Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts on ... Forty Years

I know some of you are saying, which forty years? Some of you are thinking, I’m not even forty years old, I can’t relate. But some of you are doing the math and, knowing me, realize this column’s clock is starting to tick with 1969.

This summer was full of events that reminded me of 1969. My husband and I attended back-to-back college fortieth reunions at the beginning of the summer. At the end we saw Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock. In between, the fortieth anniversary of NASA’s lunar landing took place, as well as the passing of two men I admired, Walter Cronkite and Ted Kennedy.

Indeed, I did graduate from Brandeis University, in mathematics, forty years ago. That summer, I worked for NASA at their Electronics Research Center (ERC) in Cambridge, MA, doing computer modeling of semi-conductor diodes. Not for the last time, I had a job where I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but I had a fabulous boss who did. It was a great summer. Of course, all the programming was in Fortran and on punch cards. In my programming class, I had to punch them myself - manually, no backspacing or cursors to fix errors - you redid the whole card if you made a mistake. At ERC, there was somebody, no doubt a lowly paid woman, who typed them for you overnight. And there were technicians, all male, who ran them through the big machine. That meant that every iteration of code took a day. Imagine my joy, when many years later, I programmed on an early personal computer (neither IBM nor Microsoft) in Basic and could type code and then just run it!

My then boyfriend, now husband, and I did a lot of fun things that summer - going to the zoo and movies and Red Sox games. But you know, we didn’t go to Woodstock. I don’t even remember hearing about it until many years later. After we watched the movie, we had a good long chat about would we have gone had we known? Would we have coped with the conditions? At this point in life, it holds no appeal. But for thirty of the forty years between, we did a lot of camping, some primitive, some backpacking, with our Girl Scout troop. I think the difference in my mind is being prepared.

At the end of that summer, we headed off to be graduate students, also in math, at Stanford. Picture this if you can, two twenty-one year olds at the airport, boarding their first coast-to-coast flight, no electronics to turn on or off! The image I carry to this day is of our mothers, standing together at the gate, waving goodbye with tears in their eyes. While I completely appreciate the security we have at airports today and tolerate the inconvenience, what I totally miss is the humanity of being able to see people on and off the planes.

It was the two deaths this summer that reminded me, again, of what else we as a culture are losing. Walter Cronkite was considered the most trusted man in America. When he delivered the news, everyone believed him. He was not worried about ratings or image on the screen. He was honest and he was real and he had the time to get the full story out. Today we have news everywhere, on television, in print and on the internet. Almost everything has a spin. You know I believe in multiple perspectives but I hate having to figure out someone’s agenda before I can evaluate what’s being said.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I always knew of the Kennedy family. By the time Ted came of age, the family was one of privilege and influence. He had some rocky starts and dealt with family tragedy. I don’t know if he could have chosen a different path within that family. What I do know is he trod that path well. He understood the need for finding middle ground, for avoiding polarization. Today, politics and thus government seems to be more about fighting not the good fight but the opposition; winning has taken over from finding win-win solutions.

Both men had strength of character and the courage of their convictions. They grew up in somewhat different time from when I did and an extremely different time from where we are now. But I believe they set examples from which we can still all learn. There are times when we have to do what’s best for ourselves but there are times when we really have to look at the big picture. This is what I’ve been trying to do for the past forty years. I hope that I’ve helped you do the same through these columns. Together we can make significant, positive change over the next forty years.
© 2009 Esther A. Heller
All rights reserved.
Contact the author prior to reproduction.

First published in Connections, Oct 2009
newsletter of the Santa Clara Valley Section of the Society of Women Engineers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rainy Road trip

(note: to my non-travel log friends, I'm now doing all my blogging, reporting, whatevering, here. This may or may not be your thing. eah)

Here I sit in the Westin Long Beach. I'm waiting for Sue, my partner-in-crime in things SWE Girl Scouts to come over so we can work on our possible Webinar. For those of my followers who don't know - a webinar is a seminar conducted by telephone and internet. Nowadays, everyone mutes their phones and so you can't see faces or now, hear chuckles at your possibly bad one-liners. It's worse than talking to yourself.

Yesterday, my friend Jacey and I drove the Prius 400 miles to Long Beach. We started out in rain which stayed with us the whole time on 101. California highways at the first rain are dreadful. The roads are slick from all the oil that's built up over the past several months. Everyone's forgotten how to drive in weather that's well, weather. The big ole trucks are kicking up lots of water. When we pulled off in Gilroy, I finally realized it wasn't pouring, it was all the kicked up water making me think that.

