Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Another driver on the road

I meant to write about this last week. On Thursday last week, March 26, my son went for his driving test. He hadn't rushed out to get his learner's permit as soon as he was 16 years old as he could have. He decided to wait until he was 18 years old. I think that was very responsible and I also think it was smart. He didn't feel pressure to get the license. He also didn't want to have to go to extra classes that are mandated just for younger drivers. Also, once you get a license but are still under 18, there are restrictions on the license. Even though he would have been responsible and followed the rules, it seems silly to have to worry that you might be driving during the restricted time (12:30 am to 5:00 am) if if you find it necessary to use a cell phone or to be driving a person younger than 18 years old without also having a person over 21 in the car. None of these would have ever happened - under normal circumstances. But why add one more worry to life?

Because scheduling the test was difficult (given the scarcity of testing times and the number of people wanting to take the test), he had to travel about an hour away to the city of New Bedford for the test. There was a forecast of rain for that day (heavy at times) and there are sections of New Bedford that are very old with narrow streets.It didn't seem like it was going to be easy but that was the path he chose and we were going to back him up. My wife was too nervous to accompany him so I took time from work to go along as his sponsor. That just meant that I needed to accompany him on the drive to the Registry (because the learner's permit requires that) and to sit in the back seat (silently) during the test. We got there an hour early and, surprisingly, they took us in early. The tester was very nice. He was calm, he explained everything carefully and he seemed really interested in seeing if my son was a good driver or not. I've heard of many testers challenging the new driver and making them very nervous. Our tester seemed more interested in seeing how my son really drove.

We started out by turning onto one of the busier streets in town. My son waited patiently and was pulling out when one more car came a little too fast down the street and we had to stop. He made a slight mistake by attempting to back up without first checking behind him but it turned out OK and the car that had forced us to stop moved on. But in the back of my mind, I counted, "One."

The tester instructed my son toward a back street where most of the test would be given. We had to deal with traffic lights, stop signs, turns against traffic and had to deal with whether we had the right-of-way or not. But after a few minutes, we got to the street the tester had wanted. First off, he had to parallel park. This was the thing I was most afraid of given that it's the thing I think is the hardest part of driving. I didn't have to parallel park in my own driving test (almost 50 years ago) and it's always held a bit of mystery to me. My son made the maneuver like he'd been born behind the wheel. I almost cheered but I was supposed to stay quiet and I did. The next thing he had to do was park on a hill by a curb. This was another of my fears. For some reason, I could never quite get the logic for the way you are supposed to turn the wheels in this situation. It always seemed to me that the drawings were wrong. But my son had it figured out. I knew right away which way to turn the wheels once the car was stopped. But he made another small mistake when he didn't set the parking brake right away and needed a reminder from the tester. It seemed like a small thing but in the back of my mind I said, "Two."

Next, the tester said he wanted to see a three point turn. My son checked for traffic correctly and started the turn but the tester said, "Where was the turn signal?" My son did set the signal and completed a flawless turn. As we were headed back up the street, though, I thought, "Three." The tester informed us that were were going to head back to the Registry office. That seemed awfully quick to me. It reinforced my fear that he was going to fail my son. I was thinking up all the encouraging things I could say like, "no one is perfect," and, "schedule a new test right away so it doesn't drag on" and, "get back on the horse right away," and all those other parent sayings.

The rain had held off but now it was starting to come down fast. The tester said we didn't need to park and could just drop him off near the door. I saw him filling out his form and going into his briefcase to get a stamp which I assumed said, "Fail." But instead he said, "Congratulations. You passed." The stamp he had was to stamp the learner's permit so it could be used temporarily as a full driver's license until the permanent one arrived. I was so proud of my son. He knew he had made small mistakes and it would have been very easy for him to just give up and make even bigger mistakes. But he kept his cool and stayed in control. The tester certainly noticed that and also how 99% of the time everything was going so well. My son drove with confidence and patience. He drove steadily and didn't make sudden moves. It will be my pleasure to let him drive whenever he wants to.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A short note about an interesting sign

When I ride my scooter to work (which I haven't been able to do since the middle of January), I pass a small church which has a sign out front that has a section that can carry a short message. Sometimes, it announces activities and services and sometimes it has short little messages.

