About Jeff

Drawing of Jeff crocheting by Eli Wardi.

I was born. The place was Kansas City, Kansas (in the US). The year was 1956. Now, to be honest, my memory is not all that good, so there are few chronological details for me to pass on. I can remember things like the house on Haskell that we lived in until I started third grade. I can remember a hallway in the building near my second-grade classroom, but not much else there. I can remember having some fun neighbors to play with, and how the neighbor across the street with the steep front hill mowed his grass with a rope tied around the lawnmower, and visiting the nice blind man down the street who insisted on giving me silver dollars for the pleasure of my company. So, there are lots of images and scenes, but very little narrative.

After my parents moved to the further suburbs of KCK, there's a bit more -- I can even remember many of my teachers' names -- but little of it strikes me as very interesting. We had a nice house in the suburbs, a dog (that died from a losing tangle with a car around Christmas time when I was in sixth grade), some kids to play with. For the most part I went to school, did my omework, and didn't get in much trouble at all. I was the good-kid type, the teacher's pet, usually the one who knew the answers to the questions.

Some formative things. When I was in the fourth grade (about 10 years old), a music program at school made it possible for me to start learning to play the 'cello. That made a life change. When I was 12 I finally got my adult library card; I had been introduced to the library through the thoughtful intervention of my Cub-Scout Den Mother. I went religiously every two weeks, checked out as many books as I was allowed, and worked my way through most of the real science books. I tended to read rather than play outside, rather to the concern of my mother. I wasn't really cut out for Cub Scouts for many reasons, one of which is that I really hated camping.

When I was in seventh grade, my family spent a year living in Fort Carson, Colorado (except for my one sister, 7 years older than I, who got married during that time; I now have 2 nieces and 2 nephews, all over 20). I had a good year there. It seemed to be the year when I started discovering the world around me. That was the year, too, that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Although I didn't realize it at the time, that was also the year that I fell in love for the first time; if only I could remember his name, I'd tell you. I think it may have been Rob.

High School didn't stimulate me very much either, although I had some very good, very dedicated, and very influential teachers, for whom I am grateful. Because of all that science reading and my discovery that xenon hexaflouride had recently been synthesized, I got into a good argument with my ninth-grade science teacher about "inert" gasses -- I won. I also seemed to pick up geometry faster than my geometry teacher, much to his irritation. I continued playing cello in orchestras at school and in the community. I continued reading all the time. I studied French, and took science and math courses until I ran out of them. At the time, I was planning to be an architect, and helped to organize an Explorer's group (of all things) to find out more.

When it was time to go to college, I perversely decided to study physics and math. My French teacher very generously said "we always lose the best ones to the sciences". (Martha: if you read this, I wasn't totally lost!) Now, just why I chose to study physics I'm not sure, except maybe that I thought it was the most challenging thing I could choose. I really knew very little about it at the time.

I went to Cornell College, a wonderful little liberal-arts college in the corn fields of Mt. Vernon, Iowa, and designed a course of study in physics, math, and music, which is pretty much all I did except for a French course, and some art courses when I was a senior. For the music, I continued playing 'cello and studied composition; my composition teacher's wisdom about many things still guides me. I graduated with three other physics majors -- our year produced an unusually large number of physics majors at Cornell (5 of us).

I decided to go to graduate school in physics (rather than math), at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, another smallish school with a strong liberal-arts tradition. The physics department was small, but again I had some good teachers, and matched up early with my thesis advisor to be, Bob Behringer, who was another very good influence. We had a good time working together for the next five years on various projects. I was Bob's first Ph.D. candidate, a position I took very seriously.

His specialty, hence what mine became, was experimental low-temperature physics, transport properties, and critical phenomena. We also did some interesting experiments in convection and chaos, just when chaos was becoming a hot topic. After I'd been at Wesleyan for about 3.5 years, my advisor took a new position at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, and we moved our entire lab there. I continued to do my thesis research at Duke, but remained a student at Wesleyan.

I finished my Ph.D. thesis in 1982, writing about my experiments measuring the shear viscosity and thermal conductivity in helium-4 and helium-4/helium-3 mixtures near their superfluid transition. Then I needed a job. I became a Rocket Scientist.

