storyteller doll

1st Quarter 2021

I continued not to see any movies during the first quarter of the year. I’ve watched plenty of videos on YouTube, but I don’t really count those.

As far as books go, here is what I read from January through March of 2021:

  1. Kristen Hannah, The Great Alone. This was for book club and I thought it was an interesting novel. Set in 1970’s Alaska, it tells the story of the Allbright family, who become homesteaders in rural Alaska. The father, Ernt, is a Vietnam veteran, suffering from PTSD after his time as a POW. He is abusive to his wife, Cora, and their daughter, Leni, escapes in books and her friendship with another boy her age. There’s a lot of tragedy - much of it due to Ernt’s violent temper. I thought it was a good read, overall, though I found parts of it implausible.

  2. Willard Manus, The Pigskin Rabbi. This tells the story of a young man who has become a rabbi to satisfy his family tradition, but who really wants to play football. He ends up becoming a quarterback for the New York Giants and the team plays up the Jewish angle with calls in Yiddish and team yarmulkes and so on. That could be amusing, but the book is also filled with rampant sexism, mostly having to do with a character nicknamed “The Hook” after the size and shape of his penis. I also could have lived without the extensive descriptions of football games. Eminently skippable.

  3. Jeff Lindsay, Double Dexter. The Dexter series is probably better known in television form, but I find the books quite readable. In this one, Dexter is seen on one of his “play dates” and the guy who sees him tries to emulate him, planning to finish with Dexter as the victim. While I had figured out some key plot points I still enjoyed the breezy writing. If you can handle feeling sympathetic towards a serial killer, this is an enjoyable series.

  4. Sarah Dunant, Fatlands. Hannah Wolfe is hired to take a teenage girl around London and investigates when the girl gets killed in a car explosion. Her father was a scientist developing animal feed and Hannah discovers some scary secrets about his work. Along the way to saving the day, she makes some incredibly bad decisions, without which there wouldn’t be much of a story. The book is diverting enough for what it is, but there are better mysteries out there.

  5. Shakti Gawain, Developing Intuition. One of my mother’s neighbors had given me a couple of boxes of books and this was among those. It takes 150 or so pages to say, essentially, “relax, meditate, and trust your feelings.” I just saved you from having to read this.

  6. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman. I don’t usually read plays, but I am cleaning out books. I’d read this some 40+ years ago, but didn’t really remember much of it. For example, while I’d remembered Willy Loman confronting his failures and those of his sons, I had completely forgotten his rivalry with his next door neighbor, his affair with a woman in Bston, and (most surprisingly) his suicide plans. I found myself thinking most of all about how the world changed since this play debuted in 1949. Would Linda be working to support the family now? Would Willy and his sons be Trump supporters? I don’t think I could have predicted just how the American dream collapsed.

  7. Alexander McCall Smith, La’s Orchestra Saves the World. This is a sweet story, set mostly during World War II. La is a young woman whose husband has committed adultery and died in an accident. She’s settled into rural England and manages to find peace and deep friendship (and possible love) with a Polish man who works on the same farm where she does war work by tending chickens. Only, he may not be exactly what he claims to be. While I enjoyed the book, I had some qualms about the ending which I found both preachy and implausible. Still, it was enjoyable to read.

  8. Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History. I’ve read several of Kurlansky’s book and managed to sell my book club on this one. Like his other books, this is dense and full of fascinating facts about an everyday subject we don’t usually think about. I especially appreciated his worldwide focus, as he wrote about China and India (e.g. Gandhi’s march to the sea) and Africa (salt caravans to Timbuktu!), as well as the Western world. Everywhere, salt is a major economic driver and often the trigger for wars. There’s a lot here, from the first scientist to observe plants having sex to the scuba diver who herds tuna in Sicily being called the “big bastard.” It isn;t a quick read, but it is a worthwhile one.

As for goals I read 8 books (as noted above), entered the Style Invitational twice, got one story to tellable condition, and have under 2 classes to go on the Smithsonian world art history program. So, not too shabby.

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Celebrity Death Watch - January 2021

Continuing the celebrity death watch catch-up ….

First a quick leftover. Mary Frances Wagley was the first woman to serve on the MIT Corporation and as president of the MIT Alumni Association. She was forced to major in chemistry because chemical engineering required a summer camp that had no accommodations for her. She graduated from MIT in 1947 and went on to get a doctorate at Oxford and teach at a number of institutions, including Smith College and Johns Hopkins.

