by Kenneth Field, 05/28/2017

Just before Christmas a few years back, my wife and I bought one of those furniture kits from our local Fred Meyer. A “gourmet cart, natural finish.” It’s a small table on wheels with a drawer, a small cupboard and two folding extensions to either side. We wanted to replace the jury-rigged affair we’d been using, a collection of three wooden TV trays on which we’d set the toaster and microwave.

Carol left me in my pajamas and went off to work. I drug out the big box, carefully separating out the dozen different wooden pieces, the hardware, the hex nuts, and the throw-away tools that came with it all. After some searching, I found the instructions carefully hidden between two pieces of wood and realized that the manual was entirely pictorial. No written instructions, except the words: “printed in Thailand.” According to the chart, all the pieces were there, so I began laying down a big sheet of the packing material so that the main tabletop could rest on the floor without getting scratched.

Living in a house we are remodeling as we have the money, has its drawbacks. Our floor is constructed of really old pine boards damaged by the glue from the carpet we tore out when we bought the place. I’ve gotten all, or most, of the staples out of it, but it’s a rough surface still, and I didn’t want the top of the unit scratched.

I spent several minutes orienting the plans with the actual assembly because it’s really easy to get turned around when you’re building something upside down on the floor. I also had to figure out for sure which was the front and which was the back. That should have been fairly fundamental, but it wasn’t immediately apparent from the drawings. I skipped the overall view drawing, the “exploded” version, and paged through the step-by-step instruction pictures, four pages of them, to get a sense of how it should all come together. The next couple hours I placed pieces together, going back and forth over the pictures, making certain I’d gotten things right. The guide was limited in value since a couple of the diagrams didn’t quite match the actual pieces.

In both cases we have instructions; we know how the cart and the country are supposed to look, what they’re supposed to do, but along the way, we’re forced to make changes. We’re going to have to figure some things out in order to get the thing working properly, and even then, there may be some parts of the finished product that don’t come out quite the way we planned, and certainly not how the Founding Fathers who made the blueprint in the first place might have conceived it to be.

One particular step in the assembly baffled me. According to the picture, I had a shelf to connect that must somehow defy gravity while I assembled another section that would solve that problem. Since I was home alone, I didn’t have the advantage of a second pair of hands, so I was forced to improvise. I supported the partially installed shelf with an old packing box, and when that wasn’t quite enough, I slid in a Christmas present from under the tree to fill the required space. It worked perfectly, though that solution was not included in the instruction manual.

Carol came home for lunch briefly and helped me turn it over onto its wheels.  Everything did pretty much what it was supposed to do. The extensions extended. The shelves slid in and out. The cupboard doors swung open easily and locked into place against the magnets when closed. I did round off a couple of the fourteen hex nuts, which was irritating, but that was a relatively small cosmetic problem that never affected its operation.  Either the hex holes weren’t drilled deeply enough at the factory, or the throw-away hex wrench was too small for me to grip it properly. In any case, everything was in place, and the finished unit looked very nice in its little corner of our breakfast nook.

While I assembled the “gourmet cart, natural finish,” I was not considering our current national travail in the nation’s capitol, but after finishing the thing and taking time to ponder, it wasn’t a huge leap to appreciate the metaphor. After all, the past few years seem to have consisted of political crisis heaped upon political crisis, and as it’s gotten worse, more of us have looked to the nation’s Plan, the Constitution, for a way to move ahead.

There are similarities. When followed, both the instruction manual and the Constitution have helped us create something we wanted to make our lives better. We’ve found that the instructions for both the cart and the country were helpful, but neither quite matched the current reality of the thing we are working on. In both instances we were forced to improvise to ensure success. We’ve changed the nation’s document to provide a bill of rights for its citizens, to establish women’s rights to vote, and to end the 3/5ths rule that oppressed an entire race. On one hand it may have been a not-so-simple gourmet cart; on the other hand it was nothing less than our government, our particular culture, and the free practice of our religion here in America at the end of a bruising decade or two.

In both cases we have instructions; we know how the cart and the country are supposed to look, what they’re supposed to do, but along the way, we’re forced to make changes. We’re going to have to figure some things out in order to get the thing working properly, and even then, there may be some parts of the finished product that don’t come out quite the way we planned, and certainly not how the Founding Fathers who made the blueprint in the first place might have conceived it to be.

The gourmet cart, despite some initial and ongoing difficulties, is not so flawed that it’s worthless and should be scrapped or used for firewood. Neither is the government so bad that it should be reduced in size until it is “small enough to drown in a bathtub.” The instruction manual was neither sacred, nor sacrosanct. A bit of improvisation helped it, just as the Amendments to the Constitution have made that wonderful piece of America better than it was. Following things to the letter while ignoring the spirit will not make us great again.  Making things better for all our people will not bring the world to a messy end. We have other ways of doing that. Trust me. There are people on this good earth for whom the world has come to an end, and yet … we are still here.

There is still work to do.

We are still here to do it.

 This morning I used the toaster that sits on that gourmet cart to toast my cinnamon-raisin bagel. I spread peanut butter on the toasted bagel from a jar kept on the shelf below the toaster.

It was good.


Kenneth Field is a grandfather, a writer, a baker of bread, and a student of the martial arts. He has written articles, short stories, poetry and novellas, beginning at age fifteen with “Devil-Tide,” for the Junior Guide. He has retired after nearly four decades of experience in retail management.