Journal of the Plague Year 2020: None of These Things Is What It Appears to Be

Until this week, I’ve managed to avoid the pandemic trend towards DIY home repair. This is not for lack of projects. If I simply look up from my laptop screen, I’m confronted with absent window screens, a security door that can only be locked and unlocked with extraordinary patience and dedication; questionable grout; cracked, damp and stained plaster; live wires protruding from the kitchen ceiling, and an electrical outlet that reliably shocks the unwary.

I do not fix these things. I hire people to fix them. My excuse is that I don’t have time. The truth is much sadder, and was borne upon me once again last night.

Years ago I bought two very pretty antique lamps. One stopped working almost immediately; the other has performed like a champ. Because my house is dim, I’d developed the habit of carrying the working lamp from room to room to add a bit of extra light. Occasionally I would plug in its twin to confirm that it had not, in fact, been healed by sitting quietly in the back room gathering dust. Two days ago I searched “how to rewire a lamp,” and found a charming DIY site that provided step-by-step instructions, and promised that rewiring a lamp “sounds like a thing, but isn’t.”

Buying a rewiring kit on Amazon is a thing, but then buying anything on Amazon leaves me enervated and demoralized. The kit was delivered, along with a replacement harp that I intended to install, since the glass shades of both lamps rest directly on the light bulb, which seems like an unsatisfactory arrangement. I gathered the tools, pulled up the instructions on my laptop, and got to work.

Oh, Reader. For me, rewiring a lamp is a thing. I am very, very bad at manual tasks. This is not self-consciousness, or me lacking confidence or experience, or me exaggerating in a self-dramatizing way. From start to finish, it was a horrible, shaming slog. My hands don’t work. My eyes don’t work. I have to close my eyes and work by feel, take lots of deep breaths. I’m often tempted to use my teeth in place of my fingers. I don’t know why this is so, but it is, and it always has been. A 10-minute task took me 45 minutes. I finished it, and the lamp works. Far from having a sense of accomplishment, the project left me with a churning stomach and clenched jaw.

Why is he telling us this? Aside from self-dramatizing, that is.

The sickening misery of the lamp project reminds me of two significant barriers I’ve overcome.

I followed the most difficult possible path to flight test engineering. I started out a woman, in a pink-collar, administrative role, with no education or background in engineering. I know a few other people who have wormed their way into flight test without a degree, but they’re all natural wrench-turners and troubleshooters.

When I started work in an integration lab five years ago, I quickly realized that, far from having natural aptitude, I was more than usually bad at even the simplest tasks. I cross-thread and strip fasteners. I drop tools. I’m baffled by simple mechanisms. And people notice this. It makes other lab rats uncomfortable to watch me work, because I’m slow and awkward, and I go about things in the stupidest possible way. I’ve shaken off my timidity and self-consciousness, and am pretty ruthless about delegating and asking for help, but I’m still remarkably bad at setup, breakdown and fabrication.

At one point in my little lamp-project, I needed to take apart the neck of the lamp to install the new harp. I removed a tiny screw, and, after a few turns to the neck of the lamp, the entire thing fell apart in my lap. The shame and anxiety of that moment is deeply familiar. I knew why it fell apart, and how to put it back together. Knowing and doing are two different things. I found it jaw-grindingly difficult to hold the little copper wire-tips in place while tightening down a single screw. I knew it would be a brutal and possibly futile struggle to line everything up and tighten it all down. Plus, the tiny screw was plainly eager to lose itself in the Chinese silk carpet.

There was a long stretch of time at work — perhaps two years — when I had the sickening sense that I’d clawed my way into a job I desperately wanted, only to discover that I sucked at it. It’s inspiring to break through barriers of discrimination if you can triumphantly show them, see, I’m better at this than any trained male engineer! If you’re quite a bit worse at it, however, that’s a harder case to make. No one ever asked explicitly, but I often asked myself why I wanted to do this, and if I was any fucking good at it.

Of course, flight test engineering isn’t just making and breaking connections and lifting heavy equipment. Those are the most visible and obvious parts, and no missile is launched without a lot of wrench-during and troubleshooting. Flight lines are crawling with people who are good at that shit, though. Not everyone has to be.

My value is different. I’m a whiz at lots of things that most engineers can’t or won’t do. Documentation, peer reviews, reports. Real-time telemetry monitoring. I’m good at making decisions under pressure, communicating bad news, and loudly refusing to do stupid shit that everyone will regret later. I excel at persuading other people to make my problem their problem, and to contribute their skills to solving it.

But, yeah, there have been a lot of dark moments when shit literally fell apart in my hands and I thought, I really don’t belong here.

I felt some of the same hesitation about becoming a man. It seems absurd on the face of it. I’m 5’6″, slender, fine-boned and awkward. I have a strong aesthetic, and take real sensual pleasure in the color, cut and texture of fabric. I like to sing. I own a cat. I often use the words “lovely” and “delightful.” I take genuine pleasure in archaic titles and forms of address, and am actively searching for opportunities to close out an email with the phrase, “I remain, sir, your most obedient servant.” I would seem to be very unpromising man-material.

And yet, here I am. A flight test engineer named Alexander. Because none of these things — flight test, engineering, masculinity — is what it appears to be.

rewired lamp
The pretty little lamp, rewired and ready to shed light.

Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 530,267

Current hospitalizations: 4,501

Deaths: 9,015

NB: My mom is still quite ill, but seems to improving with an antibiotic.

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