Not My Bag

The elderly woman stood and looked me in the eye.  “I’ve been told that you can repair any accordion.  Is that true?”  The only thought in my head was something like, “Me and my big mouth!”  but what came out was a grudging admission that I hadn’t yet worked on one that defeated me.  She asked me to go out to her car and bring in the case from the back seat.  Resigned to my fate, I went out quiescently to bring in the jumbo-sized instrument.  As I wrestled the accordion from its case and up onto the table, she started through her laundry list of the problems which were to be remedied.  I listened to the litany of defects and then, looking over the entire instrument, played my trump card.

You see, I didn’t want to work on this instrument.  In the echelon of mechanical musical inventions, the accordion remains in the bronze age, while most of the others seem to have progressed at least minimally beyond that.  Accordions are still made primarily by hand, and assembled piece by piece with individual adjustments being made to each linkage and mechanism as it is installed.  On the larger models, the pieces are almost innumerable.  No compartmentalization here, no sections which may be removed to work on the components below them.  No…you have to remove the parts just as they were installed, one piece at a time.  The time involved with such repairs is almost all spent in disassembling and reassembling, which might take hours. The actual repair many times takes mere moments compared to those hours.  It is also entirely possible to take apart an instrument, make the repair, and put it back together again, only to find that the adjustment of the repaired part isn’t quite as it should be.  You guessed it, back apart again, adjust, then back together again, ad infinitum.

My trump card?  I quoted an astronomical price for the labor involved in the repair, quite legitimately.  I was already replacing the squeeze box in the case, ready to carry it back out to the car for the lady.  No such luck!  “That sounds reasonable to me.  When can you have it ready?”  I was trapped!  A date was named and the work duly performed.  When she picked up the instrument a month later, she said sweetly, “I have several friends with whom I play sometimes.  I’ll be telling them about you.”  I immediately swore her to secrecy, purchasing her silence with the promise to make adjustments whenever she needed them if she would never divulge my identity.  Then I made a phone call or two to the music stores in the surrounding towns, informing them that I would not be repairing any more stomach Steinways, so they should forget that they ever knew of my abilities.  It has been a few years now, so hopefully they really have forgotten my name.

Have you ever started something you were sure you wanted to do, only to find that you really didn’t like doing it at all?  Perhaps you even trained for years for the job and then found that it just wasn’t your cup of tea.  I remember one of the Lovely Lady’s friends who went through four years of an Education degree at the local university, only to discover the first year she taught, that she couldn’t stand being in the classroom with a bunch of kids.  One young man I know was positive of his direction in life for years ahead of starting college, only to find in his freshman year that he hated the task he would be doing for the rest of his life if he completed his degree.  I’ve always thought that he was one of the lucky ones, to figure it out so early in the game!

Besides my brief stint as an accordion technician, I remember at least one more similar disappointment in my lifetime.  The Lovely Lady’s father was a piano tuner for most of his life, along with being a master of the technical manipulations required to make these beautiful instruments sing and perform precisely.  He was also a wonderful teacher, having taught many young adults to tune and repair pianos.  I desperately wanted to tune pianos, too.  Accordingly, I joined one of his classes and learned about temperaments, stretched octaves, beats and false beats in unisons, and a lot of other jargon which I have (thankfully) forgotten.  I was into the fourth or fifth tuning of my practice piano, matching unisons and thirds (or was it seconds?), plink-plink-plinking my way up the keyboard, when it hit me.  I hated this!  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it; I actually was pretty good at it.  The problem was that I hated sitting at a piano, plinking at the keys, and not making a speck of music.  It was sheer drudgery to me.  To my father-in-law’s disappointment, I suggested that this wasn’t to be my life’s vocation and put my tools away.

I’m looking back at these experiences and others, finally mature enough to realize that they were not failures.  There is nothing that I would change about those hours and minutes spent in exploring the possibility of doing something that I might love.  So, I didn’t enjoy the activity itself.  That’s no longer a problem for me.  I tried new things, meeting new people, and gaining memories in the process.  That’s how life works.  We attempt and reassess, then we attempt again.  It’s all part of being a human being.  Was my time of exploration wasted?  Not at all!  How about the prospective teacher?  Or the young college student?  I would guess that both of them are starting to see that the time they spent has gone into making them what they are today.

After all, that’s true for every single one of us.  We are the sum of our experiences, along with a good measure of our faith, and even a dash or two of disappointment tossed in for flavor.  We live; we learn.  And, we all move a little closer to being the person we aspire to be, the person God is shaping us into.  And, it’s good.

My main concern now is that I’ve let all of you into my accordion repairing secret.  I hope you can keep your mouth shut.  I guess I’m just going to have to trust you.

“You are never too old to set a new goal, or to dream a new dream”
(C S Lewis~British author~1898-1963)

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
(Winston Churchill~British Prime Minister and statesman~1874-1965)

Maybe Just One More

The email arrived late tonight.  “I only wanted one,” was the terse statement.  The missive was in reply to a question I had asked earlier in the day of the customer.  Her order had arrived in my in-box and I had promptly pulled the item and prepared it for the shipping room.   Coming back to my monitor a moment later, I was surprised to see another, identical order from the same lady.  The time stamp showed that the two orders had been placed within two minutes of each other.  I had a pretty good idea of what happened, but wanted to hear it from her.  Sure enough, she clicked twice on the button which finalizes her order.  In bold black type, the online instructions plainly say, “click the button below ONLY ONCE.”  The directive goes on to say that it could take up to three minutes to process the order.  In spite of the instructions, the order was placed again.  I’ll cancel the additional charge to her credit card and will only ship one item.  I wish all the consequences of impatience and self-gratification were so simple to remedy.

