Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Rewriting the Past

Unfortunately, it is decidedly human to have regrets in life—the things we’ve done and the things we didn’t do—as they are terrible reminders to the fact that sometimes the decisions we make in the various stages of growing up and getting older have a remarkable effect on who we’ve become, how we function and where the fates will inevitably send us. There are two kinds of regrets illustrated by these examples: 1) Waking up with a hangover, you regret those last half-dozen drinks; 2) Saying no to the proposal of a pimply-faced nerd who went on to become a billionaire GQ model.

Something you did and something you didn’t do: They both have equal consequences in that they end up both being poor decisions. I’m sure everyone reading this is like me in that I am not without regret. I regret no buying stock in Microsoft in 1986. I regret the fact that I was a shy teenager. I regret that I sold a huge box of Legos at a garage sale for three dollars. I regret that I quit piano lessons. But mostly, I regret that I didn’t become an architect when I had the chance.

I’ve lamented on this story endlessly but it is worth repeating. In 1990, I had great plans. I was going to be an architect, “you know, design buildings, plan modern cities” (kudos to whomever knows that allusion) and I was going to be successful at it. I always had an eye for space, a knack for geometry and a good balance of practicality and design, but all I needed to do was go to college and get my degree. At 17-years-old, I stood on the edge of the world high above my future, ready to jump, but the only problem is that I didn’t have a parachute. In 1990 (and probably every year since), the architecture program at Cal Poly was impacted, meaning they had way more applicants/students than could fit in the classrooms. That means classes would be impossible to get, textbooks would sell out in a snap, etc. As a result, the schools that I applied to were in the unique position to only accept the cream of the crop, the best and brightest students affirmative action would allow. This, did not include me. My second choice was English, and I settled for that because it got me into school, and once entrenched therein, I could easily switch majors to my chosen profession.

Funny thing is that I never did, and I’m not entirely sure why. I wasn’t that good of a student, for starters, but that wasn’t really it. My first quarter, I earned a 3.4 GPA. Then I joined a fraternity. I met a great girl. I got complacent. I settled for the here and now and paid little attention to tomorrow or next week. I had a lot of wonderful times and great memories, but filling out a simple one-page form to alter the course of my life somehow not longer seemed that important. After all, those guys up in Building Eight, what with their portfolios with velum spilling out, detailed models of balsa wood, blueprints in those fancy leather tubes slung across their backs and that air a achievement and worthiness that swirled around them when they walked by… why would I want all that extra work? And what was it for? A better future? At 18-years old, what does that mean? The future of an 18-year old is measured in eons not years; middle age is a lifetime away, literally. Plus, weren’t we all getting the same degree and now that I was an English major, I would pursue my second goal in life and that was to be a writer. So instead, I’ll gulp down Chaucer, discuss Milton and mourn for Yeats. I’ll write my papers dissecting the ad nauseam of Shakespeare and my pointless fiction and those silly little haikus Liberal Arts professors get such a kick out of assigning. I’ll sit in groups and question why Frost took the road less traveled without ever once asking that very question about myself. I’ll coast, after all, getting into college was the point of all that work in high school, right? All I need now is a degree to guarantee me a job in the “real world.”

So, that little voice in the back of my mind that kept screaming, “You want to be an architect! You want to be an architect!” slowly got hoarse over the years and quietly faded into the corners of my memories, shaking its head at the uselessness of trying to convince an impetuous youth that he may have created a regret. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I was an adult blazing the path toward my destiny. The architect books I read as a kid, the dozens of residential designs I meticulously drew out on graph paper, the drafting table I had in my bedroom and the equipment of the trade I amassed… that was all just kid’s stuff, right? Idle dreams of a na├»ve child who didn’t know how it works, how rejection doesn’t end the game, how hard effort eventually pays off in the end. But was it? Did I?

Sixteen years later, I can tell you now, that I knew nothing.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Those guys in Building Eight graduated and so did I. We got jobs, got married and had children, and each one of us should now judge our success against nothing else but our own happiness. You’re successful when you’re happy at what you do, and one of my goals in life was to be a magazine editor. I love to write. I love words. I love my current lifestyle (working for myself, taking care of the kids, making more money than I ever have in my life, etc., etc.). I did all of that. What next?

What next indeed.

All these years, the thought of being an architect crossed my mind often. But it was too late. I couldn’t afford to go back to school. I couldn’t live my current lifestyle and attend school at the same time. There’s only 24 hours in a day. I missed out on the opportunity 16 years ago. I didn’t fill out the appropriate form and force myself to take control of my own future. I took the easy road, instead and I’ll admit, it turned out a lot better than I expected (or could have hoped): I achieved my dreams of becoming a full-time writer. I’ve written a few books, no fiction yet, but there’s still time. But what about that little voice? Is he dead? I hadn’t heard from him in a while, even though every now and again, he’ll chirp up, though nothing comes of it.

