How Things Work When They Don’t

antique-vacuum

Dear Will:

When it comes to home maintenance and repairs, I’m what they call in the trades Really Bad At It, or Utterly Useless, for short. You might recall, for example, how I somehow managed to destroy a fairly-new reverse-osmosis system while trying to fix a small leak under the kitchen sink. I could fill this page with other humiliating examples of my ineptitude, but let’s skip over that formality and go directly to this week’s confession: I’ve done it again. The legend continues.

As always, it started out innocently enough: I was simply trying to do a little vacuuming—a low-skill assignment for which even I am qualified. I might even go so far as to claim a certain degree of competence in the field of Automated Dust Removal. But as I was maneuvering out into the upstairs hallway, I became aware that the family Hoover was no longer Hooving. “This thing sucks,” I hollered at my wife, Dana. “It’s supposed to,” she offered cheerfully. “It’s a vacuum cleaner.”

Diagnosing that there must be something obstructing the brush mechanism, I set about disassembling the intake unit. I figured I just had to remove a couple of screws, clear out the obstruction, and put the thing back together. I can work a screwdriver, I thought. How hard can it be? Right? Well, more than a dozen screws later, I finally had it opened.

It took me little time to clean out the brush and intake, but getting the base to snap back into place proved a little trickier—especially when I discovered that a small, metal bracket had joined the loose screws scattered about me. I knew where the bracket belonged, but getting it back into place appeared to defy several physical laws while tenaciously affirming the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Soon I looked like Jim wrestling a crocodile on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. And the croc was winning.

Well, of course I never got the thing back together (see: Thermodynamics, Second Law). Within an hour Dana and I were standing in the aisle at Costco pursuing the only sort of appliance repair that works consistently for me. And then, as fitting punctuation to an evening squandered, we spent most of the time at Costco fingering her iPad and ordering a new vacuum from Amazon instead.

The new machine (not a crocodile, but a Shark®) arrived a couple of days later. Seth offered to take Sharknado out on its maiden run, and when he was done we were shocked to see how much gunk it had managed to collect. Walking around the house afterward, we noted how different the carpet felt—like it was brand new. Hmmm. (Let that thought swirl around your head for a little bit.)

So it turns out the old Hoover really did suck, but unfortunately not in the manner that it was supposed to. Who knows how much grime has been accumulating over the past many months, or how long, for that matter, we had been shuffling around in it? Ewww. So in the end, my failed repair work may have been the best thing that has happened to our carpet since it was installed.

And thus emerges the familiar pattern in another embarrassing tale: Something goes wrong, and in my attempts to make it better I make it much, much worse. But in the end—somehow—I end up far better off than I could ever have been had disaster not struck to begin with. Happens all the time. I’m pretty sure Paul wasn’t thinking about carpet cleaning when he said that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28), but on the other hand, isn’t it curious how much good comes from the bad stuff we unintentionally make worse? Interesting how that works. Carpet Diem!

PW

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Strength Beyond My Own

Dear Will:

I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I’m pretty sure my hair hurts. My earlobes throb and my toenails are cramping. Even my freckles are in pain. That’s what happens, you know, when you ignore the realities of middle age and decide—who knows why?—that you will climb Mt. Whitney. That’s right: Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, 14,505 feet above sea level. It’s not exactly a walk in the park, as they say—at least, not any park I have ever been to before.

Think of it this way: Say you start your climb (as just about everyone does) at the Whitney Portal, a mere 8,300 feet up. From there, it’s 11 miles to the summit, uphill as it turns out (who knew?). What you’ll notice as you make the ascent is that somewhere around 10,000 feet the trees pretty much give up and go home. The oxygen loses quite a bit of interest as well. So after hiking six miles with a 35-pound pack and spending the night around 12,000 feet to acclimate yourself, you will finish the climb surrounded by nothing but boulders, a few hearty wildflowers (how is that possible?), and other morons who are trudging up the hill simply because, like you, they had a few free hours and somehow it seemed like a good idea.

If you’ve never hung around at that altitude, you can’t begin to appreciate the air you’re breathing right now.  During the final five miles of our climb, I was out of breath constantly. Now I’m the first to admit that in my present physical condition I can get winded navigating the produce section at Ralph’s, but even so, this hike was different. By the end, I was barely shuffling along, concentrating on every breath in the vain attempt to give my lungs the oxygen they craved.

In our little group of 11, seven of us (four teens and three adults) made it to the summit. I confess that my reaction was more relief than elation, however, because the climb was such an ordeal. Little did I know, however, that the ordeal was just beginning.

Upon arriving at the mountain-top, one member of our group started suffering from altitude sickness, which is a polite way to say that he threw up. Repeatedly. For the entire 5-mile descent to our base camp. The poor guy was unable to eat or drink anything without, shall we say, gastric emanations. With no fuel in his body, he had a very hard time getting down from the summit. He would take a few steps, feel weary and nauseated, and have to stop to gather himself.

