Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Gray Thread

My name is Jessica, but I was born Patricia Gray in San Jose, California, and grew up in Los Altos Hills, a region that was to become Silicon Valley. I’ve lived a very colorful life. For example, in 1975 I both lived in a commune and joined the Army. But there’s been a single, monochromatic gray thread that has always run through my life. That thread is comprised of the dual strands of technology and science.

My dad, Ken Gray, worked at HP for 45 years, starting back when Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard actually came into the office and flipped burgers for the kids and steaks for the grownups at the annual summer company picnic. HP was at the cutting edge of technology and my dad often brought home the latest and greatest of what was hot in this burgeoning new field. He brought home the first digital clock anyone had ever seen, which he made himself. It had wires bent into the numbers 0 through 9 that lit up to reflect the time. I was amazed and I’d watch that clock for what seemed like hours on end, eying the next wire that was going to light up.

I was also turned on to astronomy at a very young age; my older brother Dave was an amateur astronomer and we’d spend countless summer nights out under the stars in the fields not far from home. I vividly remember my first glimpse of brilliant Venus through his telescope, the same night I learned Venus has phases, like the moon.

At 18 I moved into a commune in the Santa Cruz mountains. After that, and a very brief stint in the military, I lost touch with the technology and science I had loved. I moved to southern California and had a successful career as a hairstylist for the next 28 years. Of course, I specialized in color.

My gray thread became thin and forgotten as I developed my creative side. That is, until the day my dad brought me my first computer in 1989, which he’d built himself from cast off parts from work. It sat there for two days on my dining room table as I circled around it, terrified to turn it on; terrified of erasing or "deleting" everything on the hard drive thingy inside it. But I finally did turn it on, and I've never turned it off. I spend hours and hours poking around in the different programs: a very early WordPerfect, Lotus 123; I knew every DOS command and I opened every file and whatever else I could find in there. I spent hours learning about my computer. I had picked up the little gray thread again.

In my early 30's I longed to challenge my brain again. I signed up for two tele-courses, one of which was astronomy. I immediately fell into a life long love of the night sky and the greens, reds and blues of spectacular nebulae, galaxies and star systems. In 1993 I moved to Ashland and founded the Southern Oregon Skywatchers astronomy club, where I was president for four years. I'm happy to say it is still going strong almost 16 years later. I also continued my academic education at Southern Oregon University.

In school, I was a little fearful of pursuing a science education formally and majored in psychology instead. At the end of my junior year I still had to get that one required science course out of the way. I took general chemistry, which changed my life. By the end of the term I had switched my major to chemistry and added three more years to my college education. The colors of my life became the hard blues, bright reds and cold whites of molecules. I was in science and technology bliss!

I received my BS in Chemistry in 2001 at the age of 44 and went on to graduate school in Environmental Analytical Chemistry, which lasted just a year. I missed Ashland and my friends. Industrial chemistry was not the track I wanted to be on. I discovered that I had just needed to feed that part of me that longs for science and technology and expanding my knowledge. I returned to the valley and bought The Phoenix Day Spa & Salon in 2003. I found myself right back in that field I had left years before, only now in the capacity as business owner and entrepreneur.

I haven't done hair in many years. I no longer work as a chemist. The colors of my life have muted and softened. Now as I gaze through my telescope under the night sky I realize that I don’t have to work in the field of science to be a scientist. I love reading about and learning technological and scientific information. And I still hold my dad’s legacy, a single gray thread comprised of the dual strands of technology and science.


  1. You have really done alott with your Life. Always stay true to yourself as you have..... Cary

  2. I just read some amazing things about my dear friend Jessica, and actually learned some things I didn't know about her. She also left out so much more about herself. She is the single most incredible, talented individual I have ever known. She is the most incredible and beloved friend.


  3. What a lovely speech to share with your group! You wrote it beautifully, and from our talk today I can imagine you pacing (although I know how you feel about that). Good energy, Jessica! Nice job.