At Gilroy, we started cutting over to Hwy 5 which runs fast up and down the state. We stopped at the factory outlets because that's where the Jelly Belly outlet store is. Worth it because you can get any variety they make by the bag, $9/lb (much better than at, say, Diddams) AND you can buy Belly Flops. Those are the QA rejects. Taste the same, look terrible. It used to be you could buy one, get one for a nickel. Now, it's buy 3 get 2 free. Yes, we did. See, we're in Long Beach for the Society of Women Engineers conference and today, we have committee meetings. And due to cost cuttings, there's not food at meetings and sugar is always good for the sleep-deprived, right? [Hey, maybe I'll but that on my Estherisms, on my website.]

We started off an Hwy 152 and found ourselves close enough to Casa de Fruita to stop for lunch. I'm not sure what I thought it was like but it wasn't. The part we sat in was in decor more like Johnny Rocket than anything faintly spanish looking. But the Kobe beef burgers were great.

We made our way without much adventure to 5. 152 goes through some nice northern california hillsides dotted with oak trees. So it was quite pretty.

Hwy 5 started out ok - rain but reasonable, fewer truck, views of the Aquiduct. Do you know that there are only 2 or 3 things on earth visible from space? The great wall of China and the California aquiduct are two.

We drove buy a lot of signs saying "Congress created dust bowls" in areas where indeed everything was quite dried up. Not sure what produced this, need to google it some time.
My poor Prius had been getting about 44 mpg all summer, but on this trip, more like 34. So we had to fill up earlier. Part of it was the speed but more was the extra load. It's usually just me and some stuff. We had three suitcases, two carry ons, 6 lbs of Jelly Bellys/Flops and two huge boxes of supplies for Engineering Your Future, the GS Getaway.

Switched over drivers at that point. I got the rain, Jacey got the wind. There were tumbleweeds crossing the freeway. Now tell me, tumbleweeds in central California?? I've done this route before. I'm fairly certain that I've only ever seen tumbleweeds in either Texas or Wyoming. At some point we saw a small herd of donkeys. That was mildly exciting. I got some knitting done but mostly ate some of my Tutti Fruiti Jelly Bellys.

And then there was the dust. Guess the signs were right. It was bad. We missed the spot in Gorman (I'm fond of Gorman, cause my nephew's a Gorman, Hi J!) where we planned to switch off. So Jacey got to navigate the LA/Long Beach traffic while I navigated via the maps. We used the diamond (commuter, carpool) lane. We were on hwy 405 by that point. These are limited access lanes - marked by solid vs dashed lines. Much nicer than anyone can jump in or out at any point and well-marked as to upcoming exits.

After that, totally uneventful. Got settled in to our hotel and went off to register at the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) conference at Long Beach Convention center. Went off with Kimberly, for dinner at "Islands, fine burgers & drinks". I discovered that Mai Tais and Chinese Chicken salad work pretty well together. It was nice because I've been Jacey's mentor and Jacey's been Kimberly's mentor. Yes, that makes me Kimberley's grandmentor. Isn't that fun!

Today I've got meetings most of the day and it's raining. Will post when I can.


© 2009 Esther A. Heller

Friday, October 9, 2009

Another Interlude

I keep trying to find time to post. I'm heading out next week to Long Beach for the SWE annual conference. I'm driving down with my friend Jacey who's flying in from Europe the day before.

Today, I had my purple touched up by the one and only Cambria! While I was under the heater, I had a chat with the 9year old son of another stylist. He's got the best long range plan that I've ever heard. Are you ready for this?

First, he plans to go to Stanford to major in astronautics. Then he's putting in the over one thousand hours that he calculated it takes to complete astronaut training. Then he's going to law school and then he's going to join NASA. I asked why law school? "So I can become president!" Me, "why do you want to be president?" He, "That's a good question." I hope I see him again when he comes up with the answer. [And yes Alan, his mom did take him to NASA last night.]

He also wants to learn Russian - he speaks English (quite well!), Spanish, a bit of Chinese and a bit of something else (I've forgotten what, sorry.) He needs to know Russian because their putting up a new Mir space station.

He's "taught" himself to fly via simulators and having a pilot show him all the controls. I managed to impress him by a) knowing that Space Camp is in Huntsville, Alabama and b) having flown a small plane for 10 min, long ago. [Yes, it's true - I did left right, front/back, my friend, the pilot did up/down - fun and scary. He also practiced stalling/drops. yikes!]

After he does all of the above, he plans to design a cruise ship. He already "has" his own airline "Jet Blue Legal". We had some money discussion. He had workarounds for my concerns about expenses. I suggested get an MBA into the plan. We also discussed the feasibility of a space cruise ship. I decided not to talk to him about Doctor Who.

I think this boy mostly Latino but part Chinese - based on appearance and the languages.

He was so bright, articulate, thoughtful - there is most definitely hope for our collective future.


© 2009 Esther A. Heller