The Last Page

11/07/2012

I love those last few minutes before dawn.  The air is cool and dense.  The sky fades from black to just a sliver of blue.  The darkness is quiet and still except for the gentle swoosh-swoosh of my driver as I twist the stiffness of the night from my back and legs.  All that’s left is for morning to shove night from the horizon.

“Well, old Hank, Jr. really stepped on his dick this time!”

I don’t even know what that means but there’s a long list of stuff Dick says that I don’t understand.

“Happy Saturday, Dick.  Where have you been?  You’re late.”

He ignored me, as usual, and barreled right along, “Hank had a few drinks or something on some talk show and compared Obama to Hitler. Now everybody has their panties all in a wad and Monday Night Football won’t play his song anymore.  Well, boo-stinking-hoo.  I’m sure Hank’s feelings are hurt.  They only paid him a gazillion dollars and he didn’t even have to show up to sing the damn thing.”

“Sun’s up, Dick.  Hit the ball.  Hank should stick to singing instead of shooting off his mouth on national TV. What did he think was going to happen? Look what happened when the Dixie Chicks badmouthed W.”

There’s an old saying about opinions and assholes but just because everybody has one doesn’t mean that it’s ok to share it with the world.  Well, I might make an exception
for the Dixie Chicks.

Dick might appreciate that joke later but he wasn’t up for funny just yet.  He was still in full speed rant.

“Blah, blah… Hitler’s playbook… blah, blah… Obama’s plan… blah, blah, blah… Muslim conspiracy… blah, blah… collapse of America… blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah!”

“Slow down, Dick.  Are you off your medication?  Where do you come up with this stuff?”

Muslim conspiracy?  Hitler’s playbook?  This babble is way out of Dick’s league.  It smells
suspiciously of talk-radio propaganda.  He absolutely lives for the stuff.  He listens to several programs a day but his favorite is Michael Berry.

Berry claims to be from Texas although I haven’t seen his birth certificate.  He was on Houston’s City Council for about a minute.  I don’t know if the public service made him angry or he’s just perpetually enflamed with the obligatory talk-radio self-righteous indignation.  Either way, the man is mad at America.

I don’t like him.  He enjoys offending people.  He claims to be controversial but smells suspiciously like plain old everyday offensive.  Fortunately, he never has much to say.

“I don’t know, Mike. I just feel so un-franchised.  Obama may be the worst president in American history but we can’t even throw up a decent alternative.  It’s embarrassing.  We’re so far in debt Jesus may have to take a second job.”

Times are tough alright.  A man opened a restaurant over on the farm-to-market road selling catfish and hush puppies out of an aluminum Airstream travel trailer parked
under some big shade trees.  I’d like to fish for a living but shame on me for thinking I could make a career out of cooking what I catch.

There’s a hand painted sign out near the road with the restaurant name and a big blue dancing fish.  The menu is hand painted too and hung on the side of the Airstream.  It’s a bit hard to read from the road but well lit.  Christmas lights always look festive, especially at night against all that aluminum.

The name of the restaurant is Ken’s Kuntry Katfish Kafe.  I’m not kidding.  Ken should have spent more time in marketing class and less time fishing.  That is one pitiful name.  That’s why I got married.  My wife won’t let me name anything without running it by her first.  She’s afraid I’ll name it something stupid that will embarrass her.  I should be
offended but she’s probably right.  She won’t let me wear ugly hats or socks with sandals either.

“Hey, Dick, have you ever eaten at that catfish place across from the Wal-Mart?”

“Hell, no.  That place scares me.  I think it’s a front for the Ku Klux Klan.  Why else would you spell a name like that?  And if you don’t like the food who do you complain to?  Ken?  That’s probably not even his real name.  They misspelled everything else.  Besides, somebody stole his little travel trailer.”

“Now who would steal a man’s catfish trailer?  A character in a book I read made two giant turkey legs from scrap metal, welded them to his Airstream, and painted the whole contraption like a Thanksgiving turkey.”

“Did he sell turkeys?”

“Nope.  He was on his way to New York City.”

“Was he going to sell turkeys in New York?”

