Generations: Stories about passing science down

This week, we present two stories about science and wisdom passed down through generations.

Part 1: Ted Olds fears he’ll fail to graduate after his parents sacrificed to send him to engineering school.

Ted Olds has worked as a Patent Examiner at the US Patent & Trademark Ofiice. For the last thirty years he has worked as a patent attorney in a variety of high tech, and low tech areas. He has published short stories in a few small Journals. He mid-life crisis is storytelling. He has performed at a Risk event, and several Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers events. As a Moth "road tripper" he's told stories in many many cities, and has won 14 Moth Story Slams and in 8 different cities.

Part 2: Kayla Glynn’s challenging relationship with her science-loving grandfather alters the course of her life.

Kayla Glynn is one of The Story Collider's newest producers in the Vancouver area, as well as an ocean enthusiast. She is trained in marine management and research, but has recently shifted her focus to the realm of science communication. Kaylais currently the Digital Communications and Research Specialist for Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping and is on the Executive Board of the Canadian Network for Ocean Education. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge of the ocean and marine life with others and helping to improve global ocean literacy. Kayla believes that given the right knowledge and tools, people are capable of mitigating their impacts on the planet and fostering a deeper a relationship with the natural world. Follow her at @kaylamayglynn


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Ted Olds

My dad died a couple years ago and, at the wake, my son said his grandfather was the wisest person he ever knew.  And I get that.  My dad was always with good advice.  He was not petty.  He never, ever held a past mistake over my head, except once. 

My fifth year at Michigan State University, I had to finish my mechanical engineering degree.  We were poor so I had need-based financial aid and I had student loans, but those end after five years.  My parents kicked me what they could, but without the aid and the loans I couldn’t be there. 

But it seemed doable.  I had four senior-level courses to finish and two semesters to do it.  The biggest problem was going to be me.  I was a mess.  I needed a job after graduation and there was a recession on.  I was mailing resumes to companies that I knew had hired in the past, but I was getting postcards back that said, “From the size of the envelope, we assume this is a resume.  We didn’t open it.  We’re not hiring.” 

Nothing could be more discouraging.  It’s not like you can fix your resume and take another shot at it if they're not even looking. 

A couple of times I got interviews, but that was actually almost worse.  Like one, General Dynamics, has a tank point outside Detroit and I got an interview.  They showed me into a room the size of a football field full of drafting tables.  I'd be sitting five yards away from the next engineer.  I really needed the job and I really didn’t want the job, you know.  And they could tell. 

Then, at the beginning of the year, my girlfriend dumped me.  Now, I was already depressed about the job stuff so it really cut my legs out from under me.  Pretty much every night I'd go to bars or parties trying to find somebody new, but I was such a train wreck no one was buying what I was selling, so I knew focus was going to be a problem. 

But then beginning at the first semester, I came up with a scheme that I thought might get me through it. I had two classes, Thermodynamics 1 and Heat Transfer.  Both classes, the professors handed out assigned homework every week.  On Fridays they would leave printed copies of the perfect homework answers outside their office for us to pick up. 

The exams were open, meaning you could bring in whatever you wanted.  You could bring in your textbook, you could bring in those homework answers.  I walked into the first exam in Thermodynamics and I was nervous.  I hadn’t been going to class enough.  I hadn’t been studying. 

The exam lands in front of me.  Question one: Steam leaves a boiler in a turbine power plant.  You have 300 psi, 500 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s expanded to 14 psi before passing to a condenser.  Evaluate the process as, a) a superheated Rankine cycle, b) a regenerative cycle with open loop cooling, and c) a regenerative cycle with closed loop cooling. 

I had nothing, like nothing.  And the other three questions were no better.  I opened my textbook and I started thumbing through it, but it was a couple of weeks late for that.  Then I picked up the homework answers and there was a question that looked almost like that.  The numbers were different and it only looked at two of the three cycles but, still, it gave me like a skeleton, like two-thirds of the answer to that exam question. 

And then there were other homework questions that looked like the other exam questions.  The exams questions, they always went off on a tangent at the end and I could not figure out any of the tangents, but those homework questions gave me like basically 60 percent of the exam questions.  It turned out hardly anyone knew the tangents. 

So that was class average.  A “B” at 2.5. 

Two days later, my first exam in Heat Transfer followed the exact same script.  I quit thinking about going to class.  I quit thinking about studying.  All I would do is go pick up the homework answers on Friday and then go to the exams.  At the end of the first semester I had two 2.5s. 

