You've Changed My Life - Part 5

>> Friday, March 28, 2014

Rather than re-explain, if you want to know what this is about, see my first post of this set.

Five more entries:

 March 17 - The Recruiter from OU who went to Ada High School in Spring of 1985

People who know me as the "Rocket Scientist" might be surprised to hear that the last thing I ever expected to be was an engineer. In fact, up until about the point I graduated high school, if you'd *told* me I'd be a rocket scientist, I likely would have fallen down laughing.

The reason I ended up one and the reason my life changed so drastically (in the best sort of way) by going away to college was largely the recruiter from OU.

My parents moved from Las Vegas NV to Ada OK in October of my senior year in high school. I'm sure they had reasons they felt important, though I don't know what they were other than my father wanted land and plants, but I can say with assurance, it was not a move I wanted. To be first in a class of 549 to becoming one of 9 valedictorians in a class of 114, well, let's just say my college prospects were drastically reduced. Given that college was nonnegotiable (though, to be honest, I presumed that) but paying for it was basically up to me, I was effectively stuck in Oklahoma which did not make me happy.

I'd saved up about $1200 from the summer before working in a chemical lab, or I'd thought I had. I'd "loaned" it to my parents and only discovered, close to high school graduation that their idea of paying me back was to allow me to eat. So, I was looking for scholarships because I DID NOT want to go to the college in Ada, OK. Nothing against ECU but it didn't have any majors that particularly interested me and I'd have to live at home, which didn't appeal at all.

Now, it's somewhat pertinent to note that I was and am a total dork. I dress for comfort now, but then I dressed in the cast off clothing people gave my parents because, for some reason, they always fit me and only me. I generally didn't mind, but it hardly meant for a snazzy wardrobe.

And my own personality was not conducive to making friends. I was at Ada High nearly the whole senior year and I can't remember the name of a single person, and did not make a single real friend when I was there. Oh, everyone was very nice and friendly, but they were also people who'd known each other since birth. I was an oddity, at best.

I was, in fact, particularly dorky-looking on the day the OU recruiter came, wearing some pseudo-Native Americanish leisure suit my mother adored and my hair in two braids. I sat in the front row and listened to the spiel. Despite myself, I was a bit interested. So, after the talk, I went up to ask what programs had scholarships available.

To this day, I have no idea how this recruiter knew I was good material. He totally ignored the other two dozen or so students clamoring for attention and totally gave me everything I asked for then asked me if I wanted anything else. He went out of his way to point out the Engineering Program and Physics Program both had scholarships and, if I went in Engineering Physics, I could get both. Only when he was sure I hadn't even the slightest idle question remaining did he turn his attention to the rest of the students.

I won't lie. I'm as susceptible to flattery as the next person, maybe more. When OSU came round in the same time frame, they had a pair of recruiters and it was more like a pep rally, full of shouting and enthusiasm rousing, not my thing. They kind of tossed brochures around and, though I filled out a card indicating my interest there (not burning bridges), I was brushed past breezily.

So, I was not surprised to get my (form) letter from OSU: "Dear Future OSU student: You're going to love going here, etc. etc. aud nauseum."

The letter from OU was quite different: "Dear Ms. Beck [yes, he remembered my name even though I don't remember his], I know you have a lot of options available to you, but we really hope you consider OU. I think we have a lot of services that can be of benefit to you and know you'd be a tremendous asset for our school."

If it had been letters alone, I would have gone with OU at once. But, both OSU and OU had given me $750/year scholarships. Enough for tuition, but not books and room and board. I was having to contemplate one of the other small colleges when as 29th runner up to OU's largest general academic scholarship, 30 fell out and I got it. So, yay me. I also got both the Physics and Engineering scholarship by going in Engineering Physics (one was only a one year scholarship, so I could have changed majors, but it was a tough major and I'm stubborn).

So, thanks to the personal touches of one recruiter, a bit of scholarship serendipity and my own tenacious nature, I accidentally got a degree in Engineering Physics while also opening my eyes to the world in ways I never would have done living at home. And that was a very good thing.

And my degree turned into a very interesting one and my career as well, so there you go.

So thanks, recruiter. I was always be grateful for your personal touches.

March 18 - Sue Beck

Now, those of you who've known me for any length of time probably know I care deeply about my Aunt Sue. She's like a surrogate mother to me, always supportive, always upbeat, frequently giving me help when I need it whether it's a kind gesture or real material support to help me out. That's not about me, by the way. That's how Sue is and, if I described everything wonderful about her, I'd be writing until Sunday.