It’s funny how you can spend the better part of a decade missing something while not even knowing that I could do anything about it until just yesterday. That little voice came back, revitalized and demanding that he be heard.

I’m going back to school to get my architecture degree, and I couldn’t have planned this better. I’ve got the time. I’ve got the money. And I’ve got the motivation.

And it all started with the kids’ Thomas the Tank Engine train table. You see, a couple of days after I spend great effort to lay out an intricate track/station system for the kids to enjoy, it gets destroyed. Either Matthew will play Godzilla and tear through the Island of Sodor until not a single track is connected, like Sherman’s march to the sea, or Natalie will disassemble the tracks and stretch them around the dining room table. Either way, I find myself building a new layout, and it is always different than the one before it (by no fault of my own). This particular one attracted the attention of Kara’s mom, who is staying with us for a few weeks. She remarked how nice it looked and said, “You should have been an architect,” which prompted a discussion about how it is too late, that I’ve made peace with the little voice and how it would be impractical to start down the road toward a new career this late in the game.

It didn’t take much, but after a while, I was convinced otherwise… I could go to school again. I could get another degree. But as quickly as my hopes and dreams were lifted high they were just as quickly dashed on the rocks again, when, get this, the major is yet again impacted at Cal Poly—too many students, not enough spaces. On top of which, they no longer accept applicants for second baccalaureates (a person who is looking to get another degree, namely me). Oh well, it was a nice dream, fleeting, but nice while it lasted. But wait! In one of those coincidences that defies mere chance, a couple of days prior, I remember getting a catalog from Riverside Community College (RCC), and for whatever reason it hadn’t yet been thrown away. In it, they offered architecture, drafting and engineering classes.

So, a plan formulated. Since Cal Poly classes are mostly day courses and the kids are not both in school, I would go to RCC and soak up every class I can get my mind around, wait out Cal Poly and chance that they will open up applications to Second Bacs (as they are called) and maybe architecture will lighting up a bit too. It was worth a shot, but I had many questions. Am I too old to be a freshman again? Would I have to take a bunch of GE classes to get an Associate’s Degree? I don’t think I could sit through English 101 again. And the biggest one: Would I be accepted?

As I found out, it’s community college and they accept pretty much any warm body with $20 to pay per unit. Plus, as luck or fate would have it, today was the first day for “new students” to apply, and the campus that handles the architecture program is merely five miles from my house, so I wouldn’t have to drive into the city. What luck! This morning, I filled out my application and I am now, once again, 10 years later, a college student. I went and visited a counselor who swept a red pen across all of the GE requirements, slashing them from my list of classes I’d have to take, which means only about 10 core classes stand between me and an Associate in Science degree in Architecture.


Elated at my new course in life (well, I guess it is just added to all the other things I have to do too—remember, I do have a full-time job and I am a 75-percent stay-at-home dad), I zipped up to Cal Poly to pick up a copy of my transcripts (in order to negate all of those wonderful GE classes at RCC), and since I hadn’t been on campus in more years than I have fingers, I went into the first office I saw in the CLA building (the big ugly pointy one) to ask directions to the Registrar’s Office to get the transcripts. It turns out that the office I ducked into was the Admissions Office, so I leveled a few questions at her about the Second Bac program and a possible backdoor around the new ruling…which just came down on Friday, naturally. She made a few calls to get some more information for me and then suggested I come in as a post-grad. That seemed absurd. How can an English Bachelor’s degree be considered prep work for an Architecture Master’s degree? It was something I had never even considered possible, so she called a Master’s degree advisor, who led me back to her office to discuss the possibilities at length.

As it turns out, my plan is perfect. Going to RCC will put some coursework and experience under my belt, allow me to raise my GPA, put together a portfolio (apparently, it is part of the application process) and not waste the time between now and when the kids go to school, freeing up my days for post-grad work. She said I couldn’t be in a better position to do what I want to do, but my only obstacle is the fact that they only accept about 20 people into the program (out of about 80 applicants)… but that’s not for a couple of years. First things first.

Assuming I can get into them, come February 20, I will be taking ENE-21 Drafting on Wednesdays 6-10pm, and ARE-36 History of Architecture through the 20th Century, which is an online course, however that works.

Just maybe, if all goes as planned (and hoped), in six or seven years, I’ll have my Master’s degree in Architecture, and that little voice can finally find something else to complain about. I can't assume it is going to be easy, but the difference this time around is that my desire to learn has become more developed the older I get...and I'm no longer a stupid kid wondering where the next toga party is going to be.

