Living

Experience

I used to believe in talent. These days, I’m not sure I do.

In high school, I took the ASVAB test – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam. Basically, it was a tool the military-industrial complex used to filter students with skills that would be valuable to the military into the recruiter’s hands.

Which is pretty screwed up if you think about it. But anyway.

A thing that absolutely shocked literally everyone who knew me was that I scored ridiculously high on the mechanical portion of the exam. Things like they show you a series of interlocking gears, numbered 1-7. And then they ask, “If gear #3 turns clockwise, what direction does gear #1 turn?”

Like that. I did really well on it.

I was not known for my mechanical ability. I was known for my reading. I was known for my acne. And that was pretty much it. If I had a talent, it was not anything mechanical. It was reading and writing.

We had shop class, which I liked the idea of, but it was filled with what I would now call toxic masculinity (including the teacher), and even then, it felt icky. Even today, I seldom fit into all-male spaces and don’t do bro-culture well.

My Dad was very handy. I would much rather read a book. It used to frustrate him to no end that he wanted to teach me how to work on cars, and I wanted to read.

“Hugh’s just not talented,” people would say. “He’s more of a bookworm.”

I don’t really think that’s a thing. I mean, I did well on that test – I obviously had an aptitude for thinking about things mechanically. But I still couldn’t use a hammer to save my life. And since Dad’s effortless way with tools was my basis of comparison, I felt uncomfortable and awkward. I was comparing my 2 weeks of experience to his 30 years of experience and was mad because he was better at it than I was.

He wasn’t necessarily more talented than I was – he had more experience than I did.

This Sunday afternoon, our kitchen sink clogged. This was particularly annoying because it clogged right after I had made waffles, but before we washed the dishes. I emptied the sink of all the dirty dishes and then plunged for a while. Nothing doing.

I then went to the hardware store and bought a 25-foot-long drain snake (I thought I had one, but maybe not because I couldn’t find it). After 30 minutes of cursing, I had a clogged pipe AND was the owner of a drain snake. Wherever this clog was, it was more than 25 feet away. But the washing machine drained fine, so I knew the clog was between the sink and the washing machine.

I went back to the hardware store and bought some sulfuric acid. Poured it down the drain and went to bed.

Monday, when I woke up, the drain was clear. Yay! I ran water for a while, and it worked. I set about my day. Just before lunch, I began to wash some dishes and realized it was clogged again. Dammit! And I had an afternoon of meetings scheduled.

Last night after supper, I climbed under the house and saw the culprit – a section of the drain pipe that had been repaired long ago just before where the washing machine drains was catching debris from the disposal and had clogged. The repair was questionable in the first place, and the drain pipe was cast iron, original to the house. I could buy a 50-foot drain snake and probably get it, but the problem would still remain.

So this morning, I was at Home Depot at 6 am, and I bought a 10-foot length of 2-inch PVC and two generic fernco couplers (to connect the PVC to the cast iron) for about $30. I crawled under the house and, using my $14 angle grinder, cut the cast iron pipe on the downhill side of the suspected blockage. It was relatively dry, so it looked like my thesis was correct. I connected the franco coupler and one end of the PVC pipe to the cast iron.

I laid the PVC pipe along the existing pipe to measure 10 feet and then cut the cast iron pipe. This time, it was filled with nasty water, proving the blockage was in the 10 feet I was removing (probably at the damaged spot). In 10 minutes, I had the fernco coupling connected and had moved the plumbing strap from the old pipe to the new one.

I went inside and washed my hands and face in my unclogged sink.

14-year-old me would have been amazed at 50-year-old me’s “mechanical ability.” Lots of y’all think I am “very handy.”

Nope. I just have done this before. I have replaced bad pieces of drain pipe before, did a shit ton of research at the time, and learned about fernco couplers. I have used an angle grinder before. I knew how to get under my house.

But the first time I did it, I didn’t. That was when I bought the angle grinder. That was when I did the research and when I watched all the YouTube videos. This time, I didn’t have to. I wasn’t talented – I just had experience.

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  • Diana Kinder
    August 24, 2022 at 9:23 am

    Loved your article about talent vs. experience. I can identify. My dad didn’t have any training on “fixing things.” However, he was motivated to make things work — mostly he was probably motivated by saving money. As our family’s oldest child, I became dad’s apprentice. I might add that my apprenticeship came because not only was I the oldest, but also because my siblings were all girls. I learned a lot in my apprenticeship, including some words that I wasn’t allowed to use in public. I gained a lot of skills by helping and just watching and by accompanying dad to the hardware store. My son when he was approaching high school graduation also took the ASVAB test and did very well on it. He joined the Coast Guard and got a great deal of experience fixing lots of things for 22 years — and, yes, he did like to read a lot, and still does. The two activities are not mutually exclusive. But then, you know that, too.