Saturday, April 12, 2014

Self-reliance, ceilings, and learning

We've had workmen in the apartment all week. I hired them to fix the ceilings, a job I am utterly unwilling to do. A lifetime or so ago I spackled every joint in every piece of sheetrock in a three bedroom house. I didn't mind doing the walls, but I learned that the ceilings are worth paying someone else to do. They are a pain in the neck in every possible way.

I'm not sure I've ever hired someone to work before. It has been a learning experience, the kind one appreciates because it's useful to know how to do it. I have a deep aversion to hiring people to do what I think of as "my" manual labor.

Still, we have 1933-era ceilings, which means that when one scrapes a crack and a whole patch clunks off there is a real-plaster disaster. Had I done the work myself, the living room ceiling would have come partway down and I would have stared at it dolefully, wondering, Now how do I fix that?!? I am certain I would have spent three months learning how to properly repair a 3'x7' hole. Which would be fine, but at the moment it's better that I should learn to let a professional do it.

One side of my family is as classically do-it-yourself as it's possible to get. My dad grew up chipping old mortar off of used bricks after school, to use in the house his family was building (they did have help with the construction). When I was a kid, if something needed fixing, my dad looked at it and tinkered with it and ordered parts and patiently figured it out. That was good: children tend to think that adults were born knowing how to do everything perfectly and that it's just that they are inept. My dad wasn't shy about dispelling that notion, and I benefited from that. I think kids need to see their parents learning new things, and struggling to learn them. They need to see that perseverance is acquired, not congenital. (It is, admittedly, easier for some people to acquire than others!)  

Dad rototilling his garden at age 81.
Another influence in this vein was a friend in college who had an endless to-learn list. He was an architect and a mechanical engineer, a splendid photographer, a graphic artist, and a bit of a philosopher. He had languages he wanted to learn to speak (at the time he knew four), countries he wanted to explore, skills he was eager to acquire. Years later he put himself through an MD/PhD program by working as a caricaturist at corporate parties.

I thought that was cool; it hadn't occurred to me to envision a whole list of possibilities for myself of what to learn; I kind of thought one just meandered through the vague interest of the moment. To have a burning interest in expanding one's capabilities is awesome; heck, even to be willing to expand your competence beyond what you already know how to do is often unusual.

I do believe that a whole lot of our "I can't do that!" thinking boils down to "I don't know how to do that!" When you append the word yet to "I don't know how to do that!" it transforms your attitude. It shifts the focus away from the fear, and centers it squarely on something we do know how to do: learn.

So... I'm learning. This week I learned how to pay someone to fix my ceilings. Learning not to be entirely self-reliant is an important lesson, too.


  1. So glad you are able to blog a bit more frequently despite the myriad of changes in your family's life! Somehow you have the ability of making a reader feel as if s/he is sitting at a kitchen table with you listening and then exchanging ideas. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

  2. I have always enjoyed your writing. Thank you for the valuable reminder! God bless with getting the apartment ready!!