But what’s the point, you ask? Why go to all the trouble for something that isn't necessary and may never work out? What's the point of doing anything? Why apply for a new job? Why go to the gym? Why change anything about yourself? Why bother waking up in the morning? Haven’t you ever had something that you felt like you just had to do to feel complete, to satisfy an itch that until now you haven't been able to reach? Like I said, I’m very happy doing what I’m doing and living how I’m living, but I’ve always wanted to rewrite this regret, make right a mistake I made too many years ago and entertain a little what-if in my life.

Plus, I may not have the money or the time or the ambition in the future, so it's now or never.

Wish me luck.

Friday, January 18, 2008

How Hot is Hot?

On Wednesday, I was in San Diego for work and a series of meetings with my team about the coming year’s plans. I stayed at the Mission Valley Resort, a rather dated, spread out compound of buildings, pools and various lobbies and golf courses. All right up against the never-quiet I8, a quaint little eight-lane speedway with an off-ramp right in front of the hotel. My boss unknowingly slept with a roach…at least until it tried to climb into his ear. I sat by the pool for a couple of hours, too cold to swim, and read part of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 72.
Later in the afternoon, we had an impromptu meeting about some of the preparations for the following day’s presentations, and then we decided to head to Old Town for dinner. With us were a couple of people from out of town, Colorado, Pennsylvania and New York, so we wanted to take them to some authentic Mexican food. We chose El Fandango merely by chance, as it was the first Mexican restaurant that wasn’t packed to the gills with tourists all looking for the same thing, something to eat.

I ordered the usual fare I always get when I eat Mexican food at a restaurant I’ve never been to, enchiladas, safety entrees that I think restaurants can’t possibly screw up. And I’m usually right. There are certain types of foods at certain places that are staples to the industry. Enchiladas at Mexican restaurants.

We were sitting up against the wall, in the front corner of the room. I was the third person in at our table on my side, and when the food finally came, the waitress set down the first two plates in front of the people to my left and then she started to reach out with my plate. Since we were backed up against the wall, she lifted the plate up over the guy’s head next to me, intent on sideling the plate to the table between our shoulders. It didn’t look like an easy maneuver to me, so I reached up to help her by taking the plate from her.

The waitress said, “It’s okay, the plate is hot.” This should have translated to me to mean, “don’t touch it, gringo, you’ll burn your stupid pasty white hand.” But instead, I grabbed a hold of the plate with my right hand to guide it to the table. She said again slightly more insistent, “It’s hot.” But it was too late, the weight of the plate was in my hand.

Everywhere I go, the server tells me, as she slides the plate on the table in front of me, “The plate is hot,” “Careful, the plate is hot.” How many of us still touch the plate? Remember the “Seinfeld” episode about this very topic? We want to know what, exactly, is the server’s idea of a hot plate. Is it to judge our sensitivity to hot things or are we judging that of the server? Invariably the plate is never that hot, so the warnings become trite platitudes we expect from overly cautious waitresses looking to protect the business from lawsuits brought down on them by paper-skinned suit-happy diners. So, for our entire lives, waitresses have been crying wolf about hot plates when, in fact, they’re mildly warm, at best.

So, when this woman suggested that I be careful, that the plate is hot, I hardly paid any attention to her, instead grabbing the plate without a second thought. That was my mistake, as I have never held onto anything hotter in my life. It scalded my hand for the entire second and a half it took us to deliver the plate to the table. She kept her hand on it, which slowed me down from dropping it in front of me, and I kept holding onto it because I didn’t want to let go in the chance that she was also letting go of it and that plate would have ended up in my lap.

The second I was able to let go of the plate, I quickly wrapped my hand around a glass of ice water, exclaiming to the waitress, “How could you possibly hold onto that?” You see, part of the “cry wolf” rouse in this case was the fact that she wasn’t using a potholder to hold onto that plate. So, why wouldn’t I think I could do it too! After all, she was as merely mortal as I am, and I can't imagine her hands being any tougher than mine. She told me that she’s “done it a few times before,” but she flashed me her palms and they didn't look like the tred of a tire, but instead regular fleshy hands, callous free even.

That's what I get for chosing a career as a writer/editor. My hands barely touch anything through the course of a day but soft keys on a non-abrasive, temperature controled keyboard.

When I finally pulled my hand away from the glass of water, a rounded welt had formed, circling from the middle of my middle finger down into the palm of my hand.

