Martha, Take a Deep Breath…

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And just like that, everything stopped.  A little over a month ago I had started to follow a story developing in Wuhan, China.  A virus, a novel virus, had somehow driven the industrial heart of China to a standstill.  It is astonishing how something not even considered to be a living organism (since it doesn’t reproduce without our help) can defeat the best measures that us ‘intelligent’ creatures could throw at it.  

We are fortunate, at this time at least, that the Covid-19 isn’t as deadly as some viruses.  Unfortunately, it is very contagious, it is serious enough that it could easily overwhelm our medical infrastructure and, if there were no effort made to slow or contain the virus, it is very likely that Covid-19 would kill far more than the seasonal flu.  As a precaution against a worse case scenario many governments around the world have ordered a suspension of unnecessary commerce and non-essential events as a means to blunt the spread.  

For me personally this comes at a time when I was close to being overwhelmed by my workload and falling further and further behind.  I had worried (and perhaps not nearly enough) about how I would meet deadlines, particularly as far as my income taxes, and stay ahead of the growing stack of truss layouts.  The economy had, in three years, gone from pedestrian growth to bullet train speed.  I dreamed about not having to drive my long commute, freeing time to finish dozens of waiting projects or basically gaining a little time somewhere in my busy schedule to finally breathe again and relax a bit.

Church, entering the Lenten season, did not seem to offer much relief for this breakneck pace.  No, if anything the additional services were only adding to my already impossible list of obligations and stress.  Looking back over the past months and years, at my growing list of responsibilites, my life was on a trajectory that could not be sustained.  I needed a break.  I needed a push back against all those who depended on me and would pressure me to perform at a higher and higher level.  

Lent was supposed to be about the withdrawal of Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, how had it become yet another thing to cram into an already overcrowded schedule?

Going Nowhere Fast…

That seems to be the world we live in.  

Busy, busy busy and many don’t even know why anymore.  

I’m amazed by how traffic flies on the interstate.  I tend to set my cruise at or right above the speed limit and get passed like I’m grandma out on a Sunday drive.  It makes no sense.  Of course, then, I’m really no better in that it is next to impossible for me to focus on one thing even while hurdling through the early morning darkness or traveling back in the full grid of pushy tailgating morons.  Would it really hurt them that much to slow down?  

Perhaps (while ironically using the device to write this) it would be good for me to put the phone down for a moment?

The same people snicking about toilet paper hoarders, a week earlier, have about lost their minds when the governments of various states started to tell them to close shop for a bit and stay home.

Those infected with the restless American spirit pile up wealth for themselves, more than anyone else in the world, and yet the thought of taking a few weeks off for sake of their vulnerable neighbors will induce a panic.  “How will we eat?”  Cries out the guy, with three properties, to the guy who recently bought a brand new truck when the old one was just fine.  We, unlike many others in the world, could afford a week off to reflect on ourselves and our cultural priorities.

We could be the busiest, furthest traveling, civilization in all of human history, but we aren’t the first people scurrying about our various responsibilites and fretting about the lack of help.  A few weeks ago, while contemplating the fevered pace of modern life and the justifications given for it, I had to think of the example of a stressed out woman who lived two millennia ago and finally expressed her exasperation about the lack of help to Jesus:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

(Luke 10:38-42 NIV)

Mary and Martha

There are many anxiety-ridden people in our society today and that fact has become all the more clear in the past few weeks.  There are many who, like Martha, are working at their full capability, struggling to keep up with their seemingly ever-increasing workload and begging for help.  From those panic buying to those complaining about their favorite events being cancelled, both are missing the perspective of Mary, who sat listening, and really do need to take a deep breath and maybe just appreciate that they are still breathing rather than be so worried about things that will pass away soon enough anyways.


Be Still and Know…


Everyone, from government leaders to those who think that they know better than government leaders, wants to be in control.  And that is what drives the frantic pace of our lives.  We think, “if I just could have that one more property” or “after this year I’ll kick back and relax,” yet when we get there there is always that one more thing that needs to be done before we can feel secure.  There are many who pursue this sort of material completeness until the day that they die.  Some do better than others at accumulating their pile of stuff, some are like this foolish rich man Jesus describes:

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

(Luke 12:15‭-‬21 NIV)

Listen up, folks!  This shutdown may be the last wake up call you get from God.  Instead of complaining about your schedule being upset and all the things that you want to do, including church services, maybe it is time to be like Mary and do some serious contemplation instead? 

When Jesus told the crowds, “take no thought for tomorrow,” he was likely talking to an audience with many who lived hand to mouth (like many still do in the world) and had every reason to worry about where the next meal was coming from.  While we fret and fuss about the inconvenience, fight over toilet paper, some will literally be going hungry while trying to wait this virus out.

