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.

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