“No, Dick, he was off on an adventure.”

“I don’t understand.  What have turkeys got to do with catfish?”

“Damn it, Dick, forget the stinking turkey.  The story is entirely unrelated.  It just made me think that maybe if Ken had painted his Airstream like a catfish it would have made a less attractive target for thieves.  It’s hard to hide a 20-foot long catfish.”

“You’re a tough one to talk to sometimes.  By the way, who are we voting for next week?”

“I don’t know, Dick.  I’m undecided.  Maybe we should vote for Kinky again. A man with a straight answer is tough to come by these days.  The only difference anymore between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats want the poor to be corrupt, too.”

“Why the hell not?”

05/10/2011
Someone was calling my name.  The voice sounded familiar but it was still dark and I couldn’t quite make out the face.  He called me again and as he moved closer I could see it was my golf buddy, Dick.  No wonder I didn’t recognize him.  He was growing hair on his face.

I blurted out, Holy crap, Dick, you scared me.  You look like one of those drunk celebrity jail photos.  Is your wife out of town or something?  Does she know about this?”

He snapped back, “Hell, I love it. It may be a little hot in the summer but I think it’s great.  Girls think it’s sexy.”

“Girls?  What girls?  You can’t grow enough hair to cover the ugly, Dick.  You old fool.  If you don’t stop reading those teen magazines you’ll end up tattooed – or pierced – and you really can’t stand another hole in anything you’ve got.”

We loaded our golf cart and were about to head for the tee box when the starter asked us.  “Hey, guys, got room for one more?  I’ve got a walk-on.”

Dick and I muttered at the same time, “Lord, please don’t let it be Twinkie.”

We both laughed and Dick started in, “I just don’t like the guy.  All I ever hear about is the 73 he shot yesterday.  I don’t think there’s a 73 in his bag.  And he complains constantly.  How can there be that much wrong with a man?”

“I know, I know.  I feel the same way.  I played with him Friday.  The way he shoots 73 is he shaves about 5 strokes a side.  Take away his mulligans, his gimme putts, and that pencil and bless his complaining little heart he’s scrambling for an 85.”

New Guy was from up North somewhere.  He had a thick accent and he announced anything he had to say with,  “Yo, check it out.”

I hate golf with new people.  I can barely stand playing with Dick and I like him.  He doesn’t complain; he doesn’t cheat; and he’s learned to leave funny to the professionals.  He used to tell jokes a lot but not so much anymore.  Once I explained my rule on humor the flow of not-funny pretty much ground to a halt.

Norton’s Rule of Life Number 27 states:  If you can’t tell a joke to ALL my friends then it’s probably best you don’t tell me.

Dick does lie to me every now and then but, as far as I know, only about how far he used to hit a golf ball.  I get that a lot.  It amazes me how long people claim to have been using old persimmon drivers.  Not me.  I hit the ball farther now than I ever have and if it does manage to go real long there was probably a strong tailwind and a cart path involved.

I don’t lie about how far I hit the ball.  I don’t see it as being a relevant statistic.  For instance, let’s say the longest ball I ever hit was 285 yards – just one ball, one time.  There is no way I would make the general statement, “I hit the ball about 285.” I would immediately be reminded on at least 13 of the 14 driver holes that my ball had fallen decidedly short of that lofty estimate.

I would fare no better if I averaged the longest drive with the shortest, which even if I knew what that distance was I would not admit to it here.  I won’t even admit that I’ve already hit the shortest drive I will ever hit.  No sooner would those words fall from my mouth that I would be punished by angry and vengeful golf Gods, anguishing as my next drive barely trickled from the end of the tee box.

So, based on my own statistical analysis, I disregard the highest and lowest numbers as irrelevant anomalies and determine a range based on a reasonable, repeatable distance – considerably less than my longest and, thankfully, greater than my shortest to date.  I hit my tee shot and it found the fairway well beyond the ladies tee box.

New Guy steps up, tees his ball, and says, “Yo, check it out, the SEALs killed Obama Bin Laden.”

I watched his tee shot down and quietly prayed, “Lord, please don’t let New Guy start a political conversation with Dick.  Did he just say Obama Bin Laden?”

