Monday, October 24, 2011

Pride and the fall. My dad and Steve Jobs.

It was a quiet fall day in Palo Alto and a father lay dying before his family.

Cancer stole his health, his humor and eventually his life. His body, like a dried corn stalk, a brittle sketch of what it had been alive and whole, full of laughter, wit and passion. His hair had been black. He had worn glasses. He had driven a Mercedes-Benz.

His family gathered around for his final breath, all standing nearly as still as the man who lay before them.

The day was in November 1984. Or October of this year. The man was 57. Or 56. The man was my Dad. Or Steve Jobs. The result was the same: children without a father, a wife bereft of her best friend.

The cause was cancer.

The similarities fade after that. Jobs, of course, wore black turtlenecks and blue jeans everywhere. Dad wore three-piece suits to work, and t-shirts and shorts at home. Jobs drove a Mercedes without a license plate. Dad had long since given his up in favor of a station wagon--more practical for traveling with his six children. And, of course, Jobs changed the world through his relentless innovation, which resulted in products such as the one I'm writing this on now.

Dad, of course, didn't invent the personal computer, the iPod or the iPhone.

Then again, I could argue as others have, that Jobs didn't invent those either--he innovated them. Jobs made better what someone else had created from whole cloth. Some would say that he made them worse by closing the systems they run on, maintaining too much control, not innovating fast enough, and so forth.

Reality is always more subtle than arguments, of course. Every Android user who downloads an app can thank Jobs for the ability to do that, since before the iPhone was released, mobile providers didn't allow phone users to download apps. Of course, Jobs only allowed users to download apps he approved.

Both sides are right.

Similarly, one could say that Dad didn't invent me from whole cloth either, since his genes came from his parents and it was Mom who bore me while I developed. Not that she controlled the process either. In a sense, I invented myself by interpreting my parents' histories anew. But he did make me better. And worse.

I distinctly recall few conversations with Dad, but one that I do so recall occurred in our kitchen. He was talking to me about how to work. Since I was still in elementary school it was less about putting a suit on, getting on the train and sitting behind a desk than about general guidelines for completing tasks. As he talked, he was cleaning the kitchen, and while much of what he said is lost to me now, I recall him scrubbing in and around the sink.

He picked up the soapy sponge, wrung it out and brought it up to the spigot. As he drew it along the underside of the spigot, he said, "I wash under here, even though nobody will see it, because I know that it's clean. Nobody will ever look there, but I'll know it. I do it because I'm proud of my work." He then wiped back and forth a few more times to ensure that the underside of the spigot was spotless and moved on.

But that lesson stuck with me.

Of course, this is the same man who taught me that pride goeth before a fall, an irony that alternately vexed and amused me as I got older. Of course, both sides are right.

Similarly, Jobs was famous for railing against ugly chips buried inside computers that most end users would never see--especially if Jobs got his way. It may have been this same pride and desire to keep his own casing sealed that caused Jobs to eschew surgical intervention for his ailments, finally relenting when no other course was viable. So, perhaps pride preceded his fall. Or perhaps nothing would have stopped Jobs' death at such a young age.

Despite being a lifelong Christian Scientist and the most quietly pious man I've known, Dad didn't equivocate when it came to medical intervention. "I love your mother and this is what she wanted me to do, so I'll do it," he told me in a long conversation we had, both slumped on the smooth wooden stairs of our house.

Of course, both sides are right: pride presses us all forward, and sometimes pushes us off the precipice.

With the many similarities between Dad's and Jobs' death, the one the touches me most deeply is one that's rarely mentioned--I'm hoping out of respect rather than oversight--the children Jobs left behind. While I can't know how they feel, I know that I felt half-orphaned, as if I'd been rent asunder, with one half of myself feeling as if it had been cast into hell, the other into an eternal void.

Both were right.

And both stitched themselves back together as I reinvented myself. I won't lie to you; it sucked. But it got better. Imperceptibly at first, like the sun moving slightly north on the horizon at dawn on the day after the winter solstice, but then gathering momentum until one day I looked around and saw that it was spring. But these things take time.

And right now, in a quiet neighborhood in Palo Alto, on a leafy street, there are children living in a house with a hole in it. It doesn't let the rain in. They can't even see it. But they can feel it. Which is why, across the gossamer strands that connect us, I send them one thought every day: it will get better.

They will never see that thought, but I'll know that I sent it.

Papa Bradstein will ride 200 miles across Massachusetts in two days to help fight cancer. Please support his ride.

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