The short messages are sometimes humorous but they are always meant to make you think. The one I want to tell you about today is not necessarily humorous. But it says a lot in a few words:

Don't forget. You are unique.
Just like everyone else.
The first line is encouraging while the second line brings us back to reality. Too many of us take the first line and run with it. We take it as a license to place ourselves in front of everyone and everything else. We use it as an excuse for thinking we deserve special treatment.

The second line hearkens back to the Golden Rule.

The little church, the Cataumet Methodist Church, is a partner church with the Bourne Methodist Church. Their combined website is at this link. The Methodists seem to have a tendency of combining small churches like this. My mother used to go to a Methodist church that was partnered with two other churches in the area. They shared a minister and later, as finances decreased, they all moved into one building. But that didn't help things because the Methodist district conference later dissolved all three churches.

There is another interesting thing about the Cataumet church. This is where I first got involved with a Valentine's Day dance for special needs kids who met in the basement of the church. The dance used to be held there, too, until our company opened up its cafeteria to the dance so more people could attend and more of our employees could join the band. I wrote about that dance here and here. And every one of the kids who attended the dance was unique. Just like the rest of us.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Why I almost didn't become an engineer

When I originally considered going to college, I thought I wanted to major in chemistry. I'm not exactly sure why. It's been about 47 years since I had to start thinking about what I'd want to study in college but part of the reason was that I was good in that subject and I'd had a chemistry set when I was younger and the things you could do with a knowledge of chemistry fascinated me. Also, with the growth of the plastics and pharmaceutical industries in the 1960s, it made me think I could do something useful with a degree in chemistry. So, when I was applying to colleges, I included Bucknell University in my list (I also applied to Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University - I was accepted at all four schools) because it had very good reputation in chemistry. Then I took the Advanced Placement exam for chemistry and did horribly on it!

My other interest at that time was music and I briefly thought about going to school to get a degree in music. My parents were not happy about that, though, because they worried about my finding a job. They would have backed me up on any decision I made but it was important to me that they be happy with any decision I made. So, while I did look into applying to Duquesne University's School of Music, I didn't go too far down that path.

Then came a big event in my life. I was selected to go to a district band after trying out among other high school band students and we performed an interesting piece that included some electronic music. I found the idea of actually making music that included traditional instruments with electronically produced sounds (not an electronic organ or electric guitar) very interesting. My father had taken a course in television repair (when that sort of thing was still done) to supplement his operating heavy construction machinery (which often led to no work during the winter) and he was always trying to get me interested in electronics. Also, one of my best friends was interested in electronics, too. So, the idea of being able to design musical instruments and perform with them tickled my fancy.

At this point, I had already decided to go to Bucknell but since I didn't think I'd do well at chemistry at the university level, I switched my major to electrical engineering. My parents were happy with this decision because they thought it would lead to a stable and well-paying career. They were right, of course, but I liked it because it was an exciting field of study. I had initially found it interesting because of music but there were a huge number of options once you had an electrical engineering degree. Another of my interests had been marine biology and I thought it might work out that I could design instruments to help in that field.

So, I arrived at Bucknell University in the fall of 1969 as an electrical engineering student. But one night, I went to a get together and there were a few upper class engineering students there. One of them was a senior and was thinking about where he might be working after graduation. He was talking about preparing to work in a company for the first time and talked about working in an office. Someone asked him if he knew how to type. This was before everyone had a computer on their desk and it was easy to write a paper or letter and just print it out. In those days, if you wanted to write a paper, you had to type it on paper with a typewriter. It was a good skill to have. Some students who knew how to type and had a good typewriter could make extra money by typing other students' papers.

