Dear Nicolás

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(An open letter to Nicolás Maduro, courtesy of reader and sometime guest blogger Aquiles LaGrave)

Dear Nicolás

As a college student, I worked as a plumber to help supplement my income and buy beer for my friends. I got the job not thanks to merit, but because a well-meaning friend put me up to it, and I accepted. I wasn’t particularly gifted at it, and had zero experience, so I can relate to your predicament from an abstract fish-out-of-water perspective.

The experience taught me a number of principles – spanning such esoteric subjects as human nature, systems, laws of physics and simple math – that no college courses at the University I attended were able to impart with the same level of gravitas that only practicum can deliver. I will share three with you.

The first lesson I learned is that when you are not particularly well suited to your post – when you lack any formal or intuitive gift at it – every task you are expected to fulfill becomes a full-fledged crisis.

A crisis is an unnatural state, since like pain it calls attention to an unhealthy development of things. A lot of people like to think that during a crisis they will rise to the occasion. But thousands of years of recorded history into the insights of human nature prove the exact opposite. In a state of crisis and panic most people will naturally cede to their last level of acknowledgeable skill, not surpass it. This is why armies drill, why athletes train, and this is why it takes years of formal study to meet the minimum requirements of training for any profession.

The second lesson was based on the reality of dealing with inherited systems. In most cases I was not the first, or second, or even the third person touching the plumbing in a residential building made up of dozens of apartments. I was one of many uncounted souls who had, in some cases over succeeding generations, patched, altered, fixed and broken a system made up of thousands of feet of pipe, hundred of fittings and patches, all under constant pressure.

Even under the best of circumstances, a well maintained system needs constant upkeep and repair. Like Venezuela, I was constantly dealing with underperforming plumbing suffering from chronic underinvestment, which was held together more by sheer force of history than anything else. I spent my days in a constant state of crisis, fixing a leak here only to realize that my fix caused an equal and opposite reaction somewhere else. Unlike you, I was not trying to ‘revolutionize’ or ‘radicalize’ the water system by turning hot to cold or ensuring faucets turned left instead of right, I was simply trying to ensure the system continued delivering on its most basic premise.

Even so, the state of affairs was simply unsustainable – me running around the building with my tool kit, placating residents, fixing one thing even when I knew it would break something else, constantly prioritizing one thing over another, scalded here, drenched there. Soon I found myself knowingly making promises I was not capable of delivering to angry residents, and misdirecting fault for my poor decisions far and wide.

And so I endured a miserable existence, which takes me to my third lesson. I was too wrapped up in the state of things to take the time to acknowledge my own limitations. And when you cannot see your own limits you find yourself in a scenario where you believe there are no limits, and things get dangerous real fast. And so the day came when the in-house commercial boiler stated making a weird noise and I had the wherewithall to call a professional in to check it out. A closed pass valve which I closed to fix a leak in the hallway had caused a pressure build-up in the boiler, which – had it exploded – would have taken half a city block with it.

And so that day I learned that, try as I might, I could survive a day, a week, a month, but sooner than later, one way or another, the residents and my employer would realize that although I wasn’t a bad kid, I was sure as shit not cut out to be a plumber.


Aquiles La Grave

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