Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for June, 2021

Fertilization

I’ve spent the last sixty years complaining about getting kicked out of Carnegie Institute of Technology.  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 institution may have been the best thing ever to have happened 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 green 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 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 might 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 a girl.  One thing led to another, and three years later I packed it in with just one semester remaining, returning to Texas—home.

My work career started at Richardson’s TI in 1964 Dallas—showing up and demanding a job, any job.  With two boys, 7 and 3, I had to get a life.  Enough with an idealized West-Virginia-mountain-mama-home and crawling toward a degree.  My kiddoes needed food and underpants.  At Texas Instruments, Apparatus Division, I had plenty of opportunity to see things uniquely vantaged.  Hired on as a lowly Assistant Assembler B, I soon reached back to the technical drawing learned at CIT and proposed a device to improve my workstation performance.  An after-hours built wiring board design that provided for group measuring, cutting, stripping, and soldering got instant attention, a raise and a promotion.  Then I got to write and illustrate assembly instructions until, repeatedly proposing work saving jigs and fixtures, I was promoted yet again to Tool Designer.  At six weeks I was making thrce what I had at grunt start pay.  TI was responsive.  They didn’t sneer at good ideas.  While there, carrying Badge Number 15695, I designed all the assembly tooling on the F-111 TFX program.  That was exciting since the TFX (terrain following radar) was the program’s claim to fame.  We were in the storm’s eye.  All that was fun, but I had hit the ceiling.  Even though I was assigned to coach every engineering school graduate new-hire 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.

Transferring and crossing the street to TI’s Corporate Research and Engineering Division was a new start.  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 Creagh 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 chemistry—not physics.  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 analyzed by a spectrophotometer to precisely measure its purity.  The 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane we were after was an azure 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 inside the little glass photo cube that waited for us to get our act together. 

I have often been 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, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ I picked up a hunk of dry ice at the local ice house and brought it to work disguised as lunch. 

I proposed my idea to Dr. Creagh, who listened with interest.  We put a nearly pure fraction of 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane 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 was expected.  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 through 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 remarkable in that technicians don’t usually get any credit for anything, and for being one of many instances where innovation reaches across demarcations between specialties and fertilizes 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 a year later 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 makes bananas smell 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 be.  But it was a mile-post on my march.  It was also another shoulder rub from physical to chemical invention that earned me an ataboy—girl.

Yet another reach across as Engineer after I had acquired that elusive degree, was at Varo’s 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. It could be melted and drained if necessary, and that was a big advantage.

Sometimes it isn’t even necessary to look for the bright idea light bulb.  It’s just there glaring at you.  My first day at the TI Sherman facility found me stepping over bulging garbage bags, bags on top of bags, bags of spacers spilling onto the floor, swept up by tricky breezes to dance away and hide.  Of course the assembly line was stopped, quiet as death.  The tried-and-true method had turned out to be a bust.  Millions of plastic one-eighth inch diameter tiny plastic donuts stored in plastic bags were static discharge waiting to resolve.  Every attempt to recapture the spacers and present them for automated assembly with their target diodes had failed—miserably.  The charged spacers became a veritable fluid, had minds of their own, and resisted handling as they took flight willy-nilly inspired by their individual electromagnetic imperatives.  My reputation as a wise-ass preceded me, and my first assignment was to “fix this mess.”

It seemed so obvious.  The plastic spacers were formed in an injection molding machine inside a mold that formed twenty-four identical donuts, all tied together by the plastic caught in the molten plastic feed channels, called the sprue.  The spacers already had the perfect holding fixture, needing only the foresight to use it.  The sprue itself was every spacer’s perfect holder.  The invention invented itself.  I had only to design a tool that clamped the sprue with its twenty-four precisely located still-attached spacers while a human inserted twenty-four diodes into their yawning apertures, and only then pressed a button to automatically separate the twenty-four diode/spacer assemblies from the now superfluous sprue.  It worked.  The work-area was so tight that a single bar blade couldn’t access the washer/sprue attachment points, but twenty-four narrow gauge pointy tipped X-acto Knife Blades, cunningly mounted, did the trick.  A solenoid provided the requisite actuation.  An inclined plane allowed the blades to slide up and slice at just the right angle.  Big red push-switches initiated first “clamp” and then “cut.”  Making the switches dual-actuated kept fingers safely out-of-the-way.  A single switch pressed did nothing; only when both right and left buttons were depressed would anything happen.

Years later at TRW while working on military aerospace proposals, it was often when experts in different specialties met and knocked heads 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.

.

