Faultlines: Siddhartha Gautam

Siddharta3January 25 was the birthday of a good friend, Siddhartha Gautam.  He died over 20 years ago.

And, strangely, it’s as if he’s not dead.

He’s forever young – he died in his twenties, while all of us have gone on to grow older.  He was also one of the most brilliant, and perhaps effective, people I’ve ever met.  In college would churn out a fifteen or twenty page paper in a night, leaving those of us who were less talented feeling befuddled.

But there’s something else.  Responding to a recent post, an old friend, Linda Goodman, suggested that I’m fine as I am and that there’s no need to change.  I appreciate the words.  And yet Siddhartha was better equipped than I, but he is gone and I am not.

So what responsibility do I have to do some work commensurate with the life he might have lived?

By virtue of my own pulse, what do I owe him?

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Frenchie

Mid-day I went down to visit Frenchie, our neighbor next door who had come home to die.  Her daughter called because Frenchie needed to be moved and the daughter wasn’t strong enough to do it.

Frenchie is 88, a feisty Quebecois.  Her husband, now gone, was from Montreal.  Over half a century ago they had bought their cottage in Sebastopol as a weekend retreat and eventually moved up here.  She was a devoted gardener who waged perennial war on the gophers.  She held dominion over this area as residents came and went and the old Gravenstein apple farmers grew old and went on.  In later years she filled her home with stuffed animals to keep her company.  Her menagerie, she called it.

Frenchie lay on a bed in the living room, hooked to an oxygen tank.  She still had fire in her, and when prompted she could eke out a yes or a no and a fierce yet gentle smile. You could feel the shimmering though, the giving way:  her struggle was palpable. I stayed for a bit, and told her she was beautiful and strong.  She was a lovely lovely woman.

It was a beautiful California day that felt to me strangely gray.

That evening Anna and I went to hear Jolie Holland at the Hopmonk. A founding member of  The Be Good Tanyas, Holland came out of the Gulf Coast and her musical heritage has broad Acadian roots.   I told Anna I felt so fragile, that I could feel Frenchie slipping such that any loss, even the closing of the damn record store in Sebastopol, felt like a sharp abrasion.  It just felt so sad.  Holland’s voice was sublime and provided some measure of relief, but nonetheless Anna and I were tired and we got in one of those kinds of fights that leave one drained and aching.

I fell asleep at home and awoke at 3 and couldn’t sleep.  My chest compressed with that feeling of blank dread. I went downstairs and lay on the couch in the darkness, waiting and observing.  I dreamt that I was on my way to Telluride but a snow began to fall and impeded my progress.  The ache slowly dissipated.  At some point I felt a release and opening up somehow and I fell into a thick slumber.  At daybreak the dogs went mad with barking and raced to the windows.

Later Anna came and pulled me from my stupor.  We should go see Frenchie, she said.  I threw some clothes on and we walked down the road.  Her son Louie stood in the dewy yard by the fence.  She died this morning he told us.  It’s funny, the others had all been dying lately.  One 88 year old neighbor just last week.  Frenchie was the last to go.

I later explained to Mazie that it’s like we’re a fabric, each person a knot of sentience in an immense dense weave.  And as any one creature starts to go, unravel, whatever, the area of fabric around the knot shifts and shimmers and vibrates as that knot is unraveled into the nothingness.  The description is of course not quite right, but perhaps close enough.

I lit a candle for Frenchie and let it burn for most of the morning.  What is a flame, but the release of matter over time as light and heat and disintered material?  A flame, be it life or fire, is again a verb, less a noun than a process.  And when the time came, my breath pressed against the flame struggling to hold purchase on the wick.  But the energy of the process couldn’t withstand the prevailing force which always is and it gave way and eventually extinguished.  How does a flame go out?  First there is the sequence of when it waves and bucks and bows. Followed by a brief flare before disappearing.  The ember tip of the wick remains for another moment, burning yet before it too goes black.  Then the long trail of whisping smoke that unfurls into space tracing designs and patterns until quite suddenly that too is gone.   We are left with the dissipated carbon dioxide to be absorbed by plants and in quick cycle returned to life.  And the inert stick of wax awaiting the next spark.

Remembering Steve

Steve isn’t dead.

The most physical and perhaps most limited instantiation of him, of course, is gone.  No more will we know that unique conflation of DNA and environment that gave rise to the person we knew as Steve Jobs.

But his larger self, the ripples emanating out from him, those will continue to move people on this earth.

He rode sidecar in the lives of many people.  Or perhaps it was the other way around.  Perhaps it was his motorcycle all along.  Perhaps he gave expression to that motorcycle ride that we all dreamed for and wanted.

