Saturday, October 13, 2012

What are the odds? 

Tonight's tale is of amazing odds, the power of teenage awkwardness, and the science of material behavior. 

It starts with a search for a book. The yearbook of my 7th grade when I lived in Alabama, to be exact. I attended Georgia Washington Junior High School for one year while our family was stationed in Montgomery. We had previously lived in ND, and it was a bit of a culture shock moving from Minot, ND to Montgomery, AL. I had a thick ND accent and I stuck out like a sore thumb that had just recently lived two hours from the Canadian border but now lived in the deep south. I can't say that I particularly enjoyed the experience overall, but there were bright spots here and there. 

So anyway I looked for the yearbook tonight first on my bookshelves down in the prop room. That is the room filled with all of the props from all of the cat videos plus other things that might go into future cat videos. Including an assortment of books. I couldn't find the yearbook but damn it I DID notice the copy of "Mechanics of Materials" that I STILL need to return to a friend. 

"Mechanics of Materials" by Ferdinand Beer, Jr. and E. Russell Johnston (hereafter to be referred to as "Beer and Johnston" in the vernacular of engineers) is sort of a classic text that provides the basic foundation for structural analysis. It is the work that I do on a daily basis and though I don't often have to consult Beer and Johnston, it is nice to have around just for reference. Or inspiration perhaps, like a bibliographical muse. 

I first studied this book as an undergraduate in 1989 or 1990, I believe. Unlike some other topics of engineering, this one made perfect sense to me. I've always been interested in mechanical things and the ideas presented in this book came easily. The book is very well organized and the information is clearly presented. And really, the illustrations are lovely. Done before the time of computer graphics, the illustrations are at the same time part technical information and part artistic expression. I admire the beauty and intellect of Beer and Johnston same as I would an interesting and attractive lady. 

The reason I had to borrow THIS particular copy of Beer and Johnston is that I haven't seen my own copy for years and I wanted to use it for a video. Like an interesting and attractive lady who is uncomfortable with attention from nerdy guys, MY copy of Beer and Johnston had left the scene and was nowhere to be found. Any engineering office will have several copies of this book around so it is not essential that I have one of my own, and so I've gone without for a long time. It has probably been 10 years or more. 

You can see THIS particular copy of Beer and Johnston in a cat video that we produced last year. Go and watch "An Engineer's Guide to Cat Flatulence" and you will see THIS particular copy of Beer and Johnston in one of the final scenes. Towards the very end of the video I'm reading "Flatulence Bedtime Stories" to the kitties. The storybook is actually THIS copy of Beer and Johnston dressed up for the camera. Pause the video at just the right time (6:52) and you can even make out the "Mechanics of Materials" on the cover underneath the graphic. 

"Mechanics of Materials" in costume for the cat fart video.

So anyway, the reason I was looking for the 7th grade yearbook in the first place was that I wanted to share a story of amazing odds regarding one of the "bright spots" of 7th grade in Alabama. And her name was... "    ." Of course I don't remember her name and that is why I was looking for the yearbook in the first place. And so we will just have to give her a name. I believe it began with the letter "M." Like Millicent, or Maggie, or Mellisa, or something like that. Let's call her "Michelle." I'm pretty sure that is not her name but it will do for now. 

Michelle happened to be one of the girls in the girl's PE class during the same hour that I had my PE class. The boy's PE class rarely did any activities with the girl's PE class but we could see them collected on the opposite side of the gym at the start and end of the hour. And of course being newly interested in girls AND having superb vision I spotted Michelle early in the year and admired her for quite some time. From across the gym. Where I couldn't talk to her. 

While I never interacted with her I did think she was very pretty, and I suppose I projected that she would have a nice personality and like the same things as me (model airplanes). I imagined that she would be as attracted to me without actually knowing me, as I was attracted to her without actually knowing her. She was probably destined to be an Aerospace Engineer just like me and appreciate a book like "Mechanics of Materials" by Beer and Johnston. She might even have liked cats. 

It turns out one day the boy's and girl's PE classes did get to come together for a new activity: square dancing. While being pretty miserable at all of the more typical athletics of PE, I anticipated that I might not be too bad at square dancing. I was in the band after all, so I did have some basic rhythm, and with this activity I'd get to interact with girls!! 

So when it came time to pair up with a dance partner we were told to "go get a dance partner" whereupon I made an uncharacteristically bold move and walked right up to Michelle. I said hello and smiled, and I think I remember her making some kind of socially required minimal response, but otherwise we talked very little, and there was almost no eye contact on her part. 

