Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The return trip, child-wrangling, 'heroic' wrenching, and a good hot shower

If any of my faithful followers rely solely on my blog to keep track of me, then you can stop holding your breath- I did in fact make it back from my Texas trip. I'd like to extend a big warm "Thank you!" to all of the people who helped me out along the way- my hosts on the road and in TX, all those I visited with on the trip, and to Kentucky for letting me put 2600 miles on his truck. The return trip saw me stop in with the Hutchens in Dallas:

I spent a fun evening with the Hutchens. We made a pizza, played a little Wii, and just hung out and visited. They got some hamsters, which I put on my head:

I departed in the morning for Albuquerque. I experienced a short unintentional detour courtesy of a cheap
Magellan GPS which though that the shortest way from Dallas to Albuquerque involved going through Oklahoma city. Not likely. After a common-sense 'why am I headed North' reality check and a minor temper flare at the Magellan engineer who programmed the unit, I got directed onto a better (but still sub-ideal) route to ABQ. I wasn't actually sure of where I was going in ABQ, just that my parents knew a guy (Peter) who lived there whose wife I had met once and who had emailed me that it was cool to stay with him. I didn't actually get his address, though, an oversight I realized about noon. This led a brief afternoon semi-crisis due to my inability to get a hold of him. I was lulled into complacence by the soothing voice of Edward Herrman reading the military-political thriller Executive Orders, by Tom Clancy.

About an hour out, though, I got in touch with Peter and the crisit was abated. Peter stands unique among the people I've stayed with before because he's Air Force Special Ops. While I was there he was training for some kind of crazy rescue stuff. I don't think anything he told me is terribly secret, but I'll assume it is and avoid violating his privacy. Peter was a great host, and an early riser. He planned to get out of the house by 6:10 AM, and while I wouldn't have picked that particular time myself, I decided to leave with him both because it would make life easier for both of us and because no time is too early to get on the road on a road trip.

The next day's drive was generally uneventful, except that about three hours outside Ephraim my butt was so
miserably sore that I opted to take a non-fuel stop (GASP) at a rest area. This decision was also motivated by the neat-o scenery:

Being a dork, I was also interested in the solar-powered streetlights:

I got back into Ephraim too soon, though- the chinzy Magellan GPS was also incredibly unoptimistic with estimated arrival times which made me arrive everywhere earlier than I thought. That's generally a mental boost ("Hey, I madegood time!") but it also misled Kim and others who were making a huge "WELCOME BACK NEDLY" banner for me. That made me feel loved and appreciated, but also somewhat bad for having arrived too soon for them to finish. I ran through it football-opening-game-day style. Or at least that's what I think the style was. I don't watch football. Sidenote: Somehow, the nickname "Dear Old Nedly" had caught on here. It's even programmed into the cafe cash register that way. I went to sign my name on the signature wall in the cafe, and shortly after someone added 'dley' after my name:

It was (and is) good to be back in Ephraim. As I mentioned in my last post, Ephraim has become home to me now. LETU no longer is, and although the visit was good, it was good to be home, a feeling not diminished by its short tenure. I've taken on my assistant staff responsibilities in earnest since I got back, mainly as the guys dorm advisor. I'm the go-to guy for problems and for keeping the peace and order up there. I've said it before and it's still true- I hate telling people what to do with any kind of authority, but God seems to keep placing me in positions that entail that so I guess I'd better get used to it. After all, I'm going to have kids someday and I've got to be competent at laying down the law when necessary.