Dick chimed in, “It’s about time!  They been huntin’ him ten years.  How hard could it be?  The man was six-foot-five in a land of pygmies. You wouldn’t think he would be that hard to spot.”

New Guy continued, “Yo, check it out, those SEALs are like Ninjas.  They’re almost invisible.  Obama didn’t stand a chance once they were on his trail.”

There it was again, “Jesus Christ, man, his name is not Obama.  Obama is our president.  You mean Osama Bin Laden and we’ve  known where he was for months.  Hit your ball, Dick.”

I had a brief moral struggle with this news when it first broke.  Since Bin Laden was unarmed I didn’t think it unreasonable that a team of the most highly trained soldiers in history might be able to bring an old man in for trial.  What an opportunity to show the world that we are bigger than our pain and our losses, that we are what we claim to be – the good guys.  Maybe not.

Bin Laden knew the SEALs were coming and the outcome was all but a foregone conclusion.  A trial really wasn’t necessary.  If he was that concerned about it he would have hidden someplace where the people were taller and we might not have found him for another ten years.

“Hey, Dick, did you see Obama’s birth certificate?”

“I did, and I tell you what, I’m a little ashamed that I carried on about it as long as I did.  What a waste of my time.  If you listen to nothing but talk radio all the time you start imagining all sorts of things.”

That’s one of the things I like about Dick.  He occasionally gets distracted but, eventually, he’ll make his way through the smoke and mirrors back to the real world.

He still surprises me sometimes.  I remember one election year,  he got a Kinky Friedman for governor bumper sticker that said, “Why the hell not?”

Most non-Texans aren’t familiar with Kinky Friedman.  He’s a Texas icon, an author, a poet, a musician, and, as evidenced by Dick’s bumper sticker, an occasional politician.  He’s a humorist too and it’s hard not to like a good humorist except for the cranky ones that claim to be humanists as well.  Kinky ran for governor at least once although he wasn’t even born in Texas.  But, in his defense, and according to the words of another famous bumper sticker, he got here as fast as he could.

Now that I think about it, many of our most beloved Texas heroes hail from other states.  Sam Houston, a tall tale if there ever was one, was governor of Tennessee before moving to Texas.  He even lured a bunch of his Tennessee drinking buddies down here with the promise of land, adventure, and women.  Those latter two often seem to travel hand-in-hand and to this day prove powerful forces to resist.

The promise of land turned out to be somewhat misleading.  Houston failed to mention that the land belonged to Mexico and there might be a struggle involved obtaining a clear title.  It did, there was, and Mexico is still pissed off about it.

Anyway, I thought I’d try a little Kinky-ism on the New Guy.  “Hey, Watusi, here’s your first Texas pop quiz… use y’all in a sentence.”

Watusi is not New Guy’s real name, of course, but close enough.  If it bothers him enough I’m sure he’ll correct me.  I once worked with a guy named Robert.  We worked the same shift for several months when one day he started calling me “Steve”.

Just out of the blue he greeted me with, “Hi, Steve.  How are you doing?”

I thought he was joking, although I didn’t understand why calling me “Steve” was supposed to be funny,  so, in an effort to elicit a chuckle of my own, I responded with, “I’m doing great, Phil, how about you?”

Obviously confused, he corrected me with, “It’s Robert.”

To which I responded, “It’s Mike.”

Then, without a word, I flashed a big grin, turned, and walked away.   I didn’t understand the joke but I played along thinking that whatever it was, it was somewhat amusing.

The next day, the same greeting, “Hi, Steve.  How are you doing?”

He wasn’t joking.  In his mind my name had become “Steve”. We exchanged “good mornings” every day for months and although our conversations weren’t that deep, we at least had the names right, or so I thought.  This was very odd.

I couldn’t remember what I called him yesterday so I made up something new, “I’m doing great, Scott, how about you?”

He corrected me and look confused.  I corrected him and laughed like I got the joke.  And then we would go our separate ways.  This became our new daily routine.  It was ok, I guess.  I think we just started a new friendship.

