Gunshots echo throughout the neighbourhood as I write. Any civilised person should react unfavourably to this, and in my other life, as as city-dweller in the Canadian west, I’d be punching 9-1-1 with a shaky hand. Like the time I smelled natural gas from the demo site across the street, and my call to emergency services resulted in two fire trucks, a blog post, but no explosion.
Here in the So of Fr, people hunt wild boar. I say ‘people’ but they’re men, most of them bearded, all dressed in camouflage gear and driving 4X4s. Their dogs are nervous, spotted things that nobody would want as a pet, and to a pooch they sport collars the colour of butternut squash flesh. Hunting season for wild boar runs from mid-September until the end of February, and is about seven months too long, in my view. I’m OK with one day of the year being open season on furry pigs, and I really like wild boar stew, but I resent mightily that my life is at risk as soon as I’m more than 100 feet from the post office. Hunters seem to have free rein everywhere outside villages centres, and that includes inhabited areas that may also be frequented by hikers. The shots I’m hearing probably come from the woods behind the house, where there is also a recreation centre with a soccer field and an exercise circuit. A headline might read: ‘Woman mistaken for boar while doing chin-ups’.
But more importantly, things have been happening in my amicable association since I last wrote about the woman whose vision of volunteerism meant funnelling freebies to herself and her friends, instead of ensuring that these occasional gifts, offered by the Ballet de Monte Carlo, benefitted the association as a whole. At a fractious meeting of the committee last week, 10 people voted to let her keep doing this because, as one put it, ‘she’s old, and anyway, she’s been doing it for ages’, this despite the fact that a year ago these same people all voted to tighten the rules against such practices. I disagreed, but had only two supporters, so accepting the will of the majority means I have to park my sense of injustice somewhere. Tourner la page. But there is a second situation that bothers me more, and I’m still losing sleep over whether I handled it properly or not.
A committee member, a fellow who is the editor of our newsletter, volunteered nearly a year ago to make a new website for the association. It was widely understood that he would do the bulk of the work, with some assistance from me. After months of silence, he let me know in early autumn while I was in Calgary that he had brought in a professional web designer and that this fellow had already started developing the site. The pro’s assistance would cost 1200€ – a steal, he assured me. I was stunned. There had never been an instance of paying anyone to do work for the association, and not only had this idea not been approved by the committee, it had not even been raised. I should have thrown on the brakes right then and there, but felt that I must have missed something along the line, being totally preoccupied with the painting of my house a continent away.
You may have heard of the Ladder of Inference, which is what happens when one misunderstanding or assumption leads to others, all erroneous. Well, that’s what happened here. The committee members, including me, had assumed that our volunteer had all the skills needed to build a website. He assumed we knew he intended to get input from a pro. When he first told me that somebody was in on the project and had already made an analysis of our needs, I assumed that we, the association, were on the hook for the work already done. The board would have to approve the expense, I said, but there was enough money in the treasury to cover it. I assumed he realised that he’d have to put the brakes on until I was back in France and the board could meet to discuss the situation. But he assumed, I later realised, that I had given him the go-ahead.
When the board finally met, the site was revealed to be well under construction. I felt stupid for not having been clear and firm from the outset, and for not having clued in to the assumptions made by Volunteer Guy. I acknowledged my errors to the rest of the board, who waved them away. They listened to VG’s sales pitch, and took a look at the draft site.
I couldn’t believe – and said so – that a designer would charge 1200€ for a site based on a very basic WordPress template that I could have done myself. It wasn’t much of an improvement on the old website and looked like the work of an amateur. The secretary’s comment was, ‘All that money just for that?’ The rest of the board disagreed and outvoted us, approving the expenditure.
I decided to make the best of a bad deal and try to help improve the thing. I worked on it with Volunteer Guy for about a month, but my heart wasn’t in it. What did it matter if it didn’t meet my standards? Who was I to say it wasn’t worth it? It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong in thinking I knew better than everybody else, and maybe I just had to let go. So I did, more or less. I worked on text and left the design alone, although it pained me to look at it.
A few weeks before the grand unveiling of the website to the entire committee (and thence to the 400-odd members) I went to see a guy at our local web hosting shop to discuss replacing the old site with the new one. Naturally, he asked to see the site. Remember the story about the Emperor’s New Clothes? The web-hosting guy was that villager who pointed his finger at the emperor and declared: ‘But he’s NAKED!’