On the topic of being a dad someday, I've siezed the opportunity this summer to work with kids a bit. I realize
that the chances are high that sometime in the next decade I'll have little Ned and Nedettes running around and needing raising, so I figured it's high time to gain some child-wrangling skills. My pastor and his wife have six young kids who are well-behaved and fun, so I figure that making friends with them is a good step. I made general statements at the beginning of the summer that I'm not really good with kids- I tell people that I went straight from infancy to adulthood and spent the time inbetween in a robot chrysalis stage. I also have no younger siblings. As a result, I regretably have little ability to empathize with kids, so I've gotta be a quick study. Kim noted during VBS that although I stated I wasn't good with kids, they tended to flock to me. Probably because I take a free-range attitude toward kids and go with the 'yes, and?' approach that oddly ends up with them climbing all over me and going nuts:

I figured that'd be no way to raise a kid exclusively so I determined I'd learn to child-wrangle. As with most
things, there's no way to do it except just to do it, so I started talking with kids and picking them up and
horsing around and generally getting my feet wet. Now Pastor Z's girls come to me during/after church for piggyback rides and hide-and-go-seek etc which I go along with. It's pretty fun. However, Kim et al have observed the fact that I now pick kids up (and they don't cry or hit me in the face) and assume that I have mastered the art of child-wrangling. I think that's very untrue. I've become competent at keeping already-happy kids entertained for a short time. There's a lot more to learn, I know. Stinky diaper? I don't know. Check the yellow pages. I'm about as likely to be able to make a baby stop crying as I am to lay a golden egg. There is much to learn yet.

Some of the more eventful things since I've returned have a been a little bit more ragged than child-wrangling,
though. This summer the ministry received a donation of a Ford conversion van which crapped out on an inbound mission team. It required a transmission replacement, which they were not in a position to wait or pay for, so the gave it to us free, but needing a new transmission. Before I left for TX I located and the ministry bought a replacement transmission. We got a killer deal on it- $150. To have the transmission pulled and rebuilt was in the $1800 - $2300 range. Why so cheap? The scrapyard had noooo idea if it worked or not, didn't know the mileage, anything. It was a great big question mark. We got a cheap transmission, but with no assurance that it would actually work. Half the reason the ministry keeps me around is because I'm the mechanically-inclined guy, so the job of managing this transmission replacement fell to me.

I have no formal training on auto repair or mechanical work of any kind. I've always just wanted to make or repair stuff so I've looked up and figured out how to do and had success some of the time. Over the years I've acquired some modicum of knowledge and skill in car repair. It also helps to have an attitude of willingness to take a shot at something and hope it works but contentment with knowing that if might not but you'll still have gained some experience for how to do it right the next time. That's how the Camry brakes got fixed when I needed to come out here, and that's how the transmission repair would have to be. I'd never replaced a transmission before, nor any other major driveline component. Ever. The ministry encouraged me to give it a shot, though, and so I read up on the procedure and got under there and started to get dirty.

One factor that worked hugely in my favor was the van's origin- California. Completely rust-free and well-preserved underneath. Most of the cars I've owned before have been heavily rusted and seemed to take some kind of perverse non-sentient pleasure at flaking rust off into your eyes while I've been underneath them. Safety glasses, kids- they may not seem like they're cool, but they're a heck of a lot cooler than wearing an eyepatch over an empty eyesocket for the rest of your life. The factor that worked against me was that the van was a van. Vans are some sadistic miscreant's idea of cramming all the components needed for a truck under an oversized and low body and pushing the engine so far back into the vehicle that you can't actually reach anything from under the hood. The engine block STARTS at the firewall. That's messed up. I say that to say that absolutely everything on a van is hard to reach. I have big hands. Wonderful.

Eventually I got the process started and found a likely cause of failure. The transmission tailshaft housing casting was actually cracked. That's not something that's supposed to happen. The only way I could imagine it
happening is if the driver reversed into a curb at high speed and the wheels hit hard enough to force the driveshaft into the transmission and impact the casting. That didn't happen though. The other factor of failure was that the transmission was as thoroughly cooked as a 20-minute egg. Automatic transmission fluid is normally crimson red. The stuff that came out of this transmission was opaque black and smelled terribly like burned popcorn. Gross.

It also spilled all over me while I was undoing the cooler lines. Crawling underneath a greasy van isn't conducive to staying clean. Sarah commented that while she was in the cafe all day working on the computer, making phone calls, etc, I would come into the cafe periodically and be dirtier and dirtier every time. I guess our jobs are a wee bit different. I got thoroughly filthy, and I wish I had a picture of myself- I chose to wear a yellow shirt the first day, which contrasted well with the black grease and ATF stains. Here's a picture of what it looks like AFTER washing- now picture it about twice as dirty, and me with a similar amount of soil on my face and my hands and forearms completely blackened.