New Guy said, “Yo, check it out.  Do all you all live near here?”

“Ok, Watusi, that’s what I was afraid of.  Without proper rehabilitation the brain damage suffered from the excessive cold of those Yankee winters will cause a man to fumble clumsily with the Texas vernacular.  Remember: Y’all is singular. All y’all is plural. All y’all’s is plural possessive.”

He looked at me like one of those chickens that plays tic-tac-toe.

“Don’t worry, Watusi.  We’ll have some Lone Star beer and stuffed jalapenos for breakfast and it will all become crystal clear.”

11/9/2010
I sometimes visit with the starter at my golf course in those last few pre-dawn minutes before I tee off.  His name is Dick and he seems reasonably intelligent if not occasionally misinformed.  At the very least he is animated and rarely lacking a topic du jour.

Like me, Dick is on the backside of middle age.  The years have honed his opinions on a variety of subjects and he has a mood to match each one.  Politics make him angry.  He is totally bewildered by religion.  He gets excited about sex, very excited.

Well, I should say he gets excited talking about sex.  I don’t have any supporting evidence that he has ever actually had sex but that doesn’t stop him from talking about it.  He mostly talks about the almost legal teenage girl that drives the beer cart and what he would do to her if ever given the opportunity.

He sort of frightens me although I think he’s harmless.  I suspect his sexual prowess is a lot like his golf game.  He has a better chance of scoring on his old home course.  He probably should shy away from playing anywhere else.

This week, Dick was in a political mood.  He rattled on about the recent election, frustrated that we “just turned over the keys to the very people that wrecked the car”.  Damn.  Dick’s Internet must be hooked up again.  He likes to think he’s witty but aphorisms aren’t exactly his strong suit.  That one was not bad.

It’s hard to tell exactly what he stands for but the list of what he stands against is certainly substantial.  He’s against welfare, immigration, abortion, national healthcare, gay anything, and is convinced global warming is as big a hoax as men landing on the moon.

He’s also against crime but then, who isn’t?  Even criminals are against crime.  That’s like saying you are against hemorrhoids.  The only things I know for sure that Dick really likes are the death penalty and underage cart girls.

He continued his rant, trashing the media, voters, and politicians alike.  I was quietly keeping an uneasy eye on the horizon fearful that any interjection on my part might needlessly delay my ritual sunrise tee time.

I don’t share Dick’s sentiments on just about anything human but we did come close on a couple of things.  It’s embarrassing how painfully unqualified some candidates running for public office truly are.  I think they should be required to pass our citizenship test to run for office.

In fact, passing the citizenship test really isn’t enough.  To lead this country politicians should first have to suffer like the rest of us.  Follow me on this.  People running for public office should have to swim a river in Texas, climb a wall in Arizona, and then learn a foreign language just to qualify to take the citizenship test.  Then we might see some progress.

I was deep in thought mulling over possible names for my little political triathlon when I realized Dick was still talking about something to do with economics.  He lowered his voice and leaned into me as if he was about to share a secret and asked, “Mike, do you know how I can tell we are truly in deep economic doodoo?”

He didn’t wait for me.  He answered his own question, “Pro V1’s, Mike, Pro V1’s.  There’s not a single one to be found – not in the bushes and not in the ponds.  You know things are bad when people aren’t losing Pro V1’s!”

A Pro V1 is a golf ball.  You golfers out there know this and you also know they are expensive, generally about $4 each.  That’s a lot of money for a ball I most likely will drown in the pond on the second hole.  It is my understanding that achieving the best performance from a ball like the Pro V1 requires a swing slightly beyond my ability.  I’m ok with that.  To mangle a quote by the famous Dirty Harry, “A man has got to be aware of his limitations.”

This ball is for professional golfers.  When they hit a Pro V1 it slowly rises to the heavens as if lifted on tiny wings.  A gentle breeze parts the clouds as it sails to its intended target undeterred by wind, rain, or errant swing.  It then gently drops from the bright blue sky, rolling silently to a halt, waiting patiently for the golfer to execute his final stroke with singular precision.  My game is a lot like that except the rising, sailing, and gently dropping part.  And maybe the precision.

