On Skills

During the summer before 7th grade, I took figure skating lessons. The cool, fresh feeling of gliding across the smooth ice was exhilarating. I loved my lessons and I was a natural. This meant that the instructors were happy to work with me and frequently took me aside to show me more advanced moves. I skipped two levels. I wasn’t skilled, I was just lucky, but I took every compliment in stride. I was sure I could easily become a star with no effort at all.

By the end of the summer, I had qualified for Freestyle 1 and I was giddy. When I entered my first Freestyle lesson I knew something was different. Most of the girls were older than I was and they all wore proper skating uniforms, not sweatpants and hoodies. The instructors no longer acted as though I was special. I was excited to show off that I had already learned some of the tricks they were teaching us but I quickly learned that my moves were sloppy and they considered me a raw beginner. They reminded us all that we should begin to sign up for open ice time early in the morning so we could practice more if we wanted to keep up.

I was completely floored. I entertained the idea of independent practice long enough to try it twice. I made a routine to perform in the upcoming competition, did not win a medal, and when Freestyle 1 was over I quit.

In the years since, I have come up against many things for which I have no aptitude. I am disturbingly terrible at math and cannot memorize facts under pain of humiliation. In many ways, I have been able to forgive myself for these flaws. Effort in these areas has yielded minimal results. I learn enough to pass my classes but it has never substantially altered my life and I can sometimes even stop blaming myself for failing where others succeed.

However, I have not been able to forgive myself for quitting ice-skating. There is an enormous gulf between natural aptitude and skill. The latter requires practice that I never had the patience for and which still dogs my footsteps whenever a task that was once easy becomes difficult.

Natural ability should create a feedback loop that makes it easier to practice. It seems to do that for a lot of people, but there is a risk. It is much harder to fail when people know you have put in effort. I was too scared to face defeat after practicing ice-skating because I would have been ashamed. I was much more happy to quit while I was ahead and could brag about the time I was a wonderfully quick learner who got bored and decided to move on to new things. That is where I pretend the story ends.

This problem reoccurs whenever I achieve something I do not understand. Natural aptitude is suspicious because it cannot carry me forever. At some point I will need to practice. Everyone knows a few astonishingly good writers or math student who never spent time on a paper or used a calculator. They are frequently students who never had to study for straight As in high school and then flounder and flunk in college because they never had to learn how to do study for a class. I had no idea what made me good at ice-skating and when I no longer had that advantage I was afraid and helpless. I did not know how to practice and I was not interested in finding out.

In a strange way this has been immensely beneficial for me. I can no longer do tricks on the ice and it would take a long time to regain my previous skill but I have learned a lot about myself. I am glad that I quit when it was something that did not matter. If I had never experienced that cowardice, I doubt that I would have been able to struggle through snowboarding, poetry, and future athletics. In many ways, I am still afraid. I do not like to spend time on English papers because I worry about the shame I would feel if I actually tried and did not succeed. I worry that my effort will never be enough, but I am slowly learning how to practice.

The Phatic Vocabulary

Today I heard something wondrous. I was walking along the sidewalk and I heard the people behind me strike up a conversation. What made this conversation stand out amongst all the others was that it began with the words “So what do you think about this strange weather we’ve been having?”. This was said non-ironically and the conversation continued in earnest for the next minute. Now, I know a minute does not seem like a long time but for a conversation purely about the weather it was quite drawn out. They had far surpassed all things I cared to mention about the entirely average day but they managed to continue.

Jokes that concern people talking about the weather are so common that I rarely ever hear it talked about seriously. I had derisively dismissed it, just like everyone else, as something that stuffy rich people used to do in the old days when they had nothing else to discuss. This was the first time that I encountered it in the wild.

I was startled to find that I liked it.

To be clear, I did not find the debate over how windy it had been that day remarkably stimulating. What drew me in was the phatic signaling of the conversation. There was nothing substantial in the words but the conversation itself was significant because of what it meant in a social environment. These were strangers building a bond on entirely safe and mutually known territory. It felt like steps in a basic square dance to see if your partner could keep up with you before you attempted to tango.

We may laugh at the aged custom of talking about the weather but we have not stopped signaling. We still begin conversations with strangers by drawing out the classic topics revolving around which sports team is doing what, how someone’s kids are, whether or not the traffic has been good. Someone mentioned to me on the bus that their go-to-move when trapped in an elevator is to say something about how sad they are it is Monday or how excited they are about Friday. This puts everyone on common ground and opens the metaphorical floor for conversation. My friend said he was extra proud of himself because on Thursday he told someone “Happy Friday-eve!”

This signaling is a wonderful part of every day interactions because it is so commonly understood. It is not accessible to everyone but it is still worthwhile for its own benefits. It might not be as stimulating as deep probing questions but it is intriguing that so many people know where to start. Cultures frequently have customs when meeting strangers to show that they aren’t dangerous (or at least to pretend they aren’t) and communicate intentions. Our daily signaling does not rest on such high stakes, but it is an almost essential step toward the creation of allies. We never know when or where we are going to need these people but the best way to protect ourselves from wild beasts or social stigma is to signal that we are friendly, that we are normal, and that we share something in common with our daily strangers.

Snobbery and the Service Industry

I’m concerned about the portrayal of certain jobs as comedic and worthy of scorn. Recently, I went to a movie theater and saw a preview for the new film Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. This fictitious story revolves around a fat and slightly incompetent man who works as… a mall cop. These three ‘characteristics’ are lumped together under the guise of creating a character and, predictably, they create nothing of the sort. They are nothing more than steps in a comedic formula and what they create is a caricature, one we have seen many times before.

This caricature has many models and seems to turn up in various guises depending on the story. There is the impassioned housekeeper who struggles to speak English and is treated like more of a pet than a person. There is the irate postman who is chased down by neighborhood dogs. There is the disgruntled crone of a DMV desk worker. There is the haggard and bitter lunch-lady. These portrayals are damaging because they create comedy purely focused on the lack of education, finesse, or social poise of the characters.

Elitism shows up in many places, but constructing simplistic parodies of people in low-income jobs is a standout example because its only purpose is to amuse the privileged. It is cheap comedy that reinforces stereotypes and stands in the way of community building. There is no value to be found in the mockery of these jobs but it happens all the time. Images of plumbers as dirty, gruff men with low hanging pants are ingrained on my mind from television even though all the plumbers I have ever met have been polite, professional and extremely competent. A cheap laugh at this old categorization of a trade, one that takes a lot of skill and experience, does nothing but reinforce class divisions.

These stereotypes do not only exist for low-income jobs and have a flip-side in comedy about idiotic politicians, robotic doctors and immoral lawyers. I find these jokes significantly less disturbing because the people in a position to become politicians, doctors, and lawyers already have a fair number of advantages working in their favor. Understandable as they may be, this comedy comes from the same root as the first kind and that is an enormous gap in our comprehension of different life experiences. It deters people from voting, seeking medical help, and paying attorney fees.

Lack of understanding is such an obvious societal problem that it is unsurprising it shows up in movies. The people writing and directing these films are not the same people working in the DMV for long hours or the same people patrolling malls and parks. They do not feel that they need to show respect for those positions and they are signaling to all movie watchers that they do not need to respect those people either. This shaming is not malicious; it is just entirely ambivalent to the circumstances and concerns of others.

Depictions of low-income jobs as hilarious and out of touch is upsetting because it shows a lack of consideration for the people who fill those roles. The glamorization of high-income positions has already alienated people. We do not need greater division based on egocentric and demeaning jokes.