January 2021:Carlos do Carmo was a fado singer. Dame Elmira Minita Gordon was the Governor General of Belize from 1981 to 1993. Floyd Little was a hall of fame football player. George Whoitmore was a member of the first team to summit El Capitan. Paul Westphal was a hall of fame basketball player. Lee Breuer was a playwright, best known for The Gospel at Colonus. Eric Jerome Dickey wrote crime novels. Gerry Marsden headed Gerry and the Pacemakers. Gregory Sierra was an actor, best known for appearing in Barney Miller. Butch Stewart founded Sandals Resorts. Neil Sheehan was a Pulitzer winning journalist for the New York Times. Ed Bruce wrote “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Diana Millay played Laura Collins on Dark Shadows. Sheldon Adelson was a casino magnate and one of the biggest donors to Trump. Margo St. James fought for the rights of sex workers as the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). Tim Bogert was the bassist for Vanilla Fudge. Siegfried Fischbacher was half of the magic duo Siegfried and Roy. Joyce Hill played catcher and first base in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Jimmie Rodgers sang “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” Don Sutton pitched mostly for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hal Holbrook was an actor, best known for his one-man show about Mark Twain. Larry King was a radio and television host / interviewer. J. D. Power III founded the company that does automotive satisfaction surveys. Kathleen Ann Goonan was a science fiction writer Abraham Twerski was a Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist who wrote extensively about addiction.

Michael Apted was a film director. He directed Gorillas in the Mist and Coal Miner’s Daughter, but is probably best known for the Up series (from 7 Up in 1964 to 63 Up in 2019, which followed a group of British school children through their lives.

Tommy Lasorda played baseball and went on to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Peter Huber had been an MIT professor of mechanical engineering, who became a lawyer and wrote several books regarding the intersection of science and law. I knew him slightly at MIT and specifically remember a lecture of his on the subject of surface tension, mostly for his explanation of the phenomenon of legs in a glass of wine. Even when I disagreed with his positions, I found his ideas worth reading.

Phil Sector was a record producer known for the “wall of sound.” He produced a number of influential rock/pop albums, including the Beatles’ Let It Be. He was later convicted of the murder of Lana Clarkson and died in prison.

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. His list of accomplishments would go on for pages, including sharing the record for most All-Star Games played (with Stan Musial and WIllie Mays) He holds the records for most career RBIs, extra base hits, and total bases. He also was awarded the Presidential Medal 0f Freedom in 2002.

Clovis Leachman played Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as acting in numerous other television shows and movies. Her role as Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein is also notable.

Cicely Tyson was a film and television actress. Her starring role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman won her two Emmy awards. She also won a Tony award for her role in the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful/

Flory Jagoda was a major star of Sephardic music. Her song :Ocho Kandelikas” has become very popular for Chanukah.

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storyteller doll

A Few More Little Things

Household: I forgot to mention in my last entry that I also got my water heater replaced. There have been a lot of issues with older water heaters in my condo complex, with multiple units having leaks. The complex had competitive deals with a couple of companies for replacement, which I had been intending to do anyway. So I went with the company that had better reviews. (It’s a little more complicated here, because we have a combined system, that also provides our heating. Not every company knows how to install those.) Anyway, that’s one big household thing done. I still have a few odds and ends to get done, but nothing quite so critical.

Pesach: The first night I went to a friend’s zoom seder, which was rather scaled back because she was dealing with a family health issue. The second night, my chavurah was invited to join the community seder put on by the synagogue one member belongs to. It was fairly amusing, but was decidedly mostly entertainment, not at all traditional. For example, there was a song called Manishewitzville (to the tune of Margaritaville.) And the simple child was illustrated with a picture of Alfred E. Newman. One thing I thought was cool was putting a cotton ball on the seder plate to note the oppression of the Uighurs who are, apparently, forced to work in the cotton fields.

As far as food goes, since everything was on-line, I was on my own. I cooked a turkey breast half, with some mango relish. I accompanied that with roasted potatoes and some butternut squash which I roasted with what turned out to be too much cinnamon. There was also gefilte fish the first night and chopped liver the second night. For non-seder meals, there are assorted leftovers, as well as some of my Pesach staples - borscht, matzo ball soup, chremslach (matzo meal pancakes), etc.

