High Stakes Musical Chairs

“Musical Chairs” is the game I hated to play in kindergarten.  When Miss Polly asked us to arrange the chairs for the game, I just dreaded the next half hour of the day. As you may recall from your childhood, the way the game goes is that chairs are arranged in a double row with the backs together. The players form a circle around the chairs. When the teacher starts the music, the players walk around the chairs, staying in a circle. When the teacher stops the music suddenly, everyone is supposed to quickly sit in the chair closest to them. The challenge is that there is one less chair than the number of players. The player who doesn’t get a chair is out of the game. Then one chair is removed from the two rows, the music is started again, suddenly stopped, and the players scramble again for the closest chair. The game continues until there is only one chair and two players left. The person to get the last lonely chair is the winner.

The reason I hated the game so much is that the ultimate winner of the game is the person who is the most aggressive – the pushiest kid in the class. I don’t think I ever won the game. The kids who won were the mean kids, the ones I didn’t like.

I thought about that today because I just received an email from one of my business clients. Although these aren’t his words, he has been forced to play a game of “High Stakes Musical Chairs.”

A couple weeks ago he came to me for some help in writing a collection letter. He’s a general contractor in residential construction. For the last couple months he’s been working on a remodeling job. Basically, he coordinated all the carpentry-related tasks for the primary contractor who is more of an interior designer than a general contractor. My client had used all the payments he had received from the interior designer throughout the course of the project to pay for materials and the subcontractors he had hired (cabinet maker, electrician, plumber, drywall hanger, painter). The final payment upon completion of the job would be where he would cover his own expenses and receive compensation for his work. Unfortunately, the interior designer has not made the final payment. The home owner has paid the interior designer for all the work, but the interior designer appears to have spent the money. For several weeks she has been telling my client “the check is in the mail.” My client has done a little checking into her reputation and has learned that he is not the first general contractor to be left without the final payment by this interior designer.

Basically what’s happening in this economy where there’s just not enough money to go around for everyone, is that someone ends up not getting paid. Someone ends up without a chair when the music stops in this high stakes game of Musical Chairs. In this case, it was my client. When I met with my client, we explored the legal remedies available to him and what his best strategy would be to try to make the interior designer want to pay him so much that she would try to figure out a way to get money to pay him. The first letter my client had already sent was a friendly reminder. Then he found out that she had taken her family on a skiing vacation in Colorado for the holidays, probably using the final payment from the home owner for the extravagant vacation. The second letter, which my client and I wrote together, was friendly but it mentioned the possibility of pursuing legal action, if necessary. So far, her response has been anger, along with the continuing explanation that “the check is in the mail.”

Will my client ever get paid? I don’t know. If he pursues legal action and files a lien on the property, the home owners, who are sympathetic to my client, may pay him to get rid of the lien, and then they may try to get their money back from the interior designer. Or, if the interior designer is afraid of losing sole custody of her kids if criminal charges are filed against her, she may find a way to borrow money to pay my client. Or, nothing may happen, and my client will be the loser in this game.

Who’s the real culprit in this situation? On the surface, it may look like the real culprit is the economy. If times weren’t so tight, and money was flowing freely through the economy like it used to flow, there would be enough money to pay everyone what they were entitled to receive. But I think that’s a superficial explanation. The real culprit is the attitude widely held in our society that life is a game and there are winners and losers. The winners are the ones who are the most aggressive and selfish, the pushiest ones, just like we learned when we played “Musical Chairs.”

Until we learn that life is more than a game, the only way to bring about any fairness in life, is to legislate it – and for the “losers” to be able to seek legal remedies. But that will never be more than a partial solution.

If we ever learn that life really is more than just a game, perhaps we’ll learn to care about each other and learn to share rather than grab. Maybe a good start would be to stop playing the game “Musical Chairs” in kindergarten.

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