Throughout the autumn as the project dragged on though false starts, do-overs and delays, I was hatching a plan. I would very carefully catalog and annotate everything that had gone wrong, sit down with the contractor and negotiate a smaller number on the bottom line.

The facts were not in dispute. I’d have him over a barrel. I would sleep well at night knowing I had been wronged and I had made it right. (Spoiler alert: Take note of the half-dozen “I’s” in the first two grafs of this column).

In our household, CY 2019 evolved rapidly into the Year of Home Improvement. It started innocently enough as my wife and I sat in our living room on New Years Day a year ago and decided we should paint one living room wall. It escalated quickly. All the living room, dining room, hallway walls painted, along with the ceiling, new furniture, new carpeting, new appliances, new artwork, purposeful purging of all manner of household accoutrements that, it turns out, we could live without, a partial kitchen remodel, etc., et al, ad infinitum.

Like many homes in Manhattan, ours is built into a Flint Hill, with the front and back doors opening to divergent elevations, bringing not only enhanced aesthetic real estate value, but real-world practical attributes to a deck.

We bought the house on the day of our wedding 21 years ago. It’s a mid-century home, but the deck was 1970s vintage. Over the decades, as the deck began listing to starboard, our time-buying and resuscitation efforts eventually and finally expired. The clincher came when, shopping for contractors, one pro gave it a hard look, offered, “I’m not walking on that thing,” turned on his work boot heel, mounted his half-ton and drove away into the sunset.

Hmmph. Thanks for nothing.

Everything felt right with the contractor we landed on. As we traversed our way around the existing rickety deck, he offered creative design thoughts and we each visualized the bright and shiny end game. Sold. Firm handshake. Direct eye contact. He would start the first week of October and be done in a week and a half. Two months later, on our wedding anniversary, December 23, the last screw was turned.

When the problems started cropping up, the man did everything right. When there was a mistake, he acknowledged it, owned it and made it right. That did not stop my seemingly innate tendencies to believe I had been wronged, to seek an edge, and the mental setback cataloging began.

Throughout the fall, my wife and I would compare notes and waffle between hoped-for outcomes. Negotiate or suck it up? We’ve each lived long enough to know outcomes hoped for can become outcomes delivered with careful planning and execution. Frustrated over the fits and starts, but our frustration never spiraled up (or down) to anger with the contractor.

In hindsight, those were two significant data points: No outcome consensus and no anger.

Here’s a young man trying to build a livelihood in our community. He has skills, ability and a dream. He struggles with the same things all small business owners struggle with: Workforce issues, managing expectations, communication with clients/customers, relationships with regulators, the vagaries of subcontractors, etc., et al, ad infinitum. In short, human nature.

Our consensus began to emerge when my wife posited that maybe we were channeling her mother, a generous soul who died a year ago, the first of a dozen losses of loved ones and friends over a year. All those funerals, writ large, also proved valuable decision-making data, as it turned out. Life is short. Don’t muck it up with anger. Walk a mile, or at least up and down a Flint Hill while envisioning a new deck, in the other guy’s steel-toed work boots.

There is also the ‘First world problems’ argument which infuses some reality. If this is the worst of my problems…

Some would argue it is human nature to take otherwise simple problems and make them difficult. Maybe. I do not believe it is human nature to seek an edge, to one-up to my benefit. That’s learned behavior that can become my nature, if I allow it.

Mike Matson’s column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at

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