The first real day of wrenching saw me get the transmission out. That is something to be excited about, but also a bit forboding. It's not hard to take something apart. That's just increasing entropy. To put something back together- and actually have it WORK at the end is quite different. It's also at the point where you can't really back away from the project. Who's going to take a transmission-less van to an auto shop and say "Hey, I kind of got lost on this whole procedure... could you finish it up for me?" Nope. It's all or nothing now. I also reflected on the unknown nature of the replacement transmission. I would be more than a bit chagrined if the replacement went in and didn't work. I'd just have to smile at myself internally and repeat the procedure.

One thing I remember about this job is that I probably gave myself a predilection for respiratory illness when I
flushed the cooler lines. I knew that there was still going to be some of that nasty burnt-popcorn fluid in the
hoses that ran forward to the cooler, so I needed to flush it out. Fortunately, there exists a product specifically
for this need. AutoZone, unfortunately, doesn't carry it. The next best thing, I was told, it carburator cleaner.

Carb cleaner is a powerful aerosol solvent which is designed to dissolve nearly any substance off of metal. Remember high school science when the teacher swabbed some rubbing alcohol onto your hand and you could feel the slight coolness as it evaporated off of your hand? This stuff is like that except that it's so volatile it evaporates within seconds and leaves your skin completely dried out and with a strange white appearance. Anyway, I got under the van and sprayed a whole bunch of that into one end of the cooler lines and blew compressed air through to push the concoction of burnt-popcorn ATF and skin-destroying carb cleaner through. I had a pan to catch the discharge, but the pipe was horizontal and the stuff blew out at high velocity. My solition was to put a Wal-mart bag over it which would catch it. It didn't catch, howvever, the large amounts of vaporized carb cleaner which soon filled the entire under-van atmosphere to the point that I was breathing probably half air and half carb cleaner fumes. Wonderful. A smart person would have at this point gotten out from under the van, breathed some fresh air, allowed the under-van area to ventilate, and have purchased an OSHA-approved full-face respirator certified for organic solvent vapors before continuing the job. I was not so inclined, so I put my grease-sodden t-shirt over my mouth and nose and repeated the procedure a half-dozen times. Life is a carcinogen.

Anyway, after much knuckle-bustery and hefting and reaching and ratcheting and grunting and reference-consulting and aligning and lifting and smacking and muttering, the 'new' transmission was physically in the van. I was about right with my estimate that something that took one day to undo would take two days to redo. The 30-day warranty on the transmission was running short since it was ticking away the whole time I was in TX. I couldn't afford to dally much with the installation because we wanted to have some time to test the thing out before the 30 days ran out.

Only a few more tasks remained before the moment of truth would arrive. I reattached the starter. I am surprised that the van actually started before, because I discovered that nothing was holding the starter solenoid in place. It was physically there and in its proper location, but both of the machine screws holding it in place were fully vibrated out. I think one big bump would have knocked it out of position, and bam- no more starting. Got that wrapped up. I had to guess at the level of ATF in the 'new' transmission because the old one actually got SO hot when it cooked itself that the plastic end of the dipstick completely melted. Dadgum. After another few hours of putting stuff back in order, the time came to start the van back up. It could go one of two ways. If I had improperly aligned the torque converter, I would hear a terribly clanging/grinding noise and in a worst-case scenario it would violently break everything it was attached to, then forcefully fly out of the transmission and through my upper legs, propelled by the raw power for 5.8 liters of American iron. I didn't think that was terribly likely, though, or I would have told Kentucky that I'd give him the first honor of starting the engine. Although I would find out immediately if I had botched that aspect of the install, I still needed to wait on the process of filling the transmission before I could find out if the thing actually worked or not. The engine needs to be running for it to force fluid through all the passages and solenoids and clutches etc.

