Eulogy for My Father
My father just passed away after a long illness. His funeral is tomorrow, and the last few days have been a blur, long sad silences punctuated by visits from friends and family members coming to pay their respects and drop off a casserole or a covered dish dinner.
My relationship with my father was often a stormy one. Sometimes we were best friends, sometimes mortal enemies. Sometimes we were father and son.
Over the years, I've had a lot of different jobs and careers. I was a musician, a producer and audio engineer, owner of a studio and record label, graphic artist and computer animator, web designer and developer, and systems administrator. The common thread among these diverse jobs was always technology. My first Mac, a 512K Fat Mac, was the nucleus of my recording studio, handling MIDI sequencing and serving as a GUI for my Ensoniq Mirage sampler.
My father was the person who gave me my love of all things technical. He taught me how to solder. We built Lafayette and Heathkit electronics projects together, starting with a shortwave radio that brought me the sounds of Radio Moscow and the buzzing of over-the-horizon radars.
My father introduced me to computing at an early age. In 1964, when I was 4, he brought me into the office with him. His company, a New York firm that produced food coloring and flavoring, had just leased an IBM System/360 for accounting (my father was the comptroller, equivalent to today's CFO).
When he brought me into the room where the 360 was kept, I was awestruck. The CPU, with its blinkenlights and toggle switches, the tape drives, the hulking printers, the keypunch machines, the card sorters. I was overwhelmed, amazed. The staff charged with looking after this collection of mid-'60s computing hardware wore long white lab coats.
The IBM salesman who closed this deal eventually became one of my father's best friends. Tomorrow he will be a pall bearer at my father's funeral.
I was allowed to operate the keypunch, typing in cards with the names of my friends and their birthdays to give to them. The admins had a game of NIM programmed, a number guessing game, and kept me entertained while my father took a meeting.
After that visit my constant refrain was "Can I have a computer? Can I have a computer?". I was a precocious child and knew exactly how to get what I wanted through sheer annoyance.
My father eventually relented and bought the only home computer you could get in 1964: a Digicomp. Not exactly high tech; more like low mech. It was a plastic mechanical computer that functioned as a three-bit adder. You programmed it by putting plastic straws on pegs and cycled the mechanism with a small handle, getting the result on a three digit plastic display.
My initial disappointment gave way to fascination. The accompanying documentation gave a description of Base 2 math that even I could understand (my mother taught me to read before kindergarten because she wanted me to understand the poems she loved; I really had Yin-Yang parents).
There was a turning point in our relationship ten years later. By this time, my father was CFO of Ziff-Davis Publishing, the last job he'd have on his rags-to-riches career arc (he was a night clerk at a hotel when I was born, studying to be a CPA). Z-D publication Popular Electronics had just run their cover article on the Altair 8800, an 8-bit computer kit based on the Intell 8008 chip. The magazine had a few review kits available, and I could have one if I wanted.
But there was also a PaIa synthesizer kit available, free for the taking. I was a budding garage musician, playing trumpet, bass, and keyboards (Farfisa Mini Compact). I was on the verge of deciding on career choices and it looked like a career in music was it. I chose the PaIa kit over the Altair.
I built the PaIa, using the soldering skills my father had taught me. I bought more modules to add to it, including a rather unstable 12-note analog sequencer. I still have my PaIa synth in storage. Like my father, I never throw anything out that's potentially useful.
And so, our paths diverged. I went to music school, dropped out to play full time with a band, drove a cab to make ends meet. My father, smartest man I've ever known, never held back from expressing his opinion that I was wasting my intellect. He thought I'd have made a hell of a lawyer or scientist.
Me, I just wanted to add beauty and make sense of the world we live in. I just wanted to write songs and make people happy. I thank my mother for that. She runs a software development firm these days. Guess computing is in our DNA.
I did find a modicum of success as a musician, playing in a band that was locally and regionally reknowned, and eventually making a living off the studio I'd built and the record label I'd founded.
