Second Gear

My dear wife has always been a guiding light in my life, always there to give strength and support. She also has always been one to simplify challenges in life and I learn from her. Whenever I attempt any project I have a strong tendency to be fully prepared, having considered all options and having developed a plan, complete with alternatives. My dear wife just “does it.”

This talent of hers became evident after just a few months of marriage. We had been living in a furnished apartment complex, complete with lawn care and on-call support. It was my belief that I should provide this environment for a new bride. She, being the wiser one, soon realized that this apartment took all our disposable income and she proposed we move nearby to a smaller dwelling so we could save for our future. Her revelation came as a surprise, because my vision had been to provide the nicest place I could for her, yet she saw our situation very differently. Being newly married, she saw that reducing costs had to be in our strategy. Although reluctant to do so, I went along with her plan. She had developed several friendships at our first apartment, but still wanted this sacrifice for us. I was in the presence of a teacher and I have long remembered what I was to learn during those months in this small residence in our first year together.

Our new residence was a “furnished” house (viewable here), although very small: one bedroom with no mattress for the bed, an eat-in kitchen with no table, and a living room with one chair. We had a yard, our first, and the thought of being able to sit in our own yard excited us. There was a backyard, but it had not been mowed in several years. There was a shed on the property and the landlord told us we could use the lawn mower there and might find a mattress there also. Looking back, people might think we were depressed and upset at what we had rented, but we were ecstatic, overjoyed at having our own little castle, our own home, even though we knew that it would be temporary as I was in the military and subject to reassignment at any time (and that is a story I may never tell).

In the shed we did find a mattress, the obvious victim of a fire that had destroyed part of it. It would have to do, as we couldn’t afford to buy one. The lawn mower needed some work, but I did get it working and managed to mow part of the dense backyard, eventually uncovering the remains of a pickup truck that had been rusting away for a decade or more, yet hidden by the tall weeds. The shed also yielded some wood scraps from which I was able to form some rickety legs for the kitchen table. All was good. Oh, one more thing: the furnace didn’t work. A friendly sergeant helped me disassemble the furnace and clean it and test it. Finally, we had a house.

What did I learn from this? I learned that sometimes one must just do whatever is needed to move life forward. I learned that life can be fully experienced with simple things. I learned that solutions didn’t need to fit all situations. I learned that an item (such as that mattress) might not last for years and my focus needed to be for the time we needed it. I learned that contentment comes, not from what you own, but from within. I also learned that I was just beginning to discover the many wonderful attributes of my wife that I would experience in this life. We had left behind a well-managed, two-story apartment with two bedrooms, a nice kitchen, a large living room, and a dining area; we left it for where we now lived (and were finally saving some money). We lived there for just six months, six of the sweetest months I will know in this short life. Having so little, our focus was on each other and enjoying our days with simple things. A typical Saturday entertainment was playing a board game and sharing a package of chips.

Now, our prior neighborhood where her friends lived was just a few blocks away, accessible via low-traffic roads. We had just purchased (thanks to a gift to my wife from an aunt) our first car: a ten-year-old Chevrolet with 95,000 miles on it (and our life with that car is another story unto itself, a story that is still percolating in my heart). It was a standard shift and I made an effort to teach her about clutch and gears and shifting and listening to the engine sounds. I stumbled into attempts to explain gear ratios and what-all, but she clearly had no interest; driving was one thing, mastering gear ratios was quite irrelevant. Finally, after listening to several of my repetitions on how to shift, she looked at me and said, “David, since I only want to drive a few blocks away, it sounds like I can just put the car in second gear and be done with it.” And that is what she did. She was right. I was making it complex when the solution was simple. For the remainder of our time there, she made regular visits to her friends, all in second gear.

Today, whenever I am faced with new challenges I remember her use of second gear. The second gear philosophy doesn’t solve all problems, but it solves most, focusing on the problem instead of the solution. Had she wanted to drive any great distance it would have been the wrong strategy, and that is where many of us tend to fail. We believe all similar problems require the same solution. To solve a problem, we must first define it. In later years when I was a manager, I regularly asked people to write down the problem they were facing before attempting to solve it. That generally resulted in comments on that activity being a waste of time, but when taking pen to paper, they mostly failed to define the problem and, instead, defined the perceived problem for which they had a solution. Often, there was no problem at all. And that was how it was in that small house those many years ago; despite its shortcomings, it was the solution we needed. I have grown since then, and I’ve learned that sharing the problem with one’s spouse can open new windows to any situation. And my hope is that my learning continues.