Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not on the agenda

Another meeting today with another design team. Technical issues. Schedules. Cost estimates. Coordination with local agencies. Testing. The meetings are incessant, coming like a rolling rhythm on a snare drum leading up to some great finale, a cymbal crash that will signal we've accomplished our goal, a goal that we know rushes toward us but always seems so far off, until...

About 20 minutes after the start of the meeting, John appeared at the door. Shyly, but wearing an impish grin, he slid along the wall and came up behind his mother. She was talking at the time, explaining the finer details of a particular design decision. John, who may have been 7 years old, wrapped his arms around her neck, but she did not miss a beat. She continued to outline her vision of the work at hand.

A good civil engineer knows that you have to get your point across, you have to explain yourself clearly and succinctly, because you may only get one chance. Gone are the days when engineers could toil quietly away for days on a calculation without interruption. In the fast-paced environment of a multi-billion dollar program, we meet and debate the merits of alternative plans, we quiz each other on the pros and cons of each other's designs, and we challenge each other to do it better, stronger, faster and cheaper.

John, however, was not on the agenda. His attendance at today's meeting was completely unplanned. Earlier, John had been involved in some sort of playground mishap. His school--perhaps being judiciously cautious, or perhaps in yet another demonstration of the pervasive fear of litigation that grips America today--had called his mother to recommend taking him to the emergency room. Just to be sure.

Luckily for him, nothing was broken or out of joint. Unluckily for him, his mom is a key engineer on an important project and she had to return to work--with him in tow.

As the discussion moved from one topic to the next, I couldn't help but keep an eye on John. He wandered in and out of the room a few times, at one point finding a bag a chips to munch. After a while he sat next to someone on the other side of the room. It looked like they were playing some sort of drawing game, each taking a turn and then showing it to the other.

The meeting continued, of course. We all understood the importance of our jobs, just as that mom engineer understood the importance of her dual jobs this afternoon. Under different circumstances, she almost certainly would not have returned to work after bringing her son to the emergency room. But as we all know, Hurricane Katrina changed the circumstances. We spend long days designing the best structures we can to keep this city viable for the next 50 years, and an uneventful visit to see the doctor is no excuse to delay that mission.

Nobody said it, and likely no one needed to, but John had every right to be at that meeting today. After all, we were discussing plans to build the life-safety system essential to the future of New Orleans.

Who better to represent the future of the city than John?

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