Great, a second degree burn, and in an hour or two later, a series of shiny white blisters had formed… and it still hurts, two days later. I honestly have no idea how it was physically possible for that woman to be able to touch that plate, much less carry it from the kitchen to my table, along with three other plates I can only assume were just as hot.

So, word to the wise. Even though 99 servers have told you that the plate is hot and you later find out that it really wasn't, it only takes one to scar you for life, making you listen to the next 99—even though they’re never as hot as the server pretends. Or are they? The only thing you can do is find out by touching them, right?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Shocking Day

It’s raining outside… no, make that pouring outside, so what better day to work on the house’s electrical system, right? Well, I thought so too.

For the past few months, the light in Matthew’s room has been giving us some trouble. The previous owner had a ceiling fan installed in that room, so he used a similar light switch as he had done in all the other rooms equipped with ceiling fans. It is a wireless switch so the fan can be turned on and off from any part of the room… but it is fitted into to the wall where the old switch had been. Over a period of a few weeks, the switch started to falter, working only intermittently, sometimes, all the time, and then never at all. The simple, cheap light came with one of those pull strings like the old fashioned lights in a downtown motel room, so when I was able to make the light switch work, we left it on and only used the pull chain.

Kara couldn’t reach the chain, naturally, so I had to add more chain because I grew tired of having to get up from what I was doing—or worse, come upstairs—to turn on the light for her.

Of course, with the lamp being cheap and all, the pull chain slowly stopped working, something to do with it being a cheap lamp with a significant design flaw when it comes to how the pull chain is used. From what I could tell, every time you pull on the chain, it is pulled straight down, when the lamp wants the chain pulled straight out from the lamp. Needless to say, it pulled out one day, the light went on, and the string didn’t flick back into place. It was completely broken… or so it would seem.

So, the degeneration of the light continued, and not to be bested by a $12 light fixture, I removed the glass lamp shade and turned the light on and off by unscrewing the light bulb.

Well, someone either pulled on the chain or pushed the button on the intermittent light switch and either one worked just that one time, forever darkening the room. Luckily for us, it was Christmastime and Matthew’s room was illuminated once again by Christmas lights. I know, why didn’t I fix it and stop living like we’re in the slums? Well, a fact that Kara repeated made clear, I’m not an electrician, and the funny thing was that I wasn’t about to call one to change out the light. I have a college education, a general knowledge of electricity and a five-foot tool chest full of tools.

I bought a new lamp at Home Depot last week (this one was $16! Woo, fancy) and it sat in Matthew’s room until today. There were three possibilities as to why the light would no longer work: 1) The light itself was broken…that was a no brainer; 2) The wireless controller was malfunctioning; or 3) The wiring was faulty or somehow disconnected. In the event of the second or third option, I bought a new light switch, thinking I would bypass the wireless switch with an actual switch.

Today was a good enough day as any to pull it all apart and see what the problem might be. I planned to replace the light anyway so it was just a matter of pulling it down. I didn’t take that extra step they always warn you about when working on electrical wiring and that would be turning off the circuit breaker. I figured, I’m wearing rubber shoes, my tools are insulated and I understand that touching the black wire and the white wire at the same time—or the black wire all by its self—will give you a little extra voltage. What I didn’t understand was how difficult it would be not to touch the wires.

It is a simple system. Two white wires and two black wires come from the light, they go into the base unit of the wireless switch, and from there, one black and one white wire heads up into the attic and down to the switch.

I pulled off the old wireless switch and played around with it for a while to discover that it still worked fine, so the problem was in the light or the wireless base. At this point, I decided that I’d bypass the wireless system and just use a standard wired switch. I pulled off the wireless base and hooked up the new wire, of course, not before accidentally brushing my hand up against the black wire and the base of the metal light fixture. It felt like a thousand 10-penny nails pounding in my shoulder. I hopped off the ladder and taught the kids a few new words, danced around a little bit and caught my breath. I’d been shocked by the full force of direct current before but it isn’t something you ever get used to.

Once the light fixture was wired to the ceiling, I turned my attention to the new switch. Once bitten, I was very careful about pulling out the wires, and I tested them to see if they had juice—and they did—before I attached the switch. And wouldn’t you know it, but when you touch the screwdriver to the black wire and then stupidly allow it to slip off of the screw and touch your finger, you’re going to get a jolt of 110. And this time, there was a flash of a spark and the power blinked out in three rooms upstairs… but not Matthew’s room. I found it odd that the light I had just hooked up with still shining bright, but there was no power to the actual switch.

After resetting the circuit breaker…in the rain… I was back to work on the light. I stood there a while wondering what to do. There was power to the switch and there was power to the light, but the switch and the light had nothing to do with each other. Whomever hooked up the light and the wireless switch rewired the circuit to exclude the connection between the two. But why? I pulled down the light fixture and left the two exposed wires sticking out of the ceiling, a fact that I would soon regret.

