The Process of Living
I was looking at an old photograph.I found it in a box while I was cleaning out the attic, and I brought it down into the house to show my wife.
The photo was taken in 1966, when I was eleven years old, a fifth-grade student at Lincoln Elementary School.This was the same year that the Mississippi home of a civil rights activist named Vernon Dahmer was fire bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, killing Dahmer.It was the year that President Johnson told us that the we would remain in South Vietnam until communists backed off, and the year that John Lennon told the London Evening Standard that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.That year, there were the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the last episode of the Flintstones, and the very first episode of Star Trek.It was the year Caesar’s Palace opened its doors in Las Vegas, and the year that Walt Disney died.And it was also the year that I met Buckminster Fuller.We met on a warm afternoon in the month of August at his laboratory at San Jose State College.We shook hands, and then he showed me around.It was a meeting I would never forget.Right off the bat, he told me to call him Bucky instead of Mr. Fuller, so I did.He was a pleasant, energetic, and friendly man who wore thick glasses and was excited about everything.The thick glasses made him seem smart, jovial, and eccentric, and the excitement was contagious.
So, how did a run-of-the-mill kid like me get to meet a man like Bucky in person?Believe me, I was nobody special.I was the scrawny eleven year old son of a restaurant owner and his loyal, housecleaning wife, an average fifth grade student, and a kid who couldn’t whack a baseball to save his life.I was a kid who collected coins by going through his mother’s and father’s loose change every other day, a kid who still liked to play with Legos, and a kid who loved to shoot bottles and cans with his Daisy BB rifle.And, seriously, I could play Stratego for hours on end without getting bored.In other words, I was a kid who, for all intents and purposes, was just a kid.
So how did I know about Bucky?My Uncle Timothy gave me a book for my eleventh birthday titled The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, and that’s what got the ball rolling.Uncle Timothy wasn’t anything like my father or any other male adult I knew.My uncle was hip, brilliant, and fond of children.Maybe he was fond of children because he had none of his own.He never did marry, and I always had the impression that he was just too busy with his life to share it with a needy woman.He always had something going on, a project of one kind or the other, a place to go, a book to write, a city to see.He was an architecture professor up at UC Berkeley, and that’s how he earned his living.He wore weird and colorful clothes and love beads and funny looking hats.I heard Mom and Dad talking about him when they thought I wasn’t around, and they said they suspected he was using marijuana.But the man was amazing.Whenever he visited it felt like he was returning from some remarkable trip around the world to exotic and faraway lands, like he was a great adventurer, like he was a twentieth century Marco Polo.
The book about Bucky that my uncle bought for me was like a picture window into another world.It was filled with photographs and writings and drawings, and it was wonderful, intriguing, florid, and optimistic.I’d never read or seen anything quite like it, and I quickly grew obsessed with Bucky’s world.I was convinced that he was the smartest and most creative man living on the planet earth.I no longer have the book in my possession, so I can’t refresh my memory.But what I do recall with clarity were all the many versions of geodesic domes, the houses designed to fit inside the domes, his Buck Rogers three-wheeled Dymaxion Car, and the new world map that Bucky invented, a map that looked like a flatted piece of origami with oceans, seas, and continents.Somewhere within all of this creativity I saw hope and promise for the world, or as Bucky would say, hope and promise for our Spaceship Earth.It’s hard to convey just how intense this feeling was.It was magical.It was euphoric, and the future was right around the corner.
It was my dad who arranged my meeting with Bucky.My dad was a wonderful man.He never really had any interest in the things Bucky wrote or did, but he knew that Bucky’s work was important to me.So, one day, he wrote Bucky a long letter and he mailed it to San Jose State.I never did see the letter, but it must have been very convincing.In the letter my dad asked Bucky if he could take a half hour out of his busy schedule to meet with me.My dad told Bucky in would mean the world to me.You’d think the letter would’ve just found its way to Bucky’s wastebasket, but instead Bucky read the letter and responded to it, telling my dad he would be delighted to meet with his son.One month later I found myself tagging along with Bucky as he took me on a tour of his lab.It was one of the most amazing days of my life.The guy was interested in about everything, and his lab was like a playroom for adults.When our meeting was over, my dad took a snapshot of Bucky and me standing side by side.
