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Archive for October, 2019

Racist

I loved Lillie-Mae.  She was my second mother and owned a very special place in my psyche.  She made the best liver and onions in the world.  When we talked, she would look at my face, her eyes going deep, trading her intelligence with mine.  She must have understood how eyes speak to each other.

She nursed me through measles, back before there was a vaccine, piling the covers deep and waiting for the sweat.  Months later, spying the forbidden gloss on my mouth, she handed me a Kleenex and warned me to “take off that color before your Aunt Judy gets home.”  I could tell her anything and could trust her to keep my secret.

It was Lillie-Mae who advised Aunt Judy it was time to buy me a training bra, when new and tender nipples responded to all that starch in my blouses.  I’m remembering a time when she loved me well enough to iron pretty ruffled blouses for me to wear, so I could head for school, all that starch and cotton announcing to the world, ‘Somebody loves this girl.  Pay attention to her.  No matter what you think, she is worth something.’

It’s no wonder that world wobbled when one day Aunt Judy announced, “Lillie–Mae says you think you are better than she is.”

“But I’m not,” I squawked.  “I’ve never said anything like that.  It’s not true.”

Judy explained that it was because of my attitude toward her.  “She can tell from the way you talk to her, as if you know more that she does.”

Lillie-Mae doesn’t love me anymore, was all I could think.  I must be a monster.  I never asked Lillie-Mae what made her decide I wasn’t her sweet girl any more.  It was too much to face.  I just kind of hid inside myself and waited—for what I don’t know.  When would it be safe to come out and ask what I had done that was wrong?

In 2012 Cincinnati I attended a meeting designed to heal racial differences.  It seemed simple, merely a scholarly update, especially for me, a person who loved black people just on principle, having so adored the Lillie-Mae of my youth.

The meeting leader announced that all white people are racist.  When I corrected her, she insisted that just because I loved my childhood nanny and liked “The Help,” I wasn’t pure of heart.  She said that I appreciated that movie because it reminded me of my days of privilege as a daughter of the south.  I walked out of the meeting—seething.  So much pain!  How could—how can—we live with it all?

In 2019 my Episcopal church worldwide began a year-long journey of addressing our country’s original sin—slavery.  They named the journey ‘Beloved Community.’  I find myself asking some new and difficult questions:  If our congregation becomes truly diverse, how much will we have to change?  Can I enjoy worship in a style different from what I have always treasured?  Why does it seem that I like black people as long as they behave as if they were white?  Does that make me a racist?  Our country has elected a black president—twice.  My votes helped.  The Anglican Communion has chosen a black leader, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, and I—I must face my Lillie-Mae quandary.

Somewhere in that place where loved ones wait silently upon the wind, Lillie-Mae wonders when I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry.’  She has a big hug waiting—one shaped just for me.  We are sure to share a good talk, and an even better listen.  Maybe I’ll finally be a big enough girl to hear her own dear story, and give her the hug she has earned, and waited through both our lifetimes to wrap her arms around.

In October I told my Lillie Mae story to the ‘Sacred Grounds’ group at our first Beloved Community meeting.  The man who led our group, a Xavier professor, cautioned me to not make it personal.  He said it was systemic—institutional.  I didn’t know what to think or feel, or even if I could take another meeting on those terms.  If it’s about love, how can it not be personal?

When I later asked Redeemer’s Minister of Communications to help me unpack this conundrum she responded, “I don’t think any of us can go down this path towards reconciliation and redemption alone, and yet, of course, it is personal.  Both/and.  We can’t avoid how our lives have influenced our very beings.  And yet, perhaps what Adam meant was a kindness.  Maybe he wanted to reassure you that the problem ultimately lies in the system and that together we can begin to address that system.  But there is no way to avoid the pain and the guilt and the bewilderment we will feel along the way.  Stick with us, Dorothy, it is going to be really hard, but we will all need each other to find our way to the other side.”

Yes it is hard, but worth turning our insides out and asking some soul questions.  The answers may put each and every one of us on Sacred Ground—together.

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Fertility

I’ve spent the last sixty years complaining about getting kicked out of Carnegie Mellon.  It was the end of everything.  When my Dad’s business went bankrupt, and he couldn’t pay second semester tuition and fees, it was all over for me.  I convinced the Dean of Students to let me sign on personally to the debt in return for permission to take final exams.  I sat for them, then packed my bags and took off for parts unknown.

In retrospect, losing my place in that very conservative engineering diploma mill may have been the best thing ever to happen to me.  After recovering my stance as a viable though modest bread-winner, it was time to get back to school.  Opportunities were limited.  The only four-year possibility within Greyhound commuting distance was Salem, a West Virginia teacher’s college tucked into the Appalachian foothills, between Parkersburg and Clarksburg.  Engineering Physics wasn’t even offered.  The closest thing to my one-time dream was Divisional Science, available to secondary level teachers of Biology, Chemistry and Physics.  I signed on and didn’t look back. 

