Skill Set Envy

Dazzled by competence


by Stephanie Piper

"I have a crush on my contractor,â” a young woman friend tells me. â“I'm not sure if it's because he's good-looking, or because he shows up when he says he will and builds wonderful things and vacuums the sawdust when he's through for the day.â”

I've been admiring her new room, bright and airy and beautifully finished. It is undeniably fine work, completed on schedule and on budget. â“He put in the light fixtures for free,â” my friend tells me in a hushed voice. â“He even went out and bought special light bulbs and didn't charge me.â” Then she laughs. â“How hot is that?â”

We pour more coffee and settle in to compare notes. I may be 20-something years her senior, but I know what it is to be dazzled by competence.

When I was my young friend's age, I had a crush on the cop who manned the busy intersection near our apartment in lower Manhattan. Charlie (yes, I still remember his name) brought the four-way traffic to a screeching halt each morning and afternoon so that the mothers and children could cross en route to school and back again.

He was big and handsome and Irish, quick with a word and a wink, and I admired him out of the corner of my eye as I maneuvered two small children and a wobbly baby carriage across 14th Street. But beyond his easy charm, there was something formidable about his approach to the job. Traffic duty on 14th Street was a rookie assignment if ever there was one, yet he did it with a certain style, a confidence born of natural skill. This is about one percent of what I know how to do, his manner seemed to say. But as long as I'm here, I'm going to do it well.

I'm in awe of people who can do things I cannot imagine doing. This covers a lot of vocational territory, from carpentry to law enforcement. It used to be one of my axioms of life that a smart liberal arts graduate can learn to do just about anything, but I'm not so sure anymore. I have come to believe that I will never master the art of wiring a house or constructing a dormer. I could probably learn another language or how to hook rugs, but I am certain that the most patient instructor in the world could not teach me to apprehend a perp or stop a cross-town bus with one sharp blast of a whistle.

Skill set envy, I guess you'd call it. The work I cannot imagine doing seems infinitely better than my own, more definite, more visible, more grounded in the real world.

The people with these enviable skills assume that their work can be explained, broken down into its clear, component parts. They always begin in the same way, the patient electrician, the forthright builder: They lead me to the circuit breaker box or the rotting beam and shine their industrial strength flashlights on the problem. You see, what happens is this, they say, looking to me for acknowledgment. But I don't see. I gaze at them and nod mutely. I'm a writer. What I do is write checks.

My friend and I shake our heads and agree that it's silly to romanticize a perfectly framed window or a neatly managed intersection. But the truth is that we don't develop crushes on astrophysicists or genome researchers. We are dazzled by everyday, here-and-now competence, the â“relentless clarity at the heart of workâ” described by poet Gary Snyder. We sit in the new room and smell the new wood. We cross the street, traffic held at bay by two uniformed arms. We don't know how they do it. We're just glad they do.


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