Friday, May 28, 2010

Notice Me

Yesterday my wife made a comment that opened my eyes to the importance of taking notice. I had complimented her about her appearance in a particularly attractive blouse and she said, "Wow you really noticed me". This surprised me. She went on to explain how nice it was for a husband to notice his wife. I guess as some marriages progress, the familiarity can some times fall into failing to notice one another. Thank God we haven't slipped into that behavior.

In a greater sense of all social, business and public interactions I suspect we all cry out to those around us to "notice me". Isn't it annoying when we go to a store and go through the check out process with a clerk who is carrying on a conversation with a co-worker completely ignoring your presence? And on the flip side, I am sure I have failed to really notice my server at a restaurant on occasion. We all have a hunger to count in the world we live in. So we have an obligation to notice and care for others just as we thrive on support.

Now that I am advising students at Cornell, I am sure I should extend myself to really notice my advisees. During this past year we have had a regrettable number of suicides by some of our students. Perhaps some of these tragedies are the failure of friends, colleagues, staff and faculty to reach out and notice their plight.

In the world of education, I frequently hear stories of teachers who have been the catalyst for success of many students simply by noticing their plight, whether it be academic or personal. I am sure we all have many persons to thank for the hand up we have received just from being noticed.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Number 1 or Number 1000

I thoroughly enjoy tennis both as a player and an observer. Now that the French Open is in progress I have a chance to watch players over the whole range of rankings play. Achieving number one ranking in any endeavor is a remarkable feat and is to be admired. However, in any area of activity the activity itself has to be sustained by a whole host of people aspiring to climb the ladder of success. In the greater scheme of things I think we need to appreciate all those that support the sport or activity simply by their presence and participation. In many ways I admire the journeymen of tennis more than the stars. Day in a day out many of them go on the court to give their best even in the reality that they are not likely to rise to the heights of success of the more talented players. Their love of the game as much as the rewards of winning serves as a reminder that we need to love and support all those people who faithfully show up. And in the game of life, it is equally true that while we strive to be number one in something, in reality we may need to accept that playing the game at number 1000 is not so bad either. After all, at least we are in the game and not sitting on the sidelines. And who knows, there is always the chance we will have our 15 minutes of fame.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


My usual Sunday routine includes completing the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. One of the clues for today was "old fogy". My initial response to the clue was geezer. However, the solution to the puzzle required a different answer. It was "fossil". From this I concluded that I clearly missed the nuance between "fossil" and "geezer". I think that a geezer is definitely a cut above a fossil and an old fogy. For me the title of geezer has a certain patina that is admired as it is in antique furniture. Thus I will stick with the dignity of being a geezer.

How a thought or a description is worded or expressed has a way of leaving impressions that may be unintended by the speaker. So all of this reminds me to be careful with my comments in my interactions with friends, family and colleagues. I have always tried to maintain a quality of interaction with individuals that honors those I encounter. Paying attention to nuances of words will have to be included in my thinking.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fantasy and Reality

Thursday I attended a lecture by Professor emeritus Pete Wetherbee (known to the inmates as "Doc") who began teaching classes in what he describes as a "one-room schoolhouse" in the mid-1990s in the Cornell Behind Bars program. This program provides instruction and college credit courses to inmates of the Auburn Correctional Facility. "Doc" started this program over fifteen years ago. Currently the program has a number of Cornell faculty involved as well as some undergraduate and graduate students. The inmates have the opportunity to receive an Associates Degree from Cayuga Community College. He provided a remarkable glimpse of prison life and the challenges of surviving in the prison community. Apparently the current culture of incarceration in New York State is one mostly driven by punishment with relatively few resources directed toward rehabilitation. Survival in this rather brutal environment means adapting to the situation and developing strategies that work on a daily basis.

Beyond the description of the program operation and the characteristics of the students, I was most impressed by his remark about fantasy and reality. He observed that the inmates cope by having fantasies that give them some sort of hope and relief for their existence. However he further stated that the abrupt return to the reality of their existence can also be devastating. Thus their life is driven by a delicate balance of comfort of their fantasies with the brutal realities of long term prison life.

Those of us that live our lives in the greater society exist with both our fantasies and realities as well. Perhaps our fantasies may be driven by a hope for improved family relationships or more success in our jobs or professions. In some cases our fantasy of the dream job comes back to crushing reality of the drudgery of some tasks. As a youth, I wanted to learn to play a piano but family circumstances did not allow it to happen. When I retired, I dedicated myself to piano lessons and practice for about five years. It was a satisfying period of mutual learning with my daughter who was also taking lessons from the same teacher. My grand fantasy of becoming of competent pianist never materialized. The harsh reality was that my more advanced age of starting lessons prevented me from going beyond a certain plateau of achievement. In the vernacular of lesson levels, Level III seems to be my limit. However disappointing this reality, I still fantasize about being able to play some great jazz pieces. Fortunately I can entertain myself at the level I achieved.

