This is the post in which I traffic in stereotypes. Of women, mostly, but also of Jews. The issue at hand is tool use. I am female, Jewish, and bad with hand tools. Coincidence?
Hammering a nail is an athletic endeavor writ small. There are issues of technique, like cocking your wrist and holding the handle near its end, but the essence of hammering is allowing your hand and your eye to coordinate to bring the hammer down on the nail.
It’s just like golf, one of the two sports I’ve worked hard to master (the other is rowing; I have thus far mastered neither). No matter how well you understand the golf swing, no matter how much you’ve practiced, every shot is an act of faith. You have to trust that your body can swing a club head at eighty-plus miles an hour, over an arc of some fifteen feet, and bring it back to a ball that’s less than two inches in diameter.
My many hours on the golf course have convinced me that women have a hard time finding that faith. They are more likely than men to take cautious, tentative swings, trying to guide the club to the ball. I’m sorry to say it, but they golf like a girl. Men are more likely to take a fearless rip at it. Sure, it’ll end up in the parking lot, but it’ll go 280 yards. When it comes to the physical, women have trust issues.
That hissing sound you hear is the steam coming out of the ears of my friend Ann, an excellent golfer who can’t believe that someone she’s had in her home believes this crap, and why don’t I get a real job instead of blah-blah-blogging away, promoting unsavory stereotypes.
But hear me out.
There are, as always, two issues: nature and nurture. Men evolved to throw things – rocks, spears, and especially their weight around in an effort to bully women, prey, and other tribes into submission. Strength, stamina, and the confidence to use them to achieve their ends are men’s evolutionary legacy. Women, though, evolved to raise children. While this certainly requires strength and stamina, it’s not the same breed of strength and stamina required to bring down a saber-toothed tiger. Spear-throwing is good prep for ball-striking – or hammering. Toddler-chasing, not so much.
Then there’s what we’re taught. I’ve played many rounds of golf with Ann, a natural athlete who routinely trounces me by ten strokes. I’ve always believed I have very little in the way of athletic ability, and I told her, on more than one occasion, how frustrating it was to try and improve at something at which you have no talent. “How do you know?” Ann asked. How did I know I’ve got no athletic ability? I couldn’t quite get my head around the question. “Yeah, how do you know? When was the last time you tried to get better at something?”
Well … never. I didn’t play any sports as a kid. I was an abrasive, unpopular smart-ass, and I think I would have been picked last in gym class even if I’d been Babe Didrikson. The order in which we were picked for teams was the only yardstick I had for measuring athletic ability. I was last (or second-to-last, if LeAnne Mitchell was in the class), so I must be worst.
While many men can recount similar experiences, boys generally have more opportunity both to develop and asses their athletic ability. In part, this is because they’re pushed in that direction, but it’s also because they’re born spear-throwers – and now we’ve come full-circle back to nature. Toss boys a ball and they play ball. Toss girls a ball, and next thing you know it’s wearing lipstick and Grandma’s wig.
This is why I’m ready to believe that gender is part of the reason Kevin can hammer a roofing nail with two strokes while it takes me seven and a blackened fingernail.
Whether religion is another part is a harder question. When Judaism began, some four thousand years ago, I suspect Jews were as good at tool use as anyone. Over the millennia, though, we evolved. If the culture emphasized learning and schmaltz over sports and vegetables, is it so surprising that we have more than our share of kugel-eating intellectuals, but not so many three-percent-body-fat NBA players?
It’s also worth noting that Jews were often barred from owning land, and I can attest that land ownership weeds out the physically inept pretty quickly. Likewise, many professions were off limits, leaving Jews stuck doing things like lending money. Sexual selection in the community would favor those who succeeded in those endeavors Jews were allowed to undertake, so it makes sense that our skills are more Dershowitzian than Koufaxian.
Back in the mid-‘90s, there was an arson epidemic directed at black churches in the South, and communities around the country organized groups to fly down and help rebuild. The Jewish community in San Francisco, where I lived at the time, sent a group to Alabama, and I couldn’t help wondering whether the church’s members thought they’d drawn the short straw. The next town over got the Teamsters.
These were the thoughts that were going through my head as I hammered shingles to the roof of our chicken house. (Which, come to think of it, might also explain why I’m no good with tools. When Kevin is hammering shingles, he’s thinking about the job at hand.) After I’d been hammering for a while, doing my best to trust my hand and eye, I noticed that it wasn’t taking me quite as many strokes to get each nail flush, and that more of them were going in straight. It wasn’t quite like the day I finally broke 90, but I’ll admit to thinking of it as an accomplishment.
This past year has had me doing all kinds of physical jobs I’d never done before. I’ve clammed and oystered. I’ve dug big holes and I’ve cut down trees. I’ve rototilled. I’ve used a table saw, a circular saw, and a chop saw. I’ve hauled a compressor around and used the nail gun that’s attached to it. I even laid the stone floor of our outdoor shower. These jobs are not in my wheelhouse; they go against the grain both of my experience and my genetic endowment.
Golf and rowing excepted, I’ve spent most of my forty-six years playing to my strengths, and it is only now that I’ve discovered the secret to successful self-improvement. Getting a little better at things you’re good at is harder than getting a lot better at things you’re terrible at. I’d really like to write like Jane Austen, but I’m settling for not hammering like a girl.