After four weeks of living and working on a traditional Malay sailing junk in Kuala Terengganu on the eastern coast of Malaysia, I’ve decided that the boat-building life is not for me. This is not to say that I didn’t like it. I met some really good people there, I learned a lot of new things, and I now have arm muscles for the first time in my life thanks to hours of rigorous sanding. I, also, got to see a part of Malaysia that many tourists never see. (Although once word gets out that Kuala Terengganu is home to deep-fried fish sausages and the one and only Islamic Theme Park in the world, I’m sure the tourists will start flocking there in no time!). Plus, I get to brag to all my friends back home that I not only lived on a sailboat for a month, but I also got to sand the heck out of one (and, really, haven’t you always wanted to tell your friends that?!).
Despite all the perks of being a volunteer boat-builder, the fact remains that I’m really, really, really bad at it.
Not that this is much of a surprise. In fact, I’m really, really, really bad at many things; including, math, Scrabble, remembering people’s names and my family member’s birthdays, solving riddles, swimming, reading maps, learning foreign languages, flirting, spelling, sewing, dancing, bartering, budgeting, any sport requiring hand-eye coordination (or really any sport at all for that matter!) and practicing restraint while in the presence of a breakfast buffet.
I could get down on myself for being bad at so many things, but, instead, I like to celebrate the things I’m good at; for example, talking to strangers, Trivial Pursuit, making pancakes, whiling away hours on the Internet, remembering obscure details about people (other than, say, their names and birthdays), and admitting defeat. You see, I’m not one of those silly people that’s always persevering in the face of difficulty. Heck no! I not only accept defeat, I embrace it!
I’ve even been known to put on a little show to go along with my defeat, like in the case of a certain piano recital that I participated in when I was twelve years old. I was almost halfway through “Music Box Dancer” (a piece I had spent very little time practicing… as I was much too busy planning my wardrobe for my performance to plan my actual performance — a wardrobe that, I’ll have you know, involved a one-piece culotte number), when I started to make mistakes… lots and lots of mistakes. Figuring I might as well go out with a bang (literally), I stopped playing, slammed the cover over the keyboard and stormed off the stage to the sound of the audience’s baffled applause. Either they mistakenly thought this was the way I finished all my musical numbers, or they were enthusiastically supporting my decision to end my musical assault on their ears.
While I have always been perfectly comfortable with accepting my defeat, unlike me, my mother is one of those people who believes in things like persistence and perseverance. She can often be heard uttering the old adage about getting back on the horse. (An adage I really did not appreciate when I did, in fact, fall off a horse at the age of thirteen and was forced to get back up on said horse… although, I dare say, the horse probably appreciated this adage even less than me as it’s possible I was thrown off for a good reason!). After my dramatic piano recital exit, my mother dragged me back up on the stage and demanded I finish the entire number (which I did with the added choreography of tears and the occasional banging of my head against the keyboard).
Despite my ease at accepting defeat (as well as a lifelong history of being spectacularly bad at stuff), it was hard for me to admit that I was bad at boat building — even when the evidence was staring at me in the face (usually in the form of dripping varnish).
I didn’t want to admit defeat because this entire trip has been about me accepting new challenges and not giving up when the going gets rough and, you know, getting back on the proverbial horse (Mind you, it is not about getting back on the literal horse as I am perfectly happy to stay off of horses of any kind… and, I dare say, the horses are probably pretty happy about this as well!). So far, I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job at this. After all, I can’t say I was particularly good at butchering chickens in Thailand or weeding rice paddies in Southern Malaysia, but I did it. I was also none to pleased about battling biting ants and finding bed bugs in my bra, but I suffered through these things too and didn’t once consider packing up my stuff and heading home (if only because I was worried the ants and bed bugs might get packed up in the process and head home with me!).