Everything changed in the Nineties. The internet, multimedia, the web, that was undiscovered territory. Friends of mine that I'd recorded with and I began to teach ourselves the language of this new world. My best friend was a database admin, another immersed himself in video digitization. I put the drawing and painting skills my mother had taught me during my childhood to work as a graphic artist and animator. We formed a company and started amassing clients like DEC, Harcourt-Brace, and the band Aerosmith.
These were the prodigal years. My father, now in his retirement, wanted to know all about the Internet (capital I) and how it worked. He was a long way from that person in 1964 who had to learn FORTRAN and COBOL to convert paper accounting systems to something that could be boiled down to a deck of punch cards that would run on an IBM System/360.
He was happy for me, that I was doing something I liked and was getting well paid for it. Me, I was glad to oblige, to give my father a look into this Brave New World that we were entering back in the Nineties. He didn't really have a grasp on what I did for a living until I showed him my demo reel and showed him the software I used.
In his last years, a computer was something he used to get his e-mail and read the New York Times online. He kept in touch with his old classmates from Bronx Science (class of '48) and old friends. As his eyesight began to fail, I reduced his screen resolution so he could read the Times op-ed articles.
My father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer with a five to seven year prognosis back in 1992. But he was a force of nature, and despite forgoing aggresive measures to battle his illness, he lived for another 15 years. He sailed (his sailboat was his love), travelled the world, married the love of his life, and performed charitable and philanthropic works for fifteen years after his first diagnosis.
Tomorrow I carry my father's casket and bury him, the man who made me what I am today.
2005, a Snow Odyssey
Three feet of snow on Cape Cod, a bottle of scotch, and a pot of meatballs.
Five in the afternoon on a Saturday is the time I usually go food shopping. However, with the four preceeding days filled with reports of impending doom from every meteorologist in New England, the shelves have already been stripped bare of even the most obscure items. Shiitake mushrooms? Gone. Canned mackerel? Gone. Anchovy paste? Gone. The locusts had descended upon the supermarket, stripped it of all edible items, and moved on.
I have a brief mental image of someone plopping a shopping bag filled with shiitake mushrooms and anchovy paste on a kitchen counter and declaring "Now we're ready for whatever Mother Nature can dish out!".
On my way back from the supermarket, I stop at the liquor store and get a big bottle of scotch. Now I'm ready for whatever Mother Nature can dish out.
The wind is howling like a contestant on American Idol. The snow, which started at around 4PM on Saturday, is still coming down. Actually, coming down isn't quite accurate; it's moving sideways, sticking to trees, cars, the sides of houses.
I suit up to go outside: thermals, jeans, shirt, two sweaters, M-65 camouflage field jacket, fishermans boots, Soviet-era fur hat (complete with Red Star insignia). I take one step out the front door and sink into the snow up to my kneecaps. My car, parked at the end of the driveway, about eight feet from the road, is nearly invisible beneath a snow drift that extends over the roof. The street, a dead end, has not been plowed.
It takes me five minutes to walk about thirty-five feet.
It had been my intention to dig out my car and drive to a nearby convenience store for coffee and the Sunday papers. Plan B was to walk that distance, about 1.2 miles. Plan C was to walk to a closer store with shittier coffee. I decide to implement Plan D: go back to bed.
Getting up for the second time that morning, I feel the first symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, a low-grade headache behind my right eye. Fortunately, I still have a box of tea from the last time I was home sick with a cold. I boil some water, use two bags, and use the tea to wash down a couple of aspirin.
The local NPR radio station suddenly goes off the air. I'm not surprised in the least. They're chronically underfunded, and their antenna is probably made of cast-off bits of aluminum siding and rain gutters. I turn on the television, something I don't usually do on a Sunday until the football games come on. Local Boston newscasters are in full out "Storm Desk" mode, complete with the bottom-of-the-screen crawl with the names of cancelled church services and school closings.
OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL SNOW - CLOSED ... L. RON HUBBARD ACADEMY - NO CLASSES
I make something more substantial for breakfast than tea, aspirin, and a cigarette, and watch the local news correspondents do their windblown live shots from various Eastern Massachusetts locales. The storm is already beginning to taper off to the northwest, but the weatherman predicts that the blizzard will linger over Cape Cod well into the evening.
It's early afternoon when I start cooking. In the winter, I like to make something substantial on Sunday that will last a few days: stew, chili, a meat sauce for pasta. Today it's sweet and sour meatballs, which I'll eat with steamed broccoli or rice for the next three nights. I bring my laptop into the kitchen for music while I cook. While the meatballs are browning in the pan, I check my e-mail.
My boss has sent me a message stating that the power went out at the office and that some of the servers are down, the few that hadn't been plugged into our new and improved UPS units. He would like me to go in and turn them back on. In my reply I mention the unplowed street, my buried car, the sideways snow, and my general unwillingness to risk life and limb for a balky Windows 2003 Small Business Server. I add that I probably won't be getting into work on Monday, either, seeing as how the governor has declared a state of emergency and urged all non-essential personnel to stay home.
While the meatballs are simmering, I tune into the Eagles-Falcons game, which is just starting, leaving it on in the background while I drink my third cup of tea and read the N.Y. Times online to compensate for the lack of Sunday papers. It's just not the same, though.
Later in the afternoon, I go back outside for a few minutes. It's still snowing hard, the wind is brutal, and I can barely even make out the house across the street. I have a yardstick and, finding a somewhat evenly snow-covered spot, attempt to measure the amount of snow that's fallen so far.
While the New England Patriots brutalize the Pittsburgh Steelers on their home field, I eat dinner, drink some more strong tea, and take some more aspirin. It's still snowing.
Time to start drinking.
Winter fucking wonderland. The snow has stopped, and the sky is clearing. I suit up again for yet another sojourn into the frozen wasteland. Final measurement: 35 inches of snow (averaged from three locations).
My car is only half-covered in snow. The windward side is nearly bare, while a five-foot drift has built up on the leeward side. I had brought a snow shovel from work but had left it in the car. Fortunately, I would not have to burrow through the snow like a crazed badger just to get to the shovel.
A plow had cleared the street overnight, for very small values of "cleared". One narrow lane, wide enough for a small SUV, resembling a luge run more than a street. Seeing this, I decide that I might actually be able to get to the office and kickstart the downed servers after all. I get the shovel out of the car and attack the leeward drift.
After ten minutes of shoveling, I am out of breath. After nearly a dozen years of working at a desk, doing nothing more strenuous than running CAT5 cable through a suspended ceiling or lugging a server from curb to door, I have lost whatever physical strength I once possessed. Not that I was ever well-muscled to begin with, but back in my late twenties and early thirties, when I was a lead singer in a band, smoking less (though drinking more), I had plenty of wind, plenty of stamina. I could sing my lungs out for three hours while standing the whole time with a 20 lb. guitar hanging off of my shoulders. I could shovel snow for an hour before I needed a break.
I manage to exhume my car from the drift and start on the eight feet of snow between my car and the street. Eight feet long, seven feet wide, three feet deep, 168 cubic feet of snow. If I only had a teaspoon, clearing one cubic foot per hour, it would take me exactly a week, working around the clock.
I get about halfway through this chunk of snow when two Brazilian guys carrying snow shovels offer to do the rest. They attack it with zeal, clearing the rest in about ten minutes. I pay them each $10.
I go back inside to eat breakfast and shower, get dressed, and get my things together for work. My boss calls to see what's up, and I let him know that I'll actually be able to get to the office. He's overjoyed, since he's jonesing for the terminal server that's still offline.
Back in the car, I start it up, let it warm up, and shift into first. But the street's not wide enough, there's not enough room to make the turn from the driveway to the street. I get stuck diagonally, blocking the road, spinning my wheels. I get out and score the layer of ice that covers the road using the shovel, trying to expose the bare asphalt. I get the car out of the road and try it again, getting stuck again, this time at a more acute angle. I try to chip away at the side of the luge run, trying to get enough clearance to make the turn. No dice. The best I can manage is to get back up into the driveway and out of the road. I shut down the car and head back inside.