But this isn't about constant support or friendship (which obviously have a profound effect on my life), because March wouldn't be long enough for that; this exercise is about single events where one person had a profound impact on my life.

For Sue, that was in August 2012. I'd had nearly a year to get past my breakup with Lee. I was visiting Sue with all three of my children, which is challenging because my son, Alex, is heavily weirded out by dogs and she has three excitable poodles. There, Sue and my daughter, Stephanie Loyd, ganged up on me. I was (and still am to a lesser degree) very overweight, my feet were swelling frequently. I don't go to the doctor much. Kids doctors/dentists/college get first dibs and, truthfully, I was still recovering financially from my divorce and working through our accumulated debt.

It's not that I don't make good money, but even a good salary can be strained when there are too many drains on it. And I'm not the best with money. It's not one of my strengths.

I explained that I would check into it when I could afford to do so. Sue wrote me out a check so that I would get a full checkout and a sleep study done (since Stephanie was also worried about sleep apnea) without impacting any other finances. I couldn't say no and I couldn't not do it. Turns out I was pre-diabetic/early stages of Type II diabetes and had high blood pressure.

So, I went on a diet and lost over 100 pounds that year (test results have come back clean since). I lost the weight not so much for the doctors but because my daughter and Sue reminded me that I had people that depended on me and I couldn't afford to drop dead on them. The sleep study money instead went for some MRIs for Stephanie since her previously broken vertebrae was giving her troubles, but, since my sleeping and snoring improved so drastically with the weight loss, it all worked out.

It wasn't just that someone cared enough about me to help me even though I should have done this on my own. Though obviously I was important enough to her for that, so that was wonderful. It was that she reminded me what was important, and that I had to do the right thing for myself so I could do the right thing for my kids. That's how Sue is. She always has her priorities in wonderful alignment.

So, thank you, Sue. For that and everything else you've done to make my life better. Because you have, not only by being an excellent example, but my friend, my family, my unfailing supporter. And my personal photographer.

I love you, Sue. Everyone should have someone like you in their lives.

March 19 - Richard Collins (I think), who is deceased

I so wish I was better with names.

When my daughter was young, from birth, actually, I loved to sing to her. Now, by some quirk of nature, I happened to marry a man who felt about my singing much like my mother before. In that he hated it, so I sang to her when Stephanie and I were alone. Which was most of the time.

When she was 3-4 years old, she began to sing with me (Stephanie was always amazingly articulate). Stephanie's toddler singing voice was adorable, but it was also in perfect pitch and she had a great memory for words and tunes. I wanted to encourage this gift, but I was also afraid.

Except for the two semesters in choir, which can't be counted as voice training per se, I had no singing instruction whatsoever. I was concerned that, here in her early formative years, I'd teach her the wrong way to sing and she'd have to unlearn it, perhaps painfully, later on.

So, I started looking for a vocal instructor so I could learn the basics and make sure I didn't give Stephanie a leg down as it were. One of my Comm and Track buddies, who was an amateur radio operator, had a buddy from his radio club that used to teach opera but wasn't interested in long terms students. That worked out well. I write in my spare time and have a kid and, hey, I'm a rocket scientist full time so a short term situation seemed ideal. Plus, Tim and I were always strapped somehow, still not sure how even now, so short time seemed best. Plus, I figured if I could sing opera, I could sing anything, so it was all good.

Richard Collins agreed to have me come as a student for two months, once a week. I, again, explained I couldn't sight read but had a good ear. Then I sang for him. When we were done he told me I was a dramatic soprano and I had gone all my life thinking (and singing) alto. My range was well over three octaves (partially because I'd been singing and expanding the lower part of my range all my life), but I sang high C without strain while we were there so obviously I had the high range somewhat naturally.

Richard Collins was somewhat irascible and short tempered. Didn't quite get why I didn't instantly learn to sight read for his convenience. Was irked I was too old to go into singing as a career (I was 31) when I started with him. I didn't think he liked me much and, though I could see myself getting stronger, singing-wise, liked the singing and liked sounding better, I was somewhat disheartened that he didn't seem pleased. But I wasn't going for a career (I was too old for anyway) - I wanted to make sure I was singing properly so Stephanie would do the same.