This Lenten shut down can be a very good thing to sort out what is truly life sustaining from the truly frivolous.  My design work has aided in the construction of many barns over the past few years and there had been a great deal of optimism before everything came crashing down a little over a week ago.  Suddenly, much like that ambitious fool whose life was required of him the very night he felt satisfied, we too have been forced to take inventory over our lives and it would be a good opportunity to reorder our priorities.  When is the last time you’ve thanked God for the chance to work and have food on the table?  Have you noticed the sun still shining as the stock values plunge?

We may have BMWs to show our prestige and iPhones (emphasis on the ‘i’) to keep our schedules straight, but we aren’t the first self-important generation that needed brought to it’s knees and reminded that it was not sovereign over anything, that their power over the earth was only an illusion.  It is the wise person who lives in awe of the mystery of everything that the foolish take for granted.  It is the very thing that the Psalmist tells us to be still and know:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,  though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth.  He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

(Psalms 46:1‭-‬11 NIV)

Time to Reset and Refocus…

We are not in control.  And, “except you become as little children,” (Matt. 18:3) everything you accomplish in this life will eventually be wiped away and forgotten.  All of those barns my long hours and overtime have made possible will eventually, maybe in less than a century, be reduced to rubble, rot away or be burned.  Nothing we have built with our hands, no great intellectual endeavor, should take our eyes off of the true sustainer of life.  That sustainer being that which has set this universe in motion and holds it together while we frail critters delude ourselves, imagining our own invulnerability, and will some day need to face the reality of our own situation.

I was writing this blog (afterall, you, my audience, are too important to wait) as my dad toiled with the landscaping outside.  There had been many times where I had intended to buckle down and help for a little, despite questioning if all the work was ever worth it, but got swept away in my own projects before actually lending a hand.  Today, with no gym ritual or other routine to keep, I decided it was time to haul a couple wheelbarrow loads of mulch before finishing this blog and borrowing my dad’s truck to haul a few loads out of my old house in preparation for the new tenants.  

I do not believe Covid-19 will be the end of us.  But let it be the end of this paradigm we are in.  Let it be a time to slow down, to respect our fellow man and to, most importantly, be in awe of God.  It is truly, in these reminders of our own mortality, that God’s mercy is made manifest.  We can be the hands that help, the ears that listens, and the voice of calm in troubled times.  We live surrounded by chaos on all sides, it is terrifying if you stare into that abyss of uncertainty of the days and months ahead, but those who have faith in God never have a reason to fear and will always bring hope as long as they have breath.

So, take a deep breath, Martha, get your soul right and even Covid-19 cannot snuff out the light that you’ll bring into the world.  For a Christian there is beauty even in death.  Live in love, not fear, my friends, because in love there is a breath of life that cannot be extinguished.  Stop ‘adulting’ for a little, stop being like Martha, and learn to be a bit more like Mary.  Use this Lenten season to be still, to sit at the feet of Jesus, and set your eyes on what is greater than our daily grind.  All of the activity here will eventually come to an end, what have you done of eternal value lately?

The Anatomy of a Truss Design Failure

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Since day one I’ve kept an anecdote about a competitor’s failure in the back of my head as motivation to do better. This company, believed by some to make a high-quality product, had sent out a truss package that was plagued with problems and I made it my own goal to avoid this sort of thing as much as possible.

Truss designer may be my job description. However, things aren’t always as they seem, high-level creativity is not a requirement for most of what I do on a daily basis and, in reality, my job is loss prevention. My role is, first of all, to make an effective and efficient design that doesn’t waste material or add unnecessary cost. However, second, and more importantly, I must always meet the specifications of the customer and avoid truss design failure.

In an ideal world, my work would be spread out evenly, revisions after quotes (especially involving complex layouts) would be punishable by death, there would be no phone to interrupt, and I would have all day to create perfection. In the real world, unfortunately, there are trade-offs, it is deluge or drought (all deluge lately), and things do not always go as they should.

Anticipating an Opportunity to Impress

Anyhow, the office where I work has an open design and this feature, combined with my eavesdropping, gives me a preview of what is to come. I overheard the phone conversation, someone needed trusses yesterday, apparently, they were a loyal customer to one of our competitors and someone over there had dropped the ball. The salesman (my boss) assured him that we could make the trusses in the next couple days.

Upstairs I anticipated an opportunity to knock one out of the park and geared myself up for the fast turnaround time. The quicker I could finish the design work, the sooner the saw guys could get cutting, everything would hinge on my ability to churn something out quickly and I was determined not to be the gum in the works.

But what I (along with my boss) did not anticipate was that this was not a simple run of common trusses. No, it was an extremely complex design, a flat roof with angled walls, equipment loads, parapets, and something that would normally take a day or two to design. And, adding to the mess, was the fact that I had to match the competitor’s prints—which is not actually ideal.