Read Full Post »

Walk On

When I moved to Oakley and decided it was time to get old, senescence ensued in a hurry.  Suddenly I couldn’t walk very far, and when I did walk it was a shuffle.  With legs stiff and unbending, feet advanced apologetically.  They hurt.  Feet always hurt, whether used or miss-used, but should that make walking a dilemma?  Surely not.  Why foot misery when I was spending most of my time watching TV?  Good question.

I sought out a physical therapist.  With professional assistance this situation could surely be remedied.  She prescribed new shoes from a place called Fleet Feet.  This store serviced elite runners, so putting feet into Fleet Feet shoes would surely achieve the wished for gait. However I learned that Fleet Feet shoes can slog along as miserably as those from a discount store.  I enjoyed the high-tech laser measurement of my very own stockinged appendages, but the resulting fit seemed no better than other less scientifically ascertained equivalents.

As I visited a variety of medics, voicing a range of somatic complaints, this became an ugly pattern.  After dropping in on my orthopedic surgeon, sure that his ten-year-old spinal stenosis surgery had gone wrong and needed revisiting, he assured me that his handiwork was holding firm due to good bones and Citrical, not to mention his expert surgical skill. “Then why does my back hurt?” I whined. He pulled a sad face—a try at empathy— but at least he didn’t shrug his shoulders.

I dragged home and succumbed to the call of my recliner, always there to console and to comfort, just waiting for me to fit my ageing body into its compassionate embrace.  Lazy Boy and I were surely an item.  No matter where I went or what I did to make my back misbehave, he remained faithful and true to form.  When I returned, lowered aching bones onto his padding and leaned back, he surrounded and consoled my entirety. The pain went away until I got up and gave perambulation another try.

This worked well until one day I realized that when I arose, putting feet to floor, I proceeded to move around while vertebrae maintained the curve set by my chair.  A sideways glance at the hallway mirror showed me shuffling about my domicile shaped like my furniture—a moveable hairy question-mark.  Next time I arose, I stopped and straightened closer to runway posture—an improvement, reminiscent of what every intelligent dog achieves on arising.  He puts front paws together, pulls a big stretch, and only then proceeds to trot across the floor.  If humans are supposed to be so smart, how come every dog knows this and I don’t?

After that I began arching my back into a big stretch every time I left my chair.  It helped.  That made me curious about how people move all their many parts, especially as they morph into being codgers.  I have long held a suspicion that we become whatever our inner vision decrees.  These problems started back when I decided to get old.  The Devil made me do it.

It seemed a useful thing to simply pay attention.  After a month and more doing a doggie stretch every time I stood up, it got to be easier and felt more natural.  One day when low back was particularly painful, I stood up and did a monster stretch.  Then I called on my entire body to help.  That meant subtly flexing arms, legs, shoulders and butt, all at once, sort of declaring an all-around connection.  Then I felt the angle of my pelvis subtly tilt, and the pain evaporate.  Slowly, tentatively, I walked across the room.  Anguish was left lolling in the chair, an old thing that nobody really wanted anyway.

That day’s learning suggested that maybe it would be a good thing to spend less time lounging in my Lazy-Boy.  I had given up taking walks last year since shuffling along the sidewalk had seemed a non-starter.  After having memorized all the cracks in my local sidewalks, as well as the various weeds that grew therefrom, it seemed a boring proposition to undertake that same walk yet again.  So last month I moved to new digs where I can walk to dozens of interesting destinations.  For me Heaven is being able to walk to the library.  Now living at the center of Blue Ash, Ohio, I can stroll to the public library.  This morning I pocketed phone and credit card, tied on my sunbonnet, and took off for the local Starbucks.  Could I make it?

Slouching along the sidewalk seemed a sad reminder of being an old person resigned to somehow keeping fit.  But engaging arms and shoulders worked just like it did in my living room, leaving my pain rollling along with dry leaves dancing in the gutter.  I envisioned being at Starbucks, ordering a tall decaf cappuccino, and my step quickened.  It was reminiscent of my dad telling me to keep my eyes on the horizon when driving, so as to see everything there was to see, not just focusing on the rear end of the car directly ahead. Such short sight causes a jittery correction of aim and can be seen as weaving along the roadway.  Eyes hooked on the far horizon smooth the process of steering as the vehicle is guided toward a sure destination.  It works with walking as well as with driving.  Thinking about where I’m headed makes me stop obsessing about aches and pains in favor of coffee and company.

My last time to stop for morning brew at Starbucks was pre-Covid, and things had changed.  No raw sugar and Half-‘n-Half at-the-ready.  They had to be requested from a barista. Prices had taken advantage of the crisis.  Who could have assumed otherwise? But in every respect it was doable, even for a superannuated hiker.  I had walked all the way to Starbucks!