Tongue-in-cheek, I told you the other day about some of the quirky sayings that the Lovely Lady’s father had passed on to me.  There was one I didn’t include, but I hear it repeated too many times, mostly from my own lips.  “That was really good!  It tastes like another one!”  This phrase is best emphasized by grabbing another doughnut, or serving up another piece of pie.  One was good, the second one can only be better.  My scale registers something over the two century mark as I gingerly step onto it, another reminder that the old days of eating what I want without penalty are a thing of the long distant past.  I’ve said, “Maybe just one more,” a few times too many over the last thirty years and the evidence is literally right in front of me.

In my music store, I have threatened to have tee shirts printed up with the slogan “You can’t have too many guitars” on the front of them.  These, of course, would be intended for the unhappy wives of a number of guitar buyers.  Once again, the suggestion is facetious, and in fact, it’s almost a serious enough issue to be concerned about and not one to laugh about.  There are people to whom common sense is a stranger when they see a guitar they have read about, or seen a friend playing, or heard played on their favorite recording.  They must possess that instrument and will go to almost any length to obtain it.  I’m not sure that I know of this problem causing any divorces, but there is no question that a fair number of family squabbles have been started by the purchase of one of these beautiful ladies with their glossy finish and siren-like qualities.  Perhaps it is possible to have too many of these wonderful instruments.  Maybe it would make more sense to print up some tee shirts with a blurb that says “Listen to your wife!” and distribute them to my married customers.  Nah…that wouldn’t be good for business.   Anyway, some of those wives have the same problem when it comes to purchases in their field of interest.  We haven’t yet discussed shoes, or handbags, or…I think I’ll stop there or I may have to face the consequences later.

Indeed, we live in a day when self-control is not encouraged.  The messages with which we’re perpetually barraged tell us to give in to our desires.  See something you want?  Get it.  Can’t afford it?  Charge it.  Been taught that it’s not good?  Ditch your belief system.  We live in a new reality; a reality without consequences.  What once was good is actually bad, the formerly forbidden is to be desired and attained.  The new truth is that if you want it, it can’t be wrong.  The only problem with this new reality is that it is a dream-world, one guaranteed to turn into a nightmare the further you proceed into it.  We’re surrounded by the evidence in ruined lives; stars in recovery programs, politicians (and preachers) resigning in shame or going to jail, marriages in shambles, hoarding, alcoholism, drug addiction…the horrendous list is without end.

As I write this, I’m practicing a new phrase, one which I’ve not had much experience saying; “No, thank you.”  I don’t want to super-size it, don’t want seconds, don’t want another one in the driveway.  I’m thinking that the great man who said many centuries ago, “True Godliness with contentment is itself great wealth,” had his head screwed on straight.

I’ve had enough, thank you!

“Self-control is just controlling myself
It’s listening to my heart
And doing what is smart
Self-control is the very best way to go
So I think that I’ll control myself”

(Mike Milligan~Singer-Songwriter~”The Music Machine”)

“And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong–you want only what will give you pleasure.”
(James 4:3)

The Right Tool…

“Stephen Paul Phillips!  Where are my good fabric scissors?”  Wow…It was a three-namer; a pretty good indication that someone was going to walk away from this storm with a tingling posterior.  I cringed where I sat reading and tried to make myself smaller.  Maybe if I could shrink into the chair, she wouldn’t see me sitting there.  But, it was too late.  Some Good Samaritan, possibly even a sibling with a score to settle, piped up, “He’s on the porch reading.”  Within seconds, the red hair which was attached to the woman I called Mama poked into sight through the front door.  “What have you done with them this time?  I’ve told you time and time again that those scissors are for sewing and nothing else!  You’re not to touch them!”

The jig was up.  I plodded, hangdog, to my room upstairs and brought down the implement in question.  I handed them to my mother, certain that there were more questions to follow.  I wasn’t disappointed.  “The blades are all nicked up!  These won’t cut anything now!  How in the world….?”  The explanation that followed was a little convoluted, but I’ll see if I can help you follow the trail.  Honestly, I used the scissors to cut cloth…at first.  The old jeans had both knees torn out and were frayed at the bottoms, so it seemed logical to make a pair of cut-off shorts, instead of tossing them away.  Those safety scissors in the desk downstairs just wouldn’t do the trick, so I commandeered the scissors from Mom’s sewing machine for the job.  I was carrying them down to put them away, when I remembered a piece of poster board that needed to be cut down a little for a school project.  The scissors were already in my hand, so the job was done in short order.  Moments later, before I had a chance to put them away, I saw that old hair dryer which I had picked up on the roadside a few days before.  There was a bevy of small wires that kept me from getting the motor out of the old piece of junk; really the motor was the only thing I wanted out of the whole contraption.  They were only small wires…Surely the scissors could cut through them like butter…

Yeah…my posterior did ache as I walked away from that encounter.  I think that perhaps I never bothered my mother’s sewing scissors again.  It is safe to say though, that I have frequently used the wrong tool for the job I have done.  Screwdrivers make pretty good pry-bars; pocket knives have taken their turn at turning a screw or two; I’ve even used the claw side of a hammer to chop through wood with middling success.  So, it’s almost comforting to know that the latest generation coming along now is continuing the tradition.

