Sunday, August 1, 2010

On acts of service . . . .

Confession: professionally, I love my work and I’m clear-headed in a crisis, decisive, and confident. Personally - I tend to react to and decide on things on an emotional level. Which would be fine, except that emotions are always changing and that means that I spend much of my time second-guessing my choices because I forget why I made them in the first place.

The lease on my apartment is up at the end of this month. This means that in terms of making a decision on my housing situation, I have spent 50% of my time furiously scouring rental listings, emailing landlords, and scheduling viewings - and the other 50% of the time sitting happily on my front steps next to my little garden on the quiet cul-de-sac I live on, thinking “this is absolutely perfect - why would I ever want to leave?”

It’s not a grass-is-greener thing, exactly - after last month’s revelation I am trying to be very aware of any similar thinking. But until very recently I had hoped to move into a larger shared house with a couple of friends - that has since fallen through - and now I’m torn between what I have now and the possibilities “out there”. Living alone has a lot of perks - independence, privacy, and no need to find someone to put up with my dog! - but it’s also expensive and - well - I’m living alone. Other negatives - the backyard is a steep, uneven jungle of long grasses and thistles growing up alongside an enormous crumbling concrete pad - great advertising for someone with a burgeoning greenscapes company, let me tell you - and there are no on-site laundry facilities (a luxury I assure you I will never take for granted again!). And the tenant upstairs is given to hosting large, noisy parties on Tuesday and Wednesday nights that go well into the night and wreak havoc on my performance at work on Wednesday and Thursday mornings.

So having listed those things I am seized with the urge to go madly peck through apartment listings - I can’t bear to stay here! This is awful! There MUST be something better out there!

And so, I go searching. The adrenaline of injustice starts to wear off quickly though, as I scroll through seemingly hundreds of postings advertising “legal” basement apartments - why do people think that’s even remotely attractive to a potential tenant - especially when it turns out that is the apartment’s only feature? Or places that sound perfect until you hit the line - “no pets”. Or places that sound too good to be true - and it turns out they are, when the ‘owner’ of the house contacts you to say that they are ‘so excited to accept you as a member of my hosehold’ (sic) but that they are currently on a three-year missionary trip in West Africa (for some reason they’re _all_ in West Africa) so if you just mail them a cheque for first and last month’s rent they’ll mail you the keys to the apartment that you will have to rent without actually seeing the interior or meeting the ‘owners’ in person. Then I think about how tax changes and HST is going to increase rental rates in all apartments; I remember the apartment hunt last fall when I toured some places touted as ‘spacious and bright’ (always be suspicious of those words when they describe an apartment) that turned out to be barely worthy of the description ‘legal’ - and ‘spacious’ meant ‘one big square room plus a bathroom’ and ‘bright’ meant ‘fluorescent lighting throughout said big square basement’.

So - the momentum wears off. And then I stop and think about how much I’m enjoying the short walk to the dog park that Anu and I favor - and the company of the other people there. I reflect on how convenient the location is to my work and downtown; how pretty the neighbourhood homes and gardens are. And I start thinking that I was crazy to ever think of moving anytime soon - until I accidentally spill bathroom cleaner on a new work blazer and have to try to rinse it out in the kitchen sink before it bleaches and I remember how much I hate not having access to a washing machine!

It was starting to look like I would never come to a decision, until everything came to a head last week.

