Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Ingenuity

It was my father's lifelong mantra: With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.

The mantra of a professional mechanical engineer. And of the domestic handyman.

A broken toaster. Rabbits in the garden. A carburetor that needs tuning. A dab of solder. Some chicken wire. A twiddle with a screwdriver.

Sure, now and then things get out of whack, but most problems are solvable. A little tinkering is all it takes. A little jerryrigging.

No problem is too large or too small that it cannot be solved with a little cleverness. A smoky furnace. A world at war. A rocky marriage. Analyze the problem. Find the variable that has gone askew. Jigger it back into line. The world goes swimmingly.

That was his mantra.

A handyman's faith. An assertion of optimism. A belief that by-and-large the world is a well-engineered machine, with a lifetime guarantee. Whatever goes wrong can be easily fixed. It was built to last.

I was reading again yesterday the journals he kept in his final days, as he lay dying of cancer, confined to a hospital bed. The doctors and the priests come and go. Family and friends attend. And still the current of optimism flows through the pages, that handyman's faith that with a little ingenuity anything can be fixed. The doses and times. The ups and downs of the energy cycle. Nausea. Morphine. Mylanta. Milk. Bleeding. Oxygen. IV. Antibiotics. A hodgepodge of hopeful notes, as if he were rooting around in the junk drawers of the big black cabinet in his basement workshop for just the right gizmo to set the mechanism right.

At the end, in his journals, he seems a little bit baffled that things seemed to be going unfixably wrong, that the graphs and calculations with which he filled his journals failed to reveal an engineer's solution to the malfunction of his body. With a little ingenuity, anything is possible: The mantra had served him well all his life. He wanted desperately to fix his body now, to repair what was broken, to mend the frayed tatters of flesh. He hadn't counted on what the Great Engineer had meant by "lifetime guarantee."