Sometimes I am boggled at how incredibly consistently the mind-bogglingly complex contraptions we make actually work. Just think about it- the computer you're reading this on has millions of pixels being controlled by tens of millions of transistors, reading data from probably dozens of much more complex contraptions halfway across the world. I could elaborate on just how incredibly unlikely it is that such a contraption would ever work properly in the first place, much less to do it for years on end. (Okay, I know computers don't work perfectly all the time, but that's almost always a failure of the guy who programmed it, not a physical failure) The automatic transmission is no different. I honestly don't know fully how one works. I know there's a lot of complex junk going on in there and in general the only people that shoud mess with the inside of an automatic transmission are Germans and witch doctors. It's on the same level as the Saturn-V rocket and the female mind. You just trust the creator to have made it properly and try not to mess things up as the end user. The likelyhood of this abused, grease-covered mystery black-magic transmission from a junkyard actually working seemed slim.

I got the transmission filled, going more by counting quarts poured in than by the dipstick, and the moment of
truth came. The van was still up on jacks, but the sound and sensation of a transmission engaging the wheels is
familiar and distinct. I cycled the transmission through the gears after putting in the last quart, halfway expecting absolutely nothing. Instead, I was rewarded with a definite thud and a slight lurch when I threw it in
reverse. Wow. Okay, so the black-magic box transmits torque to the wheels, at least in reverse. I couldn't really tell if I was feeling a lurch in drive, but it wouldn't be terribly unexpected if I wasn't- the drive ratios for first gear and reverse mean that it could still be okay if I didn't. Time for final testing. Just like I said with little kids above, there's nothing to do but just to do it. We tool the jackstands down and I insisted that we hold a prayer meeting before the test drive.

We prayed that the van would work, and for my soul if it didn't. With three days of hard work invested, I really, really wanted it to work. Chip and I climbed into the van, with a crowd of onlookers on the other side of the driveway. It started. Good. No reason why it shouldn't, but the onlookers appreciated that with applause anyway. It went into reverse and moved backwards down the driveway. Woohoo! If nothing else, the college kids could drive backward to work and the grocery store. We got out of the driveway and pointed down the street. The moment of truth- did the forward gears work? I shifted and took my foot off of the brake- and the van rolled forward. That's a good sign. A little gas, and the van complied with acceleration. Very nice. Up the street at about 20mph, and a shift into second! That's a very good sign. A little more speed got us third. Nice. All systems go so far. A U-turn back towards the college house, and the highway where we could get up to speed and see what would happen. I fumbled for the horn on the unfamiliar steering wheel and got off a late celebratory horn-toot as we passed the onlookers. On to the main drag and the highway we went. I gave it a firm right foot to make sure it was a fair test as we got out of town. We had clean, firm shifts into second, third, and fourth, and a solid lockup at cruising speed. No slippage with sudden acceleration. WIN! God provided us with a working van for just a few hundred bucks of input and three days of wrenching. Sweet!

I'm glad to have some significant material thing that I did for the ministry that I can point at as an example of
something useful I did. It seems that I spend most of my time chasing down little things that surely need to be
done, but which don't make a very impressive list of accomplishments. Having a real, positive, significant contribution to the ministry is nice. It helps that I received plenty of back-patting for it: Chip said he was
'thoroughly impressed' and Sarah for some reason felt compelled to call me a hero. Hey, why not? I'm not opposed to a little bit of hyperbole now and then.

