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In and out of competence

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.”


  1. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau June 1, 2014 8:11 pm

    I wouldn’t use that handyman again. He should know better. Locksets and doors tend to be pretty standardized by now, with the ability to deal with the one or two options (door thickness and style of routing). Anyway even if the lockset didn’t take care of that it’s about a 2 minute job with a wood chisel.

    My problem is procrastination. I tend to worry about some job and just look at it for a long time and then decide to do something else. Then when I finally get into it I usually find all my worries were for nothing and it was not a big deal after all.

    When I was young and ignorant and too poor to pay others to do things, I decided that despite the risk of my screwing something up, even if I did and then had an even bigger repair to deal with, I would probably still come off better cash-wise than if I hired it out, and I would also have learned something useful. So I use this “logic” to help prod myself into digging into the job.

    I also spent some time writing technical manuals and ever since then I have almost always read any directions included because I figured the people were trying to tell me something (just as in my job) and maybe I should listen. I don’t know why it is considered macho to throw away instructions and plow ahead. How much time is saved anyway?

    As to the other stuff, it must be hard to be a girl sometimes. 🙂 I think girls worry too much about what others think, or are self-conscious, or something. Guys will just work the problem without getting flustered even if somebody is razzing them at the time. Not sure why. It’s like that old joke:

  2. Claire
    Claire June 1, 2014 8:33 pm

    Paul — Oh yeah, SO true about men and women. (Though I was never girly in my interests, emotionally I’m definitely “all girl” — would that it were not so!)

    And yes, I don’t intend to hire that guy again. No way, no how.

    Reading the instructions … always the last resort!

  3. Jim B.
    Jim B. June 1, 2014 8:37 pm

    I just went through something similar.

    I’ve recently had to get my car inspected just last Saturday, the last day of the month. I noticed on the bill receipt printed out that they didn’t replace the burnt out tail-light, though the car passed inspection, they went ahead and tried to replace the tail-light, but because of the model of car I had, they couldn’t figure out how to remove the tail-light cover without removing the fender.

    I stopped him as he was unscrewing the rear fender off, thinking that was ridiculous. Told him I’ll research on the internet how to do it. One website and then a YouTube vid later. Turns out all one had to do was unscrew the inside bolt by hand and pop out the cover.

    It all come down to, nobody can know everything about everything or even any one thing. Sometimes its best to figure things out yourself, and with the ability to research things nowadays, you could probably be a better expert about some things than the experts themselves can know.

    In my case I’m thankful for the Internet and the people who provide the information that other people can use.

  4. Jerry the Geek
    Jerry the Geek June 1, 2014 9:14 pm

    I’m a guy, and I’m just the other way around.

    I’m no good at … you name the list, if it’s fixing stuff, I’ll screw it up.

    One time I tried to replace the part on a toilet that transmits the handle on the flusher to the flusher thingie. I started to unscrew the nut on the mechanism, and I didn’t realize that I had to turn the other way. I thought it was just stuck.

    So I tightened the nut instead of loosening, and broke the ceramic whatchamaycallit .. the tank?

    Instead of doing a 3 minute job at a cost of fifty cents I had to call in a plumber. The toilet was a discontinued style .. I couldn’t buy a replacement tank; I ended up buying a whole knew toilet, plus the cost of hiring a plumber to install it. (I’ve since learned how to buy a toilet … did you know you have to buy a new wax seal? I didn’t!)

    So .. it’s not really a “Guy Thing” or a “Girl Thing”. Some folks are just mechanically disinclined, by nature.

    I no longer “own” property; I rent. When something goes wrong, I call my landlord and act all helpless.

    The landlord, and his plumber, forbear to treat me with contempt. It makes them feel good that they’re helpful to a ‘tard. I get my stuff fixed, they feel good, and they underestimate my ability to function as a Real person.

    That works out well when it’s time to renegotiate the lease: they’re kind to me and forgiving of my foibles, and I spend more time at the range than I do in the bathroom … fixing things, I mean.

    Don’t worry about things you can’t fix. Do what you can. The rest is all “Small Stuff”.

    And, what’s this thing about RTFI?

    There are INSTRUCTIONS?