The design and functionality were most certainly not professional, in his view, and not worth a quarter of the price we’d been quoted. Since there was a chance that his opinion wasn’t unbiased – he hadn’t been asked to do the job, after all – I thought I’d get a second opinion from someone who had no stake in the project. I sent the link to a friend whose 20-year-career in web design made him something of an expert, simply asking him to look it over and make some suggestions, if any. His analysis was comprehensive and detailed. It was an unsatisfactory job, for a whole lot of reasons.
The only good thing about this news was that we hadn’t yet paid the 1200€ bill. I informed the board of what I’d discovered, and we agreed that we’d find out what could be done to address the deficiencies. I then brought Volunteer Guy into the loop. I felt bad about blindsiding him right before the launch, but better then than after it went public. There was still time for him to put his head together with the original designer (who had promised that he wouldn’t sign off until we were satisfied) to see what could be done to improve the site.
In retrospect, I should have told VG about the situation face to face, but I emailed him, including the original text of the second opinion. Two days went by without a response, at which point I picked up the phone. Could he give me an idea of where things stood with the web designer, and what I could report at the board meeting of that morning? Too busy with other things, he said, and hung up. When I tried to view the site later that day, it had been withdrawn, replaced by, ‘Move along. Nothing to see here.’
A few days later all the board members received a long email from him. The essence of it was that we had no clue what we were talking about, and that his designer buddy was brilliant. I was a double-crosser, and my two sources were unschooled and rude, to boot. Etc, etc. Oddly, he also said that showing the website to anyone else was unprofessional and possibly illegal. The designer was not willing to change the site because there was nothing wrong with it, and to suggest otherwise was insulting. He had chosen to remove it. Frankly, I was pretty happy with that outcome, as it meant we were off the hook for the bill, and could proceed with something a whole better.
Here’s what bothers me. Volunteer Guy is someone I liked, have socialised with, and who, along with his lovely wife, had been kind to my student daughter in Stockholm, where they live when they’re not in the So of France. He’s not a close friend, but my husband and I have had some pleasant times with him and his wife over the last couple of years since we first met. I didn’t expect him to be happy to be told that a project he’d invested time and effort in wasn’t up to snuff, and I considered the possibility that he might take it personally, at least at first. I could have been more diplomatic, certainly.
What I wasn’t prepared for was his refusal to consider that anyone else’s opinion had merit, and his view that I had been unethical in the extreme by soliciting a second opinion before approaching him. I stewed about this for a couple of days, and then picked up the phone. I hate confrontation (just in case I’m wrong…) but hate leaving things hanging even more. Could we meet for a coffee and sort out a few things? We could, he agreed.
It didn’t really help. He listened to my explanation of how things went down, how I hadn’t deliberately sabotaged the project, how I wanted to get a second un-biased opinion just in case the first one (and my own) was off-base. I said I was sorry that he’d had the rug pulled out from under him at the last minute, but that my obligation was to ensure that the association got the best value for their investment.
His response was very disparaging. Clearly I didn’t know much. The local guy was just a local guy, and whoever my designer buddy was, he obviously didn’t have nearly the brilliance of his designer buddy. I had made mistake after mistake. I had handled the whole thing badly from the beginning. Etc, etc.
I listened. But when it got to the point where he hammered home three times in the course of a minute the fact that I had made multiple mistakes, I got pissed off. Not admitting to my mistakes is not one of my faults. His condescension made me mad, the word bullshit was uttered, and the conversation ended.
I haven’t seen him since, but will eventually run into him. It’s a small world here. I’ll be perfectly pleasant, but I don’t think we’ll go back to being friends, which is too bad because I like his wife a lot. If he and I had simply disagreed about ways and means, that would be one thing, but it’s probably fair to say that we both felt under personal attack from the other.
I doubt very much that we’ll be having dinner with him and his wife anytime soon. On the other hand, he seems to be someone who is smoothly adept at compartmentalising and/or hiding his feelings, and maybe he can be perfectly jolly all while maintaining his low opinion of my management style. That sort of thing smells to me like falseness, although maybe I see him in that light just because I’m terrible at putting a good face on things.
As so often happens, writing about something brings clarity. I realise, while reading that last paragraph, that he doesn’t put up a facade. I think he genuinely believes that he knows better than anyone else, and what I used to think of as an odd personality trait – his outright dismissal of things that others consider important, like proofreading the newsletter! – is actually his sense of superiority showing.
To be honest, I also believe I’m right most of the time, the difference between the two of us being that after the dust has settled, I often have to grovel. But not this time.