Heading back after enjoying my cup of Joe at a table secured by legal tender, and time spent using my IPhone to spin flitting thoughts into coherent prose, I wondered if I would have enough energy to get back home.  My PT had agreed with my arms-moving-along-with-gait thesis citing the fact that Parkinson’s patients can’t swing their arms.  Also people who must move their hands in order to speak illustrate this idea, Nancy Pelosi being a case in point. It must be a neuron thing. 

As I zapped my various elder parts with power of mind, they united around a sense of energized purpose, arms swinging, matching stride with pumping legs, collecting my whole self into a dynamo of getting-there.  When arms move with verve, body responds with vigor.  I made it back home with oomph to spare, looking forward to tomorrow’s hike to the Sleepy Bee Café where who knows what may turn up and commence buzzing?  Enough with getting old!  There’s too much to do to waste time with anticipatory anxiety.  Anticipatory glee is better. 

Next week—the library.  Walk on!

Read Full Post »

Good Neighbors

Returning from town to my cabin in the woods, I surprised Espresso, my trusty black pussycat, holding court on a tree stump by the cabin door.  I killed the engine and watched.  He appeared to be communing with a fox lounging in the grass, just two or three fox leaps away.

I had slowed the car, stopped, set the brake, and slipped out, determined to reconnoiter the duo.  They waited and watched, sharing a quiet interest in my arrival.  Espresso typically would have come running, tail aloft, meowing a plaintive hello, but today he just drew himself up like some Egyptian cat god and watched, first me, then the fox.  Back and forth his round-eyed gaze panned with only an intermittent whisker twitch.

Mr. Fox appeared robust, sleek and healthy.  He had a full brush, tipped with white cream, and a thick, rich, coppery coat.  He displayed no fear, only a regal curiosity, but seemed to appreciate that I, in some strange two-footed way, belonged to the cat. 

When Espresso finally jumped down and meandered toward me, the fox rose, yawned, stretched, and began his own measured approach.  That did it!  Composure be damned!  Aplomb sacrificed to the suspense of these slow speed machinations, I snatched up the cat and tossed him into the car.  The door’s slam broke the spell.  Mr. Fox glared at me, disappointed that I had questioned his intentions or had deprived him of lunch—I’m not sure which.  I apologized and assured him that I knew him to be a fine fox but was nevertheless committed to my pussycat.  He paused to taste the air in several directions and finally moved on, slowly picking his way through the low brush and weeds, several over-the-shoulder appraisals punctuating a dignified retreat into a pine thicket.  I was sad to see him leave.  He was beautiful, and his trust rare—a benediction.

One of the many wonders of my sojourn in the Appalachian woodlands has been the willingness of the wildlife to accept me.  The deer, rabbits, snakes, birds and squirrels seem to understand that I have no interest in them excepting the wonder of our sharing this natural aesthetic.  One afternoon, my mind otherwise occupied, I stepped out the cabin door straight into the muscled black loops of a snake sunning himself on the deck.  A quick apperception assessed no danger since his coloring and head shape contraindicated the local poisonous varieties.  So I waited, one foot still in the cabin, one planted on the deck, while the snake, warm and equable, uncoiled his smooth scaly length from about my ankle and glided peaceably across the warm boards.  He chose a likely gap between the planks and slid headfirst into the abyss.  It would have been a simple exodus, excepting a small bulge, probably a recent rodent snack, which brought his progress to an embarrassing halt.

Back out and find another route?  No way!  He demonstrated his confidence in choice of exit strategies by elevating the entire following half of his person and doing an upside down hula dance until the rest of him finally slipped through.  There was no hurry.  We had agreed that he was an appreciated reptile and would be given all the time and space necessary to do his thing, however curious.  For many months Mr. Snake and I shared our quiet forest clearing as the best of friends.  Later as snowflakes fell and wood-smoke rising curled away, we kept the silent peace.

The cabin I had rented for a year of writing belonged to a Feminist Land Trust called Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home.  I had thought to enjoy a time away from the ever-puzzling testosterone dilemma—can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.  It turned out, however, to be annoying to abide with the strict no-man enforcement.  Moving into the cabin took more than the one evening of unloading, so it seemed reasonable to let the two careful, quick, and kind Beacon-men-equivalents curl up in the loft until morning.  They were hot and sweaty, but not wanting to offer them the run of my private ladies room, I sent them to the pond, which I found out later was for nude woman bathing only.  It’s a good thing the femme Nazis never found out about that indiscretion since they would have renamed it a desecration. 

