Sunday, November 15, 2009

Competence Is a Heady Thing

This week I fixed the laser printer at the library. I had googled for hints on fixing it and found a place that described the exact problems we were having and offered to sell me replacement parts that would cure those problems. Two problems, two parts, $50.

The first part came with written instructions. It was a quick and easy repair. I tackled it soon after the order arrived and the printer was then functional. The second part came with an instructional dvd. It was to fix a less essential function -- the bypass tray. I procrastinated on that one until Wednesday afternoon when I needed to print material for a workshop the next day and wanted to use both sides of the paper, something most easily done using the bypass tray. I decided the time had come and stuck the dvd in my laptop next to the printer.

An hour later, after removing and replacing five parts and two springs to get to the problem piece, the printer was working but I had one part left over -- a paper-clip type wire spiraled into a spring. I knew I was in trouble when it went boing as I removed the bypass tray. I didn't see where it came from and couldn't figure out how it was supposed to work. The video didn't show that spring at all and the tray worked fine without it. But it bothered me to have a part left over.

Mechanical devices are not my specialty. I have a terrible time remembering how things came apart so I can put them back together. I generally try to avoid taking them apart, particularly things that suddenly fall apart without warning, such as spring-loaded devices. I had spent significant time on that spring without success and everything else about the printer was working. Should I throw it away? Store it someplace until I received sudden inspiration to replace it? I sat and studied it a little longer. It needed to be happy when the tray was in an upright position and experience mild stress when the tray was open. Study, study, back to the printer to look for possibilities. Then - voila! -- I saw how it went. Success! The printer is now fully repaired and all of its parts back in their proper place.

Fixing the printer made me quite pleased with myself. It was a significant accomplishment.

Meanwhile, a coworker made a call to take care of a matter for her adult son. She said, "Someday he's going to have to stand on his own two feet." Obviously, that wasn't the day. I remembered that he was in the library recently and wanted me to figure out a website for him. I had no familiarity with the site and he was the one who needed to learn how to use it. I told him I would simply be poking around the same as he could do himself and walked away. Eventually, he figured it out. Did he have that same sense of accomplishment in handling something himself? He tends to ask me for help every time. Does "standing on his own two feet" have no appeal to him?

Later, that same coworker told me about a call she got from an inmate at the county jail wanting her to assist him in gaining release -- attend his bail-reduction hearing, maybe contribute something toward his bail. The man is 50 years old. What's he doing in jail in the first place? How many years does it take a person to assume responsibility for staying on the right side of the law or for dealing with the consequences of failing in that endeavor?

It made me feel good to fix the printer. Capable. Competent. I can get around most internet sites without assistance. I can live well enough within the law to avoid getting stuck in jail hoping for a bond reduction or someone who cares enough to bail me out. (I've at least managed to escape that fate for over 50 years.)

What is it like to depend on others to bail you out of the tight spots you stumble into? Does such a lifestyle feel right to people with a particular personality and history? Would the thrill of competent living leave them hooked on accomplishment if they could manage to live competently?

I wonder.