I think that many of my skiing and tennis friends join me in having fantasies of being more successful and skillful in those endeavors. We all look for that perfect ski run or that set of tennis with high first service percentage. Or if you are a golfer, frequently shooting par. Fortunately the reality of simply the joy of participating and being active is sufficient most of the time.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Family Influence on Career Choice

Today I attended a retirement party for one of my colleagues, Yves Parlange. A world famous engineer, member of the National Academy of Engineering, winner of many prestigious national and international society prizes. It has been my privilege to know him for over 25 years. It was a wonderful party with accolades from colleagues and friends from around the world. (See photo of Jean-Yves). I also know a bit of his family history that causes me to reflect on the influence of family on career choices by the next generation. His father was a physician who managed French related hospitals in many parts of the world. Why Yves became an engineer is not clear to me but he certainly has had a brilliant career and still is very productive. Among the career choices of his children, a son is an engineer in academia and a daughter is a dentist. So I assume that the medical background and engineering background has influenced the career choice of his children.

I am convinced that parental careers do have a significant impact on the career choices of children. I find that my physicians often have a physician parent , uncle, or aunt. Often law firms have generations of attorneys in the same practice. And business leaders often hand off their business to the children. While the family influence among the professions seems to be the most evident, it is not clear how family influence effects career choices of children of merchants, laborers and service workers. In the United States, although family circumstances influence career choices, I believe we still have a society and system that provides the whole spectrum of opportunity for each succeeding generation. I came from a hardscrabble farm background and was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend college with the help of scholarships and support of a multitude of people. Although I will always honor my roots in agriculture, I was drawn to engineering and was able to make that transition. Perhaps I started another family tradition since two of my children and one step-child became engineers. However, the other four of my extended group of children have gone on to a variety of career paths.

It is regrettable in much of the world that career opportunity is often determined simply by you birth family situation. National Public Radio has been broadcasting a series on the Trunk Road through India and Pakistan where they have interviewed people that they have encountered along this highway. Today they interviewed a family of brick makers. One individual of 18 years of age had been making bricks full time since he was 10. And all his siblings and family regardless of age seemed to be doomed to making bricks for the rest of their lives. I guess if you enjoy making bricks, there is nothing wrong with that as a choice. However, in the case of these individuals there is no choice since they are denied education and any other opportunity to change circumstances. So, I conclude that family has a significant influence on career choice and this both can be a blessing and curse. Oh that we all could "Follow our bliss" as summed up by American Mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Construction Entertainment

I enjoy watching progress on a construction project. To me observing the work, changes and elements of the activity is as enjoyable as watching a movie or reading a good novel. Last year and the year before there was a major renovation of Route 281 through Cortland from the Route 13 intersection and on past SUNY Cortland. Although it was a disruption to traffic I enjoyed observing the various stages of excavating, paving, bridge making, sidewalk installation and landscaping. Over the last 8 months or so, I have been watching the construction of the new Super Walmart in South Cortland. The land that I used to walk across as a grassy field has been transformed in a multitude of ways. Earth moving in the early stages stripped the top soil, excavated a pond and created a reformed surface for the installation of infrastructure and foundations. Each day was an opportunity to see new progress and eventually the building rose up to dominate the area. About 225,000 square feet under cover. The project not only includes a monstrous building and extensive parking plot, but will also involve building a new road and intersection for the Bennie Road access to our residential area. And another stop light will be installed. I often take a walk around the perimeter of the construction site just to see the progress. All in all I put my stamp of approval on the quality of construction and the design of the massive enterprise.

Perhaps my attraction to construction projects spills over from my training as an engineer and my college years when I worked on construction projects in the summers. My first construction job was helping to build a water pipeline int the village of Fairport, NY. We installed underground water pipe of transite material and brought municipal water to a section of that village. The greatest excitement we had was a ruptured gas line caused by our excavator when we didn't have a good map of the other underground infrastructure. At another time I was employed by the builder of Rochester Gas and Electric Company office building in Sodus, NY. I got first hand experience in foundations, heating and electrical infrastructure and concrete block construction. As a mason's helper I supplied "mud" and blocks to the master mason. This required hauling mortar and blocks up the scaffolding and sure put me in good physical condition. This job also almost did me in when a scaffolding I was dismantling collapsed. Fortunately I stayed on top of the debris and rode the framework down for about a twenty foot drop.