Women in Baseball: Since my favorite season (i.e. baseball) is about to start, I want to mention how pleased I am that there are finally a few women climbing the ranks of baseball management. Bianca Smith is a minor league coach for the Red Sox organization. And Kim Ng is the general manager of the Marlins. You go, girl(s)!

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Odds and Ends (much of which is medical whining)

I have several other things to write about, which I will list below, but I want to clear off a few random odds and ends first.

Mostly Harmless: This article tells the story about a hiker who was found dead and the effort to identify him. I thought it was really interesting reading.

Another Lost Person: The story of somebody who shouldn’t have been allowed to travel alone was also amusing.

Vaccine! After a long and frustrating saga, I got my first Pfizer shot last week. I had registered with Kaiser back in January. Then Virginia decided to pull vaccines from everywhere except the Virginia Department of Health. There were some given to pharmacies but only for people over 65. Virginia waffled on registration, first doing it by county, then statewide, but Fairfax County (where I live) opted out of the statewide system. It took Fairfax County about a month to get through people who had registered the first day. Anyway, Kaiser then got an allocation from the CDC and I got a notice to make an appointment with them, which was successful. Of course, about 3 days later, I got a notice from Fairfax County. Such chaos.

At least they made the appointment for the second shot while I was there checking in for the first one. And, for those who are tracking side effects, my left arm was a bit sore for a couple of days, bt not a big deal.

Other Health Stuff: I had mentioned back in December that the bloodwork at my annual physical showed mild anemia. My doctor put in an order for additional lab work, which I did in January. That showed my vitamin B12 level to be quite low and my iron level to be somewhat low, so she told me to take supplements and get retested 6 weeks after starting them. I did that this week. The good news is that the supplements are working for the vitamin B12 and the test for intrinsic factor blocking antibody (which would prevent B12 from being absorbed) was negative. My guess is that the B12 issue was related to the known interference due to taking metformin (which I take for Type 2 diabetes). At any rate, continuing to take a tiny sublingual pill a day is no big deal.

The bad news is that my iron levels did not improve and, in fact, are somewhat worse. I have an upper endoscopy and colonoscopy scheduled in early April to see if there is any bleeding that could account for this. I am rather dreading the prep for this, which everyone says is far worse than the actual procedure. Hopefully, anything that is found will be easily treatable.

Other Stuff I Intend to Write About:

  • The rest of the celebrity death watch

  • Assorted storytelling events

  • The recorded sessions of the 2020 IAJGS conference (except I can’t find my notes from those)

  • Art history classes

  • Potential travel plans

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Celebrity Death Watch - November and December 2020

I have let the Celebrity Death Watch report slip for way too long, so it gets its own entry. Feel free to ignore it if you don’t share my obsession. Actually, this got long enough that I think I will divide it up into two entries and just do November and December of 2020 right now.

First, there’s a leftover from May, that I only learned about a few weeks ago. Pepper White is best known for having written the book, The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT. This is still the best book I know of about the MIT experience - and, particularly, the experience in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

November 2020: Rachel Caine wrote science fiction, urban fantasy, and thrillers for both adults and young adults. Dorothy Christ played outfield in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Baron Wolman was the chief photographer for Rolling Stone in the late 1960’s. Tom Metzler was a white supremacist. Geoffrey Palmer was an actor who appeared in several British sitcoms. David Feinstein was a prominent Orthodox rabbi and author. Ken Spears was an animator and producer who co-created Scooby-Doo. Norm Crosby was a comedian. Henry Haller was the White House executive chef for over 20 years. Fred Hills was an editor who worked with (among others) Vladimir Nabokov, William Saroyan, and Ann Rule. Seymour Topping was a journalist for the New York Times, best known for his work as a foreign correspondent. Lynn Kellogg was a singer and actress who originated the role of Sheila in Hair. Jerry Rawlings was the President of Ghana for most of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Doug Supernaw was a country musician, who earned me 15 ghoul pool points as a reload after Alex Trebek died. Sheldon Solow was a real estate developer and art collector. Marguerite Ray was the first black actor to appear regularly on the soap opera The Young and the Restless. Hayford Peirce wrote science fiction and mystery novels and stories. Jake Scott was a Super Bowl MVP. Donal Leace was a folk singer. Patrick Quinn created the ice bucket challenge that raised money for ALS research. David Dinkins was the mayor of New York in the early 1990’s. Hal Ketchum was a country singer-songwriter. Mamadou Tanja was the president of Niger from 1999-2010. Diego Maradona was an Argentinian soccer player. Bob Miller pitched for the Phillies. Sara Leland was a ballerina. Joe Mooney was a long time groundskeeper at Fenway Park. James Rous Morris was the founder of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Jonathan Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the U.K. from 1991 to 2013. He wrote a large number of books and newspaper opinion pieces, as well as holding several academic appointments.