How have his ripples moved through me?

1979.  San Diego.  I’m an awkward fourteen year old boy.  It’s the first day of ninth grade and my math teacher Virginia Hamilton ushers me into a room that contains some new equipment which she doesn’t understand and has no idea what to do with.  She shows me a new Apple II.  It’s your’s to play with, she tells me.  Earlier that summer I had read about these two guys, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who had invented the first real personal computer.  I understood instantly.  I took the manual home that night and was on the machine the next day tirelessly.  It couldn’t just move numbers and text.  It could play sound.  It had a color screen.   You could do art on it.  It could be a musical keyboard.  It could be a kind of stereo.  I learned to program in hex. I set to writing a program that was like a wordprocessor for music.  Why, a person could play and the computer would transcribe the music for you.

1981.  Reuben H Fleet Science Center.  I sit at a table with the director of their science center.  They had live location data on several satellites orbiting the earth, he explained.  Could I write a program that could visually display where in the sky the satellites would be visible?  Why yes.  The truth was I couldn’t program worth shit.  But I set to it with David Calabrese, a kid I met hanging out in an Apple store.  That was a thing then – kids who couldn’t afford computers would hang out in Apple retailers programming and pimping the machines.

David and I would get together each day and type out code.  We were nuts about Apple computers.  We also debated who was the stronger genius – Wozniak or Jobs?  Jobs was a petulant jerk. And Wozniak was brilliant.  He after all was the real inventor of the guts and OS of the first Apple.  He invented the first magnetic hard drive over a weekend.  But Jobs was the guy who saw what it all was.  He was the one to put it together.  He drove Wozniak relentlessly.  And eventually he drove Wozniak out.  David and I worked on our satellite tracking program. We kind of got it working, but a real programmer ended up finishing the work. I had a crush on David’s sister and I just wanted to make out with her.  I guess I got kind of distracted.

1982.  Biology class.  I borrowed an Apple IIe from a kid – I think his name was Eric Altman.  His family was pretty well off and they could afford the latest toys.  I didn’t have a computer of my own and I needed to do a demo of my science project – something about computer music transcription.  I plugged in the computer with the power switch on and I fried the mother board.  I stood in front of the class and felt like I was going to throw up.  Eric was heartbroken.  I took his machine to the Apple store where I hung out.  I had no money, but the technician worked on it for a week and fixed it for free.  He was so generous, but then he wanted to hang out with me more and I didn’t know what his intention was. I felt the the foreign edge of a grown up world and it scared me.

1983.  I stand in my childhood home, decrepit, filthy, largely stripped of furniture.  I’m seventeen and I no longer have parents.  I hold an acceptance letter in my hand.  Would I have gotten into Yale without all that freakish experience with those Apple computers?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Does technology really make a difference?

1984.  At Yale my college roommate ended up with one of the first Macintoshes.  I could use it whenever I wanted to write papers, he told me.  He basically bribed me with his Mac so I would hang out with him.  Regardless, never again would I write a paper on a typewriter.  And the sheer terror I felt at having to write on the page began to dissipate just a little.  I could write, and erase, and cut and paste.  Back then the words, “cut and paste” still connoted glue and scissors.   How strange to think that in our minds the words now evoke the clicking of a mouse.  And what would the mouse have been without Steve Jobs?  And by extension, to think that our very vocabulary and the parts of our brain that support that vocabulary have been rewired by that one individual.

1987.  I camped out in the basement of our residential college for much of the spring, sitting at a bank of Macintoshes, writing my senior thesis on the Diggers, a counterculture anarchist group in San Francisco.  Why did history have to be constituted only of old stuff, I wondered?  What about recent history?  The 1960’s?  Cultural history?  I wanted to write about something that hadn’t been touched yet.  And so I looked at something so new and so insignificant, that real historians hadn’t gotten to it yet.  For hundreds of hours I stared at the screen of a Mac.  I thought about those machines of loving grace, of how that generation of tech pioneers, Steve in particular,  came out of the counterculture, how parts of their visions were fueled by acid.

1988.  Seattle.  I’m out of college by now.  My first years at trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I was alone in the world, and if I’d ever chanced to look down, I would have been terrified.  I read biographies of Steve Jobs, looking for guidance.

I inherited the stories:

Steve in India being pulled aside by a guru who, laughing hysterically, shorn his hair off.

Steve tracking down his birth mother.  He had little to say publicly about the matter other than that he believed in nurture over nature. I wondered over the years what that encounter must have been like.  Who was she?  What did they share in common?  What did they not?  Why should I even care?  But care I did.