“Son, we don’t ever use a shovel as a knife!”  Lunchtime was over and we were enjoying the full after-dinner feeling as we visited.  The grandchildren were in the backyard playing.  I had noticed one of the children plying a small trowel which the Lovely Lady keeps for them to “help” with when flowers were being planted.  As the son-in-law and I gabbed in the den, the words penetrated the calm.  I could tell it wasn’t their Mom’s urgent “stop-or-there’ll-be-blood” voice, so I just laughed loudly.  I’ll admit that I had a fleeting image of the older boy, trowel held to the neck of the younger one, demanding a turn on the swing set, but if she wasn’t worried, I wasn’t either.  Hours later, the Lovely Lady told me that he had just been using the blade of the shovel in a sawing motion on the rope that held the swing up, so that illusion was destroyed.  It was gratifying to know that the young man has the ingenuity and sense of innovation to attempt the deed.  The tradition of using the wrong tool seems to be in good hands, so far at least.

I have broken knife-blades, twisted the tips of screwdrivers, and shattered the handles of mattocks; all while using them for unsuitable jobs.  I’ve heard the phrase “the right tool for the right job” more times than I can count in my lifetime, but it just doesn’t stick with me.  Constantly, my inventive brain looks for the tool that is closest which will serve.  I have lots of tools.  Chances are, I even have the right tool.  It’s just not convenient for me to stop what I’m doing to seek it out.  So, I break the wrong tool…and wish that I had taken the time to get the right one.

My cautionary anecdotes today may help you to make better choices.  I’ll be surprised.  It seems that we have to forge our own way, making mistakes along the way, sometimes learning, sometimes laughing it off.  In all seriousness, it does seem to me that in the area of our relationships, at least, the right tool is always appropriate.  The sledge hammer of anger and sarcasm simply cannot effect the results that patience and understanding will.  Argument will not serve when listening is called for.  I have often reached for the most convenient tool in these situations and have done more damage than good.  It’s the kind of damage that is most difficult to repair.  And, it’s not a bad idea to consult the Master Builder once in awhile.  After all, His instruction manual is close at hand.

As I go forward from here, this much I can promise:  I won’t be using the Lovely Lady’s sewing scissors to cut guitar strings any time soon, and I’m pretty sure the swing ropes are safe for a little while.  Apart from that, who can say?  Wood chisels and wrenches, beware!

“A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use.”
(Washington Irving~American author~1783-1859)

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
(Abraham Maslow~American psychologist~1908-1970)

Funny Bone

“I can’t install this nut.  You’ll have to get someone else to do it for you.”  Chuck stood in front of me, electric guitar in hand, with a look of abject disappointment on his face.  I couldn’t control the grin that spread across mine, nor could I keep him in suspense more than a few seconds.  “Okay.  I’ll install it for you, but take a look at this label and think about what it would mean if it really were accurate.”

I took the guitar nut he had handed me (that’s the bridge piece that sits at the top end of the fingerboard), fancy plastic packaging and all, and read it to him verbatim.  “Permanently lubricated guitar nut.  Precision engineered with Teflon, the slipperiest substance on earth…”  Trying hard to curb my laughter, I explained to him the difficulty I would have keeping the material in my vise.  Imagine the trouble I would encounter as I clamped down onto the slippery piece.  Why, it would be shooting out and ricocheting off the ceiling in nothing flat.  And, when I tried to shape it with a file?  I’d be likely to find myself smashing into the wall as the file (and me with it) slid off the top of the teflon.  It was permanently lubricated, mind you.

Chuck and I laughed, and I installed the part he had purchased from some online supplier.  The hype might have something to it, but the fifteen dollar price tag for a one dollar part smacks of snake oil sales technique to this old fashioned instrument repairman.  He was very happy as he tried the guitar in my store today, so either the nut was great or my fitting job was superb, but regardless, as they say today, it’s all good.

I gather up the funnies like coins.  This kind of currency is indispensable to me. It’s what keeps me going when the days bring unreasonable customers, as happened today, or I find myself overwhelmed by the sheer mountain of work waiting for my attention.  The list of times when I have need of these coins to spread around seems to be growing as I age.  It only seems fair that there are so many things with which to be amused.  It would be a great shame to miss them in the midst of circumstances that threaten to smother and snuff out the joy of living every day.  I’m still trying to figure out the exchange-rate, but I think the inflation of the difficult times has made the coins I have saved up worth much more in the present day.

The Lovely Lady’s father kept me going with his funnies all the time I worked with him.  I would be repairing a guitar back at the workbench and drop a tool with a loud clatter.  From the front of the store, I could hear his voice call out, “Did you lose a filling out of your tooth?”  In similar fashion, a customer might drop a heavy keyring on the concrete floor.  “I think you lost the set from your ring!” he would offer.  While the Lovely Lady and her siblings had heard them all and would just groan, I delighted in these gems.  I find myself using them more and more in daily life.  Why, just the other day, I belched after eating something my doctor would have disapproved of completely and the words from my mouth came unbidden.  No, it wasn’t the customary “Excuse me” I’ve been taught to say from my childhood.  Rather, the hilarious words popped out (much like the sound which preceded them), “What did you expect to hear?  Bells?”

Is life serious?  You bet!  There are so many junctures which demand sober attention and clear, pensive thought.  That said, it’s essential that we be able to discern the moments that are solemn occasions and those that are not.  Appropriate humor, shared in an appropriate manner, can diffuse tense situations, and relieve a combative encounter or even a frightening one.  I still have a problem telling the difference sometimes, but I tend to think that to err on the side of humor will cause less problems in the long run than the alternative.