Then, after three months (since I'd missed some lessons since he had a bout of sick as had I, though not the same bug), I said, "Well, thank you very much. I've really enjoyed the lessons and appreciate your time and effort."

"What? You're stopping the lessons?"

"Well, you only wanted a short term student."

"But that was before I heard you sing!"

"Well, I can't afford lessons indefinitely."

So, then he offered to teach me for free. I couldn't help but take that as affirmation on my singing voice.

I didn't take him up on it (it wasn't fair) but we went biweekly and he taught me another six months or so including several songs of Schubert's which are Alex' favorites (both my youngest love to have me sing as do my nephews). And he kept getting me to try out for the Houston Grand Opera chorus even though I was too old.

I'm not a professional and never will be one. I still haven't learned to sight read. But I do sing better than I did. Stephanie sings superbly and told me recently that she uses her head voice and that I sing that way so she might have soaked it up from me. Apparently, that's an advanced way of singing and allows for singing lots without getting tired (though she needs to work on her other voices as well).

But I no longer hold off on singing around anyone and I love to sing. He helped me keep hold of it in a very unfriendly environment. And helped me feel good about singing with my daughter and y'all should know how fabulously she sings.

Richard Collins, I heard later, soon after started deteriorating due to Alzheimer's and died the next year.

But I'll always be grateful for his support, his teaching and for that moment when he made me feel like a star.

March 20 - Bobby Davis

Once again, we touch on someone who was more than just an acquaintance, but a friend for many years, though we've lost touch. He was my lead when I first entered the full-time working world, an irascible, opinionated, completely unrepentant dirty old man who was a lead engineer (one of two I've met - and both were brilliant engineers) without the degree who worked his way up from technician to engineering giant the old-fashioned way - through time and effort. I think it's a pity I hardly see this any more.

For almost everyone who knew him, particularly those higher in the food chain, he was frequently a pain in the butt and too damn useful to chastise or be rid of, so they sucked it up and lived with it. He was balding, near toothless, stubborn, deliberately rude (to those he disliked) and a blast to hang around. He was my first and dearest friend from work for years and years. I can't begin to tell you how much I learned from this highly intelligent man.

But first, in fact, almost first thing, he did something that made a huge difference to my professional outlook which is why, though I'm ashamed to say I've had more than my share of doormat/insecure/being walked all over in my personal life, that has NOT happened in my professional life.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm a forthright person and that carries into both personal life and elsewhere. And, when it came to academics, I had little if any insecurity to deal with. I was smart. I knew it and I didn't play dumb for anyone.

But, when I first came to work, I was not only a newbie, I didn't know anything. I could tell you everything useful I learned in college (actual data/methods) that I used on the job in five minutes. I've used my college education 20 times (if not more) on my blog for every time I've used it effectively in the work place. I wasn't crunching numbers like a regular engineer does. My degree's in engineering physics and we spend most of our time learning why the formulas engineers use WORK so we can think on our feet and handle anything tossed at us by figuring it out (and, to this day, that's what I do).

Great in theory, but harder in practice, especially when you're new and everyone else isn't. I was tossed into the deep end and that's how Bobby liked to play it, see if I'd sink or find my stride. I did the latter, but the first few weeks, I was quiet, soaking up everything and learning as I went. I'd sit and shoot the breeze with this old-timer or another, sit and talk to the technicians (who knew so much - I learned more from than than anyone) and soak up whatever I could about the work done there, what worked, what didn't, why, etc. This method worked wonderfully with Bobby, too.

But, from the outside, it could have looked pretty passive. However, Bobby wasn't fooled for a minute. Others, however, decided I was a pushover, particularly a tech supervisor that had been angling for one of the jobs (I had several hats even when first hired) I'd been hired to do: calibration engineer. Bobby's group was sort of a "catch-all" - whatever didn't fit neatly into someone else's bailiwick, he'd get done. (It might have been tailor-made for me).

Anyway, I'd get a lot of innuendo and flack when I tried to get anything done. It was a satellite calibration lab so I'd gone to the primary lab and soaked up information, then came back and scrubbed through the hopelessly outdated procedures by running through them with the techs and reworking them to something that was useful and functional.

Their supervisor ribbed me frequently and was somewhat obstructive. I mostly swallowed it quietly and did things my own way anyway, but it was grating. Finally, after a particularly irksome exchange, I came to Bobby for direction. "I'm trying to do Y," I said, "but so-and-so says I don't have the authority to do it. What should I do?"