When I first moved in, the faucet occasionally made a dull whine when the hot water was turned on. It was irritating but hardly worth quibbling about - now, if only I’d had the presence of mind to inquire about laundry facilities - but that’s another thing! Over the next few months the racket increased, getting louder and louder and higher and higher in pitch, and then the faucet started to drip. It became a workout to turn the knobs hard enough to get the dripping to stop - and using the hot water without inviting deafness meant it had to be at full blast - and this apartment is at any other time what I would call “blessed” with excellent water pressure: when washing dishes, the blessing turned into a recipe for cursing, and a guarantee of scalded skin. While the dog used to entertain me while I washed dishes, bringing me an endless succession of tennis balls, Kongs, shoes, ropes, and dog toys to kick periodically so he could he scrabble madly after them: by last month, if I put on a pair of rubber gloves, he would stare at me for a moment as though to assess the level of my dish-washing motivation, then when convinced of my determination (or when I reached for the faucet) he would sigh mournfully, practically shaking his head in resignation, then turn and make his way into the bedroom where he would (no kidding) bury his head under my pillow. Washing dishes became a nightmare. The tenant upstairs, sleeping off a wild Wednesday night, would bang irritably at the floorboards when I turned on the water after dinner.

By last week I so dreaded doing dishes that I put it off for almost an entire weekend. I rinsed my plates with cold water and stacked them neatly on the counter and tried not to look at them when I went into the kitchen. By Monday night, though, when I came home from work, I couldn’t stand it any more. I put on some music - loud country with a twangy singer in hopes of counteracting the shrill drone of the hot water. I put on my gloves, took a deep breath, and cranked the faucet. The tap seemed to swell up, but no water came out - then there was a loud snapping noise - and instead of coming out of the end of the tap, water erupted in a sullen bulge at the base of the faucet, pouring into the sink and along the back of the counter onto the floor. It was completely and utterly unusable.

All I felt was relief. Now I had a reason to complain about the faucet! Now, the landlord occupies an apartment nearby but he works construction in Toronto so he’s rarely home - long commute and longer days mean I see him very infrequently. I had his cell number once upon a time but had long since misplaced it so I resorted to the usual form of communication - email.

The next morning I woke up anticipating a response. But Tuesday stretched into Wednesday without a word, and I didn’t see him driving up or driving away. By mid-Wednesday I was getting seriously irritated but short of putting a note on his door I had no options. Finally, very late Wednesday night an extremely apologetic email appeared in my inbox: “I am so sorry! I just got your email today!” He was quick to provide his cell number and said he would be by Thursday to assess the problem. I quickly texted him and said thank you, and then added - “please don’t judge me by the state of the kitchen - I had already put off the dishes for a couple days before the faucet went!” (Not sure why I felt vaguely as though I might be evicted for having dirty dishes but I felt the explanation was necessary!)

It was late Thursday evening before he came by after work. He gave it a cursory look and then said he would head straight to Home Depot to get the parts, and asked if it was okay if he came in the next morning as he had the day off to get it installed. I told him that was absolutely fine - have many quirks but having my landlord inside the house when I’m not there is not one of them - I am simply not that private a person and there is nothing inside of my house that tells anybody anything they don’t already know about me or that I won’t tell them given the least opportunity! (As an adolescent I used to fantasize about being a ‘mysterious’ woman, driving men wild with my secrets and wiles - didn’t take long for that to prove illusory and impossible. If anything I over-explain - this parenthetical paragraph being exemplary of the trait - and anyway, I’d prefer to entertain people if possible with my ‘stories’, and I have no interest in keeping these experiences to myself, to smile over them secretly and then put them away again. And let’s face it - I am not now nor have I ever been the type to drive men wild - unless it’s wild with irritation and exasperation - I have _that_ effect on a LOT of people!)

At any rate, Eric (landlord) came by the next day. I texted him to tell him that I’d left Anu out of his crate - I suspected there was a much better chance that Anu would settle outside of the crate, whereas if I locked him up he would spend the entire time that Eric was there barking wildly. Also, the dog loves men - especially tall men - and Eric fitting that description, I figured there would be no problems. Eric texted me mid-way through the job to say he’s “having a little difficulty getting work done because of my dog”. I went cold with fear at the words, picturing Anu leaping, barking incessantly, destroying ... power tools or something (he does love power cords) and was ready to take a late lunch break to intervene when part two of the text came through: “I’m lying under the sink and he keeps trying to sit in my lap!” Apparently my apartment would have to be invaded by a troop of Girl Guides before the guard-dog instincts would kick in - not the most helpful scenario!

