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Amateur Hour Rates

One evening this week Jim called me into the bathroom to ask if I could hear what he was hearing. As I approached the bathroom—and still a good few feet from it—I could hear what he was hearing: the sound of rushing (gushing) water. I instinctively looked from the sink, to the toilet, to the bathtub, hoping to see visuals to match the audio. But alas, all were off. And yet the sound of rushing water persisted.

“My guess,” I shrugged, “is it’s just the snow melting off the roof.”

“Mmmm,” Jim responded as he always does when he doesn’t agree with me. “I’m going to check outside and see what’s going on.”

When he returned, his face was twisted in a way that let me know precisely what was coming: urgent calls to plumbers who respond to calls 24 hours a day.

The situation around us wasn’t great. It was fairly late in the evening. Ice and snow covered our neighborhood, the city, the entire nation, really. I had not showered in three days (let’s say it was because our city asked us to conserve water and not because I am lazy), and yet I had to teach a class the next day. And we were halfway through a crucial episode on our current Netflix binge.

In these moments, of calling plumbers over and over, hoping one of them will be willing to come out in the next day or so (most companies were booked out for weeks), I am reminded how inept I truly am. How lacking I am in essential skills and general competence.

This isn’t to say I’m down on the skills I do have. But I can’t think of a single crisis where the government called in all the strong public speakers they could find. Or a need for someone who can facilitate a college course to start a 24-hour hotline. No one broken down on the side of the road would be grateful if I showed up with my ability to write an essay.

I am no good in a crisis—hell, I’m not even good in a pinch—because that’s when real skills are needed. How much easier would my life be if I could update the breakers in our breaker box, let alone find the breaker box? How much more useful of a human would I be if I could change the oil in our car? How needed would I be as a spouse if I could wire surround sound for our TV? How much more effective of a parent and mentor would I be if I could teach my children how to throw a solid curve ball or build a safe campfire?

And while I may not have any skill to bring to a crisis, I can attest that the crisis brought a skill to me.

I can now cut hair.

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m no professional. I didn’t go to school for it, I don’t get paid for it, and I certainly don’t know how to do more advanced techniques like highlights or a Brazilian blowout. But for the past year of our (quarantined) life, I’ve cut my daughters’ and my husband’s hair.

It was born out of necessity, of course. At the beginning of the pandemic, we weren’t going anywhere (in truth, we still aren’t, but we were much stricter in the early months). I had a cheap pair of shears that I often use just to trim London’s bangs. But these were suddenly an essential part of our sheltering-at-home pack.

After the first few months, I began to realize these shears weren’t nearly good enough to cut the three very different types of hair Lowery, London, and Jim have. I decided to order a new (oddly expensive) pair online. The next few months of cutting and trimming hair gave me a constellation of small cuts on much of my right hand. Proof I got a good pair, I suppose. But despite the sharpness of the blades, I still didn’t feel I was getting a good enough cut for Jim. I realized I needed a set of clippers.

To my delight, there were dozens upon dozens of options for clippers and guard packs. When a skill involves shopping—and therefore research and scouring reviews—I show up. For days I read articles about what kind of clippers to buy, which guards to use on Jim, how to blend the sides, how to trim his eyebrows, and how best to handle the crown of a head where a violent cowlick wreaks havoc.

From there, I found myself poring over websites about how to better manage curly hair. I bought a variety of products—from shampoo to leave-in conditioner—for Lowery, as well as a handbook about how to care for curls. I read online about better techniques to cut curly hair (dry cut, run your shears along the bottom of the strand, cut vertically, and the like). I also watched a few YouTube tutorials on how to better cut fine, straight bangs, to further protect and enhance my youngest daughter’s iconic look.

Within six months, the haircuts became a routine aspect of our home. I’d place a dining room chair in the middle of our kitchen and let Jim know his stylist was ready for him. He’d take off his shirt, sit down, and I’d drape a bath towel around his neck and fasten it with a large, black binder clip. I’d spray down his hair (you must get a “continual spray” bottle) while I asked him how his family was. He laughs every time at this, but I don’t know that I’m kidding. As if I’m not his wife but rather someone who took a different path and ended up with a much more useful skill and is interested to know how his family is doing. I’m not saying this looks as formal, or even as meaningful, as it feels. But I really like this process. Me getting the kitchen ready for my clients, oiling my blades, and putting on an apron that I know was intended for cooking (don’t get me started on that skill) all feels so damn satisfying.

Jim says that over the months I have gotten quicker at his haircuts. I also became more conversant, meaning I am now actually able to converse with him while working (that is the hardest skill of all; please tip your hair stylist a lot). My fluidity in the skill also enabled me to handle impromptu cuts. Like when Lowery got out of the shower a couple of weeks ago and said, “My hair is too long, can you please cut a few inches off?” Lucky for her, I was able to squeeze her in that day.

In the past year, I’ve given roughly 40 haircuts. Some to a girl with thick, curly hair. Some to a girl with bangs that must be expertly straight or they will annoy the whole family for weeks. And the rest to a guy with so much hair—all various shades of gray—that I cannot keep up with the endless growth. None of them pay, and even fewer of them tip, but they all volunteer to sweep up their clippings in exchange for my skill.

So two nights ago, when a licensed plumber was finally able to show up—in the dark and in the snow—to replace two burst water pipes under the crawl space in our house, I was less ashamed than usual. It’s true I can barely plunge a toilet, let alone replace ruptured pipes. And it’s true that I don’t understand how a sump pump works, that I can’t help but giggle when people say “ballcock,” and I will happily pay after hours prices for the chance to shower.

But I also know that in a real crisis—a global pandemic that keeps my family huddled down together—I will dig down deep within myself and find some way to make everyone I love feel a hair better.


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