For another summer, I got to help with the construction of the New York State Thruway in the section crossing the Montezuma Wildlife Preserve. My work with a sub contractor was to moving and set the rails for the concrete paving machine and to cover and uncover the 100 foot sections of concrete highway lanes with a sisal-kraft paper that assured proper concrete cure. This was in the mid 1950's and paid about $2.00 per hour with time and half over 40 hours and double time for over 80 hours in a week. Our crew would work from daylight to sunset for six days a week, so we did go over 80 hours occasionally. Fourteen hour days were not unusual. Although the work was hard, it was entertaining to observe both the equipment and procedures used in creating a superhighway.

My closing thought is that creating a building, highway or machine must bring the same satisfaction to an engineer as a painting or sculpture brings to an artist.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Mother's Tribute

I can only have great admiration for the role mothers play and the contributions they make to family and society. There are special burdens and special rewards for mothers. Bearing children alone requires the commitment of body in ways that men never experience. Upon birth, there is a continued special connectivity often through breast feeding. And society places special emphasis on the nurturing task as being fundamentally the mother's responsibility. Wow!!

Within my own family I have had a multitude of role models for mothers. I pay special tribute to my own mother who persevered in spite of handicaps she encountered. My mother was the daughter of Dutch immigrants grounded in the Catholic faith. Along with her sisters and brothers - there were five total children - three girls and two boys - she grew up on a farm and managed to complete education through 8th grade. She was naturally left handed but the nuns in school at that time did not allow one to be left handed since it was thought to be of the devil. Thus she learned to write right handed after having her knuckles rapped any time she took up a pencil in the left hand. In her childhood her father decided to pioneer farming in South Dakota. She along with her siblings moved to South Dakota with all the family wealth and possessions to start a new life on the frontier. Regrettably grandfather Carl Tange and grandmother Emma Tange lost all they had in the dust bowl conditions of that era. They ended up returning to New York State to start all over again in Ontario County. Unfortunately Carl and Emma never fully achieved comfort upon their return and passed away prematurely.

My mother married a Mr. Goebert as a teenager and bore a son soon after in October of 1929 and named him Kenneth Eugene Goebert. Only a few years into the marriage her husband died from peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. As a young widow she was forced to seek employment to support herself and her son. Family helped out with child care but she needed to work 10 hour days, six days a week with women packing products for sale. Wages of 10 to 15 cents per hour.

In the early 1930's she met and married my father Charles James Rehkugler. My father was in his late twenties. I was born in 1935 underneath the stairs of an old farmhouse on the corner of Wayne Center and Preemption Roads, Town of Rose, Wayne County, New York. In my early years I have wonderful memories of how well my mother cared for me. At about two and a half years of age I contracted measles which morphed into pneumonia. For several days I was at death's door. My mother kept vigil at my crib side all that time. And I distinctly remember waking from my stupor to see my mother in her chair next to my crib.

As time went by my mother began to suffer from depression perhaps brought on from conflict with my paternal grandmother over my upbringing. In the unenlightened era regarding mental health she was institutionalized for a over a year at Willard Mental Hospital. We were all delighted that she recovered to return to our family with restored health and enthusiasm for life.
In the ensuing years my mother became of bulwark of energy and support for the farm enterprise and the care Kenneth and myself. She work hard both in the fields and in the care of our home. I was always proud to bring my friends into our neat and orderly home.

My mother always supported my adventures whatever they might be and enjoyed the grandchildren as the arrived. Unfortunately in 1969 my mother experienced the tragedy of the death of her son and my half brother Kenneth Goebert at age 39 from acute leukemia. I would expect one of the greatest agonies of a parent is to have a the death of a child. Mother weathered this tragedy but with the death of my father in 1972 she began to spiral into depression once again. With medication and other treatment she was able to at least partially recover and enjoy her later years in community with her senior friends in her new bungalow in Lyons, New York.

My final tribute is to appreciate how much my mother loved me in spite of all the burdens that life threw at her. And I think she really relished my love for her. When I closed the estate after her death 1978 I found her treasure of all the hand made cards and plagues I made for her as a child.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Great Success - Great Failure

My major professor on my doctoral program claimed that one could not have great successes without great failures. He claimed that you must reach far and risk failure to achieve great success. I think he was both right and wrong. To the extent the failure spurs you on to improvement and overcoming shortcomings it is a useful experience. My personal journey of successes and failures includes learning a lot from my failures. One example is my freshman English course where I did an abysmal job of writing. Fortunately this shortcoming was overcome with a remedial writing workshop. The individual attention in the workshop helped me to overcome my deficiencies and has served me well for over 55 years. I also vividly remember bombing my first Thermodynamics exam. However, through the encouragement of my professor I dug in and became an exemplary student in the subject and actually grew to enjoy the use and study of thermodynamics.