    (I know how to read, it’s understanding that confuses me.)

    Thanks for the post; it was helpful to me. But I still can’t fix my toilet; would you come over?

  5. naturegirl
    naturegirl June 1, 2014 11:55 pm

    Boy, does all that sound familiar. LOL. Except my childhood fun was building model cars, anything to do with cars.

    As for full sized real cars, I use to understand working on them but the new high tech stuff lost me completely. I purposely dated gearheads in high school so I could hang around and watch (and gap spark plugs and learn to airbrush/pin stripe).

    Now that I have some distance in life, looking back, I am glad I was to broke to pay someone to do rehab/replacing things because that’s how I figured out I could. The rare times I did pay someone else, I was always amazed at the amount of mess they created in the process. The only things I won’t attempt usually involve electricity, although I can change out an outlet and light switch.

    As for the guys involved situations, if I need to learn I’ll watch and thank them and then when they’re gone I’ll do it. Cuz yeah on the odd intimidation that happens when one is around. I always thought it was just me that had that sudden all thumbs thing happen when being watched, hehe. – -And OMG bless YouTube, LOL.- My idea of fun is looking at all the cool stuff gadgets they have now a days, and I kept all my grandfathers and father’s tools.

    As you found out by reading the instructions, it’s a lot easier trying to do projects these days – manufacturers make sure they cover as many styles and possibilities as they can with today’s products. (As long as the instructions are in a language that’s understandable……)

    Anyway, you figured it out. You earned that moment of triumph, Claire. 🙂

  6. naturegirl
    naturegirl June 1, 2014 11:58 pm

    P. S. I doubt there ever will be another Dorothy, that bar is set pretty high.

  7. LarryA
    LarryA June 2, 2014 3:13 am

    I also spent several years in technical writing. Yes, I tend to read the instructions, at least where they are “written.” Unfortunately today they are often graphic.

    Our clothes dryer needed a new heat element, so my wife online-ordered the part. The “instructions” were in video format online. Which would have worked much better had my computer been anywhere near the laundry room.

    Recently it rained. (We’ve been doing without in this part of Texas.) My windshield wipers promptly started shredding. My wife went to the local auto supply and got a new set for my Jeep, two in front, one in back. The instructions were in “English” and “Spanish” in that they had the same cartoon pictures with almost no text. The pictures were pretty good, and I could see how you hooked the arm from the car over the thingy in the blade and pulled until it “CLICKED!” (I learned the Spanish word for “CLICKED!”) Installation took about a minute and a half.

    The instructions did not, however, provide any clue as to how to get the old blades off, and it was different for the front and rear. That took me a half hour.

    Thank God my wife wasn’t watching. The guy component to your competence issue, Claire, is that female eyes exert enormous pressure when we’re fumbling through something we ought to know how to do.

  8. Karen
    Karen June 2, 2014 5:27 am

    I could relate to your childhood stories Claire. One year I asked Santa for a train set, but oh no little girls don’t play with trains. I woke Mom and Dad up crying tht Santa had made a terrible mistake because there were no trains.

    My father wasn’t a workshop kind of guy. His lace curtain Irish Momma was apparently quite a prima donna and she taught all her boys girl stuff like ironing and cooking, so she wouldn’t have to. When Mom wanted to finish the unfinished basement in their new house, he was at a total loss but knew he wasn’t going to pay the exorbitant estimate the local handyman gave Mom. At his work there was a small similar project being done, so every day he’d take his lunch and go watch them and ask questions. Then he’d come home and do what they did and got the basement project done with just him and me.
    So I never had a problem with asking questions and figuring stuff out. When DH and I built this house I did all the electrical(some of it with book in hand). We’ve rebuilt several engines. I’ve repaired our refrig, oven, dishwasher and washing machine. I figure that once it’s already broken, what’s the harm.

    Athough I do get a kick out of showing up at the hardware store or auto store sometimes, looking timid and announcing “my husband sent me with a list”. Drives them nuts.

  9. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 2, 2014 5:50 am

    I can’t do much about construction or plumbing projects these days, though I used to do some. Usually, a friend or neighbor will help me out, but I am very stubborn about making sure they read and understand the instructions first, even if I hire something done. We review the parts available, decide on what else is needed, and agree on what it should look like (or how it should function) before anyone does anything. So fat that’s worked out perfectly for all of us, saved money and keeps everyone communicating.

