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!


jbrown said...

Stacey..As always its good to hear what's going on in your life.I hope one day you can do a book signing in Indianapolis,Indiana..I would be the first one in line.Blessings to You & your precious animals..Jan

Fran said...

Hello Stacey, My name is Fran, I am a Belgian woman who writes her blog in English (not my native language) I started my own blog after I had seen a wildlife documentary called “Raising Sancho”on BBC 1 .This is the touching story of a giant otter cub called Sancho who was rescued and being raised by Brazilian naturalist Carolina Vargas.
I was touched by it because I also had rescued an animal, a duckling. I found her in an abandoned nest when she came out her egg, we called her Pipke. To tell her story I started my own blog.
My blogger friends (they know the short story of Pipke already) told me about your book and in June I ordered it in a bookstore but it was not yet available in Belgium. In the meantime I went to your blog to read about Wesley and I was also working on Pipke's story.
Unfortunate but Pipke died before I could start to tell her full story in my own blog. She died lately on September 14, after a very last struggle of almost a month. (The last 10 years we had to go to the vet 295 times) She became 14 years and 4 months old. I had to start her story with the end of her life.

Now I expect that your book is going to arrive in a few days and I find it so unfortunate that I could not read it before Pipke died. I saw the You tube film on your blog and it was almost if I saw Pipke and me! She also gave me to eat, she played with my eyelashes without hurting me, she cuddled me like Wesley did, she understood me, we had our own vocabulary. We made even nests together, she was my mate.
Now I feel what you must have felt when Wesley died.
I am looking forward to read your book and I hope it can comfort me, that you show me how to work through my grief.
If you are interested in what I experienced this is my blog

I thank you for taking the time to read this comment and I wish you the best

Mary said...

Hi Stacey, I see there is a new show about parasites called Monsters Inside Me and I was thinking about the parasite guy in your book! What is JPL? I am sorry I am not catching what that is.

To Fran, who lost Pipke, I am so sorry to hear that. I will read your blog too and see more about her. I think that interspecies relationships are so special, and delicate. When you read about people who adopted chimpanzees and other primates as babies and then have to give them up because they become dangerous, it is always sad. But otherwise, we can learn so much about other creatures.

By the way, Sunday is the Feast of St. Francis, patron saint of animals. I am going to bring my pets to my local church. Our priest stands outside with his dachshund and does a little liturgy and blessing. People come swarming with their pets, including birds in their cages. All animals are welcome.

Stacy said...

Hi Stacey,

For the past month or so, my husband and I read your book each night with our 2 boys...our family gathering time. And, I really wanted to let you know that not only did we thouroughly enjoy your story about your precious Wesley, but you made us laugh out loud countless times (what a great writer you are)!!

But I must confess, I sobbed so hard at the very end that I could barely get the words out to finish the last chapter!

Lastly, I wanted to tell you that, because of your Wesley, we became inspired to get our very first bird...a cockatiel. He (at least we think it's a "he,") was actually a present to our son, Andrew, for his 12th birthday. We are all in love with our little birdie.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to have a glimpse into your life with made us all fall in love with your owl. And, we wanted to say we are sorry for your loss.

Best wishes to you (and I will be sure to follow your blog now that I know it exists!)

Stacy in Ohio

PS. Andrew wants to know if you will be getting another owl anytime soon?

Ramey Channell said...

Hi Stacey,
I'm so delighted to find your blog. I just finished reading Wesley the Owl, actually just finished it last night. Thanks for writing this wonderful book! I grew up in woodsy Alabama, in close association with wildlife of all kinds. I especially love hawks and POSSUMS!

We hear owls almost every night, and often see one in a small tree near my bedroom window. A few years back I saw a huge white owl in the dirt driveway of a friends house, and watched it take flight as I approached in my car. Don't know what kind it was.

Can't wait to see the videos of you and sweet Wesley.

Would love to find someone who could identify a bird or animal by the sound it makes. We have a strange, terrifying vocalization in our area: may be an owl. I've never had a chance to record it, but can describe it. Your account of the couple who tried to record owls for you was funny, and it made me think perhaps that's how my recording would turn out if I tried to capture this stange sound on tape.

Thanks again for your book.

Ramey Channell

blogspot: The Painted Possum

martin scuffins said...

Hi Stacey- hope you read this! I was amazed by your book. I work with injured and orphaned birds of prey in Australia. I have a quite a lot of experience with Boobook owls and some experience with Barn Owls. You have me thinking MUCH more deeply about their intelligence and ability to communicate. i just wish i had the time to devote more to individual birds the way you did with wes. We had a beautiful boobook called 'Minerva' who dominated our lives for a very long time. We still get a visit from her now and then! In addition to birds of prey I also LOVE irish music, making most of my income (the rest from art) from playing the fiddle (my favourite style is the laid back, gentle playing from Co Clare though my Da was a Cork man!) Just wanted you to know you have a kindred spirit 'downunder'. Cheers and thanks for your book, Martin Scuffins and

vidacavallaro said...
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Crystal said...

Stacey, Just wanted to weigh in and tell you I LOVE your book! I love Wesley!! I love YOU!!! This was the sweetest book I have read in a long time. So well written too. Your blog sounds the same. Blessings to you!!

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stacey O'Brien said...

Hi Everyone who commented here! What great stories you all have w/ your own animals! I am SO SORRY to hear about the death of Pipke! It is devestating.

Here is what has helped me through Wesley's death: I used to think that it was cruel that we outlive our pets and have to go through their deaths, but now I think it's a blessing that we outlive them, because by outliving them we are able to shepherd them through their death and get them the appropriate medical care and love them and keep them comfortable and comforted as they go through their death.