Bobby said, "He's in charge of timecards and juggling the budget, but he doesn't make the technical decisions. You do. You're the engineer and don't you forget it. If he gives you crap again when you're doing what you're supposed to do, you tell him to go to hell, and THEN come see me."

In that tiny exchange, my professional persona was effectively cemented. Not that I enjoyed giving people hell (though many would disagree), but that I never forgot that being responsible for something meant I had to make the decisions. I had to do the paperwork and my homework to do it right, but, IF I HAD DONE SO, it was also my responsibility to make it so and ensure it was done properly, even if someone else felt I was stepping on his toes.

I tried to handle things with what diplomacy I had (and mostly succeeded - I was generally very popular with the techs). But, as there occasionally was, there was a disconnect and disagreement, I would try to work it out until someone was needlessly obstructive. Then I would invite them to take their story to management as I would take mine and we'd see who's story was better. Given that I didn't give them direction until I knew what the heck I was doing, it was me. Every damn time.

It's ironic that management, that began somewhat assuming I didn't know what I was talking about, usually figured out the second or third time that I did and then they turned holy hell on whoever got in my way. In many ways, that was a great job...until I was laid off. But that was an entirely different story.

In any case, Bobby helped me become the kickass Rocket Scientist I am today, known (and feared) by many for only coming to the table when I had something worth saying but not backing down when I felt it was worth it. And I'm pretty proud of that.

Thanks, Bobby.

March 21 - Walt Sanders or something (I'll probably remember sometime later tonight and kick myself)

Bobby was my lead when I first started working at Lockheed Engineering and Science Co and Walt was Bobby's and my supervisor. Whereas most of the old-timers were talkative and happy to expand on their history so I could soak up knowledge, Walt is one of the most taciturn people I've ever worked with.

Not unfriendly. Just quiet. He had a beautiful low gravelly voice. I'd greet him, "Walt!"

His reply, invariably, was "Ma'am." (Imagine it really low). For some reason that cracked me up.

In many ways, he was a great boss. He'd back me when I needed it. He stayed out of my way when I figured out what was necessary and let me get it done (a feature of the very bestest managers).

But it wasn't all joy. I remember when I was ripping out one data handling system and putting in another (big project). I'd done the first half but, for the second half, Walt told me (with one or two day's notice) that the NASA bigwigs wanted me to tell them about it.

I was the whole "design team" from draftsman to programmer, so gathering materials was easy and, of course, I knew what was going on and why. As we're talking, the NASA folks were asking me how many man-hours we'd need and what materials. I told them I usually let Walt handle that stuff (though, when pressed, I had decent guesses) and I just did the grunt work. "But," they told me, "You're the Project Engineer."

Pause. "I am?"

Walt nodded. "Oh, that's right. Didn't I tell you?"

So, there's that.

Anyway, though Walt wasn't the font of knowledge or an attack manager as needed like Bobby, he did teach me one very important thing.

I'd been working some long hours because of testing and something came up late in the week when I was about to take off. Overtime involved hours for free for us salary folk (4? 8?) before getting paid but also had to be blessed by management on several different levels and was a real hassle, especially late in the week when many managers were already slipping out the door.

Even then a completist, I told Walt I'd just eat a few hours and get the work done. Walt said, "Go home. It can wait until Monday."

"I hate to leave work half done."

"You get paid by the hour, even as salary, and so does the company. Don't work for free if you're worth getting paid."

And that struck a chord. When I got hired as a woman in a male-dominated field, I knew the fact I was a "minority" was actually in my favor, since government contracts like to have their contractors with a certain percentage of minorities. But I told myself that, no matter what I was paid, I would be worth every penny so that NEXT time they hired a woman, it wouldn't be to fill a slot but because they realize how good we are. And, I pride myself, though I get far more than that first salary, that I'm worth every penny now as well.

But there's another side to the coin. If my time is valuable and the company will charge the government (even on hours I work for "free"), I should get paid for that work.

And so, though I sometimes work overtime and have worked a modicum of "free" hours to get paid overtime later, it's the exception and not the rule. For the most part, I'm getting paid or I'm not working. I just try to get done more in that time than anyone expects so everyone knows I'm worth it. I always, ALWAYS, get top marks for productivity, even if I'm working fewer hours than anyone else in the office. But I get paid, and paid well, for that productivity.

And Walt, who rarely said anything at all, is the one who taught me that.


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