Alex Trebek hosted Jeopardy! for 37 years. That included my appearance on the show, which was before they started giving everybody a photo of themselves with him. His death was not surprising, as his struggle with pancreatic cancer was well known. He earned me 15 ghoul pool points.

Amador Toumani Toure was the President of Mali from 2002-2012. He made a grand appearance at the Festival au Desert outside Timbuktu when I attended it in 2011. ATT, as he was called, seemed to be popular, but he was later deposed in a coup and went into exile.

Jan Morris was a travel writer. She also wrote a well-received book about her transition from male to female.

Ben Bova was a science fiction writer and editor. He won the Hugo Award six times. He was also the president of the National Space Society.

December 2020: Frank Carney cofounded Pizza Hut. Valery Giscard d’Estaing was the President of France and co-Prince of Andorra from 1974 to 1981. Rafer Johnson was an Olympic champion in the decathlon. Alanna Knight wrote romance and mysteries under her own name and as Margaret Hope. Alison Lure was a novelist, best known for The War Between the Tates, but she also wrote collections of folk tales for children. Goldie Gershon was the president of the Canadian Jewish Congress in the late 1990’s. Grace Knowlton was a sculptor. David Lander played Squiggly on Laverne & Shirley. Phyllis Eisenstein was a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Sheila Hellstrom was the first Canadian woman to become a brigadier general (in 1987). Dame Barbara Windsor was an English actress who appeared on East Enders among other things. Jack Steinberger won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on neutrinos. Frank Baumann pitched for the Red Sox in the late 1950’s. Al Cohen owned a magic shop in Washington, D.C. Jeannie Morris was one of the first women to be a sports journalist, Stanley Cowell was a jazz pianist. Roger Berlind was a theatre producer, who won 25 Tony awards. Chad Stuart was half of the pop duo, Chad and Jeremy. Sandy Grant Gordon created a global market for single malt scotch, particularly Glenfiddich. K. T. Olin was a country singer-songwriter. Jay Walljasper wrote books about urban planning. James E. Gunn was a science fiction author. Rebecca Luker was an actress who starred in many Broadway musicals, notably originating the role of Lily in The Secret Garden. John Outterbtidge was an artist, known especially for his work in assemblage. Barry Lopez wrote books about the Arctic and nature in general. Tony Rice was a bluegrass guitarist. George Robert Caruthers was a physicist and engineer who developed instruments for NASA. Brodie Lee was a professional wrestler. Claude Bolling was a jazz pianist and composer. Pierre Cardin was a fashion designer. Dawn Wells was an actress, best known for playing Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island.

Chuck Yeager was a test pilot, who is best known for having been the first person to exceed the speed of sound in level flight.

John le Carre wrote spy novels. Among the best known are The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Charley Pride was a country singer, best known for “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.” He’d also played baseball for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues in the 1950’s.

Ann Reinking was a dancer and choreographer, notable for winning a Tony for her choreography for the revival of Chicago. She was also Bob Fosse’s protege and, for a while, his lover.

Kim Chernin was a feminist writer whose best-known books discussed eating disorders. She also wrote a lot about the relations between mothers and daughters and about Judaism.

Tim Severin was a British historian and one of my favorite writers. He specialized in recreating historic and legendary voyages I particularly recommend The Brendan Voyage in which he and his crew sailed a leather boat across the Atlantic.

Phil Niekro was a pitcher, primarily for the Braves, who had more wins then any other knuckleballer.