Steve inviting John Scully to his Woodside home.  Over thin crusted pizza, asking if John wanted to continue selling sugar water to children, or if he wanted to change the world?

Steve being exiled to some lone building on the Apple campus.

Steve being fired from his own company and following his departure, retreating to his Woodside home where he raised a pirate flag and another sporting the logo of the NeXT computer.

Steve throwing crying fits, insisting that the robotic arms assembling NeXT be painted the proper shade, and then his eyes welling up again as he watched those arms moving in unison.  Thinking machines building other thinking machines.  This was poetry.  This was art.

Steve commenting years later that technology in the end doesn’t change the world.  People live for an instant and then they die.  What does technology really change?  All those widgets and gadgets and gizmos, they make the world different.  But do they really make it better?

1989.   I sat in an auditorium in Seattle as Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT computer.  I saw OS X in it’s very first incarnation.  It had a Unix kernel and full sound and graphics and an amped up graphic interface.  Why did I still care about this stuff?  I wasn’t a computer guy anymore.  But I loved Jobs.  Watching that demo, I wondered why no one wanted to buy it?  None of us knew that 10 years later we all would.

1994.  I have an MFA by now.  I’m writing.  I scratch out a living with low-end desktop publishing.  Why that and not something else?  Because I have loads of experience on a Mac.   All on Mac’s.  Steve made the best tools I have ever touched.  I have a Sheffield digging fork.  And an Apple.  And in a way they are the very same thing.  They allow me to do most of the work I do.

1996.  Vermont.  My wife and I have just moved to the northeast.  I’m referred to a woman who’s having problems with her Mac and needs some tech support.  I end up helping her and afterwards we go for a walk and she asks about my life and she listens in a way that ranks that afternoon on the shores of Lake Champlain as one of the most important conversations of my life.  I tell her that I don’t sleep at night because there are too many things left undone.  Left undone, she said.  One day that will be the title of your autobiography.  We had a chance encounter because of a screwed up Mac and our deep friendship has lasted to this day.  What difference, really, does technology make?

1996.  Vermont. Driving through the snow with my wife.  I had heard about a new codec called MP3 and was thinking through the implications. The physical medium for content was now obsolete, I told my wife.  We no longer needed vinyl or CD’s or tapes.  All music could be shared digitally.  I wrote out a 2 page summary for a digital jukebox that would exist online, and you could purchase songs and play them on some device. I tried to find interested people.  I met with some guy from the Media Lab.  I got a job working for a start up telecom company, thinking it would help.  I was employee number 7.  The company took off and I dropped my idea, an idea which I now realize I was in no position to execute.

1998.  Steve returns to Apple.  It’s not the hardware.  It’s the software, he insists.  And the dictum becomes apparent.   There’s no reason to have buttons and physical widgets on our devices.  Practically all of it can be done by software.  The ideal computer wouldn’t even exist physically.  It would be pure software.  Pure instruction.  Pure energy.

2001.  Apple releases the iPod.

Why did Steve Jobs do it?  And why not me?  Well, because he was Steve Jobs.  And I am me.

2007.  The company I worked for got the contract to provision the iPhone on the AT&T network.   And the company screwed it up immeasurably.  Probably the single greatest failure of the iPhone release was AT&T’s botched turn up of the service.  A small number of former coworkers  got pretty rich off it, though.  But I had already left three years before and had moved to the Hopi reservation.

2005.  I stand in a parking lot in Flagstaff before a meeting with a prospective funder.  I’m trying to get money for a youth farming project.  I have my Mac Powerbook on the trunk of my car and I select 30 photos, choose a Hopi planting song, and within seconds have a slideshow.  I sit with the funder as luscious images materialized on the screen, showing kids planting ancient terrace gardens.  At the end of the slideshow he sits there in silence and then announces  that he’ll commit ten thousand dollars.

2009.  I have a recurrence of a tumor on my parotid gland and am undergoing radiation treatment in San Francisco.  Unbeknownst to me Steve Jobs is getting his liver transplant in Knoxville.  Late one night I hole up in a sushi bar in the Sunset district, seeking some morsel of food that won’t make me sick.  I chat with a woman next to me – an attorney specializing in real estate law. Her boyfriend is an oncologist in Palo Alto.  He’s been working with Steve.  It’s not good, she tells me.  But didn’t we all know that? Not just for him, but for all of us?  Isn’t life itself a terminal condition?  I drink my sake and eat my toro.  I don’t want him to go.

