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Archive for April, 2021

Imitation

Back in 1982 Johnson & Johnson made interocular lenses under the aegis of Iolab Corporation, to replace the ones removed by cataract surgery.  Those early lenses produced the miracle of restoring sight to the blind on a routine basis, and a lot of work went into perfecting their design.  Such replacements became part of a human eye and needed to be the best of medical grade implants. 

Each lens had a hole drilled in it to provide for handling it during implantation.  That hole must be round, portray an exact diameter, pass through the entire lens, and have extremely smooth edges.  Drilling those holes presented problems both at entry and at exit for the rotating drill bit.  Several considerations affected the aesthetic and function of the rims.  Configuration of the drill bit, such as point angle, rotation speed of the drill head, and speed of advancement through the plastic body all affected appearance of the resulting apertures.  Routinely those holes were rimmed with ragged burrs, and that was patently unacceptable.

That was the state of affairs when I joined Iolab as Manufacturing Engineer in October 1982, and my number one assignment was to clean up those holes.  I organized several studies that involved supervising the drilling of hundreds of holes, varying each parameter in a controlled and documented methodology.  The more experimental holes drilled, the more it became obvious that a major process change would be required.  No matter how the variables varied, the holes remained chaotic and unpredictable.

One day while enjoying a solitary liquid lunch at the local watering hole, I mused about how cool it would be to blast the holes with a laser. Star Wars lens drilling?  Why not?  A laser could melt the holes, but that’s not the only way to liquify holes.  Drill speed increased enough to generate heat could melt through the plastic.  That might leave smooth holes. It would have to be controlled to keep from melting the whole lens, but it could be investigated.  Star Wars’ initial release in 1977 had everybody thinking about zapping things.  I paid the check and headed back to the lab.

I had no internet access at that time and did some tech library research that involved pulling weighty tomes off shelves and flipping through them, squinting until my eyes watered.  Soon all that effort located a company right in LA that did ultra-high-speed drilling.  I visited their factory and compared our disparate applications.  Returning to Iolab, I set up for ultra-high-speed drilling in the engineering lab.  The results were phenomenal.  Rims were consistently smooth, even under the microscope.

I showed my good results to my boss, Ted Wilshire.  He was dispassionate about the idea and seemed not ready to believe the impact of the portended change.  He said to keep it quiet and just write up what I had done and give it to him.  I pulled together all my studies and documented the results, along with the cost impact of the change as a break-even analysis.  I copied only Ted Wilshire and copy-to-file.  It was a dead issue

Ted was new to J&J and had blasted any chance that we might get along by cracking a sexist joke at my expense when he and I were first introduced.  He commented to the whole group that where he came from women belonged in the kitchen.  I didn’t laugh.  Now getting credit for my important process improvement depended on his good will—his alone.

I didn’t hear much from Ted for several weeks.  Then suddenly rumors of a big engineering meeting to announce a new process began making the rounds.  The Iolab president would be there.  Nobody knew what was happening, and we looked forward to finding out.

While waiting my turn at the Xerox machine in the copy room, I noticed a meeting agenda being reproduced by the engineering secretary.  I scored a copy from her and went back to my cubby to read it.  It outlined a new drilling process invented by Ted Wilshire that would markedly improve the profit position of lens production, stating that he would be describing the entire concept at a meeting to be held in the management suite the very next day with all engineers and managers required to attend.

It was a while before I was conscious of taking a breath.  Ted was going to steal my idea.  How could he?  I didn’t have long to ponder the problem because I got a call to report to the office of the engineering group manager, Nacho Munos.  That was just as well.  If he hadn’t called, I would have been calling him, asking for a meeting.  I pulled out my copy of my Profit Improvement Disclosure and headed for Nachos’ office.

I might as well have left it in the file, because on arriving at the Engineering Group office Nacho let me stand while he directed me to gather my personals and leave the building.  My services were no longer needed at Iolab.  I asked Nacho where this came from.  He replied, “Ted Wilshire.”  That’s all I needed to know.  I kept my copy of my original disclosure, but was too devastated to even fight the betrayal. In 2021interocular lenses don’t even require holes.  It’s a good thing that such a great product doesn’t have to carry a feature reminiscent of such rapacious skullduggery.   In retrospect, it was nice to know that Ted thought so much of my idea he had to steal it.  Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

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My life has been a litany of successful failures and failed successes braided into a series of delightfully tortured complexities.  Whatever the result, it wasn’t boring.

First I wanted to be the best of children, but my mother, were she still alive, would attest to my having been  her one perfect child who all too often embodied the personification of evil.

I wanted to be an exemplary wife, but three divorces document my facility in trashing the male/female bond, seeing it surely as bondage.  It is now only in spousal death that I appreciate how much they were both loveable and loved.

I wanted to be a good mother, but fear my four children—three living—would gladly testify to my inability to do the mother thing with any dexterity.  Their proved successes ultimately disprove this fear.

I wanted to write poetry, but in spite of millions of lovely words frittered away, my poesy—often muddying up even my prose— remains steadfastly unpublished.  I keep writing, not to benefit the New Yorker, but because I love to see how contented the words appear nestled together on the page.  They, too, deserve to be happy.

Trying to be the son my father wanted all along, I refused to acquiesce to the condemnation of co-workers and cohorts.  I forged ahead for year after year, certain that just one more great invention would prove my case.  It never did, but I enjoyed being one of the very first women ignoring the possibility of glass ceilings and bosoming into the male bastion of military aerospace, all before Equal Employment quotas were ever even dreamed of.

Trying to be the songbird my mother envisioned—having named me for Jeanette Macdonald—I practiced countless vocalizes, sang Soprano in a kaleidoscope of choirs, attempted countless pharyngeal contortions, all sure to finally produce the desired mellifluousity.  They failed.  At an age when other singers have retired to gracious listening, I am still trudging up the aisle processing with my choir and struggling to keep my weighty music folder elevated where I can see it even with bifocals.  In spite of eighty years of devoted singing, I’m not a has-been; I’m a never-was.  But since I can still sight-read and match pitch, it’s still the best of fun to make like a bird even with feet on the ground.

Readers of this anguished diatribe will assume that I regret all this wasted effort and wonder why I didn’t just relax and move along with the flow of days.  When failure is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.  That would have been boring.  Far better it is to try and fail, than recall a life as might-have-been.  I had a wild ride and treasure every minute of it.  It’s the titillating triumphs in between the foibles and flops that texture the flow of the river of remembrance.

What I write in this rambunctious memoire will bear this out.  I hope to place a dear honest tome into the hands of each of my progeny, one that gives them something tactile to help them remember how we got through it all.  They will have something with heft to hand to their own children when asked how they managed to become the person they became, a tool that will help even the grands forgive themselves when they fall short of what they wanted to make of their own precious lives.  No, I’m not unique in either my successes nor in my failures.  Nobody’s perfect, but the best features of life are the parts where we get up, dust ourselves off, and keep trying no matter what.

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