Salem was a liberal arts college.  That meant, I later discovered, that I would be exposed to a whole gamut of ideas, not just technical facts.  There were many courses in a lively continuum of scientific subjects, but also with my minor in English, I enjoyed all the richness of our language spread out as a table of linguistic delights.  For fun, there were spiritual electives, wherein I broadened my appreciation of what can be believed, how, and why.  French and Art fell by the wayside.  I was sad to see them go, but you can’t learn everything.  As I look back over the way that crazy-quilt of education overlaid the world of work, I see that Salem curriculum as key to becoming an inventor in a way that fulfilled my dream as well as my prayer.  The dream was that I become an engineer my father could be proud of; the prayer was that he might love me even though I was only a girl.  One thing led to another, and I packed up with just one semester remaining, returning to Texas—and home.

At Texas Instruments, Apparatus Division, I had plenty of opportunity to see things uniquely vantaged.  Hired on as a lowly Assistant Assembler, I soon reached back to the technical drawing learned at Carnegie and proposed a device to improve my workstation performance.  Promoted, I got to write assembly instructions until, repeatedly proposing work saving jigs and fixtures, I was promoted yet again to Tool Designer.  All that was fun, but I had hit the ceiling.  Even though I was assigned to teach every new-hire engineering school graduate how it was that I did what I did, no more money was possible without a college degree, and I was still one semester short of that achievement.

I quit and went across the street to TI’s Corporate Research and Engineering Division.  It was a wonky place where they understood my frustration and let me work while earning a bit more money, even without the sheepskin.  I worked for Dr. Linda Creigh who was doing research on 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane, a photo reactive chemical, to demonstrate its use in working with a ruby laser as a research tool.  This was chemical research—not physical.  My job was to mix the required reagents to produce our compound, set up a distillation apparatus, and heat the slurry until it began boiling.  As temperature elevated, different fractions evaporated, were condensed and caught.  Each fraction was subjected to a spectrophotometer to precisely measure its purity.  The 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane we were after was a comely royal blue fluid that when very pure could be exposed to laser light demonstrating a wide variety of amazements.  But it wasn’t all that easy.  No matter how much care I took in isolating a fraction, there always remained enough impurity to spoil its use in the little glass photo cube that waited.  The laser lurked alone and lonely.

I have been often amazed to find that the most innovative breakthroughs happen at the interstices of things.  This was a chemical problem, but the solution I found was a physical one.  We had been successful in producing very pure fractions of our chemical, but the impurities always seemed to be extremely volatile, evaporating at a very low temperature, and carried over into fractions where they didn’t belong.  Remembering Halloweens spent over boiling kettles while wearing witches hats and croaking, ‘When shall we three meet again?’ I picked up a hunk of dry ice at the local ice house and brought it to work.  I proposed my idea to Dr. Creigh, who listened with interest.  I put a nearly pure fraction into a beaker and dropped into it a small lump of the dry ice—frozen carbon dioxide.  I counted on the dry ice not reacting to our compound, and the doctor agreed.  No chemical interaction.  I was using the CO2 as an inert physical broom to brush away all those volatile impurities.  It worked!  The beaker frothed with CO2 being sublimed into the fluid—going direct from solid to gas and making a big froth—as the gas escaped, dragging volatile impurities up into the air and away.  The project was saved, and when it was written up for publication, I had earned a footnote mention for my invention of “a method for removing volatile impurities from a fluid.”  This was actually unremarkable, except for being one of many instances where innovation reached across demarcations between specialties and fertilized the process of invention.

This kind of approach served me well in a variety of situations.  A typical example was working for Varo Inc. where I migrated since that outfit allowed technicians to work flexible hours in order to accommodate illusive degree programs.  I was a technician by day and attended advanced biochemistry classes at night.  I was amazed at how many drums of flux remover that Varo bought and used, and at what great expense.  So, I took some to school and analyzed it in the chem lab.  It was mostly dry cleaning fluid, with a dollop of amyl acetate (an ester that smells like banana).  Varo started making its own flux remover and saving a bundle.  This wasn’t a healthy or environmentally friendly idea since perchloroethylene  isn’t something that should be continuously inhaled any more than Kester flux remover should.  But it was a mile post on my march.  It was also another shoulder rub from physical to chemical that earned me an ataboy—girl.

Yet another reach across as engineer after I had acquired that elusive degree, was at Varo Static Power Division.  It was a Sherman Texas facility devoted entirely to manufacture of night vision power supplies.  Powering a night vision unit required a high voltage multiplier.  It was a string of diodes cleverly arrayed to step up to the extremely high voltages needed to see in very low light.  It was necessary to stabilize the component connections to prevent disastrous internal arcing.  An obscenely expensive potting compound was used to achieve this electrical isolation.  I replaced the compound with cheerfully cheap high tech beeswax.  It worked just as well and saved Varo a ton of bucks.

Later at TRW while working on military aerospace proposals, it was often when experts in different specialties met and argued that the creative work got done.  My most satisfying personal contributions to those efforts seemed often rooted in that Salem College ambrosia of science as art.  It was then that I decided getting booted out of Carnegie Tech was not all that bad.  I’m told that this is one of the blessed truths of Kabballah: It’s where the wounds of life open you up that the light gets in and creates your beauty.

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