2011.  Sebastopol where l now live with my family.  I have struggled for the last few weeks to buy an apple orchard next door, but my efforts come to late.  It’s sold to a vintner.  Several days later bulldozers arrive and plow down the 80 year old trees.  Even as I write I can hear the sound of the dozers.  I take a break to watch a movie on my daughter’s Macbook Pro about the mining of blood minerals used in cellphones and wonder what Apple’s stance on the issue is.  I think of small boys mining colton deep underground with small hammers.  Of women being raped and mercenary groups demanding taxes on the minerals used in all our electronic devices.  Small drops of blood tainting perhaps even the devices popularized by Steve Jobs.  Does technology change the world?  Ask the boys in the mines.  I consider their lives and their terminal conditions.

I turn on the radio and learn that Steve Jobs has died.

1955 – 2011.  Apple could have said it so many ways.  What was the most simple?  They could have said, “2011”.  But that just tells you that he died.  It doesn’t tell you that he was. They could have displayed the exact month and the day of his birth and death.  But what really do those other pieces of information add?  Nothing really.

Steve Jobs.  1955 – 2011.  He lived.  And now he is dead.

I once wanted to be Steve Jobs.

And in the end we all will be.  Steve admonished that life is about the detours.  That we never know how those detours will add up.  But what if your life has been composed entirely of detours?

It took me too long of a time to realize that Steve Jobs was not the life I was born into.  I can have visions with the best of them.  But everything depends on execution.  And in the end, focus.

 

Intense, excruciating focus.

 

15k in Therapy

Something got into our yard this morning and decimated the chicken flock.  The black hen dead, the two Plymouth’s carried away, the Yellow Leghorn freaked out.

I’m done.  Done with neglect.  Done with rabid dogs.  Done with unnecessary death.

I spoke with my friend Patrick yesterday morning.  He called me the prophet of loss – all that which has occurred and that which is yet to come.

He’s right.  I stood on the Sonoma plaza looking up at those California oaks and I realized he was absolutely right.  It’s the story of my life and my writing voice and all I really care to think about.

All of that loss.  And more to come.

Yet who are we without it?

Faultlines: James Acord

James Acord is dead.

I thought of him while sitting on the Sonoma town square.  No reason in particular, really, but I thought I’d look him up.

He committed suicide on January 8th of this year.

Acord was the subject of one of those 60 page New Yorker profiles way back a lot of years ago.  He was a sculptor who ultimately completed only a handful of works:  Monstrance for a Grey Horse, a few reliquaries, and a large portfolio of fine drawings of seedpods and nests and the like.

And yet the breadth of his mind and spirit were immense.  He was at heart an alchemist who sought to transmute base unstable material into, well, something safe and eternal, into something else.  He wanted to build a container to hold the sacrament of our age – nuclear material – and he dedicated decades of his life to the planning and carving of the Monstrance.

He spawned in me my affection for Barre granite – the hardest, most inert rock on earth.  And he gave me faith to at least contemplate the big idea – the vastness of time or the true nature of materials.  For years I’ve had a manila folder with his name on it containing information about him and his works.

I looked him up for some reason in Seattle back in 2001.  He had just returned from a teaching gig in London.  He felt gentle and doe-eyed and a bit forlorn and a bit suspicious, wondering why I wanted to talk with him.  He talked about the bus system and he needed some rides around town, I think.  Something about him felt off – he was living in Pioneer SQuare and he couldn’t quite hold his thoughts together and I realized something had happened to him between the carving of the Monstrance and now.  It was as if the power of those things he was working with was too strong, and in the face of it, unlike that Barre granite, his consciousness had begun to shatter.

Ultimately he lost the strength to carry on.  How strange to think of those hard crystals chiseled by his calloused hands, the malignant grin of the horses skull, of how it will remain yet, carrying forward for thousands of years into time a small vessel of highly radioactive uranium.  One day it will be opened by nature or by beast.  And that transformed material into this world will once again be released.

 

Best Friends

Morning coffee and croissant off of Grant street. The city awakening. I’m feeling sad, though. Sad at excess. A little sad at wherever I am in my life.

I look down at the pavement. And I think of the guy.
—-

Last month my friend Patrick was walking to work in San Francisco and he passed some commotion and an area cordoned off with police tape. A little bit earlier a guy had jumped from a building and his body was lying on the pavement.

He had committed the irrevocable act.

He had arrived at a moment where he felt sad / devalued / alone / ill – enough so that he no longer wanted to be alive.

Since arriving in San Francisco I’ve considered him most days. I never knew him. But by killing himself he’s given me a costly gift. Even worse, it probably pales to what he gave the world when he was alive.

What would he think to know that after his death, a complete stranger would continue to carry his shadow forward into life? And by implication, what of me is carried by him?

Sometimes we can count even a stranger as a friend.

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