    I always read the instructions, even for the simple little electronic stuff. The only problem with that is, more and more, the “instructions” are written by people who only THINK they speak English. Unfortunately, the video type instructions are completely useless to me. I can’t understand what they are saying, and – all too often – the narrator manages to stand between the camera and the thing being demonstrated anyway. Why do they DO that? LOL

  10. Matt, another
    Matt, another June 2, 2014 8:29 am

    My school required home economics for young men when I was in 8th grade. I could already out cook and out sew most of the others, but it was good fun. THe school did not discourage young ladies from taking shope classes either. My daughters grew up learning drywall, painting, how to install faucets and door knobs, made furniture etc. My youngest helped her grandparents renovate a rental with a baby on her hip, and one on the way a couple of years ago. Both of them grew up to be girly girls, that can also take care of themselves and get sweaty and muddy with the guys. Self Rescuing Princesses. RTFI? Nah, that takes all the fun out of installing things. Also remember to keep all the bits and pieces left to use later to rebuild other door knobs and deadbolts.

  11. Laird
    Laird June 2, 2014 9:25 am

    “Also remember to keep all the bits and pieces left to use later to rebuild other door knobs and deadbolts.”

    Yeah, I always do that. I now have coffee cans, jars and parts cabinet drawers full of those “bits and pieces”, and as best I can recall I’ve never used any of them. But still I keep saving them. Pack-rat syndrome, I suppose.

  12. Ellendra
    Ellendra June 2, 2014 10:04 am

    When I was really little, my mom made me dress in pink frills and poofy dresses, because she knew even then that as soon as I was old enough I’d be wearing grubbies and playing in the dirt. My Barbie doll drove a forklift. I got a lot of the “girls don’t do that” stuff, too. It got filed with all the other rules that I tried to follow but couldn’t because it didn’t “fit” me. Some of that I’m still getting over.

    I knew my family relations had reached a turning point when my mom asked me to take her to the shooting range.

    I think there’s a pheremone guys put off that interferes with female fine-motor control, while at the same time activating the part of the brain responsible for insecurity. Then the clumsiness adds to the insecurity and the insecurity adds to the clumsiness in a feedback loop until we’re hopeless.

    I have no doubt that there’s a similar one that happens to guys when women are watching, that causes them to try so hard to prove they know what they’re doing when they don’t, that I’ve seen guys just about kill themselves doing things that they otherwise know better than to do. A friend of mine who is a personal trainer says she has to deliberately NOT watch guys when they lift, especially when they ask her to, because the pressure of her watching causes their ligaments to tear.

    It’s just so much easier working on things alone!

  13. Unclezip
    Unclezip June 2, 2014 12:12 pm

    I’ve taught my girls that they can do anything a man can do, if they put themselves into it. They do just fine (my oldest just remodeled her house, and youngest works on her car), but they also know very well how to batt their eyes to get something done.

  14. Mary in Texas
    Mary in Texas June 2, 2014 1:37 pm

    My husband can rebuild an engine and repair the flushing works of a toilet, but when the drain on the lavatory stopped up he was at a loss. Plumber call? Not a chance! I doubled a piece of flexible wire and ran it down the drain, worked it back and forth, and pulled it back up with a chunk of hair and soap scum attached. After that I used a half cup of soda and a cup of vinegar to finish the job. It worked fine and the guy was amazed. Both old farm girl tricks.

  15. ENthePeasant
    ENthePeasant June 2, 2014 3:54 pm

    I’m glad some women can do something because from anecdotal/experience my little region of California produces young women who can neither cook nor fix a toilet. In fact their practical uselessness is a marvel. A degree in Journalism from University of the Pacific apparently makes you unable to cook, clean a toilet… or get a job that pays back your student loans. They do apparently make fair barristas, but not much else. Backwoods mag is probably not the norm when it comes to self sufficiency. In an age of group rights it’s probably not wise to force women as a group to take home Eco but on the other hand it’s probably an important skill that most people, boys and girls, need to know. Both of my boys took that class cuz it was an easy A and oddly enough both cook better than any girlfriend they’ve ever shared residences with. Dad, being a known asshole, often has asked what purpose these “partners” serve? Strange times. Social attitudes/stigmas are all the rage… just like in my Grandmother’s day.