Now that Dick mentioned it, I haven’t found a Pro V1 in several weeks.  I cover much ground during a round of golf, in some places a golf ball simply should not go.  I don’t take it personal, and this is always a surprise to my wife, but my ball doesn’t always go the direction I had in mind.  Maybe if I spent a little more than a quarter each on the little dimpled darling’s I wouldn’t have to spend so much time in the woods and ponds of urban America.

For years my brother suffered with a terrible slice.  He aimed more like he was about to toss a boomerang than hit a golf ball.  It was a struggle and he spent many, many dollars on some of the most unbelievable equipment you can imagine.  There were enough straps, gyroscopes, and lasers that I swear we were about a handful of D-cell batteries away from being able to build a golf cart.

Finally, he surrendered and took my advice to buy lessons, not equipment.  After several weeks with his local PGA professional I asked him how it was going.  He said, “Mike, you won’t believe the difference these lessons have made.  I never slice the ball into the woods anymore.  I still hit them in the woods but now I hit the ball much straighter and longer.”

How can a man play golf hitting the ball straight?  Apparently, we are not alone.  Lost golf balls litter the wooded landscape nowhere near a fairway or green.  I find so many balls I don’t even bother to keep them all.  I can’t even keep up with all their names so I made up this poem.

Strata, Balata, and Infinity,
They go so far that I can’t see,
Solo, Loco, and Insanity,
Insanely long for you and me,
Lassie, Laddie, and Nike One,
If I found one I found a ton,
And in the water I found some more,
Now you know what I wear sandals for!

“Sun’s up, Dick.  I gotta go!”  I waved goodbye, hit my tee shot,  and off I went.

I started on the back nine and played ok the first several holes.  But on Number 15, I hit my approach shot into the greenside bunker.  In spite of years of practice for this very shot, I caught the ball thin and sent it sailing over the green and into the trees.  Muttering a reminder to myself of just how much fun I was having I walked into the trees to retrieve my ball.

And there they were – about a dozen balls scattered about the ground.  These trees weren’t really even close to the green so I was somewhat surprised to find any. I found my ball, stuffed the rest in my pockets, and trudged back to my cart.  I used the ball washer to clean them at the next tee box.  No Pro V 1’s.

My approach shot on Number 16 landed short of the green and rolled back into the creek that ran beside and behind the green.  It’s one of the toughest approach shots on the course and usually a great place for my ball retriever to pay for its spot in my bag.  I didn’t find my ball but did retrieve four others.  No Pro V1’s.

Number 17 is a par 3 with water down the left side.  The water gets low in the summer and I can wade out a short distance and usually come back with a good many balls.  Today was a good haul but not a single Pro V1.

I didn’t even hit my second shot on Number 18 but went directly to the water left of the fairway.  This hole is usually good for 8 or 10 balls.  Today there were only six but again not a single Pro V1.

I was dumfounded.  I am almost afraid to think that Dick may have inadvertently stepped into a steaming pile of economic indicator.  How could this be?  After a few drinks it almost makes sense.  Do you know what this means?  Now I’ve got to go back and re-evaluate that cart girl.

November 4, 2010
I made a new friend this week although he may not know that I’m his friend just yet.  I met him on an Internet discussion group.  He goes by an alias, which is common practice on most discussion groups.  I have seen his messages posted before but haven’t paid them much attention until we recently bumped heads.

A user, somewhat overwhelmed by his new software, posted general concerns over being thrust onto the bleeding edge of technology.  Feeling charitable and generous, I offered to help, as did several others.

He posted again, this time troubled that specific functions from his old software are apparently absent from the new.  I was familiar with this one.  I experienced similar misgivings until I stumbled onto said features hiding under a new name and I attempted to reassure him.

That’s when I met my new friend.  I didn’t notice that he had posted earlier probably because he took too long to say so little.  He was familiar with these missing features too and, obviously, none too happy about it.  Unknowingly, my post had just added fuel to his fire.

He was not unkind yet he did make some rather rash assumptions.  Among other things, he suggested I might be the victim of a devious trap set deliberately by the software developer to ensnare and reprogram unwitting victims such as myself to be later released upon an unsuspecting public with a new and dangerous agenda.  I think he just called me a sycophant.  I looked it up.