I decided to take a post-doctoral position at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, with Bob Gammon. At the time, he was working with a departing graduate student on a laboratory version of a possible microgravity experiment, with funding from NASA. If the lab version panned out, funding might continue, and we might fly the experiment on the US Space Shuttle. The apparatus did laser light-scattering experiments (optics was a new field for me, as well as the photon-correlation spectroscopy we did) on xenon near its critical point (the critical phenomena was not new). I also continued as an expert in high-precision temperature measurement and control: our xenon sample was in a small, specially built thermostat that could control its temperature to about a microKelvin, or about 3 parts per billion. The project was named "Zeno". (Well, okay, I named it; I also designed the project logo, my first design work to appear on NASA television from Earth orbit.)

Twelve years and $25 million later, and with the effort of a team of 10 we put together at the University, plus at times 45 people at our aerospace subcontractor, Ball Aerospace, plus a team at the (then) NASA/Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, plus our mission team at NASA/Marshall Space Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, we had flown two missions on the US Space Shuttle, one in 1994, and one in 1996. (There is still some information on the Zeno web site.) Our high-precision, laser light-scattering spectrometer had actually worked. It seemed an amazing feat at the time; still does, in fact.

Other things were basically on hold during most of the Zeno project, at least in the early days. I stopped playing 'cello, which was a bad thing. I also had very little social life, which was another bad thing. But that changed, finally. My personal joke is that when people told me I should get a life, I did! And boy, were they surprised.

I count as my official coming-out time the few minutes before midnight of December 31, 1991. I was determined to do something before 1992 arrived, and I just managed. I did it online in the usenet newsgroup soc.motss, and felt relieved and overwhelmed by the wonderful community I found there. Not long afterwards I also discovered Bears, another life-changing event, thanks to a colleague working on Zeno with me.

To make a long story short, I dated some, I had some fun, I learned lots of things quickly about life and then, thanks to the auspices of Bear magazine, I met Isaac in the fall of 1992. It didn't take us all that long to decide that we should spend our lives together, and so we set out on that path when he moved in with me at the house I had bought in College Park a few years before. (I was pleased to observe later, when we moved to our present house, that we had lived together in that house longer than I had lived there alone.) 1992 seemed like the year when I really felt like I had started to come alive.

After the Zeno missions, the second was in 1996, it was time for me to move on. (That was also the year Isaac and I built our new house in Bowie, Maryland, which is discussed elsewhere. That was also the year that we put together this website for the first time.) Not really anymore on the career track for a university physics professorship, and not really wanting one, I went to work for a couple of years at a small aerospace contractor in Maryland, named Jackson & Tull. While there I worked on two interesting projects. One was doing a large test-software suite for the new computer J&T was building for the Hubble Space Telescope, that was installed in late 1999. That project also flew a mission to test the computer on the same Shuttle flight that became famous from John Glenn's presence.

The other project I worked on at J&T was a collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to try building a state-of-the-art oceanographic research buoy with satellite data communications. It turns out that my Project Manager on that project had also been my Project Manager on the Zeno Project -- John Borden and I have worked productively together now for a long time. The buoy project was pretty successful and led finally to John's decision (making another long story very short here) to start a new company to carry on the work.

I left J&T in the summer of 1999, not long after John had incorporated Wavix, and started working with him to get funding for the new company. Another long and sometimes dreary story ensued, but we finally found an investor and closed the deal on 2 November 2000, with Wavix constituted as a satellite-communications company. We're still young, still growing, still in the early stages.

Lots of other things were happening along the way, too. Thanks to Isaac's encouragement and the outlet to play at the church where he is the music director, I returned to playing the 'cello that had been neglected ever since graduate school. Also around 1996 we both became involved in an amateur theatre group that he started at the church, which has done two productions a year ever since, and which led to my singing in public for the first time. I continue singing with that group, and with Isaac's early-music group at the church (where I am probably the best-known atheist non-member of the church -- being the choir-director's wife is a high-profile job).

In order to help pay the bills during 2000 while we were getting Wavix going, I also became an independent Web-design consultant, doing several websites. I continue doing some of that sort of work in my copious spare time. There's more about that work, my resume, more about my history with computers and such details, at my professional site.