My father-in-law had a little poem (from an old folk song, I think) which he would quote frequently.  It may have annoyed his wife, but I thought it amusing.  “When I was single, my pockets would jingle.  I wish I was single again…”  To my knowledge, he had no desire to be single again, but he was tickled by the sentiments that there was no extra money for the married man.  I understand (and identify) with the tongue-in-cheek verse, but I want you to know that my pockets are jingling with all the funnies I’ve been saving up.  I intend to keep spending them as needed.  I’m pretty good at collecting them, too.  Not much danger of going broke here.

With that, I’ve wasted about enough time on this for now.  I’ve got to get back to my hog-killing…(yeah, one of his, too.  What a great inheritance!)

“I am thankful for laughter…except for when milk comes out of my nose.”
(Woody Allen~American comic and film director)

The person who knows how to laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”
(Shirley MacLane~American actress)

Tempest, Meet Teacup

What is wrong with those imbeciles?”  The question echoed in my head as I labored to complete my task.  I was angry!  Why in the world couldn’t they anticipate that I would have had this problem when this guitar was being designed and built in that high-dollar factory, with its multi-million dollar machines for shaping the top and sides, the jigs for assembling and gluing the myriad pieces together, the plating process for producing the high-gloss finishes on all the metal components?  It wasn’t rocket science, after all!

What was this horrible design flaw that had evoked such an angry outburst?  Had they built the guitar with too short a scale, thus causing the instrument to play out of tune with itself, as well as any other accompanying musician?  No, the scale was perfect, the harmonics sounding clear and pure at each successive node; all producing the exact pitch anticipated.  That wasn’t it.  Perhaps, the structure was flawed, with a weak dovetail at the junction of the neck and body, causing a separation between the two components.  Again, no.  The structure was very satisfactory, with no imperfection to be found.  Then, was it the finish?  Had the factory technicians neglected to sand the sealer completely before applying the lacquer?  Were there horrendous imperfections in the surface of the instrument?  Again, the answer comes back.  No.

You see, I had spent an hour of my precious late-night time installing a pickup system in this guitar and I was to the last stage.  The holes had been successfully bored, the surfaces of the pickup and the bridge saddle matched exactly, all the adhesive pieces put into their respective locations.  The installation had been trouble free, but I was behind schedule if I was to have time to write for a few moments before heading to bed.  The final step of the job, installing the strings, was the simplest.  The new bronze strings would be laid out from the bridge to the tuning machines.  The little tapered pegs would push the ball-end of the string down through the bridge and then slip effortlessly over the metallic ball to lock it into place.  If the ball remained below the tip of the peg, it would certainly launch the plastic device like a missile across the room as the string was brought up to pitch.  Here was the essence of my problem.  This was the horrific design flaw over which I was angrily exclaiming.

As I struggled with each string, it was necessary to rotate the peg rapidly left and right, then left again, until it slipped over the ball-end of the string.  Why, I bet I spent an extra five seconds on each string, as it went on in its turn.  I griped the whole time.  Didn’t these jokers know that all it takes is a simple angle cut on the bottom of the peg to avoid this?  How much profit would it cost them to do that simple step?  What could it cost them; two seconds work, perhaps two cents a peg?  What short-sighted pencil pusher was insisting that they put these inferior pieces of junk in their guitar?  As I got more and more frustrated, I labored harder and harder at the process.  All of the sudden, a thought occurred to me!  What was I doing?  Why in the world was I struggling with this, when all it took was two seconds work to rectify the problem?  Taking a single-edged razor blade and cutting just the corner off of the lower edge on one side, the next peg was prepared before you could say “mountain” (or even “molehill”) and slipped easily over the ball-end of the string and it was done.  Sure, the better scenario would have been for the makers of this fine instrument to do the right thing in the first place.  That said, it was a huge waste of emotional energy and time for me to stubbornly do it the hard way just because they hadn’t foreseen my predicament.

Of course, you saw the solution all along, as I ranted and raved.  This is a frequent problem of mine…this over-reaction to miniscule issues.  There are times when I believe I’ve got it whipped.  I take pride in a small victory here or there; I may actually have been sensitive to my need to adapt just for once, and then something like this episode comes along to remind me of my propensity to go to pieces over nothing.  I’m guessing that we all do it though, in our own way.  “This is not my fault!”  You’ve said that, right? Or, how about, “It’s someone else’s responsibility”?  We justify our self-centered reaction by quoting our job description.  Never mind that the solution is within our ability, nor that the result will be the absence of the hassle and frustration of the ever-present issue.  Why not be a part of the solution?  We can “curse the darkness”, or we can “light a candle”.  Stubbornness chooses the former and stubs its toes stumbling around.  Wisdom always chooses the latter, and saves the pain and suffering for all within the light’s reach.

If some late night, you happen to be passing my shop and you see a wild character pacing the floor, and pulling his hair and shouting, don’t worry about me.  I’ll get it figured out eventually.  Just like the less-than-bright character in Tolkien’s epic books, I can see through a brick wall, given time.  Some of us are just slower at it than others.

“‘Then, I will do it myself,’ said the Little Red Hen.  And she did.”
(The Little Red Hen~American folk story)

“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”

Flipping Out

Have you ever hit a barrier you didn’t even see?  Eyes wide open, watching where you’re going, and suddenly you’re stopped dead.  You probably think I’m talking about an esoteric principle, with some hidden, deep meaning, but I’m not.  Okay, to be honest, I may get to that later.  For now, I mean a real, physical barrier.  I remember the day I hit one of those.  It wasn’t pretty; all blood and screams, but in this case, there was no one to blame but myself.