Parnell Hall was a mystery writer. He was probably best known for his Puzzle Lady series, though I think his comic hard-boiled novels, featuring Stanley Hastings, were better. He competed in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, ending up near the bottom of the rankings. He was also notable for his humorous songs, such as “Signing at a Waldenbooks.” He was a gracious and kind and funny man, who I will miss, though I didn’t know him very well.

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storyteller doll

See Me, Hear Me

Dreamwidth cross-posting appears to have failed. My apologies if this shows up twice.

The main reason that I've been really busy is that I am involved with the 2nd annual Women's Storytelling Festival, which starts Friday (March 19th). Last year's festival was the last event I was at before everything shut down. This year's event is virtual, which means that any of you can attend, regardless of where you live. You can see the schedule and buy tickets at Women's Storytelling Festival. The stream will be up (for ticket holders) for two weeks so you don't have to be glued to your computer all weekend. I am emceeing the Story Swap, open to anyone who wants to tell, on Sunday morning at 10 EDT. I'm also doing a bunch of behind the scenes work during the festival. Right now, I am finishing writing up blog posts about the festival tellers, as well as compiling introductions for the emcees to use.

The other big thing I did this week was getting interviewed on Walking on the Moon on Takoma Radio. You can skip to about 8:20 p.m. and my segment ends a little after 9 p.m. Danny asked me about being a woman in engineering, but also about STEM in general. And about storytelling and how that fits in. He'd given me questions beforehand and I also gave him this video (below), which he played just a little snippet of:


Anyway, Danny may have regretted asking me a question about any possible relation between quantum theory and Q-anon. My inherent smart ass tendencies came out. I asked the Style Invitational Loser community for help with interesting words starting with "q" to prepare. So I said "Not to be querulous but such a quixotic question makes me queasy. Quintillions of people quake and quiver to consider the qualities of of quarks and quanta, afraid to get quagmired in the quicksand of quizzical quirks. So, rather than query the quintessentials of that quandary, it would be better to quit quietly."
storyteller doll

February Prompts

I don’t know why, but it is far easier for me to do these a month at a time than to try to write daily entries.

1. What are your favorite indoor activities? Reading, crafts, listening to music, storytelling. (The latter two could also be outdoors, too.) In non-pandemic times, going to restaurants with friends and going to museums.

2. What are you favorite outdoors activities? Walking, going to baseball games.

3. How do you feel about plastic surgery? I have no desire for it, but I have no objections to people getting it if they think it will improve their lives. For example, consider the song “Dance 10, Looks 3” from A Chorus Line.

4. What responsibilities do you think the media have, if any?Honesty is at the top of the list. I can deal with media bias if I know the biases of a particular source as long as I know what their slant is.

5. What is your take on organ donation? It is, obviously, a good thing. I do care, however, about it being done with respect to the donor’s body. (For example, Jewish law requires proper burial of organs that are not used.)

6. What do you think about hunting? I am theoretically okay with hunting for food, though I don’t think it is necessary in modern society here. Hunting in less developed places is more acceptable. Hunting for sport and for trophies disgusts me.

7. What places are you really grateful exist? Museums, libraries, bookstores, parks.

8. What does it mean to you to be spiritual? I like to feel connected to Jewish tradition and to what my ancestors struggled for.

9. Do you believe things happen for a reason? Sort of. Sometimes the reason is that people are idiots.

10. What is your take on making mistakes? Everyone makes mistakes. The key thing is to be capable of acknowledging whey you screw up and trying to make things right.

11. Who would you like to trade lives with for a day and why? It would be interesting to be a man for a day and see what sex is like for one of them..

12. How would a stranger that met you at a dinner party describe you? It really depends on who else is at the party. If it were people I know well, they’d probably think of me as loud and outspoken. If it were other strangers, they might see my shy side.

13. How old do you feel? It depends on the day. Most of the time, I feel my age (62). But sometimes I feel 15 and sometimes I feel 90.

14. How has getting older helped you deal with challenges in life?I think I am better at realizing that most of the things that go wrong don’t really make a difference in the long run.

15. When I have a look around my home, it’s very obvious that I… suck at housework.

16. Within the next month I will… spend too much money on household repairs.

17. 5 years ago I never thought… I’d spend a year without traveling.

