Motor skills

I hate the sound of an engine not catching.

With some engines, it’s a kind of cough. Others, a sputter. Our Land Rover does a sort of whine. The late, lamented George Carlin used to do a bit where he imitated an engine that didn’t want to start: “Leave me alohohohohohohone.”

I used to think that was funny, but now it hits a little close to home.

When we lived in Manhattan, we had only one thing that might not start, and that was the car. Since it was a late-model Saab, the odds of its not starting were fairly slim. Certainly not zero, but not nearly high enough to make me tense up when I turned the key. Here, though, we have plenty of things that might not start, and they don’t start often enough that I’m steeled for the worst every time we take one out.

Topping the list of possible non-starters is the boat. Although you start the motor by turning the key, it’s not like the car. There’s a whole ritual involved. First, you pump the primer bulb on the fuel line to get some gas in the motor. Then, you lift a lever on the controller (the unit that has the throttle and the ignition, into which you put the key), which is a kind of auxiliary throttle that lets you open it up when you’re in neutral. But you don’t open it all the way, or you’ll flood the engine. Five-sixteenths is about right.

Then, you press the key in three times. Not two, not four. That releases oil to the motor. Last, you sacrifice a goat and offer it up to Vroom, the God of Outboards. There are incantations associated with this, and woe betide you if you get them wrong. Then you turn the key and hope for the best.

At least the boat has a key. We have lots of non-starters that have cords. Chain saw, leaf blower, string trimmer, log splitter, power washer, and rototiller all start with muscle power. Or don’t start, as the case may be. These are the ones that get me. I’ll be in the house, working or cooking or procrastinating, and I’ll hear the unmistakable sound of a starter cord being pulled to no avail. If you’ve ever pulled the starter cord on a decent-size machine, you know that it’s hard. I hear it going in and out of its housing, and I feel Kevin’s pain.

And now we come to my dilemma. When something doesn’t start, I’m no help at all. Kevin will be the first to tell you that his motor skills are limited, but they’re way better than mine, which are nonexistent. So I sit on the sidelines, watching my husband deal with the problem. He opens things and closes them, empties other things and fills them again, toggles switches and jiggles parts, and all I can do is bring the snacks.

I hate being helpless. I’ve told the story here of when, at the ripe old age of eight months, I snatched the clothes out of my mother’s hands when she was trying to dress me and, proclaiming, “Self!” proceeded to put my pants on my head. (Although I talked early, I did everything else late, and my social skills are still behind the curve.)

And so I find myself strongly inclined to learn something about motors. If we’re going to live a life that depends, to a large degree, on power tools, I should understand how they work, how to make them go, and what to do when they don’t.

Shouldn’t we test the glink with the thronkmeter?

But then I have second thoughts. There are so many skills that neither of us has. If I’m going to learn something new, shouldn’t it be one of those? Besides, Kevin has a big head start in the motor skills department, and it’s all too easy to envision a non-starting scenario where I’m leaning over his shoulder saying, “Shouldn’t we test the glink with the thronkmeter?” when he knows full well that the glink has nothing to do with it and the thronkmeter’s broken. That could get annoying, if you’re Kevin.

When you come right down to it, it’s not a question of motor skills at all, it’s a philosophical question about duplication of skills. Do we each develop at least minimal competence at everything we do, or do we each specialize and become primarily responsible for our own areas of expertise?

We tend toward the latter. Not only does it seem more efficient, with more skills developed between us, but it also helps us avoid the too-many-Chiefs situation. Both Kevin and I have Chiefly tendencies, and duplication of skills would leave us desperately short of Indians. Specialization gives us each a chance to be in charge, and our lives seem to go more smoothly when not everything is a collaboration. (This is a version of Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of non-overlapping magisteria, which I invoked a while back in regard to the building of the chicken coop.)

Although much of what we do is collaborative – gardening, beekeeping, chicken raising – we have other areas where one or the other of us is more or less in charge. Kevin is Vice President of Fishing, Hunting, Property Maintenance, and Vehicle Operation. I’m VP for Stonemasonry, Mycology, Home Economics, and Administration.

So, if I’m not going to learn motor skills, what should I learn instead? I’d like to extend my mycological expertise, such as it is, to mushroom cave construction. Or maybe, under the tutelage of our friends the Marcuses, of Cape Cod Beer, I should fine-tune my fermentation skills in anticipation of making mead from our honey.

And someone’s got to bone up on thronkmeter repair.

9 people are having a conversation about “Motor skills

  1. So that is what it’s called- NoM. Steve definitely leaves me alone to build whatever needs building (I’m handier than he is and neither of us have a problem with that), but where and when I should, I cannot seem to keep my mouth shut, which is annoying to him, I get that.

    But NoM does work, and for the record, he makes the beer, which is a great skill to have.