Once down to 12,000 feet, he began to feel better, but our group still faced the daunting task of getting back to the portal—another six miles below. Because we were racing a thunder shower, we could not stop to eat and decided we would make our way on trail mix and PowerBars alone. The trouble was that, partway down the trail, another of my companions found it increasingly difficult to hike on—not because of the altitude this time, but rather due to complete exhaustion. Eventually his food ran out. His water ran out. His legs could barely move. And yet he remained several miles from the end of the trail.

Most of our group hiked on, making it down the mountain a couple of hours ahead of me and my pal. Totally spent, he bravely stumbled on, zombie-like, willing his body down the trail only because he had no alternative. We radioed ahead to the rest of our fellows to let them know of his plight and to update them on our slow but gradual progress. Then the miracle occurred.

At some point, still far from our ultimate destination, one of the boys who had already completed that day’s 16-mile odyssey came running up the trail to meet us. He greeted us with a grin, and without much conversation relieved my friend of his 35 pounds of gear, gave us a cheerful wave, and went bounding back down the mountain. It was a stunning display of fellowship, a selfless act of amazing proportions. I learned later that when one of our leaders asked for volunteers to climb back up the trail to render assistance, everyone else was too exhausted to make the attempt. Only this 16-year-old boy was willing to go.

His act of compassion brought to mind several images: of the Good Samaritan proffering roadside aid, of Peter and John lifting and healing the lame man at the temple gates. I was also reminded of what Alma taught: That those who would be called followers of Christ must be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8). Indeed.

Jesus said: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee?  or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in?  or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)

I am also reminded of a favorite hymn:

Savior, may I learn to love thee,
Walk the path that thou hast shown,
Pause to help and lift another,
Finding strength beyond my own.
Savior, may I learn to love thee—
Lord, I would follow thee.

Let’s be clear: I did not enjoy climbing Mt. Whitney. It turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life. Even so, I know my pain will fade and my energy return, and when that happens, I will be left with a treasured memory: One of a smiling young man coming to the aid of one of his brethren. That image alone made the ordeal worth it—even in spite of my aching freckles.

PW

Jet Lag and a Trip to the Zoo

Dear Will:

Last week I found out I have to fly to Korea—one of those glamorous business trips during which you spend as much time going and coming as you do working. Should be awful.

Then I found out it is worse than I thought. The only way to get there in time for the meetings is to leave mid-day on Sunday, September 5. And when I arrive it will be Monday night. Labor Day will have disappeared altogether.

Cheer up, they told me. You get that day back on the return. That’s nice in theory, of course, but the truth is that I will have lost a 3-day weekend that I’m never getting back. And on Tuesday, while I’m schmoozing Koreans in Busan, my five-year-old Seth will be attending his first day of kindergarten. There’s something else I will miss that no crossing of the dateline will ever give me back. Let’s just say I’m not happy.

Seth, to his great credit, will hardly notice. The excitement of his new adventure will surely not have worn off by the time I drag back home on Wednesday night, just in time for . . . Back to School Night at Luke’s high school. I anticipate that the teachers I meet that night will find me charming if but a bit unkempt and maybe catatonic. What is it they say about having only one chance to make a good first impression? Luke’s teachers are sure to be dazzled.

Originally we had planned to spend Labor Day at the San Diego Zoo, but instead we’re going down on the Saturday before. No big deal except it means that I will miss my beloved UCLA Bruins’ opening football game, which I will tape and now watch—what?—a week later. Or probably not at all.

What a rough life I lead.

In contrast, my wife just had her third knee surgery last week. Afterward, the doctor informed her that her cartilage is so badly deteriorated that within a few years she will likely have to have knee replacement surgery. Elsewhere, a dear friend is facing a tragic divorce (is there any other kind?) after nearly 30 years of marriage. And another good friend has seen everything he has lived and worked for taken away from him after a series of bad choices and horrible decisions. His life is a wreck.

And here I’m complaining about jet lag and a trip to the zoo. Makes me so ashamed I’m tempted not to send this letter. But by now you probably know me well enough that my pettiness doesn’t surprise you. So . . . instead I shall take deep, cleansing breaths and try to maintain a little perspective: my kids are happily enrolled in excellent schools; my work is going so well that somebody on the other side of the world wants to pay for a couple of days of my time; and I live so close to one of the world’s great zoos that I can do it in a day trip. And besides, my Bruins are supposed to lose, so maybe I’ll be glad to have missed the game anyway. I’ll still miss that first day of kindergarten, but such is life. Right?

Here’s hoping that my miseries are always this profound—and no more so. And hoping that all is well with you.

PW