrate charities or to discourage my readers from supporting them. Charities rely on generous donations from their supporters, especially in economically challenged times like these. I personally intend to continue donating regularly to those charities that I support. But, if you're reading this and you happen to be in any way affiliated with any charity, please take this rant to heart, and point your superiors at this post. I support charities, not because I need calendars or address labels or greeting cards or umbrellas, but because I just want to give a little something back. I suspect and hope that others like me feel the same way. Don't alienate us by punishing us for helping out.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tub Door Installation Tips from Mr. Handyman

Yesterday, I hung a new set of tub doors in our bathroom. "Big deal," you're probably thinking. Well it is, considering that this is me we're talking about. I'm a man of many talents, but handyman skills are not among them. I'm much more comfortable with a mouse (the computer variety) in my hand as opposed to a hammer or a power drill. In fact, I've whacked my fingers with enough hammers in my day that I can safely say that I'm often decidedly uncomfortable with a hammer in my hand. This is in keeping with the natural order of things. I think that there are people who are good with tools, and people who are good with computers, but it's unnatural for anybody to be proficient with both. As someone once correctly observed, beware of programmers carrying screwdrivers!

To give you some idea of my degree of hardware competence (or lack thereof), I'll note that I bought one of those home handyman books full of "how-to's" for just about any home improvement or repair project that you can imagine. The chapter about hanging tub doors estimated that the job should take about two hours for a professional, three hours for someone who's "handy" and four hours for a novice. It took me the better part of four days; something like 20 hours all told.

In my own defence, there were certain factors that the book did not take into account. The first was the time needed to remove the old tub door. Why is it that D.I.Y. books always seem to assume that you're building a house from scratch and there's nothing old that first needs to be removed, scraped away, ripped out or otherwise mangled? They further assume that all materials, surfaces and tools are clean and new.

In my case, they score one out of three. My tools are, indeed, clean and new, because that's how rarely I use them. My caulking gun gleams pristinely, completely unmarred by any stain or dried caulk. I think the price sticker is still on it. Heck, up until a few weeks ago, it had never come anywhere near a tube of caulk and, when it finally lost its virginity, so to speak, it was only because somebody borrowed it (yes, my caulking gun sleeps around!) Yet, I've owned it for years, even though I never use it, because real men own caulking guns. Heaven forbid I should find myself sitting around enjoying a beer with the boys when the conversation turns to home improvement and I have to admit that I have no caulking gun! At that point, I may as well just don and apron, pick up a feather duster and start dancing around in a pink tutu!

Speaking of tools (and getting back on topic), here is a list of the tools that you'll need if you ever consider hanging tub doors (speaking from experience):
  • Level

  • Tape Measure

  • #2 HB Pencil

  • At least 15 erasers

  • Hacksaw

  • First aid kit with plenty of gauze

  • Miter box

  • Hammer

  • Electric drill

  • Cordless telephone with 911 on speed dial

  • Caulking gun

  • Caulk for caulking gun

  • Caulk remover

  • Screwdriver

  • Duct tape (this is of course, standard equipment for any D.I.Y. project)

  • Websters Dictionary of Expletives and Vulgarities (as is this)
To work out how much caulk and caulk remover you'll need to buy, use this formula:

Tubes of Caulk = ((Length of area to caulk in feet ÷ 10) x 0.2 litres x 3) ÷ Tube Volume

Tubes of Caulk Remover = ((Length of area to caulk ÷ 10) x 0.2 litres x 2) ÷ Tube Volume

I didn't think that taking down the old tub doors would take terribly long, because they seemed to be falling apart on their own, without any help from me. That's why I needed to hang new doors in the first place. One of the rollers had rusted through and broken off. I figured if I just blew on them hard, they would simply disintegrate into a pile of dust.

Not so! One of the first laws of home repair is that things tend to deteriorate only to the point of non-functionality, at which point what remains stubbornly refuses to be extricated. Like a senior public servant, my old tub doors had become functionally useless, yet nearly impossible to replace with something that works. The main problem was the base channel that guided the bottoms of the doors. It had been caulked to the top of the tub wall, apparently with some brand of mutant, super-grip caulk that binds to tub walls at the molecular level. I darn near broke my screwdriver trying to pry up the stubborn bit of metal, and I was only able to finally remove it by bending it into sections beyond all recognition. When I put it out on my curbside, it was immediately snapped up by a modern art collector who saw it as a representation of the juxtaposition of the urban philosophy over an existential zeitgeist.

The other reason that I took so much longer than the estimated time in my D.I.Y. book is because the book failed to factor in the time required to take down the first tub door that I purchased after having installed it, pack it back up, return it to the store and exchange it for another which actually works. The first tub door that I selected was the Tub Door from Hell, apparently designed by a twisted individual who takes some sort of perverse delight in watching do-it-yourselfers waste half a weekend trying to erect a sliding door which is never, ever going to work.

