The Burden of Perishable Skills

One of the recurring topics of conversation between the Missus and me is, "Why do we never have enough time?"  Granted, we're busy people, with a regular -- and sometimes overloaded -- work, exercise, and competition shooting schedule.  We're both NRA Certified Firearms Instructors and Range Safety Officers.  I "volunteer" as a Steel Challenge Match Director and we'll both soon be official USPSA ROs.  I'm an ARRL-qualified "emergency communications responder", for the lack of a better term.  (ARECC Level 1, for those that are curious.)  We like being outdoors and we work to stay fit in order to hike to the Colorado back country and snag a 14'er or two each year.

Admittedly, when we're feeling overwhelmed, we can simply let one or two things go until we're back to treading water.  No problem.

Except 'letting something go for a bit' doesn't solve the core issue: many of these activities involve perishable skills.  It's not so much the activities themselves that consume a lot of time, but the maintanance of the skills required to perform the activities competently that requires serious time commitments.  This is a very recent realization, discovered amidst some soul-searching I've been doing in an effort to combat/overcome some burn-out problems I've been having.

So let's do a brief run-down of these perishable skills that the Missus and I must maintain:
  • Shooting
  • Krav Maga
  • Morse Code
  • Motorcycling
  • Physical Fitness
Anyone that is intimately familiar with the shooting sports is well aware that the associated skills are extremely perishable.  People serious about armed self-defense -- and even middle-of-the-pack competitive shooters like the Missus and me -- know the importance of routine, focused, and deliberate practice.  Even at this level, we're talking at least one trip to the range and a couple dry-fire sessions each week.  We shoot a weekly Steel Challenge match (Remember: that's competition, not practice!) and a couple of USPSA matches each month.  Toss-in the peripheral activities related to this -- designing stages, cleaning guns, reloading ammo, and driving -- we're talking a significant time commitment just to maintain one perishable skill.

We started taking Krav Maga classes in the fall of 2011.  We did this for several reasons, the explanations being beyond the scope of this post.  Much like shooting, the skills acquired thru sweat and blood (literally) are hard-earned -- and easily lost.  We took off some time from Krav during the month of April and our return in May was an eye-opener.  Yeah, we remembered this technique and that set of moves, but we were rusty, slow, and weak.  One run thru a very simple knife defense drill and it was clear that my counterstrike couldn't have knocked over a glass of milk.  We're currently taking off the month of June in order to get past some conflicting scheduling and we know our return to class in July will be . . . . . humiliating humbling.

The Missus and I are also ham radio operators, licensed General Class and Extra Class, respectively.  I got my license back when Morse code was still part of the General exam, so I was obligated to learn it.  I taught myself and managed to ace the exam.  Granted, 5 words per minute (WPM) wasn't a huge hurdle but it was a proud accomplishment, nonetheless.  I've since worked my way up to 15 WPM and practice Morse code three or four times a week.  If I skip practice for a couple of weeks, it shows -- and badly.  Again, a perishable skill.

Motorcycling isn't like riding a bicycle; once you learn the basics, you're not necessarily good to go.  There's as much -- if not more -- art and instinct to negotiating 75 MPH highway traffic as there is to the simple act of moving forward on two wheels.  I've logged well over 100K miles on various motorcycles in the last 25 years and I can tell when I haven't ridden for a month or two.  I'm not quite as 'in tune' to the ebb-and-flow of traffic.  Not quite as smooth and confident.  Not quite as alert and cautious.  I'd like to see the numbers comparing motorcycle accidents to miles ridden.  I'll bet it's heavily skewed towards the one-50-mile-ride-a-month crowd.

Physical fitness is not so much a 'skill' as it is a 'state of being'.  But like any skill, it's just as perishable.  When I was in my mid-30s, I was a CATx USCF (now USA Cycling) road racer with aspirations to tackle the RAAM.  I trained like a fiend, grinding out 200 to 300 miles each week on my trusty Litespeed.  Due to changing circumstances, I had to give up that kind of training schedule after a couple of years.  Backing-down turned to backing-off turned to abandonment.  Six months later, I could barely pedal 35 miles.  Since then, I've never been able to maintain a focused workout regimen for more than 12 months.  Something always comes up -- work, family, etc. -- and I have to drop the program.  Getting back into the groove gets harder each time, doubly so as "50 Trips Around the Sun" looms near on the horizon.

Coupled with the fact that these skills need to be addressed on a regular basis, I have the problem of being a goal-oriented person.  All of the things I mentioned above involve "journeys", not "destinations" -- and I find most journeys to be tedious and distracting.  The goal, the end-game, the finish line is what I strive for.  Check a box and move on to the next thing.  But none of those things have that.  Intermediate goals?  Yes.  Ultimate goals?  No.  So I get bored when there's little or no apparent progress toward a destination.  I also find much to mock in the 'continual improvement' mindset that's so prevalent these days.  I'm sorry, but everyone has a plateau -- and once you reach that, you bump into The Law of Diminishing Returns very quickly.  Who has the bandwidth for that?

So I'm always gonna' be a mid-pack shooter, a 'P' level Krav student, a 15 WPM Morse operator, a 125-pound bench presser, a 25-mile-weekend bicyclist, and a 200-mile-a-month (if I'm lucky) motorcyclist.  Yes, I find it frustrating to try to find a balance between these demanding activities.  Yes, I find it frustrating to continually revisit weak spots that I have worked thru in the past.  Yes, I wish I could find an end-game to all these things, wash my hands of them once-and-for-all, and enjoy the freed-up time and money to pursue other things.  But, no, because they're perishable skills, I will not give them up.  I've worked too hard to gain what little competence I have in them.  And, paraphrasing Heinlein*, I'd rather be good at several things than great at one thing.

This is my burden, even if I don't always bear it well.


* "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Robert Heinlein