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I grew up around people who lacked one critical skill: They couldn’t admit there was anything worth doing that they couldn’t do. It was among my dad’s life lessons.


I’m a pretty lousy satiric cartoon re-captioner, for instance…

And to some extent, this denial of incapability was helpful. There really wasn’t much they couldn’t do. If you can read and ask questions, you have the skills you need to learn how to do almost anything. That was our motivating ethos.

My mom and dad had never managed a restaurant or casino when they took over a struggling little cantina with some slot machines in the near-ghost-town of Searchlight, Nevada in 1977. But they soon figured it out. My dad had never tended bar and my mom had never cooked for hundreds of people before that experience. Somehow they pulled it off and built the place into a going business in a matter of a few months…

…only to lose it all when my dad learned that handshakes make for poorly-secured business agreements.

When we moved to Phoenix my dad had no experience in wiring rooftop evaporative coolers. He got a book and more or less figured it out without having to pay an electrician. Sure, there was that time when — as we parked in the driveway — we saw a pigeon alight on the frame of that cooler, make a final death-squawk, take a high trajectory off the roof, then go “thump” as its lifeless, smoking corpse landed at our feet. My dad immediately got the ladder and climbed up top to investigate. We nearly witnessed a repeat performance as he grabbed the cooler with both hands then jerked back, swearing (he hadn’t bothered to turn off the power first).

But overall, dad got a passing grade. Hey! The cooler was keeping the house cool–and the pigeons hot. Bunches of them, we later found out.

And so when I got old enough to start working (for my dad), it was all OJT: On the job training. I could read and knew how to use a card catalog at the library and could frame informal requests for help from professionals in a persuasive way. I wasn’t afraid of failing. I learned a lot of about soldering and the difference between RTS and XLR connectors, when not to connect the ground wire on both sides of a signal cable, how to set a compressor curve and how to edit tape (for the millenials out there: Sound was previously recorded on a polyester-based magnetic tape that needed to be physically manipulated with razor blades and adhesive. Brutal, I know). I was only about 15 or so, but I figured it out — bit-by-bit.

My parents continued to believe there really was nothing they (nor I) couldn’t do given access to the proper sources of information. My dad’s universe was composed of three rings: At the core were the creators who had a certain magic (that’s where he resided, natch). Next ring was inhabited by workaday schlubs like bank presidents and pharmacists. The final ring was inhabited solely by people who swept the hair out of barbershops.

That didn’t leave me with too many career choices.

But now, I’m older and wiser. I will readily admit there are things I just can’t do. I understand the premises behind most of them, but I have come to know that my specific aptitudes render me useless in regards to certain things.

I can’t fold fitted sheets. I watched in amazement a while back as a friend carefully tucked the ends together in some way that violated my understanding of geometry. I can’t do it. If she’s not around, those sheets are getting balled-up and shoved into the closet. That’s that.

I can’t keep a schedule, usually. Though this is probably a case of a very focused sort of resistance to regimentation. I seem to know exactly when ski season starts (even if I can’t go that year). As for when the bell rings in the morning at my kid’s school — 7:35? 7:40? I no unnerstan too good. I blame my background as a self-guided homeschooler (teachers weren’t necessary in our world either, of course). My high school classes started at 9:30 or 10 or so, ran until I wanted to take a bike ride or blow something up in the back yard, then resumed after dinner and ran until 2 AM — with the occasional distraction provided by important readings into why TV had to be eliminated or space exploration.

As I grew up, I found after twenty years of trying my best to keep myself interested in TPS reports

and just keeping my nose down and my mouth shut that those things take critical skills that I never developed. I’ve always been good at looking off in the distance kinda vacantly, only to suddenly say “Hey, we should take that thing and turn it upside-down. It might work better that way.” More the half the time I’m right, which amazes some people and kept me in the game. But such things do not a good corporate career make. I lack that corporate gene, I guess. Yet another among life lessons it took me twenty years to learn.

I no longer disregard the skills of people who can do things I can’t. I’m helpless in some very specific ways.

Please help.

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