It would be so much worse if they outlived us! We wouldn't have any control over what happened to them and they would not understand that we hadn't abandoned them. They might be handled harshly or end up w/ people who really don't care much about them and don't understand what sweet, delicate spirits they are.

So, although I grieve Wesley every day and still accidentally call my dog "Wesley", I am so relieved, so grateful that I was able to be with Wesley through his entire life and keep him safe and comfortable and be with him in the end. He never lost that trust of knowing that I was there for him and he never did seem afraid. That alone is huge.

And I also comfort myself by realizing that even though the pain is so deep, it means I've chosen to live deeply, to bond deeply and love. i'd rather have done that than to live life on the surface and miss out on the deep love that we can have with our animals that is so unique and hard to explain to people who've never experienced it!

To answer another question, YES! I hope to start over with another baby barn owl and apply more rigorous record keeping of my owl's acquisiion of language, or his understanding of my speech, and the variations he comes up with to express himself. With Wesley, I didn't realize he was doing it and was 2 steps behind him most of the time!

The issue here in the US is the permit I will need. It's very difficult if not impossible to obtain a permit. With Wesley, a research permit was arranged for me, but since there's no longer an owl program at Caltech (the owl guy retired), so I can't go through them. i might need to get a permit to keep one unreleasable bird for the sake of education. Under that permit you must takek the bird out 2 times per month to schools, 4H, teach people about owls and their behavior and environment.

I haven't pursued this yet, however, because I may move to Colorado and sometimes these permits are based on the state you're in.

There are countries where you can keep owls as pets, such as in the UK. It'd be worth movingto the UK to be able to have an owl again and continue to learn from a barn owl!

Now I have a question: Is Wesley the Owl published in BELGIUM? If so, what language is it in? That's exciting! I didn't even realize this! It is SUCH a thrill to me that the book is being read in Europe, Brazil and other parts of Latin America, and Asia!

I can't read the Chinese comments. Can anyone translate them? I have the book in Chinese and it's beautiful! The cover is sort of art noir w/ a black and white close up of my eye w/ Wesley reflected in my pupil. The Chinese writing looks like it's part of the art concept!

Thank you all for commenting!

Stacey O'Brien

PS: My NY Resolution is to attend to my blog more, because it means a lot to me to connect to you through this medium! Thanks for your comments and kind words!

Stacey O'Brien said...

Ooops, I forgot to explain JPL. JPL is the Jet Propulsion Laboratories that belong to Caltech and is part of NASA. JPL is where they come up with the space programs for the US such as the Apollo progams to the moon, the Viking mission to mars and Saturn, and missions to Jupiter, Mars, Venus...all of the space programs except for the space shuttle. JPL is also not involved w/ military satgelites. They come up w/ the space programs and build the space craft right there at JPL in these huge clean rooms w/ not even a speck of dust in them. There is also a spectacular mission control there. The atmosphere is really fun because there is no military component = just pure science, and the people are reallu nice. My Dad worked there all my life and retired a few years ago. So that's JPL! You can go to to see photos of planets and nebula and all kinds of fascinating stuff. It'd be a good site to share w/ your kids to spark their imagination about exploration and science and the great frontiers still left for mankind to explore.

Fran said...

Hello Stacey.
First, I'd really hope that your health will improve very soon and I want to wish you all the best for the year 2010.
Thank you for answering my comment and taking the time to read my blog (I suppose so).
Your book and also your comment really comforts me, and I can endorse all you are saying here.
We were also afraid what would happen if Pipke outlived us.
In the year 1998 (the year that you were hospitalized) I was also hospitalized for one whole month. When I came back home – Pipke ignored me completely when she saw me – it seemed if I existed no longer for her. She even didn't answer when I called her – she wanted no more snuggles – it seemed if she was angry at me. She remained cool and impassive.
In fact, this event touched me more than my illness, it even made me feel much worse. I spent as much time as I could together with her to regain her love for me – and little by little – our bond grew again, it became even closer than before.
I knew – how it felt “to miss her”. Now I knew that she made my life complete, I would never miss her again, not even for one day.
At the moment your book lays beside me. You had to see it, it's filled with marker pen, I especial marked the passages that also I experienced, and the verbs that I had to search up because I didn't know them. I am still writing on Pipke's story, it's almost becoming a book now I'd hope that one day, I can find someone to publish it. I have already found someone to subedit what I wrote.
I want to let you know that I wrote the following thing in it: “Stacey wrote her story much more detailed. What I had written was in fact rather a superficial story. Several times again I reread passages of her book over and over. It was so amazing how she could bring it on paper. It seemed almost if I could feel the softness of Wesley's feathers – that I could smell the oil of his oil gland because – I also know how that felt and smelt. I also could feel what she must have felt when she lost Wesley, because I experienced the same. Thus: I started to write Pipke's story all over again. Stacey showed me the way how to do it. Without she knew it – she became in fact: my tutor.
She used the words where I was searching for in my poor English. Without her I couldn't describe the things like I described them now”.
So, you have more influence than you can imagine Stacey. It's not only Wesley's story that touched me but also how you wrote it down.
To answer your question: I don't know if your book in Belgium is available in Dutch (that's one of our local languages together with French and German).
I have bought the English version. In fact, I am glad that I have done that, it reads a little slower but it's good to improve my poor English. It's really a wonderful book Stacey, Wesley was an amazing little creature.
Wesley and Pipke, I will never forget them both. We both had luck that we might have known them.
Take care Stacey.
A big hug