I came into the last semester confident.  Thermodynamics 2 and Mechanics of Materials.  Now, if you're going to follow my scheme today, you don’t even have to go to the first class because you can get the syllabus over the internet.  But back then I needed the syllabus so I had to go to the first day of class because you need the syllabus because you need to know the test dates. 

So I was there for the first day.  It’s a new professor and he tells us this class is notorious as the one that flunks out more seniors than all others.  It is intellectually rigorous.  There would be two exams and a final and he had one iron-clad rule.  If you miss an exam, it’s a zero.  There are no make-ups.  It was the last day I was in class. 

I showed up at the first exam, I took out my homework answers, and I got my class average.  Intellectually rigorous my ass. 

I sold my textbook the next day for beer money.  If anything, I became a worse student.  About two-thirds into the term I had an exam in the Materials class. The syllabus said the next exam in Thermodynamics 2 would be two days later.  The Materials class exam went according to script.

The one thing I was doing that was healthy is I was exercising still before I would go out and party, and so I was playing basketball pretty much every day.  So after that exam that afternoon I went and I was playing basketball. 

I was getting to be pretty good playing that much.  It depended who I was playing against.  Like if the other guys were from the football team, I was too small.  But this day it was all the other engineering students and they were normally in school while I was normally playing basketball so I was the best player on the court.  And it felt good. 

I drive by this one guy and I make a finger-roll layup and I’m on top of the world as I’m jogging back upcourt, and he said to me, “How’d you do on the Thermo exam this morning?”  And I said, “Oh, you mean the Materials exam.  The Thermo final exam isn’t for two days.” 

And he said, “The professor changed it a month ago.  He's been reminding us in class every day.  How could you not know that?” 

I ran to my apartment, I grabbed the homework answers, I ran to the professor’s office. 

“My car broke down on the interstate, sir.  I missed the exam, but I can take it now.” 

“You know my rule.  You got a zero.  There are no make-ups.” 

Then he looks in this grade book and he said, “But you did pretty well on the first exam.  If your final is even close to that you'll be fine.” 

I took this as affirmation that my scheme was sound.  In fact, there was a margin for error.  But I did double-check the date of the final because I had to make it to that. 

Ted Olds tells his story while ASL interpreter Shelby Edwards translates at our "Communication" show at Caveat in January 2018. Photo ny Nicholas Santasier.

Ted Olds tells his story while ASL interpreter Shelby Edwards translates at our "Communication" show at Caveat in January 2018. Photo ny Nicholas Santasier.

Well, the final was ugly from the start.  None of the questions looked like a homework question.  I put stuff down on each of them, but I knew it was gibberish. 

I went to see the professor two days later and he told me I had the worst grade on the final in the class by far.  He said he couldn’t understand it because the questions were straight out of the textbook and he had told us that at the review session. 

I had sold my textbook and my scheme did not require attending review sessions.  So he said he didn’t see how I could possibly pass but, luckily, the class was offered again in July. 

I said, “Sir, I can’t afford to be here in July,” and that was true.  “I will never use Thermodynamics.  I've been admitted to law school in the fall.”  That was a lie. 

“Could you just please give me a 1.0?  It will be the best thing.”  I thought that was true. 

He said he would look at my exam again, but he was not optimistic.  The grades would be posted the morning of graduation. 

My parents were so proud of me.  I was the first in the family to go to college.  Neither of them had the chance.  They both wanted to.  They couldn’t afford it.  They both would have done great.  They were smart people.  And they had reserved a hotel room and a place at a restaurant months in advance. 

They came up the night before graduation and they came to my apartment and I had to tell them.  “I’m pretty sure I flunked the class and I’m not graduating.” 

My dad was not an angry man, but I could see it bubbling up in his face.  It was like the most disrespectful thing I had ever done to them.  I had squandered this opportunity either of them would have killed to have.  I had wasted all of what they had done.  They sacrificed to get me there.  I could see his face turning red and then he swallowed it and he said, “Let’s just go to dinner.  We’ll see what happens in the morning.” 

I didn’t sleep at all.  I lay in bed and I did as a lapsed Catholic does do, I promised Jesus if he gets me the one point I will turn my life around. 

And then the realist in me was like, “Okay, if I have to be here in July, I could commute.  It’s a two-hour drive, but I can commute.  I can couch-surf a little.  Maybe I can get through it.  It wouldn’t be fun, but…”

The next morning, I’m walking down the hallway to the professor’s office to see the grade and he comes out of his office and he tapes a paper to his door.  He's walking toward me and he looks at the ground.  He does not look me in the eye.  I remembered like if you're on trial for something and the jury doesn’t look you in the eye, it’s either a really good sign or a really bad sign, and I couldn’t remember which. 