After that bit of glory, though, I feel I need to record for posterity the half-day I spent over at Pastor Z's
house helping snake plumbing. He had some water back up into his basement and needed help mending the situation.  I thought this might entail bucket-brigading water out of the basement, but what actually needed doing was to use a plumbing snake to clear the clogged pipes. After getting Pastor Z's done, we'd also do the neighbors, who had a chronic problem with their pipes and needed their snaked about yearly. For the uninformed,a plumbing snake is a long flexible metal coil that you shove down the drain and is spun by a motor or hand crank. You can put attachments on the end of the snake to clear whatever blockage is there. Most of the time this is tree roots that have gotten into the pipe. I didn't have much to do with the snaking of Pastor Z's house- Pastor Z himself was the gloved bandit shoving the unruly beast down into the pipe and Shane was handing turning the machine on and off as needed. I just stood there and kept the youngest Zedicher daughter out of the line of sewage spray. Mrs. Z came out to encourage us, and I remarked that I wasn't doing anything but keeping Aliyah out of trouble. Mrs. Z thought that was just wonderful, so that took that as my cue to be useful by continueing to do that. The snaking moved on to the basement and I kept Aliyah out of trouble, eventually devolving to reading books to her. I felt slightly guilty about sitting on the comfortable couch with a toddler while the other two men on the job were getting stuff done and good and dirty. But hey, somebody's got to keep the toddler away from the sewage-covered snake, and I was working on my child-wrangling skills.

Eventually, though, the call came for assistance and I knew my time had come to get a dose of sewage myself. The work was now on the neighbors's house, which turned out to be a bit more problematic than Pastor Z's. The distance between the snake machine and the pipe entrance made this job harder and I was placed as the second man on the snake, and closest to the pipe, the one to shove the snake in there. This ended up being an opportune time to exercise some good humor in the face of unpleasant work. Sure, we were all getting covered in the sewage that was getting slung around by the writhing snake- but why should that stop us from having some laughs? It took a while to get the roots that were blocking the circuitous pipe cleared, and by the end I was sufficiently sprayed with yuck to merit riding in the back of the truck on the way home, even after a hose treatment. There wasn't much glory at the end of that job. Just agood hot shower. I think reading to Aliyah was better.

This last Saturday a group of us went up to the LDS church General Conference in Salt Lake City. I like to get out and do outreach events like this. Because I'm in a support position in the ministry, I often feel quite removed from the actual purpose of the ministry here, which is the share the love of Jesus Christ with the Mormon people of Utah. I spend my time making that goal possible for others in the ministry, but my tasks are indirectly related to that goal. It is intimidating to go out on the street and witness to people, but that is the direct act of what we are here for- if I'm not willing to be the one sharing the good news, then I tend to think that something is wrong.

General Conference draws a lot of LDS people into the Temple Square area of Salt Lake, and my group took that opportunity to go out and talk with people about God. Chip, the ministry director, has been developing a witnessing tool over the past year called the Jesus Survey. It's a survey which questions people about the teachings of Jesus in a way that is not combative or overtly contrary, but which prompts people to think about the things he taught. The questions are aimed to highlight the contradictions between what Jesus taught and what the LDS church teaches. LDS people who take this survey often get only a few out of the 15 questions right. If they were well versed in LDS church teachings and answered the questions forthrightly, they couldn't honestly answer any of the questions according to the answer in scripture. That's because each of the 15 questions is on a topic on which the LDS church teaches a doctrine that is contrary to what Jesus actually taught. The idea is to get people to think about what Jesus actually taught and let the Holy Spirit take over from there, being available to provide dialog if needed. The survey does that in a way that generally doesn't offend people, because we're not coming out and saying 'You! There in the red shirt! Your doctrine is WRONG and I can prove it!'. Approaches like that are rarely conducive to getting people to actually listen to your message. The fact is that the message of the gospel IS offensive to many- but the less that we can be needlessly offensive when preaching it, the more likely it is that the people who hear it are to listen and open their hearts to the Holy Spirit. That openness is what we want to get people to do. The LDS Church teaches its members to be closed to any outside ideas or examination of their faith- but what kind of faith can it be if its church is afraid to let its members examine it for themselves? Too often people approach their faith with a motive to confirm what they already believe rather than to seek the plain truth. If ones faith really is true, then examination will only strengthen your knowledge of it, not cast doubt and shadow on it. The survey shows people that this doubt exists, and a person who is being honest with themself will study it out and find the real answers- the truth of what Jesus Christ taught, without manipulation by any outside source.

