I’m less competent when men are around. It’s kind of annoying, and it’s definitely one reason I prefer living solo. But there it is.
This usually shows around cars (where I’m genuinely befuddled) and construction work (where I have some practical knowledge). It’s not a matter of playing dumb. Not my style, that. Nor is it a matter of actually being dumb. It’s more as if an old “I’m no good” switch flips and I become fumble-fingered at things I can do perfectly well when I’m on my own.
I never was a girly girl. Until I was seven I was more likely to be with my father in his workshop than with my mother in the kitchen. I never played with baby dolls; my favorite pre-school toy was a box of wooden blocks. Not “ABC” type blocks from the store, but leftover bits of 2x4s and plywood.
Then one day when I was in the second grade I brought a crude wooden model boat I’d hammered together to school for show and tell — and the resounding reaction was, “Girls aren’t supposed to do that.” I remember feeling icky about myself.
I stayed away from Dad’s workshop, but the interest in building things still lingered. For Christmas the year I was 11 I asked for an erector set — which my mom actually got me. Then for the next week she and my aunts hammered on: “You don’t really want that, do you?” “That’s not very much fun, is it?” “Wouldn’t you rather have a —–?”
Eventually I gave in. The erector set went back to the store, never mind that a few bits were already bent from use. Its replacement (a wood-burning plaque kit) wasn’t particularly girly, but the message was there.
Then in high school, as I wrote a while back, I was required to take “home economics,” which I refused to do. And neither I nor any other girl was allowed to take wood or metal shop. I used to pass by the door of that wood shop with such envy! Oh, the aroma. The magic of actually making things out of wood!
I grew up to own several fixer houses. Or to be in a position to afford having somebody else build the shell of a structure, but needing to drywall it, side it, and lay flooring myself. I had to get good at a few things, simply because I couldn’t afford not to do them myself. Certain “lite” things I know I’m okay at. I can measure, cut, and hang drywall better than the carpenter/handymen I’ve hired over the years. I always do my own. But I’m no Dorothy Ainsworth! I’m often nervous and hesitant about other simple things like hanging a bifold door or installing a dead-bolt. Then I see handymen perform these tasks for me and I kick myself, knowing I could have easily done it, saving a bundle and growing my confidence — had I only tried.
This last week a moderately challenging project of the sort I wouldn’t touch turned into a very challenging project of the sort the handyman I hired shouldn’t have touched, either.
It was supposed to be a matter of enlarging a door frame and popping in a pre-hung door. It turned into a matter of replacing a wall and a half, an expanse of floor, a beam, and … oh, you don’t want to know what-all. The handyman called in the grizzled old construction expert, and as they worked together the project grew and grew.
Finally, with an eye on my dwindling budget, I just had to say, “That’s it. I can only afford one of you tomorrow, and wherever you are at the end of the day, that’s where we stop.”
Fortunately, they were already wrapping up the parts of the job where, if you get it wrong, your house turns into a landlocked version of The Titanic. So the handyman came back the next day for some small stuff.
One of the small things was installing the lockset on the new door. He ripped apart the package, pulled out the lock mechanisms and announced, “This lock won’t work. Your door and the frame are already pre-cut for some other brand of lock. I could rout out the door to fit this brand, but that’s a hardwood door. We’re looking at an hour’s extra work at least.” He thrust the shredded package into my hands and suggested I get a different lockset. But too late for him. He had to leave. Which he did.
Because I couldn’t see walking back into the store with a package in shreds, I decided to see what the problem was. I was fumbling around with the plates and lock mechanisms when a young kid who was helping with some of the gofer work and site cleanup took them out of my hands. I felt stupid; I’d been holding one of the mechanisms backwards.
This, too, is part of the whole “girls don’t” and “I’m no good” business. If I’d been solo, I’d either not have gotten it backwards or I’d have quickly figured it out and flipped it around, never even remembering the gaffe. But because there’s a “guy to the rescue,” I don’t get the chance to self-correct and I end up feeling like an ass. Never mind that the guy in question is about 19 and actually has no idea what he was doing. There’s chivalry in the gesture of taking the job away from the poor, inept woman. And I appreciate that. There’s also condescension. Which feeds my self-doubt.
He did, however, show me a good way to rig the door firmly closed for the night.
So I’m tired and discouraged and thinking I’m going to have to call in a locksmith or something. But the next day, while looking at the new door while sipping coffee, I decide that’s just stupid. Even if the damned door has to be routed out, I can do it myself with a Dremel tool or a chisel. So I pick up the busted package and the now-scattered pieces of the lockset to see just how big the problem is …
… and there, right in the package is everything I need to make the lockset work properly. No routing needed. Just read the damned instructions and use the various spare parts provided. And in 15 minutes I had a perfectly functional, no-hassle lock and dead-bolt installed.
An hour later the handyman came by to pick up some tools he’d forgotten and he marveled at how I’d done that.
“All the parts were there,” I said. “You just needed to pop off the rectangular plates with a screwdriver and replace them with little round ones.”
“Well, I’ll be,” said he. “I never knew that. You learn something new every day.”