So ardent was Subamuh enforcement that I began to take glee in inviting my manly sons to drop by with loads of split firewood and stay awhile for a meal at Mom’s table.  Imagine the delight I took in stopping for a Silver Fox neighbor in tight jeans and tank top, overloaded with fresh picked and packed blackberries and headed into town to peddle his wares.  It was a good decision to offer him a ride.  For the remainder of my time in Ohio’s eastern woodlands, I enjoyed his company as yet another of the indigenous friendly fauna.  The resident man-haters were fauna as well, but not nearly such good neighbors.

Clambering about on the trails of Subamuh put me into a gentle space of introspection.  The leased cabin was a refuge for writing but it was not a cage.  As a legitimate renter, those many acres were available to me to explore, but putting one foot before the other doesn’t occupy a lively mind, and it was left to cavort at will.  The hiking became a walking meditation inspiring new insights.  Inhabiting a cabin at a Lesbian enclave made even the most hetero of personalities begin to self-analyze, snooping down any number of shady corridors.  I am no different, my three husbands being an exercise in brand identification, but not necessarily consummated self-knowledge.

I learned a smattering of feminist theory while eavesdropping at the back of Subamuh gatherings, one of their favorite topics being the butch-femme dynamic:  A butch woman has affirmed her power.  That’s what’s so compelling about her.  She demands and gets respect.  A femme woman worships that power and, like the moon, reflects its beauty.  A butch can see her own radiance only in the eyes of her lover.  It’s probably the most profound of loves, envied by the breeders, attracting their disdain and resentment.  The butch employee is typically better paid since the assertive personality attracts a richer share of the world’s commerce.  Everybody admires a strong confident demeanor and work style. 

Such overheard quandaries meandered through my mind as boots parted grass, still wet from the last night’s dewfall.  It’s fortunate they are prepared for their job with the serious boot wax I scored at Tractor Supply Store.  I didn’t want to appear sissified to all those rough-hewn ladies.  But then, why would I worry about such things?  They were, after all, my boots.  I wanted them to last, impervious to soggy aggress.  Also, why did I care what a convocation of lesbians thought?

Memories of resisting assault took me back to my first Subamuh confrontation.  Crissa, the ultra-femmie office manager, confused me.  Was she a lesbo or what?  She must have been a femme—a strong one.  A strong femme is greedy; she wants it all.  If she is acting out a lesbian paradox, she wants to have the butch and be her as well.  I shook my head.  Too complicated!  I have always dithered over choosing between family and career, but this is more complex.  I had questioned Crissa about sharing part of the creative work at Subamuh, offering to write for the newsletter.  I recoiled at her freak-out.  She stands there in memory, summoning a scowl from me all these years later. 

She explains why the job is, and will remain, all hers.  In her youthful exuberance, she gets carried away with herself, coyly bragging about how much fun it is making out with Molly, her sweetie.  That kind of crass ostentation offends everyone enduring singlehood, not just me, but it’s not my job to express community outrage.  I’m just a renter.  Time and group dynamic are sure to sort the thing out.  Her attitudes and behavior are not related to me personally.  I can relax and just smirk at Crissa’s narcissistic posturing, no worse than my own.  When I feel inadequate, it’s so easy to erect a safe intellectualism and dare an intruder to assault my tower.  Ravish me, God!  Open me, Holy Spirit!  Sweet Jesus, let truth be your rapier.  Fascinating, isn’t it, how such flights of mythic enthusiasm morph inexorably into sexual and religious fervor?  This train of thought isn’t only something I read.  It’s what I have long meditated about, bubbling up from murky mire.  It’s interesting how, if insights are scripted, mythical references float up.  Each of us is on a hero’s quest, a sojourner in our own epic.  I wonder if this concept is a distillation of Joseph Campbell and all the myth and psychobabble I’ve waded through, their facts stored as meta data in a tangle of neurons? 

Climbing to the property’s highest point is a treat for the eyes.  I admire the view as I focus far away and remember earlier days.  As a child, one of my earliest insights was that I can’t learn everything.  Memory can only accommodate so much and must be conserved.  I saw no purpose in memorizing arithmetic facts and rejected that task a priori.  My third child, Kurt the artist/philosopher, did the same but never gave in to store a bunch of left brain twaddle like I finally did as remedy to my lack.  It is only in this informed millennium that we can verify the reality of cognitive self-limitation.  At five Kurt, determined to be a race car driver, swore off arithmetic.  Good for him.  He got to actually become an artist.