  2. We follow the specialisation model too, and overlap in a few places like a Venn diagram. I agree that it’s good for mind and soul to be the chief sometimes. And it is more efficient to share out responsibilities. With so many jobs to do and limited daylight hours, at least we find it is.

    The down side is we set off on our alloted tasks in the morning and don’t see each other again until it gets dark, or someone gets a desperate “Come quick, I can’t lift this thing myself!” phone call.

    Some things you may decide to learn, even if Kevin is VP, to quiet your own demons. There are a few basic things you can learn about 2- and 4-stroke engines – little tricks to help you start an engine, just to give you a bit of confidence out at sea or if you’re on your own somewhere. It’s how far you take self-reliance for your own peace of mind. Besides a very basic engine know-how, I’ve also found it invaluable to learn how to reverse a trailer.

    If you’re looking for suggestions for you, how about butchering skills? You’re already a whizz with the fish. Hunting season is coming and you have your chickens, you can learn to break down and utilise all parts of your hunted and home grown meat.

  3. We try to specialize too, but I always think it’s good for anyone going out in a group boating “party” to understand how engines work, in case of an emergency. BTW when John and I got married, my dad (who is an avid sailor and has vast knowledge of ancient outboards and current diesel engines) gave a great speech on the night of our rehearsal dinner…”Dina, taking care of your husband is a lot like taking care of a diesel engine…” and proceeded to give analogies for many of the challenges and joys we might face as a married couple!

  4. Sometimes people forget to check the thronkmeters! This blog brought tears to my eyes, I laughed so hard. I refer to my husband Mike as “Pedro the lawn boy” due to his complete lack of any knowledge of gardening/plant growing of any kind. He is not allowed to cut, trim, or otherwise touch any other foliage in the yard. Ok, he can trim small branches off of trees. But the lawn is looking good. Back in the day as a single mom I owned an old lawnmower that I would yank on the starter rope about six times, swear at it, kick it, storm back into the house to calm myself, then go pull that stupid rope ONE MORE TIME and it would freakin start! One of the best days of my life was when my all of ten or eleven year old son (who loves all things with motors) took over that job. I hate all things mechanical. I totally vote for dividing and conquering on skill specialties.
    Blog lurker by way of Kelly Bauer, Sarah and Leo…

  5. Paula — Sounds like you’ve found your niches. You do the building, he does the brewing. That would definitely work.

    Jen — You’re right that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Knowing a little about motors, in case of emergency, is a fine safeguard without being a trespass on Kevin’s jurisdiction. And I’ll have you know I’ve started working on backing up a trailer. I got it right smack dab down the middle of the boat ramp just the other day. Learning it is slow going, though, ’cause I’ll only try it when nobody’s there to watch.

    Dina — You and I both second Jen. Emergency skills are a different question. But I have to say that I’m glad my marriage doesn’t resemble my outboard motor in too many ways.

    Gayle — Glad you came out of the shadows! Just goes to show, every couple manages division of labor in their own way. Give my best to Pedro.

  6. I will be the first to admit that I, too, have a chiefly tendency. My wife, Debbie, also has this tendency. Separation of duties does help keep the peace some of the time, but cross-training also has ‘non-emergency’ utility. Sometimes, a fresh look by a fresh pair of eyes catches the problem when we can still fix it ourselves, without losing body parts at some repair shop. Sometimes, it is nice to stop the griping about ‘…got to go fix the ^%$#@ thing and then I might get to (insert chore here), with ‘I fixed it yesterday, last week, whenever. Just go do the (insert chore here). Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but ability breeds respect and confidence inspires higher performance. What is even better–this is all based on genuine reality and being real. In a world of Frankenfood and lip-synching, it is just too good to miss reality. I just checked with Debbie and she says it is nice, also.

  7. We both have chiefly tendancies too, so the downside that Jen has is very apparent here too. Even things that are nominally collaborative – like gardening – aren’t really. I plan and raise the seeds and plant things out and weed and …. you get the picture. He digs and crops and builds things and cuts lawns and edges and does things with tools (aka toys!). I clean things and find things and put them away and wash and chores and stuff …. He does the projects and things that involve machines (that includes the vaccuum cleaner and the iron – yah!)

  8. Greg — You’re right about the perspective from a fresh pair of eyes. That’s always my rationale when I get involved in Kevin’s projects, and it’s often absolutely true. I’ve been a professional writer for 15 years, and I firmly believe that every writer needs an editor, and for the same reason. We can’t look at our own projects the same way someone who’s new to them can. I’m glad that you and Debbie have found your middle path.

    Madcat — That’s the kind of collaborating we often do around here, too. It’s division of labor, but on a micro scale. Here, though, the vacuum and the iron are two machines that are mostly my purview.

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