No Wonder I’m So Cranky

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Dear Will:

Forgive me if I sound a little cranky. I AM cranky.

I work in Playa Vista, a newish, high-end enclave on the west side of Los Angeles. Look it up. All kinds of ad agencies, tech giants, and other trend-setting companies have set up shop there, leading some to refer to it as Silicon Beach. Sounds pretty cool, right? And it would be . . . if not for the fact that Playa Vista sits 47 horrifying miles from my home in Orange County.

What that means from a practical standpoint is that unless you come and go in the middle of the night, when you live in Orange and work in Playa Vista you can pretty much count on a miserable commute. I wish I were exaggerating when I tell you that the final 15 miles of my drive can take 60 minutes or more. I’m not. Surely, you say to yourself, it would be faster to take another route; but trust me when I say this: I’ve taken them all, and none of them work. Ever. It’s simple math: Too many vehicles + not enough road = 405.

Allow me to illustrate: Put all 53 members of the Los Angeles Rams in a standard-issue hot tub. With their pads on. Now swim across. For two hours. That’s what my commute is like.

My original solution to all of this was to purchase a used Honda Civic that runs on compressed natural gas. I knew a CNG Civic would be an inconvenience, but its ultra-low emissions would qualify me to drive in the carpool lane, shaving valuable time and more-valuable aggravation in the process. With white HOV stickers slapped on the Civic’s haunches, I could (sort of) forget about my drive, and just settle into a good podcast. (Or three.)

But on January 1, 2019, the California Legislature canceled the magical decals that gave me and 200,000 other low-emission drivers carpool-lane privileges. And so for two months now I’ve been diverted into the scrum with the rest of you. I have been defrocked, demoted, cast out of the court and tossed into the courtyard. It has been awful—awfuller even—now that 200,000 carpool-lane refugees have made traffic in all of the other lanes worse than ever. One morning it took me two-and-a-half hours to reach the office. That’s 150 butt-numbing, soul-sapping minutes. One way.

So yes, I’m cranky. I now sit to the right of the express lane, watching longingly as car after car cruises past in the left-hand lane, new stickers gleaming. Except for that one car there. The one with all of the people in it. What is that? An actual carpool? Who do those people think they are?

Imagine that. A high-occupancy vehicle in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane. I’m reminded that the point of an HOV lane is to have fewer cars on the road, not to provide first-class passage to anti-social elitists like me. Somehow we have allowed a lane designed to create community to be a reward for those aspiring to increased isolation. How did that happen?

And so I sit here, feeling put upon while knowing that, except for maybe 199,999 other similarly put-upon Californians, no one is going to feel sorry for me. Fair enough. Because even as I make that observation, I must also confess—a bit sheepishly—that I have never seriously considered earning access to the HOV lane by adding a little HO to my V. Here I am, a guy who goes to church on Sundays and talks about gathering together, bearing one another’s burdens, being of one heart and one mind. Community. Family. You and us—not me. And yet I have chosen to spend three or four hours each day in my own little isolation pod, cut off from everyone around me. Flying solo . . . or crawling, I guess.

Hmmm. No wonder I’m so cranky.

PW

What Would You Do?

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Dear Will:

Say you get a new job that will require you to load all of your earthly possessions into a U-Haul and move over 2,000 miles away. Say it’s just you, your wife, and your one-year-old daughter, and all of your earthly possessions fit in less-than-a-U-Haul. And say you don’t know a soul where you’re going. What would you do?

Well, if you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you’d probably call your bishop. And that conversation might go something like this:

Bishop? My wife and I are moving into your neighborhood from Michigan. We don’t know anyone in the area. So we’re calling you. We hate to impose, but is there any way you could find some people who might be willing to help us unload a truck on Thursday night at 6 pm?

Say it’s your turn to be bishop and you are used to getting the occasional phone call from a stranger asking for help: mothers worried about wayward children, children worried about wayward mothers, the homeless, the hungry, and of course the people who don’t listen to the announcements during services. And say that this week’s Call from a Stranger is young father asking for help on a Thursday evening. What would you do?

Well, if you’re Bishop Watkins you’d send a quick email to Kyle, your Elders Quorum President, and Warren, your Young Men President, who in turn would contact a bunch of other guys. And you would hope that in spite of the short notice and the inconvenient time that Kyle and Warren won’t be the only ones who show up to welcome this family into the Santiago Creek Ward.

Say it’s Thursday and you’ve got an important meeting that night following a long day at the office, but someone asked if you might be willing to provide a couple of hours of manual labor on behalf of someone you’ve never met. And say that as you think about that family and the U-Haul, you remember what it’s like to be newly married and trying to make a small apartment feel like home even though it’s hundreds of miles from anything familiar. What would you do?

Well, if you’re a member of the Santiago Creek Ward, you’d postpone your meeting and drive toward that upstairs apartment still dressed for work. And you’d turn into that apartment complex only to find cars triple-parked and the U-Haul half unloaded already. You’d find young men and old men, three Ellis brothers and a couple of full-time missionaries, a dozen guys or more happily squeezing past each other on a narrow staircase with furniture and lamps and boxes full of various bits of past and future life. And by 6:22 pm the truck would be unloaded, and as you’d pull out of your illegal parking spot you’d pass others still arriving, disbelieving that they could already be too late to lend a hand.

Say you witnessed all of this unfold, and felt within yourself the deep gratitude for good men, faithful priesthood holders cheerfully serving the newest members of our ward family. And say you could see within this familiar scene the embodiment of an injunction that sits at the heart of Christianity: to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light (Mosiah 18:8). What would you do?

Well, if you’re me you’d remember how you have been on the receiving end of this sort of service many times yourself, and you’d pause once more to give thanks for the Church—and for the Santiago Creek Ward in particular.

PW

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