Now I was holding that photograph.How time flies, right?It was now 2019, and I was sixty-three years old.A lot of things had happened since I met with Bucky.A whole lot of things had happened, too many of them to mention without writing an entire book.But let’s give it a shot.Let’s say that I made it all the way through high school with decent grades, and that I graduated from college with a degree in structural engineering.I’ve worked on more buildings than I can count, and they’re all still standing.I’ve been married three times, and divorced twice.I have two kids, a girl who now lives in Los Angeles while trying to become a movie star, and a boy who is working as a clerk at Macy’s.I drive a Toyota sedan with an old Ron Paul sticker on the bumper.I am neither rich nor poor.I tend to vote conservative in every election, but I have many liberal ideas and opinions.
What a year so far!Donald Trump is still our president.Also, this is the momentous year Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire – I watched it burn on the TV in my doctor’s waiting room.This year there were more deadly suicide bombings all over the world, but oddly, nobody seems to care much about them anymore.This year, the 448-page Mueller Report on Trump was published, and after all that time, money, and publicity, the report concluded that the president did not commit a crime, but in true Washington doublespeak, the report also refused to take a stand and exonerate him.This year Botswana decriminalized homosexuality, Elton John and Freddie Mercury had movies made about them, and Barney Frank was no longer in the national news.As for the deaths, King Kong Bundy, Andre Previn, and Doris Day all passed away.And speaking of deaths, we had to put our Irish Setter down this year.She was only seven years old, but she contracted stomach cancer.It was crazy.We spent thousands of dollars on surgery, and even more on chemotherapy, extending her life another year.We learned a big lesson, that medical insurance for your pets is a very good idea unless you have money to burn.
But back to the subject of this story, which is the photo I found.I realized something while looking at this picture.How much do you know about Bucky?He was renowned for his geodesic domes, but did you know that despite the fact that he took out a patent on them, he wasn’t the original inventor?Truth is that the structures were actually invented twenty-six years earlier by a man named Walther Bauersfeld.During all the years Bucky promoted geodesic domes, he never did give credit to the man.When I learned about this, I can’t begin to tell you how sad and disappointed I was.
But here’s how the whole thing shakes out.Not only was Bucky not the inventor of geodesic domes, but the truth is that they were a big flop.Despite all the big plans for them, geodesic homes are about as scarce these days as passenger pigeons.They weren’t a solution to anything.They were a fad, like fins on the rear ends of cars.And speaking of cars, how about Bucky’s Dymaxion Car?It turned out that three wheeled vehicles became about as popular as his geodesic domes.Cars these days look nothing at all like Bucky’s contraption.You can thank the engineers and designers in Detroit, Germany, and Japan for you modern day car.They have been the real pioneers, not Bucky.And last but not least, what about that world map Bucky designed?I have yet to see it used anywhere.It wasn’t better; it was just weird.
Bucky said, “Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.”What do you think of this quote?Is it bullshit?Or is there some truth to it.The process of living is a very powerful thing, and it affects all of us.It even affected Bucky, and not always for the better.Also, not always for the worse.I think there’s a lesson, or maybe even multiple lessons to be learned here.When I showed the photo to my wife, she asked who the funny looking man was standing next to me.My current wife is fifteen years younger than me, and she knows as much about Bucky as a kindergartner knows about psychoanalysis.I told her, “The man is Buckminster Fuller.He was a living and breathing genius like Einstein, Newton, or Da Vinci.Thanks to my dear father, I got to meet Bucky in person when I was eleven.It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
No, I wasn’t ready to give up quite yet.I wasn’t going to write the man off, for where would we all be without our dreams, without out childhoods, without our floundering innocence?We’d all be lost, right?We’d be lost in that relentless process of living, relentlessly twisting, turning, grinding, shaping, and corrupting everything in sight.I think we sometimes have too much faith in the truth.
I’m going to have this photo framed, and I’m going to stand it on the desk in my office.And when people ask me about it, I’ll take a deep breath and tell them a thing or two about my childhood hero.