I decided that the wireless base was faulty, so back to Home Depot to get a new one (which I had to find myself, as two lackies had no idea—they are with the ceiling fans. Who knew?). Back at the house, I opened up the box and laid everything out. Climbing back up the ladder, I wasn’t paying attention and went one step too far, touching the top of my head to the black and the white wires simultaneously. I think I saw the future. My eyes went cross, all I could taste was lemon meringue pie and the only sound was an open E string on a mandolin.

I woke up downstairs where I had to go outside—in the rain again—to reset the circuit breaker.

A little wiser, a little more careful and a little more energized, I put together the appropriate wires and presto, chango, the light worked like it always had.

And it looks nicer to boot.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The New Year

We place so much faith on the flip of a single page of the calendar. Three hundred and sixty five days come to a close, the earth slowly prepares for another journey around the sun and we tack up on the wall a fresh 12 pages to mark the seemingly sluggish passage of time, sighing to ourselves, much in the way we did last year, that December 31, 2008, seems so far away. But the new year harkens the promises of change, a break from tradition, the mundane repetition that sometimes blankets our lives with the smothering of duplication. Go to work, eat, sleep, go to work. Each day seems to be a mirror of the last and a reflection of the next.

Alas, when the new year comes around, wrapping up so nicely the holiday season with a smart little bow and a cheerful party, typified by a song nobody knows the words to (and those that do don’t know what they mean), we are offered the chance to renew ourselves with a promise of change. We’re going to lose weight. We’re going to work harder. We’re going to be more optimistic (my personal favorite). We’re going to take advantage of every fleeting moment in the hopes and dreams that we can eek out more meaning and more excitement in our lives. We’re going to save money. We’re going to the gym. We’re going to better ourselves in some way that will add pleasure, accomplishment, pride and a sense of significance to our existence.

All of this is leveled down upon us with a pop of a cork and a countdown to midnight, the revelry of friends and family, the enthusiasm for what the new year will bring… the one time we are allowed to look into the future and dream about the possibilities contained within 12 very short months. The change of the calendar brings with it a guilt that we too should change something about ourselves, whether they be lofty goals or trivial particulars, and soon we find that resolutions, though full of good intentions, are also loaded with disappointment and disillusionment. The year changed so easily, why can't you?

Sooner than we can say February, we’re back at it again: eat, sleep, go to work, pining for the weekends and the big plans, the future endeavors that will eventually change everything. The procrastination. The what-ifs. The maybes. The mights. The “everythings” never come because we never want them to; the status quo is such for a reason, and we fear change even the slightest fraction. Complacency is comforting, consistency offers a regular menu of steady predictability, and if the current situation is acceptable—regardless of whatever colored glasses you see it through—then why change it?

The one problem is that resolutions are doomed by their own ambitiousness, as the desire to find a quick salve to simmer your shortcomings and sanctify your all too lofty dreams of perfection becomes your eminent downfall. Setting yourself up for defeat and the depression that usually follows failure is hardly a way to start the year, so you find patronizing excuses to step out from under the guilt.

This becomes February’s argument against December’s promise of improvement. If you lose weight, you’ll have to buy new clothes. If you save money, you won’t have any fun. If you be more optimistic, you’re only hiding from reality (again, my favorite). If you stop and smell the roses, you’ll miss out on the race. Ah, February, you cold temptress, locked still in the shadows of winter, depressed, recoiled, inconsiderate of our dreams of betterment and progress. The last month of winter, the month of the dead, just before spring.

Soon enough, come March, you’re enjoying the routine of November all because you tried to fool yourself into thinking that a party with some champagne, a giant ball on top of a building and Dick Clark’s bland successor Ryan Seacrest in Times Square, is going to change your life… because you merely said it would.

Success does not come from thoughts or promises or resolutions, regardless of how much faith is bundled up with them. Success and change are the results of action. Going to the gym involves getting up off the couch. Saving money means you don’t need that Starbucks, regardless that the commercials say you do. And savoring every moment so you don’t miss out on life can only come if you are out in life making those moments.

Just because your house has a window, it doesn’t mean you have a good view, and just because you told yourself that your life is going to change, that doesn’t mean it automatically will. The only thing that can free you from the bonds of the mundane and the usual this year is yourself.

Imagine if everyone had one resolution they actually stuck with for the rest of their lives, with a new one added each and every year thereafter. What a great world this would be.

Regardless of what you do this year—get poorer, fatter, richer, or better—make it a good year for yourself and those around you.

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