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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Column: Ditch digging for dummies

I know a lot of you readers think you’re hot stuff because you have an internship at the state capitol or a sweet lab job discovering the untold mysteries of the azalea genome. Well, prepare to blush green with envy.

Last summer, I got an incredible opportunity to fill in a ditch in some guy’s yard. After returning from India in mid-July, I had no luck finding a steady job in Davis. There were a number of odd (and I do mean odd) jobs on the student employment website, though. I narrowly beat out the competition (two convicted felons, an 80-year-old woman and an internet-savvy housecat) to secure the position.

My job was to refill the trench created when the homeowner replaced the sewer line four feet underground. The fill dirt was in a long pile running the length of the trench. This exciting challenge gave me the chance to develop valuable, marketable skills such as scooping up dirt with a shovel and dropping it into a hole.

The homeowner instructed me to show up early in the morning and begin moving the dirt. A second helper would show up after a while. The homeowner himself wouldn’t be there till later, but the job was “pretty self-explanatory.”

Or so he thought.

I arrived at the butt-crack of dawn armed with a bottle of Gatorade, a ball cap and biceps the size of pecans. As I picked up the shovel, I saw that the trench ran the entire length of the front yard and halfway into the back.

That’s when the doubts began creeping into my mind. Did the guy want me to fill in the whole thing? Had he specified “the ditch in the front yard” in our e-mail correspondence? What if my indiscriminate dirt-slinging destroyed the tiny village of invisible mushroom people living in the backyard?

This is not good, I thought to myself. I haven’t even started yet and I’m doubting my ability to shovel dirt into a ditch.

I started working, but the apprehension only got worse. Did the owner want the pretty, rich soil to cover the top rather than the dry dust on the bottom of the pile? Should I fill one section all the way up and then move on or should I do one big layer at a time? What if he arrived while I was taking a Gatorade break and thought that I was lazy? What if he arrived while I was passed out from dehydration and thought I was napping?

After an hour and a half, my co-drudge showed up. He was tall, totally ripped, wearing a shirt that said “Cal Football” and getting the same $10 an hour for the job as a tiny Asian girl. Score one for the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Of course, I felt a little self-conscious about doing manual labor alongside Linebacker McMusclepants. He powered through the fill like a front loader while I struggled to lift the empty shovel above my waist. He did have a handicap – we couldn’t find the second shovel, so he used the most similar tool we could find: a mattock. As far as I can tell, a mattock is the same thing as a pickaxe, except that you can also use a mattock to combat the villainous hordes of Middle Earth.

Eventually, the homeowner showed up to survey the work and pay us. He did not fly into a rage over the uneven color of the soil or demand that I replant the grass I’d accidentally hacked to pieces. In fact, he was pretty satisfied. If I might say so – and some of The Aggie’s millions of critics might agree – it might have been my best work to date.

Okay, so all I did was put dirt in a hole. But that’s the scary part – I didn’t believe I could do it.

Our beliefs about ourselves and our abilities can get pretty skewed. Some people despair every single time they get an assignment, thinking “I’m too stupid for this, I can’t do it,” even though they have successfully completed hundreds of assignments in the past. Other people believe their charm and good looks will get them what they want, no hard work required. (Sometimes, those people are right. Those people make me want to punch kittens.)

Most of us need to be more real with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses. I’ve heard it said that humility is not about degrading yourself or thinking less of yourself than you should; it’s about seeing where you really are in the scheme of things. When people are honest with you about your talents and abilities, it gives you the confidence to keep up the good work and the knowledge you need to improve. (That’s why newspaper editors are so great, eh? Nope, still can’t coast on my charm and good looks. Hand me a kitten.)

So next time you think you’re an incompetent fool or a dazzling superhero, take a second to reevaluate. Ask someone who knows you well to assess where you stand. Chances are that hole in the ground is not as tough as it looks.

BETH SEKISHIRO dominated the construction and application of chicken potpie crusts at the DC Saturday. To compliment her efficiency or suggest a better edge-crimping technique, contact her at blseki@ucdavis.edu.

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