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Archive for March, 2020

Tree

I am disheveled, only haphazardly clad, and not sure where I’m supposed to be.  All that long blonde hair I used to be so proud of is a wild declaration of my compromised status, whipping in the wind and stirring into one rambunctious tangle.  With nowhere to go, I trudge somewhere—anywhere at all—which turns out to be along a shorefront, a beach community, maybe Laguna Beach my best old haunt, the place where my finances started to become “complicated.”

With no shoes, I trudge along the waterline, waves keeping sand moist and firm, so it’s easier to walk than up higher where feet sink deep into hot sand, a calescent salty mire.  The wave water runs cool, always cool—not like the opposite coast—the Japan current assuring cold water and temperate air along our western seaboard.  The chill water is a sweet consolation, bathing hot feet with clear gentle brine.  But teasing lively waves as they venture ashore can only hold my attention for a while, and the need for diversion sets in, a bit of challenge even inside the warm body of a dream.  Tangles of seaweed piled and abandoned at high tide are beginning to dry now as the sun decides to work its will.

I leave the sea and its weed to sort things out, and clamber up the westernmost embankment of our great continent, finally gaining the roadbed of US 101, the coastal highway.  Here it is called Pacific Coast Highway, as differentiated from its Oregonian definition as Oregon Coast Highway.  Other monikers apply where appropriate, but not here where it’s definitely PCH.  I climb up to a rudimentary shelter, a lifeguard station, refuge from the vicissitudes of pulling swimmers out of tides and waves.  It’s only now that I realize this is a place I have visited a thousand times before.  I grab a stool, an old chair now missing its back, peeling what’s left of its paint that once was orange—like so many things recently of concern.  (Why must our current president spoil even my dreams with his identity as Orange Baby Man?)  The row of holes is left by extracted chair-back vertical elements—once there, now gone.

My arms reach for this artifact of my subconscious, an action I recall having repeated countless times.  I know what happens now: I lean back and look up, and there atop the overhanging bluff is a great tree.  It is old, and it is grey, and it is magnificent.  Bare-limbed and arrogant, it crowns the apex of this western promontory.  So, what’s to be done?  I grab the stool, turn it around so it fits the situation, and sit down to puzzle what to do next.

Finding myself here reminds me of how many times I looked up and marveled at the great buildings rimming that cliff-side aerie.  As a newbie store owner, when I first undertook to revitalize the old Fahrenheit 451 bookstore, I often glanced upward as I bustled about Laguna’s commercial district, itself strung along Coast Highway at near zero elevation, right at the edge of sand and sea.  I had no time to explore.  Running-a-business turned out to be a single all-consuming event.  It took all my time, and as it turns out, all my money.  I remember wondering who inhabited those amazing structures that graced such an enviable location at the western end of everything-American this side of Hawaii.  In my fantasies, I imagined them to be wealthy socialites, ostentatiously educated, smart enough to get amazingly rich.  I promised to someday drive up along those cliffs and explore—but never did it.  There was always something more important to do, something attached to a deadline, something soul numbing but necessary.  It wasn’t until several years into that grand misadventure, after I had added my retired father to the F451 payroll, that one evening I pointed out to him, with more than a bit of awe, the glittering community twinkling along Laguna’s elevated rim.  “Have you been up there?” he asked— a simple question with a lot of baggage.

After I confessed to never having driven up to Laguna Heights for a reality check, it was just like him to insist that not another day must pass without doing just that.  We revved up the car and scaled the bluffs.  The entire cliff edge with all those glorious seaside views was lined, not with mansions but with restaurants, classy but not prohibitively expensive.  Access to any of them was surely within our means.  Those enviable outdoor tables with their stupefactive views could all this time have seated me, my guests and my extended family stopping by for a visit while on California-or-bust road trips.  I felt like a numbskull, a certifiable nitwit.  It was a typical lesson from my dad.  He had spent a lifetime modeling for me how to define my world and make it serve my purposes, rather than being constrained by the creativity of my fears.

Before week’s end, I had reserved a table for four at the Quiet Cannon, a white-tablecloth eatery that was to become one of my favorite hangouts during those Laguna years.  I especially loved it because although it was once called “The Quiet Woman,” (demurely depicted on its sign by a headless human female) it had in enlightened times changed to the more dignified “Quiet Cannon,” itself a puzzling oxymoron.  We also learned to frequent several other spots perfect for celebrating sunsets while dining and imbibing along that once frightful overlook.  This became a place where memories were made.  Indeed it was there at the Quiet Cannon, only a few months later, that Daddy met me for dinner, gave me my copy of his will, explained the solemn duties of an executrix, and detailed his sad diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Dementia.  Perhaps that explains why a grand old tree haunts my dreams as a lucent avatar of wisdom, competing with Pacific lighthouses for that silent signal honor.

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Hubris

When the Challenger lifted off on that fateful day in January of 1986, it was never to complete its mission, thanks to management taking over the place of engineering as prime decision-maker about something that was consummately technical. Those O-rings weren’t designed to function at the temperature predicted for that liftoff. Engineering provided the factual imperative to scrub the mission. Management ignored their input. The rest is a history that should inform, but too often doesn’t.

Donald Trump, sporting his “Keep America Great” hat, held forth during his tour of The Centers for Disease Control, and remarking on his “unusual aptitude for understanding the intricacies of Corona Virus prevention and mitigation” is comedic. Perhaps tragedic is a better term. This is particularly off-putting to my understanding since I lived through a similar catastrophe in 1970, working for Varo Engineering. Varo’s Static Power Division in Sherman, Texas was solely dedicated to making high voltage power supplies for night vision devices. It was a uniquely specialized product, historically successful under the leadership of Ernie Reich, a savvy electrical engineer.

Things went very well until a change of plant manager upset everything. Tom Robinson came in with much fanfare and put himself forward as Mr. Know-it-all. He decided to make a change to the basic design that could not work—ever. Even I, as a mere manufacturing engineer, understood that what he was planning was impossible. That was when I decided to save poor Mr. Robinson from himself. I went to his office, sat down, and explained why what he was planning would not be advisable. Somehow, he failed to understand that I was doing him the best of favors. The next thing I knew my supervisor was giving me an exit interview. No, all those excellent performance reviews didn’t matter. Tom Robinson wanted me out.

I was out, but soon found work down the road at Texas Instruments where they remembered all those good years spent at Richardson TI’s Apparatus Division. No sooner had I gotten settled down that I learned what happened back at Varo. Robinson made his star-crossed design change to high voltage multipliers. Reich quit and started his own company in his garage, Reich Associates. The military pulled Varo’s contract, awarding it instead to Ernie Reich. Varo’s Static Power Division went belly up, and I did some moonlighting mold design for Ernie for a while just to rub it in.

Don’t be consoled with the idea that Trump’s shenanigans may yield any such benevolent outcome, though even the most cosmic definition of God won’t allow for evil to prevail in the end. When even Democrats can cooperate to mount a siege, as in four presidential candidates withdrawing to make sure someone who can beat Trump is nominated, something momentous is surely afoot.

I haven’t failed to grasp, however, the significance of my own piece of hubris as I marched into a new plant manager’s office to tell him how best to do his job. It is so easy to become convinced in the perfection of an opinion that wisdom fails. That’s when disaster puts on his “Keep America Great” hat and chaos runs amok. But if you wash your hands every twenty minutes, you won’t have time to get into trouble, and if Corona virus gets the last laugh, they won’t blame you.

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