San Diego

“I’m not going to let Patin and his gangster hoodlum Teamsters run this state!”

Governor Keith McKeithen

I can see why Wendy left me for California. San Diego’s heaven on earth, and my home. Wendy loved the area around my condo, especially the plentitude of flowers and expansive zoo in Balboa Park; she laughed when she said San Diego’s zoo had descriptions of the animals on each cage, but Baton Rouge’s had recipes. My dad appreciates that weed has been legal in California for a long time; about goddamn time! he says, loudly, and often with his right forefinger finger poking in the listener’s face and beginning a tirade on Reagan and his bullshit war on drugs. We rarely chat. He had a rough life, too. I can’t imagine what it must have been like being Big Daddy’s son.

I was a physics, engineering, and entrepreneurship instructor around town. I led design and engineering the nearby University of San Diego Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, the one that overlooked Mission Bay and about a five mile bike ride from my condo overlooking Balboa Park, and I was an advisor for UCSD’s innovation program at The Basement, only a short drive away and conveniently near Tourmaline Beach and Old Man’s surf break, a classic longboard haven and one of dozens of surf breaks along San Diego’s 78 miles of coastline; it’s no wonder my home is dubbed America’s Finest City.

I ran the new USD lab for student innovation, Donald’s Garage, named after Donald Shiley, the mechanical engineer who, with a Swedish cardiovascular surgeon named Bjork – like the singer – had invented the Bjork-Shiley pyrolytic carbon coated heart valve, the world’s best selling for a while, with about 50,000 implanted. They had prototyped ideas in Donald’s garage, and eventually sold the company to Pfizer in the 90’s for around $700 Million. His widow, Miss Darlene Marcos, had recently donated $21 Million for a hands-on lab to inspire posterity. An additional $2.1 Million grant allowed us to support about 36 student workers and focus on equitable access. The small private school had about 10,000 students, and we were trying to figure out how to give them all access to Donals’s Garage without depleting limited resources. I was tasked with designing a design class that “taught” students empathy and how to embrace ambiguity; I had replied, mostly jokingly, that I didn’t know where to begin and didn’t really care how to “teach” empathy. It’s a work in progress. Tuition was around $56,000 per year for everyone not on scholarship, and USD had just been ranked the #14 in small college engineering programs.

UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering was named after Irwin Jacobs, the founder San Diego’s Qualcomm, which had invented and now made the chips powering most cell phones. The Basement was open to all 86,000 or so students, and was mostly funded by a local foundation that sponsored hands-on learning for equitable education, and by funding from India’s Ashoka Foundation, which sponsored a few dozen labs and university programs nationally after meeting criteria on diversity and equitable access to labs. Tuition was around for $17,000 per year for California residents not on scholarship. I never looked up what they’re ranked, but one of my heroes from graduate school, a biomechanics guru named Y.C. Fung, taught there (he was given an honorary gold medal from the US Olympic committee for his work in tissue engineering) and a popular book on design was published by one of UCSD’s faculty. I don’t know how well a book helps people learn design or empathy, but a lot of college professors and book publishers swear by it.

I had a handful of patents focused on surgery of the hand, bone implants to replace the basal joint after arthritis, heal broken bones, replace spinal discs, etc., and had sold a few of them to big companies. As a side gig, I was a consultant to medical device corporations with freedom to set my boundaries and schedule. One of my first patents, coincidentally, was a pyrolytic carbon wrist resurfacing implant with a curved articulation surface and a fin stabilizing it in the radius, nicknamed “The Surfboard” because it looked like my squat, San Diego style summer board designed for mushy waves, the one my co-inventor and friend, Andrew K. Palmer, MD, an affable and well known semi-retired hand surgeon, borrowed when in town for surgeon conferences at the downtown convention center near my condo. Most of my classes were focused on solving real-world problems without fear of failure, assessed on planned iteration and continuous improvement, with a goal of either launching a company or nonprofit or something in between, or learning the skills that would set you apart if you chose to pursue a job. Entrepreneurship’s not for everyone, especially those prone to worry or averse to calculated risks, or who can’t embrace the ambiguity of navigating a path few have tread. Empathy, apparently, is a trait shared by the most successful leaders and a lot of psychopaths, like my grandfather and anyone who kills defenseless people. Empathy and compassion are different animals.

By calculated risk, I mean risk with some sense of foresight, embracing the ambiguity of not knowing everything and making assumptions and following through to re-access those assumptions. I could start a company based on making scuba watch bands guaranteed to last a life time, and that would make me happy because I had gone through at least a dozen in 25 years of wearing my Seiko, but the market would be so small that the business would probably fail, unless you found a handful of people like me willing to pay you to make them, like craftsmanship rather than scalable innovation that serves many. But, if a student wanted to assume they could invent a manufacturing process and become profitable enough, our classes were safe places to practice without fear of failure in the real world, and in the worse case they’d have a deep dive into computer drawings, rapid prototyping, statistical analysis of design tolerances, and user-centered design feedback to test ideas using real people who probably know more than anyone if they’d care about a lifetime guarantee on a watch band. There’s some coaching involved, and a project-based class allows students to relax and work in diverse teams and know there’s a safety net and they can practice jumping while in school.

I’m happiest when students realize they don’t need me, and can learn almost anything through focus and discipline and iteration. Years ago, I woudl have said that tuition could be worth access to labs, generous faculty, and peers. But, now that there’s the internet and Makers Spaces in most public libraries, more often than not I find myself quoting Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, referencing it so I can say it without sounding snarky, “You dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” He said that in 1997. By 2019, 150 grand would only get you to your senior year at a school like USD. But, in 2017 the San Diego public library dropped late fees, so at least you’d save the buck fifty.

I had a good gig at USD and UCSD, and that’s how I scored an entrepreneurship visa to Cuba under Obama’s new loophole, and how I ended up listening to Wendy’s voice mail from St. Francisville while standing the Plaza de San Francisco de Asi, using a phone powered by a Qualcomm chip and with an aching ankle full of bone screws that colleagues had invented and that a friend at the VA hospital implanted. I had free healthcare there due to my disability ranking from the first Gulf war. I was lucky. Free access to the VA healthcare system allowed me to take calculated risks and invest in myself between surf sessions, and the 1996 patent improvement act created a loophole for individual inventors; a provisional patent for a mere $100 that would hold your place in line as you improved your design and negotiated investments into another newfangled idea, a limited liability corporation that assigned percentages of ownership to investors and facilitated teamwork. It’s only a coincidence that I invented things to improve what held my ankle together. Life’s funny, if you slow down and look back, so maybe I was wrong about reliving the past not being useful.

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