My first clue that I was about to fight a losing battle should have come when I opened the box after lugging it home, only to find that someone had apparently already tried to install this tub door and given up, as evidenced by the fact that there was dried caulk all over the frame. Now, most people, upon seeing this, would immediately pack the damaged goods back up and take them straight back to the store. But not I! Oh no! For one thing, I couldn't abide the thought of having to pack everything back up again, tape up the box and lug the unwieldy hulk all the way back to the store. For another, this particular door had been the only one like it in stock, so I knew that I couldn't exchange it for a similar, but unused, one. Since the dried caulk was on the underside of the frame pieces and the visible parts seemed more or less unmarred, I unwisely decided to simply scrape away the dried caulk as best I could and then go ahead a install it myself. Big mistake!

What I had failed to consider was that the previous purchaser of this particular set of tub doors probably returned it after unsuccessfully trying to install it for a reason. Oh, something along those lines of reasoning may, in fact, have vaguely entered my mind, but I, ever the optimist, immediately dismissed the thought, surmising that the previous purchaser was probably an incompetent noob who didn't have a clue what he was doing, and that I would surely prevail where he failed. In retrospect, the "incompetent noob's" name was probably Bob Vila, and even He could never have successfully installed these particular doors!

While installing the first set of doors, I encountered and worked around several problems, including missing pieces (such as the plastic wall anchors, which were probably still firmly lodged in the previous owner's bathroom wall but, no matter, I had a few leftover ones laying about) and a base channel that didn't really fit the top of my tub wall. Each of these obstacles I grappled with and overcame (amid much cursing and hair-pulling) but the death stroke, the "coup de grace", as it were, came when I finally had the frame installed (against all odds). I've heard it said that confidence is that feeling that you get just before understanding the full extent of the problem. I figured, at this point, that the worst was behind me. All that was left to do was to hang the doors in the frame. I carefully manoeuvered the first door into position, only to see it sit firmly on the base channel while its rollers hovered about a quarter inch above the top tracks. At this point I realized, to my horror, that the doors were too tall for the frame. I assure you that this was not due to any mistake on my part, given that I had not cut or modified the side brackets in any way. They were simply too short, right out of the box. It was then that I finally admitted defeat. Tears were shed, more expletives were spoken, and I dejectedly took down the frame, tried to clean the pieces up as best I could, packed everything back into the box, loaded it into the car and drove it back to the store.

On the bright side, the the nice lady at the customer service desk gave me no trouble about returning the goods, even though they had clearly been used. In fact, she didn't even open the box to inspect the merchandise. She cheerfully refunded my money, after which I'm sure that she just as cheerfully had one of the stock boys put the box right back into stock to await the next hapless customer.

The next set of doors that I chose were much more intelligently designed than the previous ones, and I was able to successfully install and hang them, but it still took me about five hours; an hour longer than my D.I.Y. book's "novice". Here's a picture of my handiwork.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I really need a shower!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Money Matters: Part 3

I recently speculated that we may someday witness the end of money, as electronic commerce seems to be increasingly replacing the exchange of physical cash. Within a week of that post, I read this news article announcing that Passport Canada has stopped accepting cash. The article, which features a photograph of Santa Claus trying to purchase a Canadian passport with a $50 bill, reports that Passport Canada has decided to stop accepting Canadian currency as payment for the passports which it issues. The agency apparently wants to reduce the risk of theft by preventing its employees from handling cash. Apparently, screening potential employees so that only honest ones are hired is too much trouble.

If I may digress for a moment, I would also like to point out here that this issue pretty much settles the on-going dispute over Arctic sovereignty between Canada, Russia and sundry less important nations. Everyone knows that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. If he wants to purchase a Canadian passport, he clearly considers himself a Canadian citizen, which makes the North Pole and surrounding territory Canadian soil (or ice, as it were).

Moving toward the other extreme, I came across an editorial article, still more recently, written by a young woman who prefers paying with cash over plastic (credit or debit) cards because it helps her to budget by making her more conscious of her dwindling savings. The author further notes that an increasing number of restaurants are apparently no longer accepting plastic cards because of the built-in transaction fees. It seems even the legendary Bob Dylan refused to allow promoters of a recent show that he gave in California to sell tickets, insisting that all tickets be purchased at the door and that "E-e-e-verybody must pay cash" (to paraphrase one of his better-known lyrical phrases). Of course, this policy does generate a slight risk of a repeat of the tragedy at the infamous 1979 Who concert during which several fans were trampled in the mad rush for seats but, hey, far be it from me to ask Bob Dylan to compromise his principles. Better men than I have tried and failed, I can assure you.

Finally, if that still wasn't "out there" enough, there's the curious story of Mark Boyle, "The Moneyless Man". As incredible as it may seem, Boyle has managed to live without earning or spending a red cent since 2008. He lives in a trailer that was given to him for free, he grows or barters for his food, he uses a solar shower and even makes his own paper. He's written a book about the experience and how he managed it, entitled "The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living" (a title with a delicious double-entendre - er, was that "Freakonomic" living, Mark?) According to Mark, he's never been happier and has no plans to return to a dependency on money. Now, I don't like to question another's motivations but Mark's surname, and his accent in the accompanying YouTube video, suggest that he's of Scottish descent, and we all know about the Scotts' notorious reputation for frugality!

But seriously, I feel nothing but admiration and awe for Boyle, a man who has proven that my idealistic fantasy of a moneyless world could be a reality if only there were more people like him.