But I got to the door and I looked at the paper and I got a 1.0!  I was a college graduate. 

That night at the graduation party, the guy across the hallway, his dad was a lawyer and he asked me what I was going to do next, and I said, “Well, I'd always wanted to go to law school, but in my dorm floor, freshman year, half of these guys wanted to go to law school so I figured what’s the point.” 

He said, “No one with engineering degrees go to law school.  You have to do that for patent law.  It’s a great thing.” 

And I applied to the Patent Office.  This is under the Ronald Reagan federal government.  He cut everywhere in the government except Department of Defense and, for some reason, the Patent Office was hiring.  I don't know why.  But because it was the government, it took them six months to hire me and then the job didn’t start for six months. 

So I was living at home as a bum for a year, just doing one screw-up after another.  My parents were pretty cool about it, particularly after the first six months when I had a job offer and there was like an end date to all of this.  They got better about it. 

And the job was perfect for me.  I did go to law school and I got my life on track and I got married and I had kids and decades passed.  In all of that time, my dad never once mentioned this big screw-up, not as criticism in that horrible year after graduation and not as a joke when things were going well.  He never mentioned it until one of my own kids was twenty and he screwed something up. 

I said, “Dad, this kid’s gonna drive me nuts.  I can’t believe this person did this.”

And he said, “Do you remember what you told me the night before graduation?” 

That was what he said.  And that was all he needed to say, because what he was saying was what I did was way worse than what my kid did.  And I turned stuff around and my kids were good kids and they were going to be fine. 

It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.  And if he'd been hitting me over the head with it all of those decades, by the time I needed to hear it, it would have been played out.  It wouldn’t have had any impact.  Because he had kept quiet and saved it, I got the perfect parenting advice that day.  It’s like my son said, my dad was the wisest person. 

Thank you. 

Part 2: Kayla Glynn

When I was a kid, I would follow my grandfather around everywhere he went.  I distinctly remember waiting for him to come home and watching him walk up the driveway wearing a black suit and a red silk tie, the same thing he wore every day.  I would follow him upstairs and wait for him to go into his office. 

I didn’t know this version of my grandfather very well who wore a suit, but I loved any opportunity I got to go into his office.  It was the coolest place.  Inside were beautiful books and stacks of magazines, lots of National Geographics, which, to this day, are my favorite.  There was a big globe and lots of breakable things.  There were dried corals and lava and sponges. 

I was not allowed in this room without supervision so as soon as he put down his briefcase and left to go change, I would shoot away. 

The man who would come downstairs later was a very different man.  This was the version of my grandfather who I was much more familiar with.  This version wore strictly dirty sweatpants, always had a pack of smokes on him, and was rarely sighted without a beer in hand.  He also referred to absolutely everything as a “whatchamacallit.”

So as he headed downstairs, to his workshop, I would follow along behind him.  And before he'd get started on whatever project it was that we were working on that night, he'd turn on the CD player and Celine Dion would start to just blare throughout the entire house. 

We’d sit down and then he would yell at me over the music, “Big Girl” -- that was his nickname for me -- “pass me that whatchamacallit.” 

He'd point in my general direction, where there were a number of screwdrivers, hammers, his beer.  Your guess is as good as mine as to what he wanted. 

Later that night, we would watch the Discovery Channel until he fell asleep, at which point I would take that opportunity to find all of the ice cream in the house and just gorge myself.  It was a pretty sweet deal. 

Unfortunately, as I grew older, we started having a harder and harder time understanding each other.  One day, he took me out for a long walk in the woods.  At that point, I really had to pee.  Instead of turning back, he thought it would be a great idea if I just peed in the woods.  We didn’t have to turn back.  It was not a good idea because I had never done that before, and I ended up peeing all over my own pants. 

I had not perfected my squat.  I didn’t know what to do and I was so embarrassed that I just cried the whole way home.  I think he got in a lot of trouble for that one. 

In another attempt to bond with me, he took me fishing.  That was his favorite hobby.  He thought it would appeal to the animal lover in me -- you know, we’re outside.  It’s awesome.  It was awesome for a little bit.  And then I caught a turtle and I cried. 