But for me, the corollary to cognitive limitation followed swiftly, informed by culture.  I learned that females simply cannot learn certain things: “Girls are poor at arithmetic.”  It follows that I, a girl, must be maladroit concerning numbers.  Mommy said so.  She said I was just like Daddy and smart like him, but being a girl I could never do his kind of work.  When presented with a task in sums or differences, I would squander my first magical milliseconds mulling about how I can’t do this.  Then, so disarmed, I would attempt to solve the problem—unsuccessfully.  Maybe I really was number challenged? 

Every week I checked out the 6-book limit at my elementary school library and enjoyed hauling them home, consoled by their mass, feeling surrounded by words, learning early-on the satisfaction of cohabitating with a library.  I was no different from early cultures that scribed their understandings and used them for companionship.  Alexander and I were surely soulmates.  Consider the Torah treasured in its ark.  How could God not have been understood as word?

Even before word, God was before all else number.  Mathematicians acknowledge that any and all civilizations, throughout each and every universe, must hold in common the understandings of number science.  That reality existed long before primitive humans began to numerate fingers and toes.  My child brain quickly correlated integers with things Daddy could do, things Daddy could know, things Daddy could be, over and against things possible to Dotty.  It was all because I was made to be a flawed version of Daddy.  In all things visible I was like Daddy save at the fork where all important things converge and contend.  Daddy had a special tool for peeing that was superior in function to my own, which allowed fluid to dribble stupidly down legs and fill shoes.  No matter how smart I might become, everyone would know my squishy secret: Daddy was better.  Even as an adult bringing the principles of design to invention, I am haunted by how evolution left women holding the short end of the proverbial prick.  Gynecology is so patterned like a simple cell employing a contractile vacuole to facilitate removal of metabolic detritus.  Our only superiority over the male model seems to be having evolved beyond utilizing a plenum to evacuate urine and cum.  But then—there are the babies.  Even Daddy couldn’t make a child without a woman as co-conspirator.

I didn’t realize how poignantly held was such painful mis-belief until my daughter was born.  Her genitals were angry and red from having been bathed in my own rich endocrine brew.  My first vision of her opened diaper reminded me of my own tragic wound.  It filled me with love and pity for her and for what she could not become.  While hot tears of rage and compassion coursed down my cheeks, I blessed the small swollen mound—a mother’s kiss.

How sick is such belief?  How universal may it be—this lie?  Do I have this in common with other sensitive analytical women?  Is this why I obsess over much?  In high school I was called the nose since I appeared to be trying way-too-hard to please teachers.  Classmates didn’t understand that it was the lie that must be pleased.  I was the consummate overachiever that delighted teachers, but their praises were immaterial.  Those kids were so, so wrong.  It was my idea of Daddy that I was trying to please, not even the man himself.  Teachers were not a function of my equation.  I never spoke in defense of my behavior since I didn’t understand it myself, fearing only that I must embody some evil truth, hidden even from myself.  Mommy had constantly chided my behavior, telling me “Be nice, Dottie.  Be nice.”  That was the last thing I wanted.  Nice girls were stupid cows.  I didn’t want to be nice

It was good to return to the cabin, greet my trusty pussycat, and shed the boots, heavy with muck and mire.  It feels like I have shed more than foot-coverings returning from these lonely rambles.  I didn’t hesitate taking a writer’s cabin.  It was the right move at the right time.  My year of introspection completed, I realized that I had stayed long enough in the presence of the unspeakable. 

It was time to rejoin my tribe.  I had forgotten how afraid we are of standing in the presence, most especially our own.  I had expected the long silence to demolish my lie, but was amazed at how thoroughly it fell away.  As I swished through wet grass and weeds along the trail, no thought was worth speaking to the quiet air but absolute Truth.  I had learned long ago how dangerous that can be.  Truth is a double-edged sword meant for good but capable of bad.  Even so, who can argue with my Truth?  Whatever it is, it is mine. 

Perhaps it’s time to start being nice.  In 2021 Cincinnati, I am in the presence of people too smart and strong to believe lies.  I don’t have to defend any secret.  Others can affirm my path for me even though they may have chosen a different one for themselves.  I keep begging for rules and approved vocabulary, wanting to be given the keys to the kingdom, not understanding that I am the key as well as the kingdom.  It will take a long time, perhaps forever, to forget the machismo suffered in Daddy’s world—tech types gathering, comparing resumes, boasting prior accomplishments, utilizing jargon to flush out the uninitiated, and only then getting down to the real business of ego defense.  In 1957 at CIT, freshmen compared slide rule lengths.  I was the only one with enough gumption to spin a round rule, twice as fast but not the least bit phallic.  How beautifully the metaphor holds: the one woman plying a round rule, vanquishing an army of long stiff sliders.  In my cedar keepsake chest I have nestled my round rule beside my father’s straight one, a family paradox.  They both speak and compute God’s truth.  My Truth is mine to calculate.