In late 1998, thanks to the mentoring of our good friend Charlie in Baltimore, I also realized a long-time goal of writing fiction. (See Martha, I told you there was still hope!) The fact that I happen to write pornography doesn't matter much to me; a good story is a good story, and it's still a bitch to make one work right. I write under the name Jay Neal, and have recently passed my tenth-story milestone. Most of them have been published by American Bear magazine, with some appearing in various anthologies. There are a few more details at the website.

There you go. Obviously, there's more I could write about. I get to the end of this page feeling that I've only scratched the surface, but this has gone on long enough. As you might guess (and maybe it's a side-effect of my poor memory, forcing me to live more in the present than the past), I definitely find that life gets better, more interesting, and more challenging as it goes on. The way things are going, I'll have lots more paragraphs to write about interesting new projects very soon. Well, as soon as I find some spare time for them.

[To this point: 15 April 2002. Update below starts 31 March 2005.]

What a lot can change in what seems (at the are we are now) such a short time!

About the time that I was writing the paragraphs above, things were starting to go awry at Wavix, but we didn't really know it yet. At that stage, we were optimistic and thought there was a bright light at the end of the tunnel. We later turned out to be wrong.

The problem was one that is common among high-tech start-ups: cash flow. We had a cash-flow crisis, we weren't able to find additional financing to finish and ship our first round of 200 sat-com mobile radio terminals, and our principle investor himself had serious cash-flow issues (because his investments in telecom stocks had tanked) and was unable to bail us out at a critical time.

It wasn't a quick death, alas. We had to quite paying salaries in March, 2002. Most of our people stayed on as long as they could stand it, because we all believed that we were doing important work and we wanted to see it come to fruition. But, reality intruded and most everyone soon needed to move on. John and I stayed around to try to locate some money, but even our optimism suffered after a year of fruitless searching.

So, to my mind, I started my period of unemployment in March 2003. I didn't know how long it might last; the previous period, in 1996, had lasted 3 months. Unfortunately, as I write this nearly 2 years later,

It took me a few months to get actively into looking for a new job, and to discover that middle-aged rocket scientists are not in great demand. In retrospect, it seems that I've also been dealing with a major mid-life crisis about what direction my career should take at this point.

I can't say I have any clarity yet, but I have some much better ideas. Writing continues to grow in importance in my life. Science is still central to my perspective, and music is still in my bones. When I get that all figured out, I should have it.

Education has become an important topic, too. Partly, that may be because of an experiment that started about 2.5 years ago. Some people at the church, who were virtual strangers to me then, approached me about music lessons. Their 8-year-old daughter's school required that she learn a musical instrument by taking private lessons. Said daughter was interested in learning 'cello. Would I teach her?

That was about the last thing I had ever thought of doing, and I found the idea terrifying. What would I do? How would I do it? The whole process of learning was mystifying to me, and the challenge seemed incredible. For some reason, I said yes. Now, 2.5 years later, she's playing quite credibly, learning higher positions and advanced bowings, and starting to turn into a musician. I feel like I still don't know how it happened, but it's been a pretty satisfying experience.

In the midst of all the unemployment (hence: financial) turmoil, we continue to do musicals at Isaac's church twice a year. Right this very minute I should be memorizing lines for my part in "On the 20th Century", but I'm avoiding it. They take time, but they're still fun. I like musicals a lot, and there's nothing to compare with studying them from the inside out by actually doing some. Watch this space: I might be directing one sometime, too.

Now, career is not the extent of the life changes for me lately.

Last year, in January, my mother died at the age of 81. She'd been declining slowly for a few months following a moderate stroke, and starting to withdraw from life. Isaac and I flew to Kansas City on a Friday to be with my father and sister, and my British cousin and her daughter, who were able to join us. We suffered through a weekend of ice storms and faced dire warning of a blizzard that didn't materialize.

On Monday, a bright and sunny but bitterly cold day with a few snowflakes in evidence, we buried my mother.

On Wednesday morning I had a major heart attack. It was a very strange experience and took me hours to figure out what it was. Finally, it was clear that it was something significant and Isaac overcame my Midwestern reluctance not to be a bother and called an ambulance. We made a fast and noisy trip across Kansas City to the KU Medical Center.

Maybe I'll write at length sometime about the experience which, oddly enough, still seems mostly good to me (and not just because of the morphine Matt gave me in the ambulance). I had good doctor and great nurses -- lots of people who cared.