After just about a minute, she began glancing back at her girlfriend who didn't seem to have a dance partner for some reason. The two of them exchanged some invisible secret girl communication with their eyes, and shortly thereafter Michelle walked away and her friend took her place. 

Bait and switch!! While Michelle's friend was pleasant enough she just didn't really do it for me like Michelle did. For one thing, once we did start dancing she had really cold and clammy hands. Not that this was her fault but I'm sorry, what can any of us do when we are attracted to one person and not another? 

Michelle's friend DID make lots of eye contact, and it was clear that she was just as interested in me as I was in Michelle. I'm sure Michelle was interested in some other guy and yet another guy was interested in Michelle's friend with the clammy hands. That is how romance worked in the 7th grade during PE square dance lessons. An infinite loop of longing and frustration.

The lessons went on for several weeks, and whatever romance that might have sparked on the gymnasium dance floor instead remained in the 7th grade circular holding pattern. Grab your partner now do-si-do and round-and-round-and-round-and-round-and-round-and-round-and-round-and-round-and-round-and-round.... Otherwise I managed to survive the 7th grade in the roughest school I'd ever seen, and after a year we moved away and I never looked back. Just another chapter in the life of a military family. 

Fast forward a number of years later and we were now in Springfield, VA. I liked VA quite a bit more than Alabama. I had cool friends, I was having lots of fun with model airplanes, my high school was excellent, I was in the school band and we pretty much ROCKED, and overall life was good. 

One of the less exciting aspects of my life at that time was the confirmation class that I attended at our church. I was open to religion and faith, so I didn't mind the idea of taking the class, but our instructor was pretty uninspiring, and I have to admit that none of the studies really grabbed me.

What did inspire me were a few attractive girls in the class. One of the girls was just spectacular. WAY out of my league and in fact I completely failed to make any sort of impression on her the entire time we were in the class together. I tried to interact a few times but got just about zero response. Never mind there were other girls and we had some good amount of time to spend in the duration of the class. 

Another girl was quite pretty and seemed like someone who might be more compatible with myself. She had a pleasant personality, and she even seemed familiar somehow. It took a few weeks before it hit me, and I had to check my 7th grade yearbook for confirmation, but would you believe this other pretty girl in my confirmation class in Springfield, VA was the very same Michelle who had rejected my square dance advances a few years prior in Alabama! 

it seems hard to believe, but her family had also moved VA so many years later, her family had also attended the same church as mine, and of all the confirmation classes held during the course of a year she was enrolled in the same one as me. I had never seen her during any of the regular church services but here she was in my class. What are the odds? 

But wait it gets better: as part of a fun exercise for our confirmation class, our uninspiring instructor decided that we should all do the "Secret Santa" thing. We would all be a Secret Santa for someone in the class and bring gifts with a short note for them each week. And guess who was the recipient of my Secret Santa gifts? Yup. Michelle. And this is 100% true. She went to the same school as me in Alabama, she moved to Virginia years later, went to my church, enrolled in my confirmation class, AND I was her Secret Santa. What are the odds? 

During the remainder of the class I dedicated myself to this Secret Santa activity with gifts to Michelle every week accompanied by notes about how I knew her in Alabama and different hints about who I was. This was lots of fun, and in order to maintain total secrecy I observed a strict lack of interaction with Michelle the whole time! Surely Michelle would be impressed on the final day of class when I revealed myself and she then understood how clever I was to keep her guessing 'till the end! She would then admit her attraction for me and romance would instantly blossom right then and there. Or something like that. 

It turns out the lack of interaction with Michelle was pretty easy to maintain as she also had very little interest in me. I dropped hints about how we had both attended Georgia Washington Jr. High back in Alabama, about our PE class together, and even a mention of the square dancing incident, but she never guessed the whole time. On the one hand I was kind of irritated that she had absolutely no recollection of me, but otherwise I enjoyed watching her quiz the other kids about their 7th grade year, what parts of the country they lived in, and any experience they might have in square dancing. She did approach me at one point, but I sort of just gave her a blank stare when she questioned me. How clever I was. 

I suppose I might have risked the whole Secret Santa thing and tried to actually talk with Michelle, but that is not the way young would-be engineers do things. After all this was a religious confirmation class and part of me thought that none other than GOD himself had destined Michelle to be with me. It was a done deal. How else could it possibly happen that we would come together in the same state, in the same city, in the same church, and in the same confirmation class all these years later? AND I was her Secret Santa, no less. What are the odds? 

