Success or Failure: You Be the Judge, Part 1

A lot of the pleasure that we get in the final 15% of our lives will be based on whether we have judged our actions or events during that period as successes or failures. Everyone has certain criteria that they use to make that judgment. But I think some of us would benefit from making an adjustment to those criteria. I have a story to tell that will explain why I feel that way.

I was talking to my husband Bill last night about an event from our past that I considered to be a wonderful adventure and therefore a great success. I was surprised to hear from him that he remembered it as a failure. I was having great pleasure just thinking about the event while he was experiencing a sense of loss thinking about the exact same event. It was a complex event in our life that contained many hopes and aspirations as well as actions and incidents that could each be judged a success or failure. I rated the overall event is a tremendous success because we had some amazing new experiences, many extremely enjoyable moments, some wonderful recognition for hard work done and, in my opinion, just one failure. Bill remembered only the failure.

Epcot Center

Epcot Center Giant Ball marks the entrance to our adventure

The incident I am going to describe was based upon one of my husband’s amazing talents. Bill, in my opinion and the opinion of many other people, is a mechanical genius. On every project he’s ever worked on around the house or in the garage, he has ended up inventing some new tool or way of doing the action required. I didn’t always appreciate that talent when it resulted in the project taking much longer than I had anticipated but I could always appreciate the intelligence and thought behind the end result. Over the course of our youth, it never occurred to us to try to patent any of these amazing inventions or to try to profit from them financially. I think it never occurred to me that not everyone’s husband invented new tools regularly. What a shame. If I had one “do over” in life, I would be wiser about recognizing that my husband’s inventive talents might have been marketable.

Bill has used a motorcycle as his primary form of transportation throughout our entire 52 years of marriage (Well, up until the last two years at least, when he gave up riding and driving because of his dementia.) Those vehicles ranged from a little scooter called a Sachs Mad Ass bike to a big Harley Road King cruiser. Bill rode the bikes to work and back; he rode them on the road and off; and he enjoyed riding them greatly (and he has a few scars to prove it!). But as Bill approached middle age, he began to find that a long ride on his bike, even the relatively cushy cruiser, began to cause him to experience pain in his lower back. So, being the inventive man that he was, Bill came up with a solution to the problem.

We called Bill’s invention The Sling. It is a seat support that fits between the seat and the frame of the motorcycle. I’m including a photograph of the device for those of you who are also mechanically minded because you might find it interesting. The device has an interesting effect on the motorcycle when the writer hits a jolt in the road. The bike can be jarred forward and back but the seat operates independently and it stays perfectly still. If you walk up to the bike and put your hand on the seat, you can move the seat an inch or two backward and forward and you might notice that it goes up slightly on each end of the journey. The device is gravity centered. Many people who have seen it assume that the rider would be moving back and forth while riding the bike because of the movement of the seat but the exact opposite is actually true. What the device does is allow the bike to move backward and forward as it inevitably will do on rough terrain while the driver remains still.

The Sling

This is Bill’s Harley with the Tractor Seat covering The Sling

The Sling

This was the prototype of Bill’s invention, The Sling

It was an amazing device and the first thing Bill did was put one on his own motorcycle. At that time, the motorcycle he was riding was a 1400-cc Suzuki Intruder. Bill’s parents lived in Fresno, California, a five-hour ride from our home in Orange County. When he visited them, by the end of that five-hour ride, Bill was experiencing serious pain in his lower back. Once Bill installed his invention on his motorcycle, he was able to make the ride with no pain at all. In fact, his invention was the main reason Bill was able to continue to ride his bike well into his 70s. He used the invention for many years and we never considered patenting it or trying to sell the rights to it until circumstances caused us to consider the possibility.

When Bill was forced by his increasing memory problems to retire from a job that he loved at the age of 55, he needed a project to keep him busy. I had recently read about an inventor and how he, like Bill, often created new tools or mechanical objects, and then patented and sold them. I suggested to Bill that we see if we could get a patent on The Sling and we spent the next year working on that project. Bill did the bulk of the work on it but I was able to be somewhat helpful. Bill made a prototype. He made rough drawings and wrote out for me a description of how the invention worked. While he was doing that, I researched how to go about getting a patent. During this period of time, Bill needed a good deal of medical help to deal with his increasing disability, and we were involved in a series of legal actions with his employer. We had to engage in a three-year-long legal battle before Bill’s employer honored their employment agreement with him, covered his medical expenses and provided him with a disability retirement. We did win that battle in the end but the need to fight for Bill’s rights took its toll. For that reason, money was tight during the period of time we were working on the invention, so we decided we could handle the job of getting the patent on our own rather than hiring an attorney and a draftsperson to create the documentation and mechanical drawings needed to be awarded the patent.

