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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 19, 2003

How to solve life's problems

By David Shapiro

I turned the key to start my van parked outside of the Waikiki Aquarium and then ... KA-BOOM — a blast louder than any gunshot or backfire I've ever heard.

The hood buckled and noxious smoke poured from the engine, just like scenes in movies where mob witnesses are blown to smithereens.

I was shaken, but an ego check convinced me that I wasn't annoying enough for anybody to bother bombing me.

As curious staff and patrons rushed out of the aquarium to offer colorful opinions about what had happened, I was busy implementing my Rules of Problem Management.

Rule No. 1: Always give problems ample chance to solve themselves before intervening. It's amazing how often problems go away if you ignore them long enough.

"Stand back," I told onlookers. "I'm going to try to start the engine again. Who knows? It might work."

People jumped back and braced for another explosion.

Nothing. Dead engine.

I reluctantly opened the hood, which revealed why Rule No. 1 wasn't working: The battery had exploded and the top half was blown entirely off, spraying acid all over the engine.

Now I started to sweat. I could call AAA for a tow, but how was I going to get home without the van to transport my wheelchair? It weighs more than 200 pounds and doesn't disassemble to fit into a taxi.

I relieved anxiety by invoking my Rule No. 2 of Problem Management: If a problem refuses to solve itself and you're forced to act, take it one step at a time. Allow each step ample chance to solve the problem before worrying further.

I called AAA and people gathered around the hood, first pointing at the engine and then at me — as if what happened was the result of some character defect on my part.

"The battery looks dry," one stern fellow said. "No fluid in it."

"Could it be," I replied as calmly as I could, "that the battery has no fluid because it BLEW TO SMITHEREENS?"

The ticket lady from the aquarium who'd carded me to prove I was kama'aina asked to look. "Sure," I said, "if you can show me local ID."

Mostly, I didn't sweat it. This wasn't a bad place to be stuck, with a nice breeze, good company and a lovely view of Kapi'olani Park.

The tow truck arrived promptly, and the driver exuded cool competence as he surveyed the mess while I explained my wheelchair problem.

"Don't worry," he said. "Load the wheelchair back in the van and I'll start it up so you can drive out of here."

He fished the battery cables out of the muck, hooked up his jumpers and it started right up. He followed me through rush-hour traffic to Sears Ala Moana in case I stalled.

I left the van with a mechanic and had a nice dinner.

When I returned an hour later, he had put in a new battery and cleaned the engine for $62.

He said a spark must have ignited the battery chemicals — a freak event I couldn't have prevented.

Sitting in my recliner that night, I marveled at how I never would have believed a few hours earlier that I'd be spending a peaceful evening watching "CSI" with my car safely in the garage and my wallet only $62 lighter.

Then I remembered Rule No. 3 of Problem Management:

Never act too surprised when seemingly impossible problems solve themselves without much sweat on your part. It might jinx you for the next time.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.