Way back in my carefree childhood, the long days of summer meant freedom.  None of this “I’m bored, text me” garbage I read frequently from my young friends today.  We filled the days to capacity with adventure and activity.  Our only concern was to be sure that we got meals and were home in time for the curfew.  Other than that, we were up before the parents, fishing, or biking, or wandering the neighborhood in search of friends to hobnob with.  Biking was the favorite.  No, not the twenty-one or twenty-eight speed road bikes of today, not even the three speed axles for us.  We rode whatever we could get our hands on and we made them better (or so we thought).  Did you know that cutting the front forks from a thrashed bike and sliding them onto the forks of a functioning one would give you a chopper?  Okay, it was a poor kid’s chopper, but to us it was the ultimate in cool ( I think we actually said “neat”).  Miles and miles a day, we rode those monstrosities, caring not a whit that we looked utterly foolish to most onlookers.  Of course, being the youngest meant that I got the cast-off bikes, and on the day in question, I was riding a rusty old junker, which had not even the decency to have the extension forks added.

Now, where was I?  Oh yes!  The blood and screams.  After a day in the sun, I was headed into the yard for the last time.  It was approaching the time when I would be in trouble if I was late, so I cut between the trees in the side yard, instead of entering the property via the driveway.  As I flew over the handlebars, head first, I had a brief moment of clarity before the pain hit me.  That wire stretched between the two trees?  I had placed it there just a day or two before.  No particular reason, just had the time to fill and the wire was handy.  In my brief moment of clarity, as I flew through the air, I thought, “You stupid idiot!”  That was all the time I had, because suddenly my head hurt.  Worse; I was bleeding profusely from my right thumb, where my hand had gotten caught between the wire and my handlebars.  This obviously, was where the screaming came in, since that was what I was doing uncontrollably by that time.  Of course, Mom was there quickly, with first aid and comfort, along with a few pointed questions about the source of the wire.  The embarrassment of the injury being self-inflicted took all the enjoyment out of the bragging, which normally followed such an event.  Even when the thumbnail fell off a day or two later, there was none of the standard “show and tell”, which would inevitably have followed that development; the injured party in this case hoping for as little notice as possible.

As I considered that long ago event, I was reminded of a more recent occurrence, now part of the local lore, regarding a highway which had fallen into disuse and the lady who laid claim to it.  You will understand that I must issue a disclaimer regarding any concrete knowledge of the event, since I have not talked with any of the principals, but knowing the parties involved, it seems to me a likely scenario.  It appears that the state had built a highway nearby, with a shorter and straighter route up the hill from the river than the old road, so the aged one was used only in very bad weather.  Since the woman owned property on both sides of the old highway, she thought it might be nice to have title to that too, without the nuisance of strangers being able to drive up it.  Discovering a law that pertained to abandoned roadways, she sought to have the highway declared as such, but failed because it was determined that the road was still in use.  Her solution to that was to string a logging chain across the road about halfway up the part to which she was laying claim.  It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Late one night as a storm came in, an old farmer decided to take the old road instead of the new, just to be sure he didn’t have any problems making it up the very steep incline the new road offered.  In the dark, he didn’t see the chain which spanned the space ahead of him.  Fortunately, he was moving slowly and the only damage was that the chain broke out his windshield at it brought his vehicle to a sudden stop.  If some script writer in Hollywood had written the story, I’m sure it would have ended with decapitation and the roof of the car torn off completely.  More blood and screams.  Maybe it’s a good thing we just have the local storytellers to relate this one.  I’m not absolutely sure, but it’s my guess that traffic stopped moving up that old highway within a very short time of that event.

Is the story true?  I don’t know, but the truth it demonstrates is unassailable.  Sometimes, as in my childhood experience, we put up barriers in our own way, but frequently, the barriers just appear, through no fault of our own.  In such cases, if we can’t go through, we find alternative routes to get where we’re headed.  I’m fairly sure that driving up to the chain and waiting for it to be removed would have accomplished nothing.  Going onto the lady’s property to remove the chain would almost certainly have resulted in injury, since large dogs and shotguns always come into the local lore centering around property questions in that sector.  You’ll have to remind me to talk about a canoe trip the Lovely Lady and I, along with a few friends, took along the river down that way once, many years ago.  Sometimes the best route, when the immovable barriers crop up, is around.  As we say, it doesn’t do any good to beat your head against a wall.  The wall doesn’t feel it and the head’s function isn’t helped much either.

The simple truth is that we learn from hard lessons.  I never again rode my bicycle between trees without being able to clearly see the path I was traveling.  This, in spite of the fact that the wire came down the day after my accident.  Folks learned to avoid that blocked off road.  They still make the journey into town, just by another route.  We adapt, we learn.  Life is truly an adventure, with opportunities and disappointments.  The beauty of this journey that our God has set before us is that both the opportunities and the disappointments move us closer to our goal, both helping to equip us to make the trip in grand style, enjoying the journey.

