I’m a freshman in college, opting to avoid the dorms. I live in an apartment with several roommates. Over the course of six months, not only my roommates but also my various friends demonstrate skill in some kind of repair. My roommate repairs a cabinet and unclogs a sink; one of my friends repairs a broken down car; another can fix a bike with a blindfold on. Growing up middle class and suburbian, I focused more on SATs than car repair. I had no idea where the breaker switches were in my house, but I could tell you all of the different strategies for passing an AP test. But for some reason, knowing the different ways DNA is replicated or what a caesura is didn’t make up for the “man skills” I was supposed to know in the predominantly conservative Utah environment.
“What are you going to do when you get married and have to help around the house?” was the common question. I murmured something under my breath about how I was learning slowly this and that, and I would become proficient when necessity struck, but I knew as the months of my life passed by, I still didn’t know the proper way to paint a room or how to lay tile on grout for a new kitchen floor (I would learn these specific skills years later, helping a friend remodel his home during an especially brutal Oklahoma summer).
So as I walked out of the humanities building with my friend that crisp night, and we ran into a fellow student who needed help jumping his car whose battery had died, I felt helpless, standing on the sidelines as my friend expertly pulled out his jumper cables and attached the right clamps to the right battery socket-things and charge the anonymous student’s vehicle. The first emotion that ran through me was resentment. How come I never knew about any of these things? Why didn’t my father teach me any of this? The second emotion quickly following on its heels is guilt. I felt like I had lost out on some real hands-on learning, but most of it really was my fault. My father had tried several times to interest me in cars or lawn care – I refused to learn. After all, I was too busy studying and hanging out with friends to learn how to change the oil in a car. And that night, not feeling very handy at all, I regretted it.
In English class my freshman year in high school, we took a mandatory career test so lovingly sponsored by the school counselors (one of which who would also lovingly misplace my entire student record senior year, almost causing me not to graduate). I wondered what results I would get – while many of my friends had some form of vision in their minds of the various careers they wished to pursue, I had not yet picked on out. An entire decade later, at the age of 24, this subject would continue to be a thorn in my side.
My friends got their results first – for some reason, I made a lot of friends whose first names began with letters in the first half of the alphabet. They quickly tore open the crisp, white envelopes. They came in envelopes to protect the student’s privacy, but the contents would quickly disclose itself to everyone around the student anyway. Computer programmer. Scientist. Lawyer. Doctor. Nurse. I almost trembled in anticipation – finally, a test that could tell the future, declare to me the path of which I should take! The envelope soon came to me, and I opened it almost reverently (though quickly, still) and unfolded its mystical contents.
The first option sat very forebodingly on my paper. Handyman? My friends (some of which would go on to become material science engineers, lawyers, and doctors) laughed it away, saying these tests are anything but fact, but I still remember the shame to this day. I didn’t even know anything about fixing doors or replacing window screens. No accounting, entrepreneurship, chemistry, or writing jobs for me. How did this test acquire such a result?
“Did you ever notice,” my friend drawls to me as we sit in our friend’s kitchen, “That when a girl wants to impress a guy, she goes all domestic on him?” He jabs a finger at my friend, busily beating some eggs for brownies and humming happily, baking her tokens of affection for a certain lucky boy.
“Perhaps it’s a sign of eligibility for marriage. You know, ‘I’m really good at keeping house, an essential aspect of a relationship.’ You’re showing off your skills,” I reply.
“So what do guys do to show off? We’re not exactly supposed to be all domestic and cook and clean a lot, unfortunately for you.” He raises an eyebrow at me.
I mentally brush his pointed comment aside. “Earning power. Able to fix things, I suppose.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Most people in lucrative majors get married quicker, and those people who major in something less lucrative usually don’t get married at all.” He’s watching with amusement at our love sick friend, who rarely exhibited this side of her before.
“You could say that.”
My friend shrugs, then looks again in my direction. “So where does that leave you, Mr. English major?”
My face doesn’t even flinch, and I shrug back, but inside I’m flailing my arms around. I had never considered this prospect before.
I don’t remember exactly why she needed to bring it. But my girlfriend (whom I would later marry) had to bring it over for some reason, and after I saw it, that’s all that dominated my mind.
“Wait right here,” she told me, when the problem arose in my apartment. The next sentence she says quite smugly. “I’ve got a toolbox.”
This declaration came right after her incredulity that I didn’t even possess a single hammer to my name.
She arrives moments later with a bright red toolbox brimming with tools, similar to one my father owned. Pulling out all kinds of tools, from an entire wrench set to a power drill, I stand there somewhat flabbergasted. She had always been very quiet, possessing a very demure type of competence as an accounting major brilliant at numbers and organization. Suddenly, this same girlfriend stands before me, nimbly figuring out ratchet heads by feel and memory and affixing them to whatever that handle thing is called. As she shows off her tools one by one, she asks me condescendingly (in a cute way, I suppose), “Do you know what a screwdriver is?”
“Yes,” I reply exasperated. “I know what a screwdriver is.”
“How about the difference between a Phillips screwdriver and a flathead screwdriver?”
“The Phillips has the nub thing, and the flathead is all…well, flat.”
My girlfriend rolls her eyes, then pushes a lock of hair out of her face (in an incredibly casual-sexy manner) as she continues to fix the problem.
“Fine, fine. I think I might need a level. Can you pass it to me?”
For about sixteen hours, our household lay completely paralyzed. Constant construction on a new road nearby often resulted in brief, temporary power outages and, even more devastating, a momentary lapse of Internet. We had just experienced one of these blinks, and now the modem refused to follow our simple instructions to connect with Gmail. And thus, we wandered through the deserts of Sinai, without direction or aim.
The lack of Internet meant death for us – my work relied on a constant Internet connection, and my wife required the Internet extensively for school. Her capstone project ran completely on the Internet, and she communicated endlessly with her classmates for the never ending stream of group projects she needed to complete during her last semester in college. We needed the internet dearly.
Eight of those empty hours occurred while we slept. So our Internet blackout extended over an evening and a morning. Finally, in the morning, I sat down with the laptop, hooked into our modem, and without any real training or knowledge, armed only with a tissue paper wherein my brother-in-law had scrawled the modem password when he set it up for us ten months ago, I tinkered with the controls and settings, relying completely on luck and intuition. A few prayers and false starts later, I had got the Internet up and running within fifteen minutes.
“Ha!” I exclaimed excitedly, pointing at the achievement for my wife, who graciously thanked me for not requiring her to rush to the library before class to finish her projects. I felt wondrously proud of myself, as if this small act of maintenance vindicated something. I just couldn’t figure out why.