18. What are you most fascinated by at the moment? my spice rack.

19. What are the three most dominant emotions in your life right now?anxiety, impatience, frustration

20. What is sure to make you cry? Chopping onions? I also sob through movies where one of the romantic leads dies.

21. How does the weather effect your mood? I am really tired of being cold. Beyond that, I actually like some cloudiness, but prefer not to deal with heavy rain and winds.

22. What would you change if you knew you could not fail? Maybe audition for more storytelling shows.

23. If you could get rid of anything on the planet what would it be? Anti-Semitism, since that has the biggest negative effect on me.

24. What would be the ultimate travel experience for you? A cruise through the Northwest Passage.

25. What’s the most recent show you’ve binge watched?I haven’t binge watched stuff in ages. Maybe Better Off Ted.

26. What conclusions did you make about money as a child? That I wanted more? I remember being determined to save up $100, which seemed like a huge sum.

27. What would you like to have less of in your work right now? Not really applicable, since I am retired.

28. What did you love to do as a child? Lie on the front lawn and watch planes overhead. Go to the seaplane port and watch the seaplanes taking off and landing. Read. Play with my Barbies. Draw house plans. Do all sorts of crafts.

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Follow-up to Yesterday's Post

There are several things I should have mentioned in yesterday’s entry about my education and career.

  1. My father was a civil engineer. When I started college, he advised me to study anything except engineering. His reasoning was that if you’re any good at engineering, you don’t get to do it after a while. He had become, essentially, an urban planner. I don’t think he was particularly unhappy with the direction his career took, but it hadn’t been what he had planned. I did reach a point in my career where pretty much all I did was go to meetings and write email, but I enjoyed doing policy related work (e.g. I had some work related to international cooperation) and I really liked opportunities to be a bridge between different government and industry organizations. That did require me to be able to talk intelligently with people who were doing the down in the trenches sort of engineering work, so I certainly don’t feel that my background was wasted.

  2. There was a while (in the early 1970’s, I think) when Dad had a female engineering assistant and a male secretary. I am fairly sure he had hired Carole because she had gone to his alma mater, the City College of New York (or, as it was usually referred to in our house, The Harvard of the Proletariat). She certainly experienced plenty of sexism in her time. People would come into the office and, even though Carole was sitting at a drafting table poring over blueprints and Marvin was typing at the front desk, people would speak to her when they had administrative questions.

  3. The National Science Foundation does still have summer programs for high school students, but I haven’t found any evidence that PIB still exists. There was some study of alumni of the program, maybe in the early 1980’s. I think that almost all of the alumni had gone into biochemistry related careers, with a lot having gone to medical school and a lot into relevant academic fields. If I recall correctly, there were two exceptions - me, with my engineering career, and one guy (not my year and not someone I knew) who had become an architect.

  4. The Columbia University Science Honors Program does, however, and I can certainly recommend it to students who live within the area it serves (basically, within 75 miles of the university). The benefits were less specific knowledge than getting a better idea of what college would be like. I should also have noted that the program was tuition-free, though there was the cost of transprtation. My parents increased my allowance to cover the weekly round-trip LIRR ticket and subway tokens. Also, because I was taking the same trains every week, I got to know some other regular weekly commuters, including a guy who was studying at Julliard, who I ended up dating a few times.

  5. My MIT class was about 15% women and the majority of women majored in math or biology. Recent MIT classes have been almost (but not quite) 50% women. I don’t know of great statistics for overall engineering degrees to women over the years. SWE has some statistics, but they start in 2005. Also, part of the problem is including computer science in most statistics. Computer science hould be counted separately (with the exception of computer hardware engineering, which is a branch of electrical engineering). My reasoning is that software does not follow laws of physics.

  6. In hindsight,, I should have stayed at MIT for a masters degree and then worked for a few years before going on for a Ph.D. I would have learned better time management in the workplace and just gotten more perspective. This was not really a woman’s issue, but a personal one. The thing I was most lacking was the self-knowledge and assertiveness to ask my advisor for some things that would have made my life better. For example, it would have been useful for me to have had a standing meeting with him every couple of weeks, instead of the catch as catch can method he preferred. But here’s the thing. We make the decisions we make knowing what we know at the time, so there’s really no point in using hindsight to second guess ourselves.