Keep your eyes peeled for the junk across the road, though.  It seems likely that there may be more coming up…

“Failure is not fatal.  Failure is our teacher, not our undertaker.”
(William Arthur Ward~American educator, writer, and pastor~1921-1994)

Avoiding the Sting

The solution to the problem at the old house was obvious.  The old electrical service wires coming from the pole at the street would have to be replaced.  The journeyman electrician I was working with asked me to remove the weatherhead on the roof so we could pull the wires out.  A weatherhead is a rounded metal cover mounted on top of the conduit going into the control panel which has the circuit breakers for the house in it.  This metal device has the shape like a swan’s neck for a reason; simply to keep the rain from running down the conduit.  The wires are installed with the removable top off and enter the weatherhead from a downward direction, heading up over the bend and then turn straight downward to enter the house and the panel.

On this particular day, it was my turn to go up the ladder to the roof top and pull off the weatherhead before we could replace the service wire.  As I looked up the ladder toward the cable’s end above me, I thought I saw a small shadow flitting into the plastic wire-guide right beside one of the wires on the downward turned surface.  I didn’t think anything about it.  Standing beside the conduit, I could hear a very slight buzzing coming from the structure.  Again, I didn’t think much of it; probably just a vibration from the mechanical systems in the house.  It was a shock to open the metal cover and, lifting it off, to see, there in my hand and inches away from my face, a paper-like nest just buzzing with yellowjackets! 

Maybe I should take a moment to discuss the options here.  The wasps hadn’t really gotten riled up yet.  Perhaps I should just have replaced the top and asked the electrician I was working with for assistance.  You know, in retrospect, that would have been the wise decision.  We could have gotten the can of wasp spray from the truck and killed them where they sat.  That would have been a complete and final solution.  My problem is that I don’t think clearly while looking at a nest of live wasps which I am holding in my hand.  I did the only thing I could think to do.  I hurled the weatherhead, yellowjackets and all, as far from the house as I could, yelling toward the ground as I did.  “Watch out!  Yellowjackets!”  My boss, thinking quickly, yelled right back, “You’d better move fast!”  I stood where I was on the roof.  “Why do I need to….”  My question was ended in mid-sentence, as I saw the dark shadow coming rapidly toward me from the general area in which I had slung the projectile just seconds before.

I’m pretty sure that no one has ever come down a ladder as quickly as I descended that one.  It would be safe to say that there were a few rungs that my feet never touched.  We stood on the ground helplessly and watched the angry insects buzzing around, searching for their home, which they were sure had been right there just a moment ago.  It was quite awhile before we could get back to work, since they just kept coming back again and again.  Imagine their confusion!  It had been a perfectly solid home; protected from the weather; a great place to nurture their future brood.  All of the sudden they found themselves thrown violently to the ground and when they returned to the place it had stood, there was no sign of it at all.  And, how stupid of me to expect that they would do anything else! 

You see, I thought I had removed the problem, but I just made it worse.  What I needed to do was to find a complete solution, instead of the convenient fix I had arranged on the spot.  The phrase that comes to mind is “they came back, just like a bad penny.”  That’s an interesting adage, when you consider it.  Centuries ago, the penny was a valuable asset and it was not uncommon for them to be counterfeited.  Not having the authorities quite as accessible as we, the solution, if you found yourself in possession of such a coin, was to pass it off on another unsuspecting individual.  Unfortunately, the population concentration was not as dense as in our era, so it was highly likely that the same penny would make its way back into your pocket in short order.  I believed that I had gotten out of the mess I found myself in, only to make the problem even worse.

I would suggest to you that quick fixes are rarely that at all.  In fact, most of the time, they come back to haunt us in much worse ways than the original problem.  Maybe we need to take the time and make the effort to stop and consider the ramifications, before throwing the wasp’s nest down to the ground.  They’ll be buzzing around our ears before we can figure out what happened. 

Things are almost never as bad as imagination makes them out to be, nor is our first inclination the best counselor to whom we can listen.  The next time I’m in such a situation, I’m going to try to take a deep breath, and think, then act.  My guess is that there might be fewer angry yellowjackets (or any other angry pests) to deal with if I’m successful.

Time will tell…

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears.”
(Rudyard Kipling~English poet and novelist~1865-1936)

“Thinking is the greatest torture in the world for most people.”

Looking Like My Dad

The old man looked at me, aghast at the language he heard spilling from my mouth.  At eighteen, I wasn’t the model of moral integrity.  By that, I mean that I was one of those two-faced hypocrites you talk about when you want an excuse to stay away from church.  In certain company, I was the paragon of virtue, all spit and polish, as straight-laced as you would want.  But, with the right individuals (or wrong, if you prefer), I acted as badly as they and I could swear with the most proficient.  I was in such company today, and I was turning the air blue, as I argued with a co-worker.

I had seen the man come into the drugstore, but I knew him to be one of those who didn’t mind the language; had even heard a filthy joke or two from him.  I wasn’t concerned about what he would think.  Or, so I thought.  As I spouted off, he turned and looked at me and the disgust on his face was obvious.  “You’re Harry Phillips’ boy, aren’t you?”  I replied (a bit reluctantly) in the affirmative.  His reply will ring in my ears until I die.  “You don’t favor him much.”

I don’t remember a lot after that in the conversation, but when he left, my boss informed me that the man worked with my dad at the Post Office.  I wasn’t worried about him talking to Dad.  After all, I was eighteen and was an adult, don’t you see?  I wasn’t afraid, but I was shamed beyond belief.  This man, regardless of what I thought of his spiritual state; regardless of his own practices with respect to his speech, understood that I wasn’t living up to the example set by my father.  As I have thought about it over the years, other aspects of the situation become clear.  My father walked what he talked, even when he was in a place where it wasn’t the common practice.  He wasn’t a chameleon, changing to fit his environment, but he was steadfast in how he lived out his beliefs.