I tried to defend myself to which he returned thirteen paragraphs of minute detail why I couldn’t possibly achieve the depth and breadth of his level of understanding.  He may have been right.  I didn’t read all of his post.  I barely made it past the first paragraph.  I returned several times intending to finish it but thus far to no avail.

I’d like to interject at this point that if, rather than hitting me with thirteen paragraphs of intellectual babble that according to him I wouldn’t understand anyway, he had simply called me a sycophant I could have saved us much time and consternation.  I would have simply scrambled for my handy-dandy dictionary, looked it up, and responded with a hearty, “Am not!”

I’m reminded of another friend I met under similar circumstances.  He didn’t call me names or try to beat me up with how much he knew but he used a word I didn’t understand.  He was a writer for a motorcycle magazine and the word was “ubiquitous”.

For convenience, let’s call my friend Joe.  His first article I read was a good one.  It was about tuning carburetors or adjusting suspension or something mechanical.  Generally, he wrote clear, concise, step-by-step, how-to articles targeting young, aspiring road racers (and mechanics) like me.

But there was that word.  As I mentioned, I wasn’t familiar with “ubiquitous” and my first thought was, “C’mon, Joe, we’re motorcycle racers and that’s a big word.  Put down that thesaurus and just say what’s on your mind.”  But I did what I always do and looked it up in my dictionary.  Much to my amazement, Joe had misused ubiquitous!

When the next issue arrived I immediately thumbed to Joe’s article and there it was again – ubiquitous – and once again misused.  I subscribed to that magazine for a lot of years and I am almost embarrassed to admit that it was mainly because of Joe and “that word”.  He didn’t always misuse it but he was obviously impressed with it.  He used it every chance he got.

So, the exchange continued with my new friend.  I took issue when he implied I lacked understanding and he was offended that I had yet to make it past the first paragraph of his rambling diatribe to nothingness.  We were getting absolutely nowhere.

Then he used that word.  No, not ubiquitous, ennui.  To his credit he used it correctly.  I looked it up.  I wish I had bothered to notice the pronunciation.  It was pretty embarrassing to discover it is not pronounced anything like it is spelled.

My wife wanted to know what it means and I told her, “Baby, it’s like when I tell a joke to my brother.  I get so tired of always having to explain the punch line that I just don’t feel funny anymore.”

I read sixty two pages of posts to find those belonging to my new friend.  He’s smart.  I like his ideas.  I guess now I need an alias too so he will talk to me.  Or she.

Today’s Definitions
u·biq·ui·tous [yoo-bik-wi-tuh s] –adjective
Existing or being everywhere, especially at the same time; omnipresent: ubiquitous fog; ubiquitous little ants.

en·nui [ahn-wee, ahn-wee; Fr. ahn-nwee] –noun
A feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom: The endless lecture produced an unbearable ennui.

October 14, 2010
Semper Fi.  It’s Latin, although somewhat abbreviated.  It’s a shortened version of semper fidelis which means always faithful. I knew that but I looked it up anyway.  Historically, it’s been very popular as a motto and the list of groups claiming it as their own is long.

It’s translated to Latin because everyone knows Latin is the universal language of credibility, much like Italian is the official language of love or French is the official language of… France.  Latin may be the difference between a motto and a slogan.  Did you ever see a slogan in Latin?  A can of soup can have a slogan.  A motto is a promise.

The short version is normally associated with the United States Marine Corps.  I have no idea who shortened it or why.  Maybe, as is the case with many Latin phrases, semper fidelis simply doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue.  Marines communicate by barking and the short version does seem more barkable.  Try it.  Semper Fi!

History and linguistics be damned, we non-military types that choose to use it do so out of respect for the ideals that the phrase embodies – to remain faithful to our mission and to each other, no matter what.

This we’ll defend.  That’s the U.S. Army motto and, as far as I know, it has not been translated into Latin.  They probably should consider it, you know, because of the credibility thing.

