Thursday, January 26, 2012

Being a Good Stranger

This week, I've learned to cut and help thread and assemble 2 inch cast iron pipe to outfit a new oil tank. This is not like other plumbing I've faked my way through in life. Cast iron pipe in a 2 inch diameter has about as much give as 2 inch cast iron pipe. Oh yeah. Right, so the pieces really need to meet up exactly. The threads are cut with a very serious piece of power equipment that can lift a large person off the ground if it becomes fetched up, misaligned, or there is not enough oil squirted on it. Nowhere in my farming, musicking, fishing, lawyering or home fixup have I done this before. My mentor can do it all asleep.

Installing circulation pumps. Cracking old very medieval cast iron drains. Rolling, documenting and dollying gas bottles. Refreshing my feeble knowledge of cutting, cleaning and soldering copper pipe. I've only torched a couple, but I'm watching a master and paying attention. Taking apart oil burners and learning the components. Many new puzzlers over how things work, where does that pipe go, what's this for, how long does it take for a soldered joint to cool down, what is that rash on my arm.

Being new at things is probably really good for the brain. In my rock hopping, I've had more than the usual middle aged man's share of being the new guy in the office, on the boat, on the construction site, in the school environment, at the bar. I sometimes feel envious watching masters, people who have long term devotion to a particular skill, being such a jack myself. More often, though, I love the buzz I get from adapting and integrating in unfamiliar places, groups and tasks. I actually think that this is a distinct skill set as much as being a master plumber or tax lawyer. I'm a master novice. It is a rich experience.

I'm still in my first month on a new street on a different island working a new job. Even tasks and tools I'm somewhat familiar with are challenging in a new context. The super fancy chop saw with the laser sight and automatic dust collector stymied me for a few minutes until I found the "on" switch. No chop saw I'd ever used had such a thing. I just plugged 'em in and pulled the trigger. Meanwhile, the plumber is waiting for a 15 7/8" piece of 2X4. A hundred of these challenges present themselves every day and there is a gradual sense of how to rapidly and quietly fit into the new niche.

A few pointers for any of you thinking about diving into the novel situation. Have big ears, big eyes and a small mouth. Talk and joke enough to assure everyone you're not a poorly programmed antisocial animatronic device, but watch, listen, breath in the details. Pay close attention to unfamiliar words. Memorize where things are. Don't be afraid to take on a completely new and alien task. Do be afraid of breaking things or making mistaken assumptions. Ask questions quietly, and don't ever, ever try to sound like you know something about something you don't really know about. Let people get to know you, but don't rush it. Take an interest in the interests of your new people. Smile. Absorb. Forgive your own awkwardness.

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