I remember being so angry with him, angry with him for making me do these things that ended so badly, angry that he had put me on situations like this.  By the time I was a teenager, getting in trouble for throwing my first big rager, which I was definitely not allowed to have, he had no idea what to say to me.  I distinctly remember him pointing at me like you would a dog and saying, “Bad girl!”  I don't know if he just didn’t want to make me cry or if I mystified him the same way that he mystified me. 

Not long after this, one night I was at home and I heard something going on downstairs, I heard that someone else was over.  It wasn’t just my parents.  So I headed down to the kitchen to check it out and I saw my grandfather was over.  He was sitting at the table with my parents.  As soon as I entered the room, I could tell there was this really heavy tension.  There was a lot of sadness in the room.  When I saw my mom’s face, she was crying. 

My grandfather had just told my parents that he was terminally ill.  He had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and he would not be with us much longer. 

A few weeks after that, my dad sat me down and he told me that my grandfather wanted to leave me a decent amount of money, but I would not get the money unless I used it to go to university.  I had no plans on going to university.  It was not in my plans, not that I had any, so I didn’t really know what to do.  I delayed.  I wanted to spend more time with my family and support them in this time and I wanted to spend more time with my grandfather because we hadn’t had a lot of one-on-one time. 

I’m glad I did because we ended up making some pretty awesome memories, one of which was me taking him to the museum.  At that point, he was too weak to walk so he was in a wheelchair and he asked me to just wheel him around as fast as I could.  And I did.  It ended in a pretty significant crash, but he didn’t care.  He knew security wasn’t going to say anything to a sick man in a wheelchair, and I thought that was pretty cool of him. 

I decided I did want to go to university.  If someone was going to pay for it, I would give it a shot.  So I applied and I got accepted.  And my grandfather passed away that summer before I started my first year. 

I absolutely hated my first year of university.  I was depressed.  I thought about quitting.  I came very close twice, but I felt this really terrible guilt.  I thought, This is what my grandfather wanted from me and it’s his money that I’m spending, so every time I came close to quitting, the guilt just kept me in school.  I couldn’t leave. 

Eventually, I ended up finding courses that I really enjoyed and I found topics that I became very passionate about.  I finally, eventually finished my degree.  And then I finished another. 

Thanks to the opportunity my grandfather gave me, I now work as a marine science communicator and I love my job.  Sure, it’s not perfect.  There are days that things could be better.  People drive me crazy.  I get asked a lot of dumb questions.  I know people say there's no such thing as a dumb question, but that’s not true.  There are.  We've all heard them.  I know you know it. 

My favorite one so far is, “Do the whales not like the rain? Do they not like getting wet?” 

“What?  They're whales.  They're in the water.  They're always wet. It’s critical to their survival.”  That’s not what you want to say to someone, but more than one person has asked me that question.  And when that happens I’m like, “Where did you come from?  Have you ever been outside before?  How did you get here?” 

Kayla Glynn shares her story at the Anza Club in Vancouver in December 2017. Photo by Robert Shaer

Kayla Glynn shares her story at the Anza Club in Vancouver in December 2017. Photo by Robert Shaer

I remind myself in these moments two things.  I remind myself, Okay, I have a job here.  I have an opportunity to impart knowledge. And if I do that successfully, in turn it will be my grandfather who is impacting that person.  It’s not just me. 

And when I get frustrated like this, I remind myself that my grandfather used to frustrate me like this.  I remind myself that I might have more in common with this person than I know, so I should just be calm and try to find what that is. 

A few years ago, while I was still in school, my dad shared with me something that my grandfather shared with him before he died.  Apparently, my grandfather had told him that he really believed that you only impact the generation directly above you and directly below you.  And that really breaks my heart.  It really kills me to think that he died thinking he had no impact on me because, obviously, he did.  I really wish that he had known how much of an impact he had on me and how much of an impact I am now able to have on every generation under the sun because of him and the opportunity he gave me. 

A lot of people have told me since he passed that it’s really too bad that we didn’t get to know each other better while I was an adult because we really had a lot in common, and they're right.  I like to think that I embody both versions of my grandfather, the best qualities of each.  Fortunately, I never picked up the habit of carrying around the smokes, but I will partake in a few beers.  I am a voracious learner.  I love to learn and I work really hard.  But you can also find me at home in my sweatpants, eating ice cream with the latest issue of Nat Geo.  And you can also find me at home blaring Celine Dion any time I’m anxious or just jubilant.  It’s Celine for me. 

And I love fishing.  I'll beg people to take me fishing.  And I absolutely love going for long walks in the forest.  I’m very pleased to tell you all that I have become an expert at peeing in the woods.  I wish that he knew all of those things about me. 

Thank you.