  7. I had started grad school intending an academic career. What changed my mind there was seeing how hard younger faculty members were working, It’s not that I object to hard work per se, but I was just never that single minded. There is a part of me that regrets not having gone back to academia later on, but I did have opportunities to teach some short courses within the workplace. And, frankly, a lot of academics have only one idea in their lives and spend the rest of their careers having their grad students write papers on “m brilliant idea applied to X.” “my brilliant idea applied to Y,” and so on. (Yes, I have reviewed a lot of conference papers and journal articles over the years.)

  8. The single best decision I made came from the realization that almost everyone I knew who was unhappy with their job was unhappy because of people issues, not the nature of their work. I had one interview at a place I thought I would like to work at. The guy I interviewed with had no enthusiasm whatsoever for what he was doing. I suppose he could have just been having a bad day, but I knew I could not work for somebody who had all the personality of Mr. Potato Head.

  9. The one thing I think gets left out of the vast majority of STEM programs is how creative jobs in engineering can be. The biggest thing I think gets left out of university level engineering programs has to do with communication skills. MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department did have a writing professor review some of our lab reports. But I didn’t have to do oral presentations until taking my qualifying exams for my doctorate (and failing the first time around). Learning how to give briefings was a critical aspect of my early working years.

There’s probably something else I forgot to say, but that’s enough for now.

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storyteller doll

My Brilliant Career

Back in October, fansee asked me (in response to my retirement) how I came to be a satellite systems engineer and, more specifically, about my experiences as a woman in that field. I have plenty of other catching up to do, but I’m in the mood to write about this.

As far back as I can remember, I was interested in science. As a child in the 1960’s, I had a particular interest in space. The first book I remember, from about age 5, was You Will Go to the Moon. Later on, I recall writing to NASA and getting pictures of spacecraft and planets. The first news story I remember was John Glenn orbiting the earth, And the moon landing was one of the major events of my childhood.

But, when I asked if girls could become astronauts, my mother said, “no, but maybe when you’re old enough...” For a while, after reading a biography of Maria Mitchell (part of a series my elementary school library had on childhoods of famous Americans), I thought of becoming an astronomer. Or, at least, going to Vasaar College, like she had. But then I read about Marie Curie in the back of a Classics Comics (possibly one about the story of the atom) and decided I wanted to be a chemist. I did go through other potential careers throughout elementary school and junior high, ranging from being an actress to becoming the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500. But I pretty much stuck to chemistry as the plan. For a while, I specifically wanted to be an analytical chemist for the police department, like Barry Allen (the alter ego of The Flash), which would also solve the problem of how I would get super powers without having been born on Krypton or being an Amazon princess. By high school, I was primarily interested in biochemistry and, specifically, neurochemistry.

That pretty much continued to be the plan. I did well in chemistry class (and other science classes). I also went to two National Science Foundation programs. The Columbia University Science Honors Program was held on Saturdays and I spent 3 years taking the train into the city (and the subway uptown) for it. I took a wide range of classes, not just biochemistry related. I remember one about statistics for psychology, one on elementary particle physics, and a biochemistry class where we extracted DNA - something far more exciting in 1975 than it would be now. There were also afternoon lectures a few times each semester, with the most memorable of those having to do with topology. There were also social benefits, including meeting my first real boyfriend. When there weren’t afternoon lectures, he and I hung out in the city and perpetrated public displays of affection in Central Park. But that’s a whole other story. (Before I met him, I sometimes went to the headquarters of the socialist Zionist group that ran a summer camp I’d gone to for a couple of summers and spent the afternoon handing out leaflets on the street.)

The other NSF program was the Program in Biochemistry (PIB), the summer after my junior year of high school. It was held at the Loomis-Chaffee School in Connecticut and was a mixture of lectures and research projects in small groups. I had actually spent the previous summer taking a summer school class (at my high school) on biochemistry research, which I remember as being almost entirely focused on individual projects, with a few field trips thrown in. I did a project in which I injected the nerves of clams (which are big red threads) with neurotransmitters. I don’t remember what I was trying to prove. As for the field trips. we did one or two to various institutions within a couple of hours of our school. I know we went at least once to Waldemar, which was a medical research facility that had its own summer program for high school students. And I know we went to the Coney Island Aquarium, but I don’t remember if that was an official event.

