There’s a long list of things that I can’t do in this life. When I look at my skills and abilities the majority of them all seem to lie within the realm of communications and writing.
Aside from that I’ve never been much of a grease-and-oil kind of guy. I’ve never been a ‘guy’s guy’ who could be called on to help fix a faucet, change a carburetor, re-shingle a house or build a deck. Sometimes I wonder how I missed getting that particular gene.
See, there’s a masculine code that exists. That code pretty much says that if you can’t whip out the rings on your truck motor, rewire your house or knock up a garden shed in half a day you’re less than manly. That same code says that you never ask for directions, ask a friend to drive you home or admit to being skittish over anything. It’s how we’ve learned to measure each other as men. It’s what we’ve come to expect from each other.
That may go a long way to explaining why I don’t have a host of guy friends. Where I live there’s not a lot of call for a man who can write a love sonnet in 20 minutes or knock off an entire novel in half a year. Here in the mountains the men grub and cuss and sweat and poetry is a running back who can twirl his way through a backfield. Most of that is lost on me except perhaps the cussing when I hit my thumb with the hammer.
No, the man-thing runs thin in my blood. It’s embarrassing sometimes to have to ask a neighbour how to do something they regard as simple. It’s irritating not to be able to figure out what they routinely do without thinking. My wife, bless her soul, understands my lack of tool training but there are times when it bothers her, too.
For instance, our new boat sits on its trailer in the corner of our yard. The engine quit after being tangled in the reeds. Just inexplicably stopped and we had to row back to the dock. That was a couple weeks ago and the boat hasn’t moved since. I’m just not an engine guy and even though I paid an arm and a leg for the manual it’s written in a guy-talk I can’t translate. So, after getting help top load it on the trailer, the boat sits idle in the summer sun.
One of our neighbours promised to have a look at it and get it running again. But like all neighbours, he has a busy life and a schedule of fix-ups of his own and it’s hard to get time cleared. So it sits and waits and our dream of floating on the pristine waters sits in that corner of the yard.
When I was kid I wasn’t trusted with motors. If the lawn mower stalled, my adoptive father would charge out of the house, push me aside and block my view of whatever he was doing as he set about fixing it. I was deemed engine-dumb and fix-it stupid. No one made an effort to try to teach me anything.
It’s funny what happens when you treat a kid that way. All the hope you may have had for them to learn just vanishes. Poof. Just like that. My adoptive father never understood about the effects of shame, how it eats at your confidence and your idea of yourself. He never understood how crushing a label is for a kid. He never knew that kids carry that kind of putdown for life.
See, the thing is, if you get told enough times that you’re inadequate, or not cut out for something, a part of you comes to accept that and you quit trying. That’s what happened to me. Engines and motors were removed from my learning by virtue of the shame someone else put there. It’s only now that I’m almost 54 that I’ve become clear enough of that particular abuse to want to try to learn.
So when my neighbour comes to fix our motor, I’ll be right there watching and asking questions. I’ll learn how it works and how to take care of it. One of the other things about the masculine code is that when you ask a question you always get an answer. Even if it sounds dumb. Knowing that, there’s a chance that I’ll become engine literate and fit-up sharp. Even at nearly 54.
We can all learn things and most importantly, we can all unlearn things. All it takes is the desire to move beyond what’s trapped us and held us in place. I won’t ever be a master mechanic but I’ll get us on the water - and that’s the metaphor that works. Metaphor. That’s man talk for the hidden teaching.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org