Some customers lack appreciation for the design process and seem to think that we can just click a couple keys *bee-boop* out pops a truss layout. In reality, for things to go well, everything must be entered in a particular order (using a program that takes pleasure in crashing at the most inopportune times) and thus it actually is easier to work from scratch than to try to copy individual trusses from another manufacturer.

The Ace Up My Sleeve

Fortunately, I recognized this layout as something I had done before when contractors were bidding on the job. However, my own design had been true to the architect’s drawings, which is probably why we didn’t get the project to begin with, so I stripped off the trusses that I did before and went to work duplicating the cheaper (incorrect) version of the layout brought in by this contractor.

The competition’s webbing was atrocious, they obviously did nothing to optimize the generic web pattern spit out by the software and could be vastly improved with a little effort. It is amazing to me how many other truss company prints I see like this where clearly the ‘designer’ let the programming do all the work and take pride in my ability to go above and beyond. If I could not take a bit of pride in my work I would find something else to do.

I was halfway through my masterpiece, trying to work at warp speed while also checking all the right boxes and then realized something. Oh no! The trusses on the competitor’s prints were all an inch shorter than mine! Some contractors prefer it this way so that the trusses are easier to position in the field (or maybe because they hate truss designers?), for me this was simply another thing that could go wrong and meant going back through every truss I had already designed.

Finally, about an hour after lunch, I finished the last of the individual truss designs, took one last look at the profiles in the printer queue, and sent them down. My coworkers, the guys in sales, generally do a good job reviewing my work and having the plans confirmed with the customers before production.

Pride Cometh Before the Fail

However, it was at that time I made a terrible mistake. I went on Facebook and, with a slight amount of tongue-in-cheek, crowed:

I would be embarrassed to send out the truss prints that I’ve seen from some of our competitors, plain embarrassed.

Just saying…

I was feeling very good about what I had just accomplished. I had prints ready to go in record time and they were aesthetically pleasing to me. The contractor, I hoped, would appreciate my work and maybe reconsider his allegiances as well. I mean, we bailed him out. He had somehow been dropped off the schedule of our competitor, we got him what he needed and that was something to be proud about—not to mention that we beat them at price as well.

But pride cometh before the design failure and my moments of reveling were short-lived. After the trusses went out, a day or later, my boss received a call and it wasn’t good. I had screwed up. The truss lengths were not correct, some had to be cut down and would need repair prints. Apparently, in my haste, I had trimmed some of the trusses twice, I had done some once, and others not at all. That was something that I could have easily seen had I taken one look down the line of trusses in 3D rendering and reflected poorly on my efforts.

Besides that, the plans he gave had a small note near a dimension for the angled wall. For whatever reason, the architect (without changing the actual dimension) decided to change the angled wall slightly and that’s where the really big mess was. That would require specially engineered repair prints from Dallas. I feverishly went to work to determine what each new length would be on the dozen different length trusses on that wall.

Fortunately, the competitor’s truss prints, that I was supposed to copy, were wrong as well. Evidently, they too had missed the amendment made in a note on the plans. Unfortunately, I also missed the note and made a serious mistake myself besides. Yes, they were able to use the trusses, an inch difference isn’t a big deal ultimately, but it was the mental mistake that kept me up at night days later and soured my mood for the next week. It was a mistake and a missed opportunity to impress.

There is certainly always blame to go around for a failure like this. The contractor should have checked the prints, my boss could have insisted on this precaution before producing and shipping these trusses as well. But in the end, what matters as far as I am concerned is what I did wrong and how to ensure that it does not happen again. It is my job, as truss designer and loss prevention specialist, to ensure that this problem is solved—to make the changes necessary to the process to guarantee that there is no repeat of the same mistake.

A Final Analysis of the Failure

In short, I bungled my part because I rushed Taking one more look at the wall dimensions may have been enough to spot the note about the change of angle and lead to a clarifying question. An extra thirty seconds of review at the end of the design process would have been enough to find my own mistake. I should not expect my coworkers or the contractor to cover for my own incompetence and especially not on a complex layout where they lack the same resources. Design is my job, not theirs, and that means doing it right the first time.

Furthermore, design is a process that should never be rushed and it is my job to push back against pressure as needed. Sure, the sale’s guys do sometimes over-promise. And, yes, it is always my great pleasure to deliver results on or ahead of schedule. But it is also my responsibility to set a pace where I am comfortable working, where I am able to do things correctly the first time, and where the company avoids the cost and embarrassment of a truss design failure.

In my work, one small mistake can outweigh the hundreds of things done right. For instance, on this particular layout, I had all but two details right out of dozens of parameters. But the customer will only ever remember the hassle that came as a result of those two things overlooked. We will likely never get a second chance with this contractor after what happened and that’s on me—for failing at my most basic duty as truss designer.