Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My trip to JPL and Caltech

This is a pic of the big fire on the mountain range I grew up on, as it gets close to JPL. That little "city" is JPL. This fire raged for weeks. I hope the blog software actually uploaded it, not just a map to it.

I had a wonderful opportunity to speak at JPL last week. It was a private engagement which is why it wasn't on my schedule, but wow, was it a blast! It's funny that it came about in the normal way - through my publicist, Andy, at Simon and Schuster, because it turns out that the people in the department who requested that I come and speak turned out to know many of my family members! One of them was one of my aunt Gloria's best friends! Who KNEW? Aunt Gloria died of cancer a few years ago and we've felt a huge void in our lives without her. It was amazing to meet her best friend at work and another woman. Together, they were inseparable - the three musketeers. But they also knew my Dad and stepmother! WOW! AND my cousin...
so it turned out to feel more like a family reunion! They knew all my family's gossip and inside information, so after I did my talk, we all went back to the offices and continued to "hang out" and chat and tell stories and laugh.

One of the things we had fun talking about was the weirdness at Caltech and JPL - meaning how weird some of the people are. The manager, who is the one who was my aunt's friend, who hadn't read the book yet, asked me, "Have you ever seen the tutu man?" "Oh yes!" I answered. "I even talked about him in the book - you mean the guy who dresses as a court jester or paige with the purple or striped tights (depending on the day), the curly toed shoes, the felt hat w/ the feather, and the bloomers?"
"Yes, that guy".
Oh my gosh. How could one NOT notice him?
"I used to see him walking across the lawn by Beckman auditorium every day,"

"Well," says the manager, "I've talked to him and have the scoop on why he dresses that way. Being an empirical scientist, he put together all the factors about our area, such as the weather, humidity..all the conditions, and determined that the most suitable, most practical mode of dress for our particular environment is the mideival jester's set of clothing, so that's all he wears, every day. And that's all he's worn for some 30 years now."

Oh man, that is so typical! Never mind how strange it is, never mind that men rarely wear tights anymore in public. No, if it's scientifically determined to be the best outfit for the environment, then there is no questioning it. Yes, some scientists can be a little rigid!

It's funny how, at so many of my events, I meet people who know about someone I've mentioned in the book. At the Latitude 33 bookstore in Laguna, a woman who drove all the way to Laguna Beach from LA (about 3 hours' drive in traffic) turned out to know the professor who had dedicated his entire life to the study of the ovary of the surf perch - Dr. McMiniman. The woman who came to my event was an Occidental College graduate from 1951 in Biology and Dr. McMiniman was studying the ovary of the surf perch even back then. As far as I know, he still is, even though he's been retired for 25 years. He must have started when he was an undergrad. Sheesh!

She said that at his retirement party he did a very long lecture guessed it...the ovary of the surf perch and all of his research regarding it. It was NOT your normal retirement party! Reminds me of the guy who gave everyone his math disertation for Christmas, all wrapped up, 3 inches thick, single spaced. Right! I'm gonna READ that. A PhD dissertation in math is going to be over almost anyones' head...and I love math and minored in it. Anyway..

JPL was like coming home. I've been hanging out there since I was a toddler. I remember going into the keypunch operators' rooms where there were rows of ladies in dresses and high heels key punching cards that contained the programming that people had written. Then, the stacks of cards would literally wait their turn for the computer and would be fed through the computer and executed as a program. If there was any problem with it, if it wasn't perfect, you had to start all over again and repunch cards and wait for it to run again. Nothing like today where you can keep testing your program or an element of your program. i remember my dad coming home w/ our names keypunched into the little cards. Wish I had kept them!

Then, after spending the morning at JPL (JPL is TRIPPY. It's where all the space programs come from - Apollo, Viking, Voyager, Mars lander...just all of the planetary and moon exploration comes out of JPL, which is a Caltech laboratory), the manager took me over to Caltech to eat in the Atheneum. WOW! I've NEVER eaten in the atheneum! It's a very private and prestigious, members only, 5 star restaurant. People like Einstein ate there.

We had to eat outside because the inside was being used for the TV show "Big Love" to film. Perfect! That was the perfect rep resentation of how my life always was as a kid - with the showbiz and the science existing side by side. Sissy Spacek was standing there.

So after we ate, we went up to one of the suites. The Atheneum has private apartments for visiting scientists, and about 12 rooms for same. Well, Einstein used to spend his summers at Caltech, and he always stayed in one particular suite, which is a beautiful little apartment without a kitchen (he and his wife ate at the atheneum, apparently). From their window you can look out over the Caltech campus. How do I know what it's like inside? We went up and looked around inside because the woman who runs that hotel part of the atheneum gave us the key to go look around! WOW! I felt inspired. I'd like to spend one night there working on my next book. Maybe there is magic in that place. If felt magic to me, but then again, Caltech always does. It's such a disneyland for the mind that to me it's the ultimate.

i had more fun just hanging out there and reliving the days of Wesley and working there, and reliving my childhood days of coming to JPL, where my dad worked, and being so inspired watching guys in hasmat suits building the spacecraft that were going to go to the moon. There is a multistory clean room in which the spacecraft are built. There must be NO dust on any of the spacecraft and they were so delicate, really. Mind blowing.

By the time we had spent the day, I was hitting the wall. I'm still sick and can't push myself for very long before I have to STOP! Well, I stayed too long and now I was trapped because I was too tired to drive safely home. It would be about a tow hour drive home and there's no way I could have stayed awake. So I drove my car up to a friend's house and parked in front of her house and slept for 3 hours there without her knowing I was there, just so I'd feel a bit safer. Finally I was awake enough to drive home.

Did I mention that I'm back in contact w/ the parasite guy and the spider guy? They heard that they were in my book and looked themselves up and voila! There they were!

It's amazing that my book about Wesley took me back to the very place where I met Wesley, to the very environment that inspired me to become a scientist, which resulted in me ending up with Wesley. It was surreal. It's like Wesley is still helping me somehow.

By the way, I left Fiona home all that time. She does fine in the house when I'm gone a long time. She sleeps in my bed and has decided to pee just outside the bathroom door, on a pee pad for puppies. That's fine until I can get a doggie door, if I decide to get a doggie door. She must be inside because it's air conditioned. It was 105 outside on the day I went to JPL! And it snowed in the Colorado mountains the same day! ARG!

So, there you have it.

Fiona is doing well and is enjoying her obedience training (I do not use a choke collar, and it's an award and praise based way of training) She's a basically mellow dog anyway, so she just needs guidance and does not need a super firm hand at all.

But that's another subject for another time.

Have a great week!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Author Event/Book Signing in Laguna, Aug 11

If you live in S. California, in the Orange County area, you might want to come to the event and book signing I'm doing at Latitude 33 Bookshop at 7:00 pm, Thursday, Aug 10. I'd love to meet you and sign your book!
Here's all the info:

Thursday, September 10:

7:00PM Latitude 33 Bookshop—Author event and book signing
311 Ocean Avenue / Laguna Beach, California 92651

I sure hope to see you there!