While failure can often spur one to greater achievement, great success can sometimes lead to destruction. In politics and sports there are a multitude of examples of extremely successful individuals succumbing to temptations and behavior leading to a failure of character and action.
Recently, my wife and I watched the movie Frost/Nixon that chronicled David Frost's interview of Nixon that exposed his failure of character and action. Here was a man who was twice elected vice-president and twice elected president of the United States (which has to be marked as a great success) but he ended up resigning the presidency in disgrace. Clearly he had great success and in fact during his presidency did accomplish some foreign policy firsts of note in relations with China. However, this did not carry over into his integrity in dealing with his opponents. Great success - greater failure.

As I muse over the matter of measuring success, I have to remind myself that each person has their own destiny. For each of us perhaps great success is living with integrity with the skills and abilities we have without comparing ourselves to others. I have discovered that success measured externally inevitably leads to dissatisfaction with your achievements. However, if I internally know that I have done by best, life is good and I am at peace.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On Being Generous

Recently I have been participating in the American Cancer Society Campaign involving the Relay for Life event. As a part of a United Presbyterian Church of Cortland team I have agreed to seek contributors for cancer related research and management. This has given me the opportunity to ponder what makes a generous person and why some people seem to be much more generous than others.

I have always struggled with becoming a generous person. It is not my natural behavior to be generous and I have had to learn to become more giving. In that struggle, I have learned that by being more generous with my resources and in my relationships the rewards are extraordinary. The rewards come in many ways. First of all there is the outer satisfaction that you I have helped someone or some agency to achieve things that I couldn't do myself. The inner satisfaction is that I see myself as a better person who has conquered some of my internal selfishness. Perhaps the next step in becoming a more generous person is to give without any expectation of appreciation. That would be seem to be the ultimate in generosity.

When I started on the Relay for Life Campaign I set a fundraising goal of $300 and selectively culled my e-mail list for possible donors after I made my own contribution. I decided to e-mail only those persons that I felt I had a special friendship where they could ignore my request if they wished without any connection to our good will. And since cancer has affected so many of us in different ways, it would be an opportunity to honor a friend or family member. To my surprise, my friends and family have been exceedingly generous. In fact, it is apparent that I will enable contributions over double my goal. The generosity of all who have participated humbles me. These folks have touched me with the kindness of their response and have reinforced in me the desire to be more generous in my own living.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Weeds have a way of surviving in spite of anything we do to control them. Last evening I noticed our lawn was producing more than my share of dandelions regardless of our weed control service. So I spent a bit of time digging up a few of the dandelions as an old fashioned control mechanism. Perhaps we should reclassify weeds simply as vegetation in the wrong place at the wrong time and tolerate their existence.

There is a History Channel show that speculates on what happens to the earth after the demise of humans. The striking aspect of the change portrayed is how vegetation ( say weeds) begin to overtake all the structures, roads and cleared land areas of the earth. I think their portrayal is quite accurate. I grew up on a farm in Wayne County, New York where we produced various field crops, vegetables, and fruit. Our operations controlled the weed population both in the fields and the orchards. After the home farm was sold after my father died and my mother moved to town, the operator became lax in controlling the volunteer vegetation in the fields. The orchards did survive for a while but soon were abandoned. A couple of years ago I returned to the old farmstead to see what it looked like. After more than ten years of neglect everything was overgrown with the volunteer vegetation. Even the old farmhouse and barn were inundated with bushes vines, weeds and what have you. So the History Channel people got it right. My posted picture today is evidence of what I am writing.

Closer to home I also observe the tenacity of weeds. I regularly go to my office in Riley-Robb hall where I observe the flat roofs of our laboratory wings. The flat roofs have a membrane covered by approximately two foot by two foot insulating blocks. The cracks between the blocks accumulate sufficient soil and nutrients so we have a virtual forest of plants and trees growing out of the cracks. To my amazement some of these plant reach heights of three feet or more.

So, I think that weeds and vegetation are likely to be the survivors of homo-sapiens in the great evolutionary cycle. Do you think that weeds will ever develop into intelligent entities? Who knows?