Read Full Post »

Birds vs Bees

People are blithering idiots about sex.  I can remember my Mother and Father arguing about it as I watched and listened.  Daddy had a business he incorporated as Precision Electronics in Cambridge, Mass.  The fledgling enterprise was intermittent, and he filled in the time between real work by inventing toys.  He had some success, even getting one of his designs assigned the moniker “Nippy Pup” and included in the 1947 Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalogue.  It took a son of the Lone Star State to harken back to Neiman’s for an advertising gimmick when surrounded by East Coast savoir faire.

The toy dog was made of real lamb’s wool.  It featured a moveable neck made of a hyperextended compression spring and a cold black magnetic nose.  The dog’s “toy bone” was a sandwiched injection molding presenting a magnet at one end.  Nippy sported a plaid ribbon about his neck that shrouded his wobbly cervical apparatus.  Daddy was energized about offering an up-to-date canine that demonstrated the marvels of magnetism.  I thought it was ridiculous, but kept my opinion to myself, so as not to hurt Daddy’s feelings.  He had had a difficult year since the war was finally over, and the Manhattan project was disbanded, along with his creative involvement in its altimeter.

One day he brought home a new toy design.  It was also a dog, this one a small wooden one about four inches tall with articulated joints, floppy ears, and a sappy grin.  It was to be pulled with a string, sliding past a fire plug.  As it moved past the vertical hydrant, it raised its leg and pretend-sprayed it.  Daddy glowed with considerable pride and explained to Mommy and me, “When fire departments were new, they often had to break into a water main and take water to fight a fire.  When the day was finally saved, the hoses all rolled and stowed, the firemen would install a “fire plug” into the break, allowing for access to city water pressure to fight future fires.” He cleared his throat and continued.  “Precision Electronics is going to design a line of toys that demonstrates technology interfacing with living things.  Isn’t it a delightful irony that this little dog is squirting the water main rather than visa-versa?”  Daddy stood a bit taller as he offered a final summation, “This toy plays with the magic of magnetic attraction like Nippy Pup did.  It’s downright poetic.”

Mommy scowled and grumped, “Take that stupid thing back to your lab.  “It’s a dirty dog doing a dirty deed.  Kelsey. Your daughter is listening.  You shouldn’t expose a child to such filth.”

“Mary, do relax a little,” he admonished.  “Nice bit of alliteration by the way.  This little dog doing his earthy business is the kind of thing that makes the world go ‘round.  It’s life!  Life is beautiful.”

“Seems prurient to me,”

“Hmmm.  There’s an idea,” Daddy chortled.  “I could even make a dog jump up onto a bitch, like making puppies, all with magnets.”  But he was talking to a receding backside.  Mommy had left the room, muttering about men being lascivious.

I didn’t think much of Daddy’s toys, but not because they were salacious.  They just seemed kind of silly, but I wish Mommy didn’t always hurt his feelings.  The toy dog that raised its leg to pee went away, not to be heard from again.  I had loved Nippy Pup because Nippy was Daddy’s, and he was proud of it, even if it was kind of dumb.  Even an eight-year-old could see that something about people and animals was nasty and shameful.  It was something people just didn’t talk about if they could help it.

When I was twelve and living with Mommy’s sister Aunt Judy, she arranged at considerable inconvenience to have my twenty year old cousin Jeanne come and officially talk to me about sex while Judy and Wesson made dishwashing noises in the kitchen.  That was weird, not scary like Mommy and Daddy arguing over improper canine urination, but distinctly weird.

Jeanne made much of getting seated right next to me on the living room couch, pencil and paper at- the-ready.  The first page showed a man and woman dressed in modest sleeping attire.  Then there was the second page…  After a flurry of nasty diagrams, she told me that babies get made when the daddy puts his “thing” inside the mommy.  Nine months later a baby comes out.  I was embarrassed, not about the making of babies, but about everybody thinking I didn’t know.  I knew, but I didn’t want them to know I knew.  Piqued, I played their silly game, acting dumb but in actuality only merging my discomfiture with their own.  When she asked if I had any questions, I demanded to know how his “thing” got through the mommy’s nightgown.  Jeanne blushed and whispered furtively, “I guess she can pull it up.”

Judy must have been listening, because at that point she charged out of the kitchen to the rescue.  With a smile that was way too wide, she asked, “How’s it going?  Y’all ready for some fresh lemonade?”