Besides, unlike butchering chickens and weeding rice paddies, I do actually have some background in sanding, varnishing, painting and other forms of mild carpentry. You see, in addition to not wanting her children to fold at the first sign of difficulty, my mother also wanted her children to be handy… in particular, her daughters. Instead of insisting that me and my sisters learn how to walk like a lady, my mom insisted we learn how to handle power tools like a man. I was allowed to use a jigsaw long before I was allowed to date (Dating was restricted until I turned the ripe old age of sixteen — a mandate which would severely retard my dating life for the rest of my life… or so I tell myself). I never learned how to apply lipstick (and, to this day, I only trust myself with lipgloss), but I did learn how to sponge paint a wall and refinish a chest of drawers. When I moved away to college, my mother gave me a tool box. When I turned thirty, I got a power drill.
Despite my mother’s efforts, I never did become particularly handy. I spent my adulthood in rented apartments, where I could call the landlord when something broke (or ignore the situation until I moved out). When forced to assemble furniture on my own, I tended to glue the wrong sides together or avoid glue all together and just relied on a system of packing tape and gravity to keep my new set of bookshelves together.
Even though I hadn’t wielded a scrap of sandpaper in over a decade and the only thing I’d painted in recent years were my toenails, I hoped that once I moved on to the boat and got to work, I’d suddenly be transformed into the handy woman my mom had always hoped I would become (maybe, say, after inhaling a magic combination of varnish fumes and sawdust!). Yet, after three weeks of sanding and varnishing and painting, I never did get the hang of it. In fact, I started to get worse.
After successfully sanding and varnishing one bathroom, I was then moved on to a second bathroom — a bathroom I would come to know as “The Bathroom of Shame.” I applied a coat of varnish so thick that it rippled and dripped. Realizing my mistake, I tried to apply more varnish to even everything out (which, in case you’re wondering, does not work… it just makes the problem worse… and a whole lot shinier). I then had to spend the rest of the week attempting to sand the varnish off. After which, I was, understandably, banished from the task of varnishing all together.
In addition to messing up the varnish, I had also managed to miss a number of spots on the rigging I was painting. I almost capsized the dinghy one evening and doused myself in dirty river water in the process. Even the yogurt, which I made every day, started to curdle.
By my fourth week the only task I was able to do semi-competently was sanding (and even then I was kept away from the power sander and any coarse sandpaper). I tried to keep a stiff upper lip and keep on sanding, but I was tired of being bad at everything. I wanted to take a break to do a few things I was good at… like napping and filling up on sausages at a breakfast buffet. I knew I was supposed to be able to learn from my mistakes, but I was tired of making so many of them (and then having to sand them down afterwards!).
Plus, I was just plain tired. After two months of weeding rice paddies and one month of sanding the heck out of sailboat, I was exhausted. This whole manual labor thing can be really, well, laborious. One afternoon, I fell asleep in the middle of sanding the bathroom (Luckily, the varnish had long dried and I had only been entrusted with a piece of fine grain sandpaper — who knows what could have happened if the varnish was still wet or if that sandpaper had any serious grit to it!).
So I did one thing that I am good at: I quit. And then I promptly did another thing I’m good at: I blew my budget. After announcing to my boss that I had decided to leave a couple weeks early, I booked a weekend stay at a fancy, five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
Yesterday morning, I bid farewell to my boss, who seemed quite sad to see me go despite my singlehanded attempt to capsize his dinghy and over-varnish his bathrooms. I boarded the bus for Kuala Lumpur and arrived at my swanky new digs seven hours later. Even after I had settled in for an evening of room service, bubble baths, chocolate and cable TV, I still couldn’t help shaking the feeling that maybe I shouldn’t have quit. Maybe I should have stayed a bit longer, gotten back on that horse (or sawhorse, if you will) and finished sanding down all my mistakes. Maybe I could have gotten better at sanding and varnishing and painting if only I tried a bit harder (and managed to stay awake in the process!).
Maybe I did accept defeat a bit too easily. But, in a tribute to my twelve-year-old, culotte-wearing, piano-playing self, I did it with a show — as was witnessed by everyone present at the hotel breakfast buffet this morning. You would have thought those pastries were set to self-destruct the way I was shoveling them into my mouth!