I started with emergency angioplasty for a couple of hours. Three stents later the infarction had stopped and I could begin recovery. I was aware during the procedure, but my memories are curiously disjointed and fuzzy. What I remember most is hearing the little percussive sounds when they'd inflate the balloon; I've decided that it must have caused impulses in my blood pressure that I could hear.

I spent 5 days in intensive care, lying flat in the bed because of the yard-long balloon pump running down my left leg. (I felt like a scene cut from "Alien" when they pulled that thing out of me.) It was awhile before I realized just how weak I was from the heart attack. I was only able to get out of bed and sit for a half hour on, I think, the third day. I watched a lot of Home and Garden television, mostly without the sound since it was days before I figured out how to turn the sound on.

Isaac was my mooring during all that time. Without being excessive about it, he spent a lot of time with me and saw to it that my few additional needs were taken care of. Dad was there too, as was the minister from Dad's church, who's a swell guy. There are comic scenes that come to mind involving my nurses, but I may save them for some of my more humorous fictional meanderings.

On Sunday I moved to a regular room in the cardiac unit, where I had my own little EKG radio monitor in case of unexpected trouble, but there was none.

I had, the following Wednesday, another round of angioplasty and 2 more stents put in. This, my cardiologist thought, would probably take care of things for some time to come.

On the Thursday, I was released about noon, and my Dad drove us to his house in the midst of a major snow storm that dropped at least 8 inches on the area. Nevertheless, we made it and I went to sleep, exhausted.

Isaac and I returned home on that Friday. At everyone's insistence (and they were right), I was whisked through airports in a wheelchair, and for the first time ever got to do "preboarding" on the airplane. I want to note that all the airline people were actually pleasant, understanding, and did what they could to make things easy for us.

We got to Washington DC and we were met my a limousine that Isaac's church had arranged to pick us up and take us home. The congregation can be so very thoughtful sometimes. This also became evident in the following weeks when many of them had arranged a schedule among themselves of providing our dinner every day so that Isaac and I ate well and didn't have to worry about fixing things. Nice.

Time passed and I recovered. It's hard at this remove to remember just how tired I was then, but I do remember that for the first two weeks I restricted my use of the stairs in the house to just one time a day; more made me way too tired, and it took too long to go up and down. I fell asleep a lot and felt like an old man. Then, after a bit, I could use the stairs twice a day, then three times, then I stopped rationing. By summer I was mowing our grass and feeling good from the exercise. Now, I'm easily certain that I feel better than I had for some time.

One positive benefit, I suppose, is that I haven't smoked cigarettes in over a year now. As I put it sometime after, being in intensive care focusses the mind remarkably, or else distracts it. Regardless, while I was in IC I was so distracted that by the time I was in a place where I could conceivably have smoked a cigarette, I was completely out of the habit, the thought didn't really cross my mind, and the awful period of withdrawal was behind me. It's seemed easier to keep it that way since then. Occasionally I think about it -- honestly, it's rare -- but I can always put it off until tomorrow.

These days, my physical health is fine. My mental health has its ups and downs, which I believe is not too surprising given my major health crisis just a year ago and this seemingly never ending two-year stretch of unemployment. It's enough to get you down.

As I thought through last summer about possibilities for the future, and feeling that no one would hire me, we hatched a plan of starting a company of our own that would be forced to hire me. I don't know how serious we were at the time, but I continued to formulate ideas. They grew, and I thought, and they grew, and I thought, all in my typically slow way.

In November [2004] we actually sent incorporation papers to the Maryland Department of State: Ars Hermeneutica was officially born. Fortunately, this space (which is already bloated) is too small to talk sufficiently about it. As I go, material appears at the Ars Hermeneutica website. Ars is incorporated at a nonprofit, scientific research corporation with a research and educational mission.

Although it seemed almost like we incorporated accidentally, the goals of Ars Hermeneutica are very, very important to me. I have begun to feel that my future is Ars Hermeneutica -- I just don't know how close that future is. My financial situation at the moment is precarious and I need income. Whether I find it first through getting work for Ars Hermeneutica or something else for myself first is the thing that I'm waiting -- breathlessly! -- to see resolved. I hope it's resolved much sooner rather than later.

[To this point: 31 March 2005.]