Our electronic air cleaner and I have a rocky relationship. It's down in our crawlspace, attached to our heat pump duct work. Every three months or so I vacuum the air cleaner's removable filters, which requires taking its door off.
And more often than I'd like to admit -- but since this is a self-revealing blog, I'll admit it -- I have a tough time getting the door back on.
The door has metal flanges that fit behind its metal enclosure. A diagram on the door shows how it's supposed to fit over the enclosure, after which two gizmos are rotated to lock the door in place. Sounds simple, and it is.
When I'm not doing something stupid.
Before I take the door off, I always look at how its attached to maximize my chances of getting it back on smoothly. But today I forgot almost immediately that the right side of the door flange fits over the lip of the metal encosure, while the left side fits within the lip.
I've forgotten this before also.
So you'd think, just as I'd think, that a non-senile (so far as I know, but I might be the last to know) 63 year-old guy who isn't a complete idiot about most stuff in life wouldn't have to spend over half an hour fussing with an air cleaner door, trying all the things that didn't work the last time he had trouble getting the door back on, and not just once or twice or thrice, but repetitively to the point of obsessively.
To such a degree, eventually my wife stuck her head into the crawl space and said, "Are you still trying to get the air cleaner door on? Maybe you should get help from a neighbor, or call Judson's" (the company that installed our heat pump).
I wasn't wild about either suggestion.
I'd retained enough self-awareness beneath the surface of my steadily increasing frustration to know that the solution to my problem was going to appear amazingly simple once it was found. The last thing I wanted was some other guy to pick up the door, place it on the air cleaner housing, turn the locks so they made a satisfying click, then turn to me and say, "There, all done," while thinking Geez, Brian is a freaking idiot.
I wanted to say that to myself, just as I have many times.
So I took a short break to acquire a flashlight and screwdriver, neither of which I actually needed. I just wanted to take a few breaths out of the crawlspace and see whether my brain could pop up with the simple solution that I intuited was close at hand somewhere in my psyche's subconscious depths.
After returning to the air cleaner it didn't take long for Bingo! With a clearer mind, I stopped assuming that my problem was either X, Y, or Z and tried something different. In a few seconds the door had popped on cleanly, I'd turned the locks, and pressed the power button. We were back in business, air cleaning-wise.
I immediately made a note of how the door needs to fit on the housing so, hopefully, I'll never have to repeat the frustration of doing this particular stupid thing. Assuming, of course, that I remember to look at the note.
Wanting to feel like some good came out of those 45 minutes or so of crawl space wasted-time, I've been trying to discover a broader lesson from my experience. The most obvious, of course, is that we can't know what we don't know we don't know.
Meaning, if I know that I don't know something, I can act to fill that gap in my knowledge. These days, a bit of Googling works wonders with most factual lacks. But when I'm looking in a completely wrong direction, when I don't even know what I don't know (sort of like physics' not even wrong), I'm stuck.
No exit. No way out. Until something changes, I'm doomed to wander in a Problem Maze where the same blank walls keep blocking my way; I back up, try another path, and find myself back at the same place.
My wife had the right idea: broaden my horizons by reaching out to someone else and getting a fresh perspective. Back in my Systems Science Ph.D. Program days, I remember an exercise where our small group had to figure out how many marbles, or whatever they were, filled a large container. The average of all of our guesses was pretty darn accurate, even though individual guesses varied widely.
Down in the crawl space, there was only me.
Faced with a relatively trivial problem, I felt justified in banging my head against the air cleaner wall (metaphorically) until I came up with the solution that had worked for me before, but which I'd forgotten. Bullheadedness has its place, especially in the male ego.
But with more significant problems it isn't smart to not realize how stupid you are acting. When you find yourself going around and around, getting a kick in the butt from someone else can lead to a helpful change in direction. Our tendency to do what we've done before, even when it isn't working, is a well-known characteristic of the human brain.
I've been thinking about this when I read about how the Super Committee charged with coming up with a deficit reduction plan apparently is in a stalemate. Republicans refuse to consider tax increases; Democrats are reluctant to propose reductions in social programs like Medicare.
Yet the general public, along with almost all mainstream economists, know that both tax increases and benefit reductions are going to be necessary. This is another example of how continuing to do something just because it's what you've always done leads to stupidity -- an air cleaner door that won't go on; a federal deficit that won't go away.
Today I learned that the solution to my door problem was simple and close at hand. I just was focused in the wrong direction, on approaches that I kept trying because they were familiar (also, wrong). Likewise, I keep waiting for Congress to get smart about the federal budget: more revenue and less spending.
Simple. Real simple.
Unfortunately, it isn't easy to realize that you don't even know what you need to know. Which in the case of Congress is... compromise, moderation, driving in the middle of the political road.