I call my boss and break the news to him. He's a bit disappointed, but he understands the problem. It's not a big deal, anyway, since none of our clients will be open for business today either. I offer to take a cab to the office to reboot the servers, but he says it's not necessary. As long as I check with the answering service throughout the day and provide phone support to the clients that need it, that should suffice.
Off the hook with work, I suit up again and head outside. There's a convenience store down the street, about four blocks away that also houses a Dunkin Donuts. I'm still craving coffee and newsprint.
There's no sidewalk, unless a six-foot high pile of snow counts as a sidewalk. I walk in the street, with the endless parade of SUVs and snow plows passing by. Four blocks and fifteen minutes later, I'm at the store. The Dunkin Donuts is closed, the day's newspapers hadn't been delivered, but there are some early Sunday editions of the Cape Cod Times, left over from Saturday night. I pick one up, along with some instant coffee and a container of cream. At least I won't have a caffeine withdrawal headache. Four blocks and fifteen minutes later, I'm home.
I've got coffee, a paper, and plenty of alcohol and tobacco. And I'm off from work for the day. Life is good.
At some point during the previous evening, snowplows had widened the street. It's still one lane, but a bigger lane, the width of a Hummer instead of a Ford Explorer. However, this means more digging out, as a Jersey barrier's worth of icy snow was now blocking my car.
An hour of digging later, I manage to clear out the plow debris. I shower, get dressed, and start the car. This time I make the turn into the street with inches to spare. Free at last.
Nearly out of tobacco, my first task is to replenish my supply. Though I had told my boss that I was going straight in to the office to restart the servers, I head off to the tobacconist for more Gauloises. I get there just as the owner's son is opening up the shop. They're Hindu, I think, and I get to watch him go through a ritual of walking through the whole place waving a stick of incense, then kneel at a shrine and pray, and finally perform a final prayer at the cash register. He touches it, touches his forehead, touches the register again, and then does something similar to the way Catholics make the sign of the Cross. Then he sells me some tobacco.
A block from the office, I find myself stuck in traffic. A propane tanker, bound for the Nantucket cargo ferry, can't make the turn off of Main Street on to Pleasant Street. After about ten minutes of watching the truck back up and go forward, back up and go forward, I turn around and head for a client that had called our answering service that morning, a car dealership that had lost connectivity to their application service provider.
Ping the server, ping the gateway, ping all of the routers in between. Log into the routers, more pings, look at the routing tables, something's wrong. Electrical power in town went out during the blizzard, affecting our office and some of our local clients. This car dealership connects to their ASP through a point-to-point 56K line that connects to another car dealership owned by the same outfit. One of the routers at the remote location went down during the power failure and dumped its configuration when it came back up. I implement a temporary workaround, setting up ten workstations to connect to an external-facing server. They'll be able to get some work done at least, though they won't be able to print reports to the networked printers.
Traffic is miserable, even without stuck propane tankers blocking the streets. While waiting at a light, I call our tech director and fill him in on the situation. He's the one who configured the routers (I have only a passing familiarity with IOS, the language of Cisco routers). He e-mails the configuration file to me and it's waiting when I get to the remote location. I re-load the configuration, log into the router at the first location, and try pinging the application server. Success. I then drive back to the original car dealership and reset the ten workstations to their original settings. Everybody's happy.
Except me. I was hired as a graphic artist and web developer by this company back in November 2003. When they let go of one of their technicians, I stepped in to fill the void. When the office manager left to buy a farm in Oklahoma, I stepped in to fill that void. Maybe 10% of my time is spent doing what my original job description specified. The rest of the time, I'm a digital janitor, scraping spyware off of Windows PCs, or doing the accounts receivables, or doing maintenance scheduling, or making calls to delinquent accounts ("YOU PAY NOW OR DIE!").
On the way back from the dealership, I stop off at the liquor store to replenish my supply of scotch.
Now I'm happy.