As you probably know by now, yesterday we lost Dr. Sally Ride, a woman so many of us have looked up to for decades as a symbol of what a woman can accomplish in a man’s world. (That’s right, I said it: This is a Man’s World, and that’s why we still need feminism.) In the past 24 hours I’ve read so many heartbroken tributes from women for whom Sally was more than a role model; more than a hero. She was a turning point for girls whose passion for science had been discouraged and dampened by stereotypes.
Washington congressional candidate Darcy Burner said yesterday, “She made me want to be an astronaut.” And from my friend E: “A woman astronaut! That was transformative. This was when I believed that women had a chance. We could do what the guys did — let me rephrase. I knew we could do it, but that we would be allowed to do it.”
Sally made being the nation’s first woman in space look easy, though it was anything but. Everyone from NASA officials to the press wondered whether a woman could hack it. From her LA times obituary:
“There are,” Ride acknowledged, “people within NASA who need convincing.” She would have been much happier, I suspect, in the present day, when the presence of women in NASA is no big deal and every girl can dream of a career in science or technology or aerospace without being scoffed at and told, “Girls can’t do that.” But she had a big hand in making the extraordinary — a female astronaut — routine.
From her NYT obituary:
Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?
The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.
At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
Sally Ride made it her life’s mission to crush stereotypes relating not just to women, but to science. As Dr. Ride put it, “Girls tend to have a stereotype of engineers being 65-year-old guys who wear lab coats and pocket protectors and look like Einstein.” And she didn’t stop at being a great scientist and role model. After she left NASA, she founded Sally Ride Science, a company dedicated to creating programs to inspire and feed kids’ passion for science.
And now, in death, Dr. Sally Ride has come out as a lesbian who lived happily with her partner for 27 years, adding support for a cause which must have been dear to her in life, but which had to come second to her desire to show kids–especially girls–that science was cool. Her image as the USA’s first woman astronaut was an important tool in that regard. She didn’t lend her name to many things. Her sister Bear Ride says she was a private person, but also: “That wasn’t her battle of choice—the battle of choice was science education for kids.” It seems to me that she sacrificed certain freedoms (e.g., the freedom to publicly love whomever she loved) partly in order to protect her “brand”–not for profit, but to avoid letting prejudice become an obstacle to her efforts to help galvanize new generations of scientists. Then yesterday she was all: BAM! Take that, everybody. Yep, she was gay, and you still love her.
I think I might love her even more.
It was 1988 and I was working at a small computer game company–one of the first of its kind–in a small mountain town. I don’t remember exactly how it happened that the Internet came to us, but we certainly didn’t know it by that name. It appeared on my desktop computer in the form of Prodigy, a portal to another universe. I don’t remember anything about Prodigy except that it connected me to people I’d never meet any other way. One of them was K.
It may have been a Weird Al group or “board” or whatever Prodigy called it. K, who lived on the opposite coast, was a huge Al fan, and after a brief email friendship he sent me a couple of tapes I wish I still had. One was the standard mix-tape, the precursor to what kids these days know as the shared playlist, I guess. I dunno, I almost typed “mix CD,” so that shows you where my head’s at (also it’s “early” and I’m just having my coffee). It was my first experience with what would later become a familiar ritual: that of hearing songs for the first time among familiar ones in an order that came to almost be sacred. The other tape was a bunch of K’s songs, which had the Weird All silly factor, but also a certain heart that was K’s alone–at least, I thought so. And we talked on the phone, and mailed stuff back and forth. And we fell out of touch, and got back in touch, and repeated the cycle. It’s now been 10 years since I’ve talked to K, but I know when I track him down again it will be like that decade never passed. And we’ve never once met in the flesh.
Of course, after the Internet really came to town, there were dozens of ways to make contact with people all over the world. Now we have Facebook and Twitter and our blogs, and I talk to more people I don’t “know” every day than ones I do. I talk to more people virtually than I do in person, but I talk to far more people than I’d ever be able to in person. I recently discovered that I’m an introvert. I don’t know whether you can be an extrovert and then become an introvert, but that feels like it’s what happened to me. I don’t have the energy to engage with people for long periods of time. I need time away. On the Internet, I can interact with dozens of people at a time, have scintillating conversations and fiery debates, and then I can get up and walk out of my office and go outside into my garden and dig my toes in the soil and none of those people can follow me out there because they’re safe and sound in a little box on my desk. I love that.
Not that I don’t love being with people, because I do. In smaller doses. In some ways the Internet (and the people on it) is sometimes frustrating as hell, but in a very real way, it requires less energy and places fewer demands on my psyche because ultimately, I’m in my own space and in control of where I place my attention. (My mom the Jedi Master would say that’s true in any situation, and she’s right, but I can tell you it’s a hell of a lot easier to shut the lid on a laptop than to escape a crowd of well-meaning people who want to make small-talk or ask you how your writing is going or…)
So now I have dozens, even hundreds, of acquaintances with whom I spend the hours of my choosing sharing ideas and news and supporting projects and watching children grow I’d never have seen any other way, and once in a while a real friendship grows out of that. You never know when it’s going to happen or with whom. Sometimes it’s a whole group of people coming together around a common interest. Sometimes it’s just two people connecting across the miles through the ether (and even, as you’ll see, across parallel universes) and creating a new entity where it didn’t exist. A collaboration of spirit.
One such in my life is my very good friend Elsie Snuffin. In a universe very like our own, and one I sometimes wish I inhabited or could at least visit through one of Walter’s gadgets, Elsie works in the White House. She runs the speechwriting department (Toby Ziegler’s old job) for the Santos administration. A year and a half ago or so she and her colleagues (along with members and cohorts of the Bartlet administration such as Toby, Leo McGarry, Donna Moss, Danny Concanon, CJ Cregg, and even the President Hisownself) appeared on Twitter, and I followed every single one of them. (Josh Lyman keeps a current list for your convenience.) Being a huge We–ahem, White House fan, I was in heaven. It was like getting together with a group of old friends.
And it wasn’t long before Elsie and I hit it off. She tweeted something sort of despairing one day, and I told her a nice story, and she felt better, and the rest is really history. For over a year now we’ve been tweeting, emailing, chatting, even collaborating on projects. And most importantly we each know the other is there when something difficult happens and we just need to talk. Elsie is funny and sweet, kind and thoughtful, and fully as smart as they say she is. She has a heart the size of Texas, and an ego modern science has yet to detect. She is a talented writer (duh) with a passion for finding common ground among people who disagree. She would rather build a bridge than be right, and that’s a trait that all of us would do well to strive for, as difficult as it sounds (and is). To Elsie, it comes naturally. She inspires me to be a bridge-builder, too.
Unless I perfect my variation on Walter’s door, I may never meet Elsie in the flesh, and sometimes (after too much wine flying to DC where she lives but I can’t reach her) that has made me feel a little sad. It makes me feel sad right now with only coffee to blame. But who knows–one day I may meet a mutual friend. Either way, I’m fine. We may be “virtual friends,” but Elsie is as real to me as any other friend, and more real to me than a lot of people. I wouldn’t trade our friendship for any number of “in-the-flesh” encounters in any number of universes. It turns out friendship is something that happens without regard to time, space, or even reality.
I think that’s a beautiful thing.