Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Small problems, no solutions

Among the more existential questions upon which my father sometimes ruminates is whether there are problems with no solutions. "I think there are," he said to me last week. "When I was younger, I believed that just about every problem had a solution. And not only that, but I thought I could solve most problems myself. Now I see that there are some problems that just don't have solutions."

I think he was referring to fairly large and significant problems, but I recalled his words yesterday afternoon as my 11-year-old daughter and I were making our way through what was turning out to be not a very good day for her. And it just wasn't anything I could solve. It wasn't really anything that could be solved. It wasn't anything momentous or critical. It was just....little things going wrong. And I couldn't do much but sit back and watch.

Yesterday was supposed to be the day Holly got her braces, and she was ready. She'd asked her friends for advice. She'd thought about what to eat for lunch, knowing she might not be able to eat again for a while, and she'd already talked me into stopping for a milk shake after her appointment since her friends had advised her that a milk shake was all she would want in the first few hours after the braces went on. She'd even gotten recommendations from her friends on what color wires to choose for her braces. Pink and blue, she confidently told me in the car as we drove to her appointment.

But the orthodontist examined her x-rays and said not quite yet. There was a baby tooth that needed to fall out first, which it soon would, he assured us.  And there was another one for which he was recommending an extraction. Until those two teeth were out of the way, the orthodontist said, it didn't make sense to proceed.

It's not like Holly had been looking forward to getting braces on, but by the time the day came, she was psyched up for it, and I could tell she felt deflated as we left. No solution, I told myself. She'll just have to wait out the disappointment. "You can still have the milk shake," I told her.

So we stopped at the ice cream stand. Holly drank a little bit of the shake in the car, and then once we got home decided to put it in the freezer so it would firm up a little bit more.

Except in doing so, she tipped it over and the whole thing spilled into the bottom of the freezer.

Holly is a very responsible 11-year-old. After letting out one small scream of frustration, she fetched a roll of paper towels and started mopping. There was milk shake all over everything. The inside of the freezer. The outside of the freezer. The bottom of the freezer. The floor around the freezer. All the other items already in the freezer.

It was a mess. I pitched in to help her, but it still took us nearly a half-hour. "And I hardly even drank any of my milk shake before it spilled!" Holly said mournfully as we mopped.

There was no solution to that either. We were too far from the ice cream stand to go out for another one, and I had to leave soon for an evening commitment. When we were finally done cleaning the freezer out, Holly asked if she could watch TV for a little while. Thinking it might be comforting, I said yes. And then the power went out.

Poor Holly. It just wasn't her day. Nothing all that bad was going on. Just little annoyances without solutions. Because some problems don't have solutions. And even if they are really trivial problems, as trivial as spilling a much-anticipated milk shake, it's frustrating.

When I got home from my evening meeting, the power was back on and Holly was cheerful. I assured her I would set up the appointment for the extraction as soon as possible and we would reschedule the braces.

Some problems are solved only by waiting them out. The freezer is cleaner now than it was pre-spill, and the power company fixed the lines as quickly as they could. I told Holly we would surely find another opportunity for a milk shake before the week is out.

It’s true that some problems just don't have solutions. But for those messes that can in fact be cleaned up, you pull out a roll of paper towels and get to work.

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