“Gotta do my homework” I mumbled, mostly toward my feet, shilly-shallying toward my room, shaking my head.  Why did Judy go to so much trouble to feed me information about babies, and why didn’t she just tell me herself?  I already had guessed that stuff Jeanne told me, just knew, from visits to Grandpa’s farm.  Kids at school made jokes I didn’t understand, but I hadn’t made any girlfriends yet that I could ask.

So much for “the big lesson.”  Jeanne piled into Uncle C.J.’s Buick and began the tedious drive all the way from Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park, through downtown Dallas, past the old school-book depository, then on to Highland Park.  I was left to wonder, but not dare to ask, what this was all about.

I knew about the yucky pink thing that Wesson dangled below his shorts while he made morning coffee.  It made me feel nauseous, not that it had anything whatsoever to do with me, but that he knew I saw it and wanted me to see it.  Everything Wesson did expressed some evil intent.  He despised me because Judy envisioned me as the daughter she had always wanted, a pure affection that Wesson could never emulate, nor did he try.  His kind of lovemaking with Judy must surely have been selfish, crude, and hurtful.  Inexplicable to my childish understanding, Judy enjoyed Wesson’s attentions. 

She would put on a slinky ruffled teddy, pottering about the house on weekends, affecting a “little woman” domesticity while Wesson mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges, and made much ado of his manly chores.  He would come in occasionally to get a fresh beer and snuggle up against Judy’s backside while she peeled veggies.  He would slip his hand inside the loose silk while Judy giggled and shrugged him away.  Judy was not the giggling type; she better expressed her statuesque elegant nature dressed for a day of professional commerce in an exquisitely tailored suit, silk blouse, leather shoulder bag and suave up-do.

This remembered scene of Judy costumed for the boudoir, a grotesquerie of enticement, had a watercolor quality to it, a Monet camouflaged in its own reticulated light, a softening of truth to something remotely safe to envision.  Even in memory, I cringe.  She would shoo him out of the kitchen, clucking, “Don’t do that in front of the child,” the child being me.  Didn’t she know it was I, watching, seeing, feeling?  She surely felt the same as I did inside, where the tight pull of belly strings told me all I needed to know about womanliness.  Wesson was showing off for me, bragging wordlessly about what I was missing, what I would never enjoy no matter how much Judy loved my sweet little girl self.  His favorite diatribe when he could catch me alone always began, “Mommy’s sweet little thing.  You think you’re so special.  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”

If Judy didn’t want him to do that to her, she wouldn’t have dressed in swishy ruffles.  She did want his hand inside the silk, touching her skin, making her smile.  Why could she want his affection, when she knew sometime soon he would again break bones and make ugly bruises on that same tender skin?  I was awash with questions never to be asked lest they be answered and replace ignorance with fear and maybe even terror.

Soon I was fifteen and spent weekends helping my voice teacher’s lazy daughter complete her last year of high school as payment for singing lessons.  Sexual feelings continued to be something that I didn’t talk about.  My teacher lived in Darien, Connecticut.  She was well situated to host week-end parties inviting musical young people from the area for salon performance and socializing.  I typically got paired up with Alvin, a pretty decent violinist, nice and good-looking to boot.  He was sixteen, with an old jalopy and a new driver’s license.  We rode around or went to the movies or the Soda Shoppe and then returned to the teacher’s house before my curfew.  Before escorting me inside, Alvin always kissed me goodnight.  It was something I looked forward to all evening.  I didn’t care all that much about the movie or the sodas or the pizza; I just wanted to go back to the house and feel his soft lips pressed against mine.

Finally, requisite social group activity completed, we headed home.  Outside, we cuddled while the car idled, holding back the winter chill.  Then he pulled me close and gently covered my mouth with the soft warmth of his lips.  Hesitant, my tongue traced their meeting.  The center of my belly lurched.  The world dropped, and I hung weightless.  Then I slapped him and ran for the house.

This inexplicable pattern of behavior repeated itself several times, until one day Alvin finally asked me, “Why the slaps?”

I gulped, and began; “I saw a movie with Claudette Colbert and Jimmie Stewart.  That’s what she did when he kissed her.  Wouldn’t you think I’m fast if I liked it?”

“But you do like it?” he asked, taking my hand, his violin sensitive fingers tracing its outline, softly circling my palm.

I dropped my eyes and whispered, “Yes.”

Fingertip lifting my chin, he looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “Good.”  That bit of truth negotiated, we puckered up for a real kiss, actualized, enjoyed, and discussed in the immediacy of the present.  We laughed, cranked open the sun-roof, and headed for the movies.