On its own, it’s not a very specific motto.  That may be because soldiers tend to find themselves scattered across the globe and This We’ll Defend is fairly portable.  I think it helps boost their self-confidence too.  No matter where they are, their motto says they can defend it.

To their credit they do have a nifty set of values conveniently arranged so that the first letter of each spells out L-D-R-S-H-I-P.  Ok, I know that doesn’t spell anything but my guess is you won’t find fi in the Latin dictionary either so let’s not be too quick to judge.  It takes a lot of values to misspell leadership and it’s hard to come up with an original motto that doubles as a great tattoo.

I don’t have a motto.  I used to want one but it’s not as important to me anymore.  Semper fidelis is a good one but always faithful is hard.   Forever is a long time.  It may be too long for some of us to get past that no matter what part.  I might as well go ahead and apologize now to get it over with.  By the way, venia is Latin for forgiveness.

August 6, 2010
I’m a thinker.  I like to walk and think which is one reason I like to play golf.  I don’t think much about golf other than which stick do I need to hit the ball as far as I need for it to go.  I think about other stuff and I like being outdoors.

I have toyed with a little philosophical tidbit for a number of years about perception and reality.  In a nutshell, I concluded that perception is reality.  If our perceptions differ, so do our realities.  If our perceptions change, again, so do our realities.

I thought to myself, “Well, how profound is that! This reality business is every bit as abstract as truth or beauty or time or money.”

I was so impressed with this notion that I secretly fancied myself as quite the budding philosopher so I am sure you can understand my great disappointment when I discovered that Norton’s Reality Theorem (I even named it) is not an original idea.

One of my daughters gave me a book called The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim.  Each page contains interesting facts from science, history, religion, music, art, politics, and more.  Most of the information is very interesting and the format is very convenient – one topic per page.

I keep it in my truck to have something to read whenever I’m waiting on any one of the endless number of things that seem to constantly keep me waiting.  I can read a few pages, mark my spot when it is time to go, and toss it in the back seat until the next stop.

So, there I was, sitting in a parking lot, waiting for whatever, when much to my dismay I read that a group of early Greek philosophers formed a club based on my idea.  I was crushed.  Ok, that may be an overstatement but the novelty had certainly lost its sparkle.

In case you didn’t know, early Greek was so long ago philosophy was an occupation.  These guys were professionals.  They sat around on street corners all day drinking wine and debating the mysteries of the universe.  It’s a mystery to me how they got paid but they had to make money somewhere.  Wine certainly isn’t free.

Even after centuries of debate they may not be any closer to knowing the difference between reality and existence but when that big yellow sun sets on that sparkling blue Mediterranean they manage to agree on two things: everything changes and everybody loves a good Sangria.

Some contend that the only constant in our world is change.  I don’t know about that but I do know that my world has certainly changed and technology has dragged me kicking and screaming right along with it.   Many of you out there are just now arriving at that same realization.  I’ve talked to you and I appreciate your trepidation.

Take our standards for example.  Essentially they are based on hand drafting standards from over twenty five years ago.  What was there to worry about twenty five years ago? Line types?  Text heights?  What to label the cabinet drawer for your drawing?  On a complexity scale of 1-to-10 standards ranked about puddle deep.

Now, good CAD practice dictates we consider many other things and that list is substantial.  And believe me, we are not all in the same place in this evolution so let me throw out some examples.

Drawing Standards
This is arguably the most basic level of standardization and it would certainly be convenient if you and I could share drawings based on the same standards.  All that is required to make this happen is a drawing template.

The City of Houston Platting Department recently adopted new drawing standards loosely based on the National CAD Standard and they provide a standard drawing template on their website.  Other city and county departments have closely monitored this standardization effort with the intent of following the Platting Department’s lead.  To see such multi-agency cooperation to set common policy is indicative of its importance to the engineering community.

Data Standards
We now have capabilities I never even imagined back when I was standing over a drafting table.  Some days I feel like the first ditch digger to ever see a backhoe.  Our civil software doesn’t even blink at churning out data that once had to be calculated manually.

Data is now shared much like we have shared drawings for years.  The importance of a common work flow and common data storage practices cannot be overstated.  We must be able to jointly participate at an industry level in order for concepts such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) to be successful.