At the end of the day I got another text - “Okay, everything’s done and it’s working great. And I felt bad about you having to go so long without a sink, so I left you a little surprise”.

For some reason I pictured ... flowers. A nice bouquet of flowers. Except that I was kinda picturing them in a vase (keeping in mind I don’t _own_ a vase) on the dining room table (that I also don’t own) - just a pretty little bouquet - surrounded by towers of dirty dishes. I was very excited about my surprise but also figured given the chaotic environment, they would lack a little of the aesthetic quality that flowers naturally offer a space. Plus I’d much rather a plant than flowers - something that would live longer than a couple days. By the time I got home I was starting to feel seriously irritated about the stupid vase with stupid flowers that were just gonna die and that I’d have to throw out.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into the kitchen and encountered spotless countertops and a drainpan stacked with clean dishes as high as the cupboards. There were in fact so many dishes that he’d had to wash, dry, and put away my pots and pans to make room. It was the single most kind, adorable gift I have gotten in an incredibly long time. To be honest, I started thinking about the fact that on his day off he’d come over to install a faucet (plumbing can’t be his strong suit, or else it was a tremendously complicated task, because it took _hours_ to finish) then stood patiently at the sink for at least another twenty minutes, washing all of my dishes, and I think I developed a tiny little crush.

Now, I’m not saying that I won’t rethink the moving thing again the next time I spill something on a favorite blouse or lie awake in bed until 2 am listening to stomping feet and dance music on a Tuesday night. But I am saying that in the back of my mind there will be the thought “But have I ever in my entire life met anyone who could honestly say - ‘My landlord? He’s pretty good - this one time, he washed all of my dishes!’”

So - you’re wondering (or maybe not, given the last post!) what the heck this has to do with Cornerstone Greenscapes.

Well, I’ve been talking about our services - especially our ability to customize designs and plans for every single one of our clients. And I think we can offer a unique approach to customer service for a rather unexpected reason: We’re good with people. Not good as in smarmy, not good as in pretending interest to get a gig - we just genuinely enjoy people, getting to know them, understanding their quirks and their personalities. You can’t offer good customer service without that. You can offer a reasonable facsimile - maybe no one will even really complain - but it will be a facsimile based on the fact that ‘most people’ respond favorably to ‘this approach’ and instead of being personal, it will be more of a fill-in-the-blanks service - which granted is often successful, but invariably struggles where people don’t fit the typical profile or preference.

When I went in to work the following Monday, still delighted that I hadn’t spent my Friday night cleaning up, several people were utterly horrified. “He was in your apartment and you weren’t even THERE? And then he washed your DISHES? What if he’d broken one? How do you know he did a good job? What if he didn’t RINSE them?” And it occurred to me - what Eric did was more than just a nice idea - it was excellent, personal customer service. He had to get to know me well enough to know that I didn’t object to his presence in the house, that I am not the type to worry about that particular privacy, that I was only really embarrassed about the mess, and that the single most helpful thing for me would be to wash those darn dishes - and not buy me stupid flowers!

Similarly we take that approach to your garden. We get to know you, not just figure out what ‘type’ of customer you are. What you will use the space for - how much time you have to maintain it - what you see in the future - and what inspires you, because that is what makes it worth the time and effort to invest in your greenscape (or red-, or purple-, or white-scape!) It has to move you, and it has to reflect you, and it has to respect you.

We’re not smarmy: we might show up with a clipboard, but we’ll fill it up with notes about you and your family. We might suggest things: but we will do so thoughtfully, keeping in mind any constraints on time, finances, or energy. And that will be because we are going to take the time to truly listen.

So we’re here, waiting for your call, and looking forward to getting to know you.

At the end of the day our goal is to come up with a dynamic, inspiring design, and leave you with the sense that you have been heard and will be represented. That’s the only way we can guarantee your space will be the perfect escape, one that will calm you and inspire you because it will reflect the best parts of yourself and your family and your lifestyle.