  16. naturegirl
    naturegirl June 2, 2014 4:34 pm

    ENthePeasant, I often think it’s a more generational than regional thing. The young ones now think there will always be someone else to call. Until there aren’t any left to call. 🙂

  17. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal June 2, 2014 7:42 pm

    I was doing a project today, and reading the instructions, while being yelled at for taking the time to read the instructions. Finally I spoke to “Old Yeller” like I might to a spoiled, petulant child and her attitude (or at least her behavior) improved quickly. So, yeah, some guys do read the instructions. I hate discovering I screwed up something simple because I didn’t read the instructions first.

  18. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau June 2, 2014 7:52 pm

    [I think there’s a pheremone guys put off that interferes with female fine-motor control, while at the same time activating the part of the brain responsible for insecurity. Then the clumsiness adds to the insecurity and the insecurity adds to the clumsiness in a feedback loop until we’re hopeless.]

    The reverse does happen to guys, but only when there is the prospect of getting laid. 🙂

    On my last trip through Montana I hit a rock and had to change my tire on the freeway (fortunately the shoulder was very wide there). In the process two different trucks stopped and the drivers asked if I needed any help. Here I am, 64 years old, and they still couldn’t believe I could manage it myself. At least I got that impression. Maybe it was the Oregon tags, and they wanted to show off how Montana he-men could do something a Portland girly-man couldn’t! It’s nice to think a serious breakdown there will very shortly result in real help, but it can be over-done too.

    [The young ones now think there will always be someone else to call. Until there aren’t any left to call.]

    Well then they will just have to buckle down and figure it out themselves. Don’t worry, life will go on after we are dead and gone, heh.

  19. Scott
    Scott June 3, 2014 10:19 am

    A few weeks ago, while waiting to cross the river on a ferry, the guy behind me said every single taillight was out-and they were. No big deal-two minute job. Well, after removing the trunk liner, which completely blocked the taillight socket. Why do they seal in something that’s going to need replacing occassionally?
    I’m not comfortable working with gas or propane -it’s invisible stuff that blows up. If I make a mistake with water pipes, I get wet. A mistake with gas and I’m scattered over a half-mile circle. Electrical, to me, is easy, and I have no problem with it (it’s what I did at my last two jobs). I can do very limited carpentry, but in no way am I good at it. Marginal, at best. Mostly replacing things, like locks or hinges, or something like that.
    My last two jobs might be described at the Institute For Advanced MacGyverism-especially the last one, where then supervisor was almost paranoid over every penny. A lot of “Starfleet Engineering” was done as a result ( go look in the junkpile, and see what we can find).
    Years ago, I showed my Mom how to check oil and the other fluids, and where/how/what/how much to add to them , if need be. I marked everything with luggage tags, with a brief set of instructions on each tag.
    If I had to modify something at my last jobs, I wrote what I did somewhere on the inside of the gizmo, so whoever had to deal with it after me had some idea of what had been done.

  20. PNW John
    PNW John June 3, 2014 3:53 pm

    For as long as I have been messing with stuff, more than a half-century, I have used and heard the acronym “RTFM” over and over.

    Yes, it means, “Read The F&*^%$# Manual” !

    So far, it has worked (almost) every time since 1959.

  21. Terry
    Terry June 4, 2014 5:52 pm

    Claire, sounds like you’ve hit a couple of classic Gumption Traps! Good work on getting over them.

  22. zelda
    zelda June 8, 2014 2:48 am

    If you think the rotten floor, beam, walls, etc. were a drain on your budget for the door, wait until you start replacing windows and find rotten wood is all that is holding up your house. There may be one, but so far I haven’t seen an old house where it was possible to pop in a new door or a new anything else. Your handyman sounds like the ideal person to tear your house down, a bit at a time (while you live on site in a small 4 season travel trailer or a yurt), and salvage anything that can be sold to help pay for a small new house.

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