Look, Ma – no graph paper!
My father-in-law was an engineer for General Tire, not long retired when we first met. His natural flair for design and problem solving demanded expression whether or not it was earning him a living, and thus he filled his leisure hours with an assortment of engaging projects, from fashioning his own golf clubs to creating custom stained glass windows for his front door. He wrote with a precise block printing style suitable for labeling blueprints or lettering comics. And always, there was graph paper handy to work out the next challenge.
Having mastered his profession before the dawn of personal computers, Dick’s first impulse when contemplating a task was to grab a pencil and a scrap of graph paper. Sometimes the printed grid was necessary, sometimes not. I remember the draftsman’s zeal with which he tackled the chore of assigning seats to guests at our wedding reception. Out came the graph paper, upon which he sketched a scale blueprint of the reception hall and began to maneuver cutout banquet tables until he determined the optimal arrangement. When he was finished, we had a little map featuring the thoughtful arrangement of each guest according to his or her familial and social affiliations. He might have achieved virtually the same end without having applied such methodical precision, but I think the process of working it all out was what he truly enjoyed. His was a world of pencil-and-paper solutions.
One of the things that I admired most about my father-in-law was his capacity for using his talents to see a passing whimsy through to its completion. There is the legendary story of his quest to create a Worst Golfer trophy for the annual company outing. His idea was to apply a propane torch to one of his own trophies (he had amassed quite a few over the years) in the hope of disfiguring its miniature golfer with a horrible stance. He melted his first victim beyond recognition, achieved varied comical effect with others, but not until he went through a couple dozen trophies did he finally perfect his vision, a bow-legged duffer with a drooping club and a twisted torso.
Then there was the time that he learned, to his gentle amusement, that his future son-in-law did not know how to tie a tie. In fact, I had been using the same knot for years, carefully preserving it in between weddings, funerals, and job interviews. He tried to show me the proper technique himself, as had my father, but my attempts to memorize the sequence were as successful as carrying water in a sieve. I couldn’t watch someone do it and translate the mirror image to myself, nor did it help to have someone reach around me as if I were tying my tie with an extra pair of arms. But Dick was not dissuaded. The next time we met, he gave me a small plaque adorned with lengths of ribbon that he had manipulated into eight stages of the tie-tying process, complete with numbers and instructive labels. His ingenious, three-dimensional tutorial did the trick, and I was no longer a slave to pre-tied knots.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2004, nearly three years after Dick died, that I ever came close to emulating his creative engineering. I had somewhat foolishly volunteered to be the creative director responsible for coordinating a church’s worth of thematic decoration for Vacation Bible School. Foolishly, I say, because once I committed to the endeavor, I became vainly preoccupied with realizing an idea that was more elaborate than the event required. The theme, part of a packaged curriculum that was being used all over the country, involved the setting of a volcanic island. A quick search online revealed that many churches were using large, papier mache volcanoes as an altar centerpiece. Noting that our sanctuary soared to a height of approximately 30 feet, I thought something more dramatic was in order.
The youth education director showed me a well-circulated plan for an 8-foot volcano created by draping fabric over a frame made of PVC tubing. It looked simple enough. Then it occurred to me, why not re-engineer these plans for a volcano twice the height? This, too, seemed fairly simple, but it required quite a lot of PVC pipe and fittings for the frame, yards and yards of industrial plastic table covering painted brown for the rocky skin, and concealed guy wires to keep the whole shebang from toppling over.
Recalling how Dick created a schematic of our reception hall, I went to the sanctuary and took detailed measurements of the altar and its many contours. Upon returning home, I plotted the dimensions on sheets of graph paper and roughed in my design, noting with satisfaction that the altar rail could provide both an extended frame for the volcano as well as a secure anchor for the guy wires. The unwieldy contraption came to life one Sunday afternoon with a little help from fellow congregants. The education director provided red rope lights to simulate flowing lava, and the puppet ministry loaned their fog machine so that our volcano could occasionally belch a puff of smoke. It was silly, fun, a little over the top, and totally in the spirit of how Dick burned his creative energy in his autumn years. I think he would have enjoyed hearing about it.
I thought about Dick just the other day as I mulled over the potential transformation of a corner of our unfinished basement into a comfortable home office. A rough concept was forming in my mind, but a little measuring and drafting was necessary in order to assess the practicality of my ideas. Would everything fit as I envisioned it? Were there any drawbacks that I had not anticipated? Once again, it was time to get out the graph paper.
Or was it? Times have changed quite a bit over the last decade. In 2004, I thought I was ahead of the curve simply because I was printing my own graph paper to custom specifications. Now, armed with an iPad, I wondered if there’s any project that can’t be tackled more efficiently with a tablet app. So instead of reaching for pencil and paper, I searched the App Store for something that would allow me to graphically represent my concept to scale. For nine dollars, I found an app that did that and much more. Not only could I quickly assemble a rough draft of my plan in two dimensions, I was also afforded the luxury of manipulating a 3D model or even performing a first-person walk-through of my design. All of which took about two hours, including searching for and purchasing the app, as well as taking the necessary measurements of the basement and our furniture.
Would Dick have approved? I’m sure he would have looked over my shoulder with admiration at this sleek virtual assistant to home renovation. He might even have enjoyed fiddling around with it himself. But something tells me that if he were here to help plan my basement office, the old engineer would start the ball rolling with a friendly scrap of graph paper. Sometimes making things easy just takes the fun out of it.