I remember a friend at school once talking with me about his dad’s cursing.  I told him my dad didn’t ever talk like that.  His response was laughter.  “Of course, he cusses!  He just doesn’t do it when you’re around. I bet when he hits his thumb with a hammer, he does it then.”  I responded that I was sure he didn’t.  Even now, after fifty-four years of life, I have never heard one untoward utterance from my father’s mouth.  Is he a perfect man?  Not so much.  I’m not so sure I could relate well to a perfect father.  But, his intent is to live out what he believes and he works at it continuously.

Dad’s consistency in his talk and walk was once a frustration to this wayward son.  And at eighteen, it served as a wake-up call, when a stranger “took me to school”.  Today?  I hope I look a little more like my dad.  Well, the physical things, I couldn’t change anyway.  I’ve got his nose and eyes, and even some invisible traits that can’t be easily altered, such as the high cholesterol.  But a constant walk in the same direction he’s taken?  I’d very much like to favor my father in that way.

I hope the family resemblance shows.  Happy Father’s Day! 

“Honor your father and your mother..”
(Ephesians 6:2)

“You don’t choose your family.  They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”
(Bishop Desmond Tutu~African spiritual leader)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved. 

Well Enough Alone…

“What’s the function of the fulcrum?”  It has been thirty years, but that question can still cause hysterical laughter within a certain group of friends I know, even when asked out of the blue, with no apparent context at all.  In a moment, we’re all transported back to the early 1980’s.  The scene is a campsite by a lake a few miles outside of our little town.  The event is a camping trip taken collectively by a bunch of young adults from our church.  The Lovely Lady and I didn’t participate in the overnight part of the trip, me being partial to a comfortable bed that doesn’t have a “Vacancy” sign beckoning to every creepy crawly within wriggling distance.  We did, however make the trip out to enjoy the company at a memorable cookout in the evening.

Inquiring minds want to know, or so I’ve been led to believe, but some things are just best left to the imagination.  I’m as curious as the next person about how things work and have spent countless hours taking apart various nonfunctioning mechanisms, confident that if I can see how they are supposed to operate, I can soon have them ticking along again.  That said, I am usually content to let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak, and not interfere in a situation where the job is getting done just fine, thank you.

There was a couple on that fateful campout, a little older than the average for the group, with IQ’s significantly higher than the average for said group.  These wonderful folks were, like the Lovely Lady and I, not entirely comfortable with the camping experience, but they were game to try.  In due time, they laid out the individual pieces of their tent on the ground and he began construction.  She was trying, bless her heart, but got caught up in the design features of the various pieces.  As he struggled gamely, she kept turning a certain piece around and querying, to no one in particular, “What’s the function of the fulcrum?”  As they are wont to do in such situations, frustration levels rose in proportion to the lack of progress and work finally ceased altogether with the tent still somewhat incomplete.  We didn’t stay the night, but I think I remember being told that the couple slept in their Volkswagon bus.

Every once in awhile, I find myself voicing that question, like our friend, to no one in particular.  It happens when I can’t understand why something won’t work.  All the pieces are in place, but the result is not as expected.  At times like that, the nonsense question (well, to me it was nonsense; to her advanced brain it made perfect sense) is just a verbal shrug, something to illustrate my confusion and surrender.

On the other side of the coin, I will also assure you that when something is working flawlessly, I will not take it apart to find out what makes it tick.  This, I’ve learned by long and painful experience.  There was the new starter for my old Chevy truck which I disassembled to find out how the brushes contacted the armature.  Not a wise move for a man with less than three hands.  That’s how many you need to reassemble such a motor without hours of frustrating, repetitive toil.  We also don’t want to discuss the old music box, for which a replacement main spring was never located.  No…it was fine before I took it apart; it’s just that you can’t stuff that thing back in there after it uncoils all over the table.

I understand what that wisest of counselors Gandalf the Grey (or is the White?  I never know.) meant when he said, “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom.”  Actually, it was just as clear when I heard the old mechanic express it briefly when I was a child, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

I know I’m a frustration to the folks around me who have analytical brains.  These folks are put together in such a way that they can’t abide things that are put together.  Okay, that’s an exaggeration.  It is fair to say that they want to know both why things work and why they don’t work.  Facts and figures, please.  Keep a journal, do a study, have a discussion group.  I’m not such a person.  I can’t tell you why it works; I’m just excited when it does.  And, please don’t stop it while it’s running.  This applies to inanimate objects, to business operations, and to relationships.  I don’t need to know “the function of the fulcrum”, just as long as it actually functions.

Obviously, one doesn’t get to be my age without some analytical skills.  When things are broken, I work hard to figure out why and they get the adjustments and new parts necessary.  For today, I just want my loved ones, my friends, to know that I’m happy you’re there.  Whatever it is you’re doing right, don’t change it.  Let somebody else work out the blueprints and the schematics. I refuse to let tomorrow’s “what ifs” steal the joy from today’s blessings.

For today, the fulcrum functions and that’s enough for me.

