The Friday night before Halloween, at a party in Echo Park, I helped a friend of mine open her twist-off Full Sail Pale Ale. It was the most useful I’d felt in weeks.
Later that weekend, as I was boiling water again, to make Annie’s Mac and Cheese again, it hit me that I am a royal pain in the ass to the whole world. Every grim, toiling generation of my Czech and Swedish ancestors, with all of their useful labor and survival skills, has resulted in a guy who pretty much can’t do anything with his hands.
What limited skills I do have are dependent on optimal conditions of comfort and convenience. I can hook up audio/visual components, I’m solid at both bar trivia and Scrabble, I can responsibly manage personal finances, and I’m good at remembering people’s names. And I can recite all of the Presidents in order, with years served and political affiliation, off the top of my head. That about covers my skill set. When it comes the bottom two layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that’s where I’m absolutely pointless.
I know that if I had been born in 1840, I’d have been dead by age ten, and if I had somehow survived dysentery and snakebites on the Oregon Trail, I’d have been killed off, for constantly getting in the way of people who were trying to get things done.
I’ve met a few small challenges—pitching a tent in Joshua Tree, installing storm windows on my great-aunt’s house in North Dakota—but innumerable other tests, like casting lines while deep-sea fishing in the Pacific, changing out a flat tire in the rain, chambering a round in an AK-47 (harder than it looks, the first time), I’ve failed badly and have been called out for it.
It doesn’t mean I won’t try. A few years ago, I was working north of the Arctic Circle with the kind of guys who drive snowmobiles for fun– you know–regular guys. Even though I immediately crashed mine into a ditch and was thrown from the thing into a mass of frozen shrubbery, I knew I’d have another go at it. I mean, I hadn’t broken any bones, and we’d paid in advance for four hours of fun time, and after the five minutes it took three (other) guys to dig the thing out, we still had about three-and-a-half hours left.
Had my snowmobile ride been a solo journey, the accident wouldn’t have ended so happily. I could not have gotten that thing out of the ditch on my own, and had I broken any part of it, even something easily repaired, I’d still be standing on the side of the road either until someone useful came along or until I died.
I can’t listen to a snowmobile engine and determine what ails it. I can’t build, fix, fabricate, pre-fabricate, or retrofit anything. Nor can I make anything from scratch in the workshop, garage, studio, or kitchen.
How did it come to this?
My parents weren’t like me. They were raised on farms and/or by people who were. I myself even lived on a farm for short time when I was three, but I learned nothing. I adopted a cat I named Ratlips and I was at least savvy enough to stay away from the machines that would’ve killed me had I expressed any curiosity about them.
Even after moving off the farm, I had numerous chances to become a useful man around the house, in the garage, in the wild. I grew up completely surrounded by outdoorsy gearheads – last time I checked, I was literally the only male on my dad’s entire side of the family (this includes my dad, my brother, five uncles and five male cousins) who does not own both a gun and a motorcycle. Some of them own several of each, and the motorcycles are customized and assiduously maintained by their owners. The same is true of their cars. The passage of time at family reunions is marked not by the growth of grandchildren, but by the progress of automotive engineering.
“Remember that ’54 Dodge flathead? You were sixteen!”
“The 1980 RX-7 with the Wankel engine? Your youngest was in college!”
I have learned the hard way that if you stop the conversation to ask what “torque” or “a camshaft” is, you are more or less breaking the fourth wall.
Despite being exposed to this surfeit of utilitarianism throughout my formative years, none of it sunk in. Whenever my dad attempted to teach me how to change the oil in a car, or change a tire, or flush the radiator, my mind wandered to what I’d rather be doing, which at age 11 was probably revising Presidential elections (where, for example, I’d have Henry Clay defeat James K. Polk in 1844) or making giant family trees of the House of Atreus on huge sheets of paper in the basement. Picking up on this, my dad pointedly admonished me.
“If you don’t learn how to fix your own stuff,” he said, “You’ll have to make enough money so that you can hire the people who can.”
Sounds like a plan, I thought.
And that’s pretty much how it’s turned out. I talk to my dad on the phone and he tells me about how he repaired his hot water heater and how he’s keeping his 1990 Volkswagen Passat in pristine mechanical condition. In turn, I tell him how much my repair bills are and how I have to call the landlord to help me figure out how to light the pilot light on my stove, so I can make more mac and cheese from a box.
If there’s a conclusion to this sad tale of masculine devolution, it’s this: My DNA should not be allowed to dilute the gene pool. If you’re a single woman, don’t end up with someone like me, whether you can fix your own stuff or not. If you and I hooked up, I would cancel out your usefulness with my immense non-usefulness. We’d only have kids who’d be obsessed with Greek mythology, have pensive posters of M. Ward on their bedroom walls, and major in things like Comparative Literature at expensive private colleges founded by Jesuits. This will not help the human race to blossom and thrive through the difficult times ahead.
So, until you’re married, don’t talk to guys like me at Jonathan Franzen readings or the Literary Death Match or the Sonic Youth/Pavement show at the Bowl. Even if you can already replace the spark plugs in your car blindfolded, you and I cannot be holding hands when we jaywalk, and have no business whispering in each other’s ears in the middle of a dance floor. No, I beg you, hang out with the pit crews at the Brickyard 400, linger at the Minnesota State Fair’s Machinery Hill, or apply to grad school at Cal Tech or MIT instead of Cal Arts or Sarah Lawrence. Discover the wonder in usefulness, not in guys that get your film and literary references.
As much as I may want kids someday, it just isn’t fair to society. It’s time now to make a Kickstarter page where you all can chip in and buy a vasectomy for me, and the thousands of men like me. If you allow me to someday wear a BabyBjorn through the streets of Silver Lake, my children will only help keep Jiffy Lube in business.
I, and future generations, thank you.