Alvin and I had an understanding, maybe even a gentle friendship.  We enjoyed our occasional date smooches until I took off for Carnegie Tech to study physics, where my virginity remained resolutely intact.  I was singularly unimpressed by engineering freshmen, whose idea of scholarly competition was to compare whose slide-rule was the longest.  I was out of the running, having chosen a round rule which is quicker and arguably more accurate.

I only slapped one of those silly boys, only a single time, and that was when he pinched my bottom in General Chemistry lab while I was setting up a distillation.  My instincts were pure, completely bypassing interval reaction time.  He pinched; I slapped.  The cavernous room rang with the impact.  I didn’t miss a beat, continuing with my procedure while the other students grinned and whispered behind their hands.

Later, while settling into the pleasurable realities of marriage, I still retained my reticence about kissing and telling.  I insisted, for instance, to my mother-in-law, that nothing had “happened” between James and me, until a swelling belly proved otherwise.  I hadn’t sworn James to secrecy, so it still isn’t clear why, when he was presented with the fact of his impending paternity, he declared it must have been somebody else’s doing, swearing he had done nothing—absolutely nothing.

Why are humans so caught up in approach/avoidance about sex?  Why did it take Freud so long to realize he was onto something big, and for the rest of us to appreciate his insight?  What could possibly cause an otherwise stable fellow writer to assert that such concepts as herein elucidated should not be put to print, citing the “obvious fact” of the author’s having been molested in childhood? My questions stand, begging some quiet, thoughtful, informed answers.

Read Full Post »

Connection

Calling a complete stranger and striking up a conversation is a scary thing to do, but that’s exactly what I must do if I am to stay on the good side of Elisa, my physical therapist at the JCC (Jewish Community Center).  Working out kinks in the musculature of my ageing body leads to a superb level of understanding.  Elisa and I have a meeting of minds.  There is mutuality, but I suspect the depth of wisdom is mostly on her side of the discussion.  She has decided that I am surely a dear friend of her mother-in-law, Nancy Travis, who lives with her husband of many years in New York City and who simply adores opera.

It was at New York’s Metropolitan that I saw my first opera, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  It was the beginning of a love affair that was to last a lifetime and bring joy to an otherwise tangled web of motherhood, livelihood, marriage, and religion.  As a sixteen-year-old wannabe coloratura doing housework to pay for voice lessons, opera represented the epitome of a life of singing that began as a toddler occupying the various laps of my mother’s Glad Girl’s Glee Club.

As soon as I could stand on a stage, Mother had me soloing for whosoever would listen, typically her Baptist Sunday School.  Year after year choral singing was as natural as breathing, and it lead to classical vocal repertoire and eventually to opera.  Opera is a spectacle for the well-heeled, and I was typically on my own to afford—or not to afford— enjoyment of such beauty.  The result is that I am not really an expert.  I just like to sing opera, and typically request that Alexa play Italian Opera, such as Verdi, or Puccini to keep me company in my little-old-lady Senior apartment.  Classical Baroque is a nice change, but I always return to first loves.  Like Vivian hearing Violetta’s Aria for the first time in Pretty Woman, it never fails to make me cry.

Given this kind of love for drama set to music, Elisa is surely right about Nancy Travis and Dorothy Martin having things worth discussing, but picking up the phone is another story.  What if we can’t think of anything to say?  I always ask myself that question.  Blabbing on the phone has never come naturally to me.  Even as a farm wife on an isolated West Virginia farmstead, where getting chores done so as to enjoy party-line palaver with other isolated wives was what energized the day’s work, I just couldn’t pick up that phone.  Mostly the talk was about weather or kid’s problems, or how was the garden growing, or what was for dinner, and what would go well with those new green beans.   Even if I could join in, there was the surety that up and down the line, other people were tuned in.  That’s what folks did before there was TV and Days of Our Lives.  We had to generate our own soap operas.

My life tended toward drama, and I had no need to enjoy others vicariously.  But that was then.  This is now.  Most of what I wanted to do is done.  It’s mostly over, but that’s OK.  At eighty-two, I don’t need a day filled with challenge.  I just would like to visit peacefully with age mates about things that pique mutual interests.  My rooms are quiet, a welcome change, but not lonely.  It would be nice to have some company, but a cat must be fed, medications administered, litterbox attended.  There is much to be paid for the benefit of a purring compatriot that greets arrivals with meows and body-swipes against legs in anticipation of the grinding crank of one more can being opened. 

There is always the possibility of yet another husband, but they snore.  They might hold forth on interesting subjects, but will they listen?  Not likely.  The household income might benefit, but the ratio of person to person power might become irrevocably imbalanced.  Would I have any say at all?  Elisa has a good idea.  What could possibly be more delightful than chatting up an old lady who likes opera?

Read Full Post »