Turns out whatever fate or providence or hand of God was at work, they were no match for my lack of romantic ability. Turns out that completely ignoring a girl (other than anonymous gifts and mysterious notes) is not a way to win her affection.   The day finally came when we revealed ourselves to our Secret Santa recipients. In the last minutes of the last meeting of the class I walked up to her and revealed who I was. She said, "Oh" and turned and walked away.

That wasn't exactly how I had planned things to go, and while I was disappointed, I guess I wasn't too surprised. Deep down I knew that romance required a little more direct effort and not so much sly and cunning secret strategy. A blank stare didn't make her heart beat any faster, and somehow it didn't occur to her how remarkable the odds were that we had been brought back together. That GOD had brought us together. Somehow, psychic mental telepathy didn't figure into the deal and SHE couldn't read MY mind. 

And so it was never meant to be and it never was. Oh well she probably didn't like model airplanes, anyway. Probably allergic to cats, as well. We were two ships passing in the night. Then sailing around the vast oceans for a few years and then passing in the night AGAIN and I saw HER but apparently she didn’t have her radar on and SHE never saw ME. 

And I STILL can't find that damn 7th grade yearbook. I checked quite a few boxes in my basement but no luck. It is down there somewhere but I can't find it. You know that scene at the end of the first "Indiana Jones" movie where the crate containing the Arc of the Covenant is being tucked away amongst millions of other crates? Yeah, my basement is like that. TONS of boxes down there with ancient artifacts. 

But digging through just the second box I reached all the way down and wrestled out what felt like a 7th grade yearbook and there it was: MY old copy of "Mechanics of Materials" by Beer and Johnston. Mine is an older edition with a bit more wear, but after all these years it is back again. Like an interesting and attractive lady who was once uncomfortable with attention from nerdy guys, but doesn't seem to mind it so much now. 

Good to see you again.

Flipping through the pages I see notes penciled in the margins from back in 1989 or 1990 and the memories of that time come back to me. College was difficult and the engineering program was stressful, but it was a time of optimism and looking forward. And this particular class I really enjoyed. Oh "Mechanics of Materials" it is good to see you again. YOU appreciate model airplanes, at least from a structural standpoint, and you don't mind cats at all. And looking at you now, your illustrations are just as lovely as the day we first met. 

The Illustrations are lovely.


  1. Hi Paul,

    Really enjoying your blog.

    And congrats on finding your book. Isn't it great when that happens?! :-)

    Best regards,

    Dr. Jane, Tripod & Bette Davis, in MN.

  2. It was obviously Meant To Be, you and the Mechanics of Materials. Now I'll go drink a LOT of wine and try to forget my teen years.

  3. As a girl who grew up to be a materials science engineer, I can confirm we girls were also awkward and un-romantic in Jr. High. (and probably still are!). Great blog post. My "Mechanics of Materials" book is also buried in the basement....

  4. What a really sweet and piquant memory, thanks for sharing it. The nature of reality and illusion is really fluid isn't it? Maybe some nice fluid dynamics would help here, like contemplating turbulent vs laminate flow ;-) As in, our perception of the reality of 'little red-haired girls' s-e-e-m-s like laminate flow, but that perception is tricky, and turns out to be turbulent flow after all (wry :-) That randomness and chaos of the relationship between perception and reality lands like a cat toy at your feet -- daughter of an engineer, aunt of an engineer ;-)

  5. I like the title. You truly never know what you will encounter next, as long as you have the interest to continue searching in ( and out of ) the world.
    People are not so individual as we often think. I have known encounter also.

    Like the boy in junior high who sat in the band section and made the (rude?) comment about my stocking after I had taken the stage for my part. He may have thought he was being funny or even helpful. I cried all night and thought of people in the world are so cruel.

    Flash forward thirty five years. We are introduced and go out to see a few movies etc. . . together. I realize a year later he is the boy in the band. I think he recognized me all along because he won't speak at all, about high school. Not a work. He is a nice enough man so, we remain close.

    I breathe a sigh now whenever I think of the time in my life when I suffered with my "growing pains". Because, some how my question was finally answered. I am at last consoled and I can forgive more easily, simple misunderstandings again.

    I hope you find your year book soon and who knows? Maybe, run into "Michell" as you both reach for the same piece of fruit in the produce section. PEACE

  6. So I just came across your blog after revisiting my YouTube favorites list, rediscovering "An Engineer's Guide to Cat Yodeling," and then naturally wondering if you had a blog to document such silliness. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post--I hope you'll write more! :) And hey, I grew up in Alabama (just outside Montgomery, actually), and STILL felt about as out of place there as you probably did (which may explain why I often found myself making friends with military kids).

    Hope all is well with you and your kitties! :)