At a recent symposium hosted by the Austin Consulting Engineers Association one of the main obstacles mentioned in at least two of the sessions was the failure of the BIM process due directly to the refusal of the AEC community to share data.

In the few instances described where data was shared, by far the biggest hurdle was lack of standardized content and format.  The model was rebuilt at each stage of the process by planning, engineering, and construction.

Submittal Standards
The Brundtland Commission was convened by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983 essentially to examine the concept of sustainable design.  The results were published in 1987 in a report named Our Common Future.

Sustainable design is often closely associated with both BIM and IPD.  The success of these three concepts may ultimately hinge upon having a common language (software) with which to communicate data among participants.

That common language may, or may not, have arrived yet but all parties involved in sharing data are deciding now how that data will be shared.  It will be specified in our contracts.  It will be required by approving agencies.  As incentives grow it will be demanded by our clients.

June 23, 2010
One of my favorite Norton-isms states, “Time is but an abstract concept of man invented purely for my inconvenience.” I mention time because it recently occurred to me that I have been teaching for a long time and, quite frankly, I am somewhat surprised.  It is not that I thought I would be doing something else or that I am disappointed.  Not at all.  I am thrilled when someone reminds me of something they learned in one of my classes that they still use today.  I think my surprise is that I consider myself a designer – not a teacher.

I have been a designer for a long time.  In fact, I have been at it long enough that I am comfortable with professional designer.  It is my profession and I feel obligated to conduct myself in a professional manner.  I am expected to be on time and prepared to work.  I am expected to familiarize myself with, and comply with, company or project standards.  It is my responsibility to learn the tools of my trade.  It is my art to select the proper one for the task at hand.

Software is one of those tools but not the only one.  I am quick to remind students that, for some tasks, your pencil might very well be the fastest tool in your toolbox.  Here I will risk stepping on a big steaming pile of cliché to say, the most powerful, versatile tool you have is not in a toolbox at all.  It is your mind.

As a teacher, I have your mind for a surprisingly small percentage of each hour we spend together.  My effectiveness drops off rather quickly if I go beyond that number, whatever it happens to be.  Therefore, it is my goal to use that piece of each hour to our mutual maximum benefit.

The not-so-subtle inclusion of “mutual” in that last statement implies that I expect an exchange to occur and I do. On my part you cannot miss my excitement when I teach. Ok, maybe not the first day. That first day is very basic but by the close of Day 2 I can barely contain myself. I pace the floor. I wave my stick. (Yes, I said stick. I teach with a stick.) I want to shout, “Look at what we can do! Think of what this means to us!” I honestly feel like I am sharing secrets with my friends.

In his book, 5 Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner describes five attitudes necessary to thrive both professionally and personally in the future workplace. These minds as he refers to them are disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful, and ethical.

The disciplined mind embodies two definitions of the word discipline: having mastered a special skill and the ongoing pursuit of perfecting that skill. Mastering more than one special skill is acceptable. Gardner goes so far as to make a rather dark prediction, Those who do not have a discipline, as well as a sense of discipline, either will be without work or will work for someone that does have a discipline.”

The synthesizing mind gathers data, organizes it in a useful manner, and shares it with others. Here I like to broaden this attitude to also include tools of our profession along with data.

The creative mind formulates new and creative solutions. This is the big one in my opinion. We must think. We must be open to possibilities. There just might be more than one correct tool for the task at hand.

The respectful mind is aware of human differences yet still manages to work effectively with others. Intolerance and disrespect are bad business in any community. Listen to others. Great ideas can come from the strangest places.

And last, the ethical mind. We must protect and preserve our environment and this principle of morality need not be compromised by the rules and standards of our profession. Our challenge is to meet both. We have the vision. We have the technology. Make it fit the budget. How hard can it be?

So, your part of the exchange is simply to consider these five attitudes.  I personally believe thinking about what we want to be is the first step to becoming what we want to be.  We tend to live up, or down, to the expectations of others.  For those of you in my class just to get out of work?  That’s why I carry a stick.