I was able to do eight or nine surveys throughout the morning, and had some people who were very interested in it. It is great to get into the theological discussion on the street, but I think that this method can be even more effective in some cases. If someone is thinking back on a stressed-out discussion they had with a stranger on a busy street, it can be easy to rationalize that the person what being confusing, or not telling the complete truth, or what have you. When we give then an answer sheet and they take it home and study it to find out why they did so poorly on the survey, then they have only the words of Jesus to contend with. I sent eight or nine answer sheets home with a dozen people (there were couples). I will almost certainly never know what effect I had- but I know that God can take a dozen people honestly studying his word over that yellow sheet of paper, work through their open hearts, and reclaim them from the enemy's camp.

The street during General Conference aren't 100% peaceful. I take a very unobstrusive approach. I dressed up in a suit and tie and asked people if they wanted to do the survey as they passed. Other Christians, though, take on more of a role of 'protestor' and hang signs with some pretty intense and offensive messages on them. They are true, but tactless and blunt. I want to condemn the preachers who shout offensive messages and are rude with people. It's not nice. But if you read the prophets's deeds in the Bible, they weren't nice either. They got offensive and rude. They weren't afraid to get loud with the message God had given them to give. I can't say that God didn't give the loud preachers their message, although I don't feel called to do what they do.

One street preacher through actually started his shouting with me. He was following a couple down the street,
shouting behind them, and as he passed me he threw a few accusations my way as well, which I responded to as politely as I could. After a few denied accusations he figured out that I wasn't a Mormon, but a Christian
missionary, and then got offended with me that I wasn't out shouting at people as well. He was actually ticked that I was taking a gentle approach. Weird. I don't think that guy was in the right.

My time on the street wasn't the full day because I got the opportunity to actually attend the second session of
General Conference, which took up the afternoon. The presentation and organization was superb, and the conference center is an engineering marvel. The content of the conference wasn't much different than what you'd hear on Sunday morning at an LDS church. I think sometimes at GC they announce some significant stuff, but this year nothing stood out as huge news. A lot of encouragement to refrain from wordly ways and be faithful. It was a mostly unoffensive message, but after having been in the culture for a while and trained to understand the differences, I can hear what they're saying an recognize that everything has a little bit of a slant on it to suggest to people that they support the church, be peaceful, and trust the leadership. Again, all good things- but it leads people to focus on the church, not on God.

That's the major stuff that's gone on since I reported last, but not everything. Plenty of other neat things have gone on as well. I've been getting my apartment set up more with the stuff I brought back from TX. I scored a projector at the LETU IT yard sale last year for $40, then the ladies found me a $5 projector screen at a thrift store. I installed the two in my room last week and coupled that with a free-but-slightly broken stereo and a $4.50 input cord for a very cheap entertainment system. Right now the project on my apartment is the kitchen floor, which is concrete and will receive an attractive and functional stain-and-seal treatment. That means, though, that everything needs to be out, and that my stove and fridge currently reside in my bedroom:

The fridge and microwave are functional, but as comical as it would be to make quesadillas next to my dresser, the stove is not hooked up. It only ought to last a week while we clean/stain/seal the floor.

We had a tie-dye event at the College house, for which we made posters:

My brother Jake sent me a birthday card which got very delayed by international mail. It had some sweet Australian temporary tattoos, which I applied to my wrists:

I don't have a dish drying rack, so I took the bachelor approach when I recently did a sinkful of dishes:

I made some ridiculous and impractical stilts hoping to promote events on campus:

Finally, actually an old pic- I didn't show it last time because the shirts depicted were a surprise yet to be sprung at the time of posting. They're souveniours for staff from the TX trip. All the shirts except for mine say "NED WENT TO TEXAS" and were spraypainted over scotch tape negative-stenciling.

Thanks for having the interest to read, folks. I would ask for your support in prayer as I'm continuing in my work here. I've highlighted a lot of the fun and light-spirited things in my life, but enemy doesn't like what the ministry here is up do and he tries to attack us all the time. Your prayers for me and the ministry are the most important thing you could do for us. This is also the time of year that the ministry is seeking to bolster the fund that allows me to eat and buy socks, so if you like for me (and Sarah) to be able to eat and buy socks and are interested in supporting us financially, drop me a line. Thank you!

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