I'll never forget the engineering student's answer: "No, I haven't learned to type. I understand that if the company finds out you know how to type, they won't give you a secretary." I was completely floored by that idea. For one thing, this guy seemed so petty. For another, he made it sound like he was going to be assigned a slave. Then the idea of writing up things being so important to him (instead of designing things or making things) made the whole idea of being an engineer seem much less appealing. Would I just be sitting around all day and dictating things to be written to someone? Was engineering all about just writing reports? I didn't want to be in a profession if the other people were like this guy.

The next day, I went into the Dean of Engineering's office to talk with him about it and to tell him I wanted to change my major. I'd just seen an interesting show about population biology. Also, as I mentioned before, I'd always had a special interest in marine biology. I watched all the Jacques Cousteau documentaries and thought maybe I could help change the world in that field.

The dean was not happy with my decision but had to acknowledge that it was my decision to make. But he tried to dissuade me. He scoffed at the engineer who had made the statement about not wanting to learn type. He stressed how much of engineering was in doing things and not the writing of reports (although there is certainly a lot of writing involved). Fortunately, the dean came up with an interesting idea about combining electrical engineering and biology in a five-year program that would allow me to get degrees in both disciplines. That is what I did. I had hoped to get a job in medical instrumentation or for a company that instrumented biology labs but that didn't happen. The closest I came to that was in working for the US Geological Survey where the instruments I developed were used by scientists in the Water Resources division to monitor our nation's water supply and, later, aboard ships to study marine geology. But no matter how I got here, I am very glad that one engineering student's off-hand remark didn't keep me for continuing in this fascinating field.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Mr. Spock as viewed from high school

I was sad to see that Leonard Nimoy died on Friday. I really enjoyed the character, Mr. Spock, he played on the original Star Trek series and I enjoyed his appearances in the later Star Trek movies and as a guest on the later Star Trek series. I liked how he and the writers kept the character from veering into parody or changing into some sort of super hero. But there were two things I really liked about the Spock character as I was watching the series in high school (I graduated in May, 1969 while the final Star Trek episode aired on June 9, 1969). Mr. Spock was an outsider on the series and he was the Science Officer.

As far as an outsider goes, I think everyone, to some extent, was an outsider in high school. We all tried to act like we had it all together but no one could live up to the expectations put on you by society, your parents and the school staff. That is to be expected because none of us is perfect. Even if you could possibly get 100% on every test and never missed a day of school (neither of those happened in our school), you couldn't do everything right. My big "downfall" was in the social aspects of high school. I never went to any of the big formal dances and only went on one real date the whole time (and that was because a girl that I was friends with asked me to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance). I looked up to Mr. Spock because he was an outsider, too. But in reality, he was the smartest, strongest and would out-live any of the others in the crew of the USS Enterprise. You always knew that if no one else could figure out how to get out of a bad situation, Mr. Spock could do it. And he didn't let his emotions get in the way! That was the thing I think I wanted to emulate more than anything else. Every time I noticed a girl I liked, it would never work out (usually because liking her meant I would never be able to talk with her). Every time I tried something out of my comfort zone (being in the school band and doing well academically), it didn't work out (like the time I tried out for the track team). And every failure seemed like the end of the world. Every failure hurt terribly. Why couldn't I be like Mr. Spock and just shrug off those things and just keep going?

Then there was the science. Whenever the ship and crew ran into trouble, they always went to Mr. Spock to figure it out. Science really had a use. It wasn't just something to like and to be good at. Science could be used to save lives, get you somewhere faster or help other people. Mr. Spock made science cool. And he always seemed so sure of himself! What a difference to how I felt (and probably everyone else in school). Oh to have that kind of confidence. To know what you should do and to be able to do it. He was just the guy a shy, outsider could look up to. While I did have heroes in other areas like my father, the minister in our church, even Jesus (another outsider) and various athletes and musicians, I also include a fictional character from a fictional story that somehow made my situation seem OK.