As I walked into Lowe’s tonight, I realized I was too ignorant to even ask for the part by its name. Was it a socket? A plug-in doohickey? Or “the stuff under where the plug goes”?
I don’t remember what I called it now, but a couple of employees looked puzzled until one of them realized what I wanted and directed me to Aisle 12. After wandering that aisle and confirming how hopelessly ignorant I was with these parts, a nice fellow shopper asked what I was looking for. She directed me to the right place — on Aisle 13, it turned out — and advised me about which one to buy.
I was completely out of my element and it made me feel shame and regret — not for the first time — about the utter disdain which I used to have toward people who did the sort of blue-collar work which I looked down upon.
I don’t know exactly where this ugly early attitude came from. I’m from a family where everyone was expected to go to excel academically and then go to college. I strongly considered becoming an electrical engineer, a lawyer, a psychologist, a minister and a few other things before settling into a life as as journalist and then political consultant.
I somehow came to see people who did skilled blue-collar jobs as somehow inferior to people like me. I’ve come to understand over the years how short-sighted and ignorant I was.
I have this on my mind tonight because of an electrical problem in my bedroom tonight. The electrical socket you see above suddenly started sparking and hissing before a circuit breaker shut down power to a good portion of my house.
In the dark and sweltering heat, I had to pull the socket assembly out of the wall and figure out what to do — with just the light from my iPhone. (I had turned off every breaker in the house. I wasn’t taking a chance on being wrong about what controlled the power to those wires.) I could tell that the piece was fried — although I didn’t know how badly until I saw it in the light after the repair was made. That’s when I left for Lowe’s to buy the replacement.
I was so ignorant about what I was doing that I had to make a second trip out to get a wire-cutters and a wire-stripper. I couldn’t even find a screwdriver when I started tonight, so I bought a couple of those, too.
I carefully made a diagram of the wiring layout and numbered which wires went into which holes. Then I taped a piece of paper to each wire as I cut it, labeling each with the number that corresponded with a point on my diagram.
An hour or so after it started, I screwed the cover back onto the socket and turned on all the circuit breakers. Everything worked and the lamp plugged into that socket came on without a complaint.
Part of me felt proud of figuring it out, but then I realized that all I’d done was what a typical 10-year-old could have done in a household where such skills are common.
I had an odd feeling as I was wandering around in Lowe’s looking for my part. I found myself thinking, “I want to build a house.” It was a strange thought for someone with no such skills and no inclination to do hard work on that nature.
I think I felt that way because humans have always been builders. We’ve survived this long by making things and fixing things. Our ancestors had to invent the thousands of technologies which built on one another to give us our comfortable modern world.
There’s something in me which still appreciates that — and I loved the tiny little feeling that maybe I could be part of that long historical parade of people who had to learn how to build and repair.
A skilled electrician would have had the tools which I had to go buy. He would have known exactly where to get the part — if he didn’t already have a dozen in his truck. He could have stripped the wires and put them into the new socket in five minutes. Probably less than that.
All of the other skilled trades are the same. Every one of them knows how to do things which I know nothing about. Every one of them is a craftsman to one degree or another. Every one of them can trivially do things that seem like major accomplishments to me.
I appreciate the things I can do. I have skills which relatively few people have. I’m good at thinking and creating. I know that and I haven’t lost sight of those things.
But I feel as though I owe an apology to a lot of people who I once looked down upon because they weren’t as educated and sophisticated as I was. They weren’t as good with words. They didn’t always know how to dress for success. They didn’t always speak with good grammar.
I was wrong to look down on these skilled people. They never knew I felt that way. They don’t really care that I felt that way.
But still, I apologize to all the electricians and carpenters and plumbers and heavy-equipment operators who had intelligence and skills that were applied in very different ways than I’ve applied myself. I apologize to all the people who do such things — across a broad range of fields. Most of you deserve my respect, not my disdain, because you know how to skillfully do things which I’ll never be able to do.
If the modern economy eventually falls apart for awhile — as I expect it to — they’re the ones whose skills will be in demand, not mine. Maybe I need to learn more about construction or welding or plumbing. Maybe they’ll be the ones teaching me.