My husband Michael called from the other side of the world in the middle of the night with bad news: The old friend with whom he was traveling was suddenly very sick.
It was noon their time, and instead of embarking on a river cruise from Vietnam to Cambodia — a trip they’d been planning for months — they were heading to a local hospital.
I was grateful that medical care was available and that our friend could receive immediate attention at a local clinic. It was not a surprise that almost no one spoke English (why would they?) but terribly surprising to discover that our friend’s condition was worse than anyone first imagined. Suddenly, there was a scramble to get our sick pal to a more sophisticated facility as soon as possible.
In emergency situations, you expect to be grateful for all the people who aid the patient, from nurses and doctors to ambulance drivers and interpreters — and naturally we all were, down to our rapidly beating hearts.
But I also discovered myself profoundly grateful to a professional not previously on my list of leading caregivers: our travel agent, Shannon.
I made panicky calls to her office throughout the day, asking for help with one emergency after the other. Shannon knew how to make sure that Michael could stay in his hotel room for days after he was meant to leave, despite the hotel being fully booked, so that he could spend hours with our hospitalized friend. She helped in arranging for our friend to be medically evacuated back to his home state. Finally, with entirely reimagined travel arrangements, she figured out how to fly Michael back to our home as well.
She was kind, knowledgeable and patient — and efficient. Shannon kept everything together when it all started to fall apart. It was a lesson to me.
Like so many other people, you see, I had almost convinced myself that I could have handled all necessary travel arrangements myself — simply because I have access to a computer and could, therefore, figure it all out on my own.
One of my friends has a what he calls a “personal philosophy” that goes something like, “Well if a plumber can do it, I can do it.” His massive plumbing bills have humbled him, as this recent experience humbled me.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves: Having information is different from having expertise.
I’ve started to think about the other unsung professionals in our lives, the ones whom we too often underestimate because we secretly believe we could pretty much do what they do.
Margaret Atwood discusses the concept in her book “Negotiating With the Dead,” pointing out that lots of folks believe they could be singers, actors, dancers, writers or artists if only they tried, because singing, acting, dancing, writing and painting seem easy enough. But liking to write is different from “being a writer,” Atwood argues. “Everyone can dig a hole in the cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger,” she explains. “The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”
In other words:
Using spellcheck doesn’t mean you can do without a proofreader or an editor.
Taking scissors to your own bangs or shaving the back of somebody’s neck (even if they want you to) doesn’t mean you’re a hairstylist.
Asking a search engine for information is nothing like asking a librarian for suggestions about a source. As my friend Elizabeth Flanigan puts it, “Google can give you a million answers, but a librarian can give you the right one.”
Having a child doesn’t make you an expert on children.
Baking a pie, even if you peel the apples yourself, doesn’t make you a pastry chef.
Taking pictures with your cellphone does not make you a photographer any more than brushing your teeth twice a day makes you a dentist.
Having money and a big mouth doesn’t make you a political leader.
I’d like to propose that we recognize expertise and celebrate it when we encounter it — and not only when we find ourselves in dire, life-saving, world-shattering need of it.