“A certain man had the good fortune to possess a Goose that laid him a Golden Egg every day. But dissatisfied with so slow an income, and thinking to seize the whole treasure at once, he killed the Goose, and cutting her open, found her – just what any other goose would be!”
(Aesop’s Fables)

“…For I have learned, whatever state I am in, therewith to be content.”
(Philippians 4:11)

Skin Deep

The house was perfect!  We had labored non-stop for six months, tearing out cabinets and floors, even an occasional ceiling.  New wiring had been pulled, plumbing installed, walls and cabinets built, floors laid, and a passel of trim work done.  Then every surface in the house got a coat of paint.  We were exhausted, but it was just as we had envisioned when we started the job.  Never mind that the project had overrun the budget by two and a half times what we expected.  It was exactly as we dreamed it could be.  All except the back yard.

I looked out the new kitchen window and saw the seedy, gravel strewn yard.  It was a testament to its former use as a loading zone for the vegetable market which had been in the building next door.  Nothing worth mowing would grow in that.  Our daughter was getting married in a month or two and surely there would be grandchildren someday down the road.  They would need a yard in which to play.  We had already talked with our construction crew about erecting fences, but that wouldn’t make this right.  We agreed that more investment would be necessary and called the company who could move a little earth for us.  The front end loader removed all the old gravel and about a foot of the top layer of dirt, most of it full of rocks and bits of trash.  After that was done and the ground was level and litter free, the dump trucks arrived to replace the removed layer with good topsoil.  It was spread out with machines and around the trees by hand.  When the trucks and equipment left, we had a nice, level yard, ready for seeding.

I spread the grass-seed and watered it.  The rains came and washed the seed out, so I did it all again.  This time, after a week or so, you could look out the kitchen window and see a greenish hue to the dirt.  Day by day, the growth continued until we actually had a yard.  The beautiful, soft grass was a pleasure to behold and I was so proud!  Not a rock to be found, the yard was the nicest I had ever worked in.  I even got to mow it once.  Then came Easter Sunday.

It was our first Easter in the house and we were expecting about twenty guests for dinner.  That morning, the Lovely Lady pulled the plug on her bathtub and it sat and gurgled.  The water level went down too slowly and I noticed that the sump pump in the basement was running.  That was a puzzle, since there had been no recent rain, so the water couldn’t be seeping in the foundation.  I flushed a toilet downstairs.  It gurgled.  The sump pump ran some more.  The sink in the kitchen wasn’t any better.  Our suspicions had to be faced.  We had a clogged sewer.  On Easter Sunday.  A call to our plumber got quick action, but he gave us bad news.  “I opened it up enough for today, but the whole line is collapsed.  It’s ancient and has roots growing in the joints.  It will have to be replaced.”  I agreed, reluctantly, and we scheduled the work.  I had no idea what was to come!

In a day or two, the drive-through gate in the back fence was opened wide and the back-hoe came in.  Before you could say “Saint Augustine grass”, my perfect lawn was covered with huge rocks.  The topsoil was mixed with the old Arkansas dirt, which is to say, it had more rocks than soil.  The ditch went straight back from the house to the back of the lot and turned, running the width of the yard and on past the fence.  My beautiful yard was nothing but a memory, and my heart was broken.  Nine years later, the weeds and “spiny balls” from the Sweet Gum tree reign supreme in the realm of the backyard, aided over that time by two Golden Retrievers who were expert diggers, and not a few moles and other assorted varmints. 

I’m still amazed at how such a beautiful testament to hard work and dedication can hide a secret so filthy and wretched.  Under that facade of orderliness and discipline, the rot and decay of years of neglect lurked, just awaiting the completion of the renovation above.  Then it raised its ugly head and demanded my attention, much to the detriment of the exterior beauty.

I remember a similar situation which occurred years ago, while I still worked for my friends at the electrical contracting business.  We were called out to a newly renovated home because they were having a serious problem with flickering lights.  The family had recently moved to our little town for his new job as president of one of the local banks.  The lady of the house had every detail exactly as she wanted it.  You couldn’t have found a more nicely decorated house in any magazine.  They had waited until the workers were finished with every facet of the renovation and then covered all the floors with white carpet and the walls in the living area with a very expensive fabric wall treatment.  When we had eliminated any possibility of problems on the exterior of the home, we had to enter the posh shrine to Better Homes & Gardens, dirty work boots soiling the white rug in spite of our best efforts to wipe them clean.  Worse, we had to open the breaker panel on the wall.  Normally this was simply a matter of removing four screws and repairs could be made immediately.  This time, we were stymied.  The decorator had insisted that the very costly fabric wall covering should cover the wall, unbroken by any unwanted cuts for a very unfashionable metal panel door.  The only way to get where we needed to make repairs was to cut the fabric!  I’ll not bore you with the gory details of that unhappy day, but it will serve just to mention that the lady of the house was more than slightly unhappy.  We should leave it at that.

You know, it strikes me that if we would work as hard at cleaning up what’s under the surface as we do at beautifying the face which the world sees, we could avoid a lot of disappointment in life.  I’m guessing you get the point, so I think I’ll finish without any more preaching.

The grandchildren did come.  They love the backyard, just as it is, puppy-dog holes, spiny balls, and all.  They also give the plumbing a workout every time they visit.  “I need to wash my hands” is the  phrase we hear whenever they come in from playing, and the little ladder is dragged to its place in front of the big kitchen sink.  It doesn’t gurgle.  It’s nice to be able to enjoy the yard above and know that what’s hidden below won’t be causing any problems for the foreseeable future. 

If only that were true in every facet of our lives.

“The naked truth is always better than the best-dressed lie.”
(Ann Landers~advice columnist~1918-2002)

“The cause is hidden, but the result is known.”
(Ovid~Ancient Roman poet~43 BC-17 AD)