That’s not smarm, or charm, or hot air: that’s a promise!

My grass is perfect, thank you!

So - in my everyday life I live in a small apartment with a tiny front yard and a medium-sized dog who makes the word "energetic" seem laughably inadequate (he's a blue-heeler German shepherd cross and I love him to bits but there's no denying that when you research the breed online the phrase you will see most often is "not for the inexperienced dog owner". Which - handily enough - I am). To illustrate: when other dog owners take their leave from the dog park I go to in the mornings, the other dog owners call out: “Have a great day!" - when Anu and I take our leave, they shout “Good luck!" encouragingly. In the evenings I tie him up to a retractable lead which I shut in my car door, and I sit on my concrete steps with a pillow to cushion it and throw a ball a few times until Anu is thoroughly frustrated by the confines of the leash and we go back in!

So when I heard that a friends of mine who own a house in the tidy, sleepy, suburbs were going on holidays, I leaped at the chance to house-sit.

I knew exactly what that house-sitting gig would look like. I pictured myself in their spectacular woven lounger, sipping a frosty glass of wine, leisurely throwing a stick for Anu; spending crisp, bright mornings working from their glass-topped patio set with a steaming cup of French press coffee; in the dusky, humid evenings, I’d slip into a flower-printed sundress and wide-brimmed hat to water flowers and herbs, inhaling the savory fragrance of tomato plants and lemon balm . . . . I would be gracious, a true hostess, the picture of a wise dog-owner with my dog sitting contentedly at my feet - or at least securely confined to a yard instead of awkwardly tethered.I pictured it being so divine that I would dread leaving, that I would come back to my little apartment thoroughly dissatisfied with its meager offerings.

Now of course the reality, as I am certain you have guessed, was markedly different. For starters I couldn't get the wireless internet to work until four days in to my visit, so working in the morning sun turned into toiling halfheartedly in the refrigerated (well, felt like it) basement until I felt so pitiful - like a character from Dickens, shivering in cut-finger gloves - that I had to come back upstairs. I don't own a flowered sundress or a wide-brimmed hat - so my gardening was conducted in a rather less lady-of-the-manor-esque fashion: that is, a long t-shirt that didn't quite cover my bum (thank heavens for those tall fences). The wide-brimmed hat I borrowed from my friend was a bit too small and smushed my hair unattractively and left a mark on my forehead that stuck around for hours. The woven lounger gave me a neck-ache which led to a headache, and I couldn't sip wine and lounge at the same time without spilling it all over myself. I do smell like tomatoes and lemon balm but that’s more because I was constantly fishing wayward sticks out of the gardens for Anu while admonishing him to “GET BACK! STAY OUT!” and picturing my friend’s reaction if she returned home to a crushed and crumpled garden.

I pictured a week of beauty and graciousness, and instead there have been times in this whole visit where I have felt terribly ungracious: I have felt silly and fraudulent; I have felt exceedingly angry with my dog, who has started countless "bark-fights" with all of the neighbouring dogs in the next yards - and some in the next cul-de-sac - and done wildly manic laps of the fenced back yard to the point that I honestly thought he was having a seizure.

I have thought "this could have been a gorgeous experience but instead it's a giant disappointment". I have sat in the sunlight with half a glass of wine surrounded by basil and cherry tomato plants, and been aware of only the sunburn on my bum, the uncomfortable grid-mark pattern on my legs from the lounger, and the half glass of wine that I was unfortunately wearing, feeling abused and disillusioned by life’s unwillingness to ever live up to my hopes and expectations (yes, I was feeling _that_ pathetic and melodramatic!)