Anyway, PIB was a fun and intense summer. We took pride in sleep deprivation and people signed up for one hour naps on the sofa in the lounge, for example. We learned how to “sacrifice” mice and grind up their livers in a blender and an unlucky member of my team got a taste when mouth pipetting some of the resulting liquid. We did have papers to write and the various instructors (who were upperclassmen at prestigious universities; the head of my team was a junior at Harvard, if I recall correctly) graded them according to their own systems. There was one instructor who favored the use of classical compositions as grades. To this day, I have no idea whether “Glinka’s Summer Night in Madrid” was or was not a good grade. We also had various extracurricular trips. I know I went to concerts at Tanglewood a few times. There were tours of various colleges. And there was a trip to New York to see Equus on Broadway.

So, when I was applying to colleges, I was still planning to be a chemistry major. But my brother was busily setting a Michigan State record for changing majors and someone I knew from high school was rethinking his plan to major in math at Yale. I chose MIT over Yale largely because I figured that, if I did change my mind about my major, I would still want to do something scientific.

Freshman year included 5.41, which was an Intro to Organic Chemistry class. I was reasonably well prepared and went on the next semester to the next class, 5.42. (I was also taking a lab class.) I discovered that, while I could think of lots of reactions that could happen, I often had no idea which one would happen. More significantly, I was not enjoying either of those two classes. At the same time, I read about some work that people in the mechanical engineering department were doing on prosthetics that used the body’s nervous system. That sounded fascinating and I looked further at ME as a major. (Or, in MIT lingo, Course 2.) The biggest advantage is that it would give me a broad engineering background, meaning I didn’t really have to make up my mind. There was a program (2A) that let you design your own major within the ME department and I used that to design what was, essentially, a biomedical engineering major.

One of the first classes I took was 2.02, Introduction to System Dynamics. This was focused on modeling and it just clicked with my desire to view the world as simple. There were a few times that I rushed back to my dorm room after class to work on a problem set right away to see if it all made as much sense as I thought it did. (I assure you that was not normal behavior for me.) Anyway, people said that if I liked that class, I should take 2.14, which was Introduction to Control Systems. I did and it continued to click with me. So I kept taking classes in system dynamics and controls and enjoying them. And I pursued that into grad school (at UC Berkeley).

While I was in grad school, I got a fellowship from NASA, which came about mostly because one of my professors knew somebody and helped me write the application. When I was nearing completing my doctorate and was job hunting, I did look at things in various industries, but most of the interesting controls issues were in the aerospace industry. I went to work at The Aerospace Corporation (aka The Circle-A Ranch) largely because it offered the opportunity to work across a wide range of systems. And that worked out we’ll for me, obviously, since I stayed there (in various jobs) for 35 years.

This has been fairly long and I haven’t gotten to writing about the specific issue of being a woman in the field. The short version is that I certainly had to deal with individual assholes, but I was always able to find support. As an undergrad at MIT, I chose to live in an all-women’s dorm, partly to have other women to vent to. Most of that was in the form of mircroaggressions, e.g. the instructor who headed a research project I worked on who kept a ruler with Playboy pictures on his desk or another professor who would make comments like “those co-eds are always turning in things late.” The most egregious example was a professor who had started every lecture for years by addressing the class as “:Gentlemen.” I was the only girl in the class and he’d then start with “Gentlemen,…and Miss Nadel.” On the plus side, he definitely knew who I was and I did well in his class. (I am fairly sure he was entirely unconscious of why this was annoying.) I should also mention that my undergrad advisor was a woman.

In grad school, I remember a reception where our department head proudly announced that he had doubled the number of women on the department faculty. They’d hired one person. (They did hire a couple more while I was still there.) But there were a couple of other women working on Ph.D.s and, even though we were in different subfields, we often had coffee together.

Job hunting was another story. A few places made a point of having me talk with a token woman in their group. More than one interviewer expressed surprise at seeing a female job candidate. One organization even sent me a thank you letter addressed to “Mr. Nadel” after my interview.

Circle-A was pretty good from that standpoint. Yes, I often found myself counting the number of women in the room at meetings (which included government and contractor employees, too), but I can think of only a handful of inappropriate comments. I do know of one woman whose (female) boss told her she should wear makeup. And I’ve heard of a few incidents of sexual harassment. On the plus side, we did have an African-American woman as our CEO for several years.

Overall, I had a career that suited me well.

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