Since I worked for an engineering firm at the time, I had learned to use a vector-based drawing program that would allow me to create professional-quality mechanical drawings. While it gave me the skill needed to use the software, it was Bill who had to teach me how to do a proper drawing. Those were some stressful times. I was not the most apt pupil in the area of mechanical drawing. I also needed to learn to write the description and legal claims necessary to obtain a patent. I bought a wonderful book from a company called Nolo Press on how to properly apply for a patent and I wrote the claims and description necessary using what Bill had provided me as a source for what I wrote. Fortunately, I learned that a patent examiner will help an individual, not a corporation, with the job of writing the claims if they are asked. I definitely threw myself on the mercy of the patent examiner when we submitted that application. We got the patent on the first try, and the examiner changed only one thing on the application. He added one additional claim that did indeed improve the application for the patent. The drawings also passed muster, a fact which I attribute to Bill’s extreme patience in teaching me what I needed to know to do the drawings correctly.

You can begin to see now why I considered our action during that year as tremendously successful, but we managed to take it a step further. Due to the brilliance of Bill’s invention, it was named as one of the top 60 inventions that received a patent during the year 1998. This honor was awarded by the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPOA). In addition, we were invited to attend an event at Epcot Center in Florida sponsored by the IPOA, the US Patent Office, and the Disney organization during National Inventors Week to exhibit Bill’s invention in a booth along with the other 49 winners of the award that year.

Showing off the invention

Bill shows off his invention to the president of the Intellectual Property Owners Association

That trip to Florida was an amazing adventure in itself. We borrowed a vehicle capable of towing a U-Haul trailer with Bill’s motorcycle; fitted with the invention, inside. To attract attention to how comfortable the ride on the motorcycle would be using Bill’s seat support, we removed the seat from the motorcycle and replaced it with a bright red metal tractor seat. Bill had just purchased a brand-new Harley Road King at the time and so we placed the invention on the Road King. The bright red tractor seat on the big black Harley definitely caught people’s eye.

Several thousand people came by our booth at Epcot Center during the four days of the exhibition. Our daughter Monica met us in Florida and helped us during the exhibition. We had a wonderful time explaining to all the visitors to our booth how the invention worked. The Disney Corporation put on a big event congratulating all of the inventors who were present and handing out awards. We got to shake hands with Mickey Mouse and meet the president of the Intellectual Property Owners Association. We have a picture of him sitting on Bill’s bike and congratulating us on what he called the best invention of all. How could anyone consider the entire situation less than a wonderful success?

Booth at Epcot Center

Several thousand people visited our booth at the Epcot Center

Meeting Mickey

Bill and Janet Buell meet Mickey Mouse at the Epcot Center Party for Inventors

Admittedly there were a few challenges. The last day of the event, which was held outdoors, Florida experienced some torrential rain that quite literally put a damper on the fun. On our way home from Florida, while traveling through the western regions of Texas, we ran into tornados preceded by a hailstorm. The tornadoes came very close to our vehicle; how close we couldn’t be certain as the hail obstructed our view of anything at that point and left a few dents in the vehicle we had borrowed. At the time, those events were a bit terrifying, but in retrospect, they were all part of the thrill of an amazing experience.

Where does the failure that Bill feels so strongly enter into the picture? Well, it would’ve been great if we had managed to sell the rights to the patent for a million dollars, but we didn’t. Then again, from my point of view, we are doing just fine without the million dollars.

Boy Scouts visit the booth

Bill Buell shows a group of boy scouts how his invention works

Bill and I had a great discussion last night about the differences in our attitude. By the end of the discussion, he was able to see that we also experienced some great success. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with people who suffer from dementia, by the next morning he had forgotten the entire discussion. With some prompting, I was able to help him connect with the memory again. I may need to do the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next . . . That seems to me to often be the way memory works when a person suffers from dementia. The memory hasn’t ceased to exist; it is simply hard for the person to access.

Why did I include this story on our blog? Part of making the final fifteen percent of our lives rewarding is learning to focus on the great adventures we have in life and letting the failures become just a small part of the story. Is that cheating? I don’t know. What do you all think? It seems to me if only complete successes count toward happiness, many of us are going to come up short. I have a similar experience in my own creative life; an event where I tend to focus more on the failed portion while my husband considers the whole thing a rousing success. That is why I labeled this post as Part 1 of the “You Be the Judge” series. I will write about my own experience in Part 2.


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