But at some point this weekend, I came to a realization that I am going to try not to beat myself up about just now realizing: for the last twenty some-odd years, my mentality has been that life is something I just to 'get through’' to the other side. And I'm not about to repeat the truisms about life being about the journey, the grass is always greener, etc., etc. (Truisms are wonderful in that they are excellent and pithy and - well - they’re true - but they’re also so tired and overused that they stop having meaning by the time you hit the age of - I don’t know, 15? I blame those ‘motivational’ posters in high school classrooms - to this day I can’t hear ‘hang in there’ without picturing that poor stranded kitten!).

These phrases and homilies don’t cease to be true, they just cease to have significance or influence in our lives. The truth is that even as I’ve rolled my eyes through country songs and changed the channel on awkwardly scripted Hallmark specials, I have been guilty of not enjoying ‘the journey’ and pushing the accelerator to the ground to try to get to where I’m going.

This post is probably going to seem rather off-topic for a blog about a company dedicated to providing backyard escape design services, but bear with me for one more minute. Part of designing the perfect escape is realizing what you are escaping from - and why you are escaping. Otherwise your escape will feel like a high-fenced borrowed mistake that doesn't suit your or your family (or your dog!)

If you design your yard with an attitude of flexibility and self-awareness, your grass will be green enough that even when you look over at the neighbour's place, you'll still want to stay put. Because it's not about the colour of your grass - or other myriad ground-cover options - of which there are many! It's about accepting imperfection, laughing at clumsy tumbles in a game of fetch, and reacting pragmatically when that frosty glass of wine ends up in your lap.

You don't want to endure the stages of your life - just like you don't want to endure the stages of your greenscapes, whatever form they may take. Gardens and gazebos grow and adapt and they lend themselves well to improvements and creativity over time.

I’m not suggesting you need to go on a meditation retreat to get to the bottom of your deep intrinsic motivation for a backyard. Nor am I suggesting that we are the kind of company qualified to help you do that (although what an idea that would be - maybe a few years down the road!) I will say however that we are the sort of company who believes in growth - in little steps. While we’re excited to accept grand and large-scale projects, we’re equally enthusiastic for the first steps you take in your yard design. We’ll build your deck in stages and add on as your family expands - we’ll help you plan massive and complicated and utterly divine gardens, but we’re also here to help you plan something that you can manage yourself, that suits you and your needs. We want to be part of every stage of your life - and we want to help you enjoy those stages in comfort. Custom designs - despite all the companies we’ve seen who seem to view the word as nothing more than something with a higher price tag - aren’t just a special service we offer: they are the only service we believe that anyone should offer.

Your home is a uniquely personal space: we are short-selling you and short-selling ourselves, if we try to sell you a ‘standard’ design. You’re not bringing in Cornerstone Greenscapes because you’re have the time and experience to design and install exactly what you need: You’re calling us because we do great work, because we have the knowledge and experience to help you sort through the thousands of ideas and options out there, and because we want to create something that is uniquely yours. And we want it to be manageable for you - we want it to grow with you.

Your greenscape isn’t something you arrive at - and that’s a wonderful thing. First - because how boring would that be? And second - because what you want now isn’t necessarily what you’ll want or need in a month, or a year, or ten years. Taking steps to create an area that is utterly perfect within a larger, messy, imperfect space is the most perfect microcosm for life that I can think of!

I just want to make sure that I'm enjoying every minute of it (or nearly every minute). Because it's never going to be perfect - it's never going to be done. And I'd rather it that way. Because if I had gotten the backyard I wished for so mistily a short week ago, with the wave of a magic wand or winning lottery ticket, I would now be miserably chained to it - because I would have missed the chance to explore this idea of life from the perspective of greenscape designs. I would be counting down the days till I didn’t have to live in a house with a fence and a manic dog running laps around it!

So now - if you'll excuse me - I'm going to go plant some tomatoes and lemon balm in my postage-stamp garden in my tiny front lawn at my so-much-more-than-adequate apartment. I'll probably wear shorts this time since I don't have a fence to hide behind, and tuck my hair under the Miller Genuine Draft ball cap I won in a raffle at a buck-and-doe last winter.

And I will do so in perfect and unmitigated happiness.