The sky in Colorado is different from many other places. I think it’s a combination of the low humidity, high altitude and normally clean atmosphere. Every few minutes of every day, the sky changes, even when it is cloudless. Near noon in the winter, you get these amazing deep azure blue skies in the north, opposite the low sun. It’s reminiscent of noon in the summer in the high latitudes of the Baltic. Storms, sunsets, changes in pressure and mountain waves all produce amazing colors and forms that I will never get tired of looking at.
Who here thinks about how their life will end? I know I do. I remember thinking “is this how I die?” during a flying lesson, where my instructor got me into a spin to teach me how to recover. I have never imagined my dad dying. He has always been a larger than life figure, someone who could never die. When I saw him die, somehow the rest of the world became more real.
The day Dad died, I couldn’t really do anything except be numb. As the days passed, I discovered a feeling I had never encountered before: A longing to keep him alive by remembering things about him. This sounds pretty simple and logical. In reality, there is nothing logical about it.
I wanted to make this talk really visual, with photos of him as the focus, and I’d just tell stories about him based on those photos. As I thought about what to say about Dad, I started looking through photos, and realizing that I didn’t have many photos of him from recent times. Most of the photos of him I could find were from before I was born. Then I realized that the frustration I had felt for the last two months, trying to remember Dad, was because I didn’t know him for most of his life. I was a part of his life from the time he was about 30 years old. I really started to know him when he was about 40. So much of his life was spent doing work that he was passionate about, a field of study which requires deep knowledge, that I didn’t really know that much about that part of his life.
What I did know about him was that he was always interested in helping me and Megan learn about the things we were interested in. One of the things many of you have probably heard him say is that “Knowledge is like cow manure, it doesn’t do any good unless you spread it around.” He would go out of his way to find interesting things to bring home for us when we were in elementary school. He’d stop by Dick Blick and get foam core, rulers, exacto knives and cutting surfaces for Megan to use to make buildings. He’d go to university surplus and bring home an old DEC teletype terminal (the kind where there isn’t a video screen, there’s a printer that the computer types words on to, and you type words into it, all printed on the piece of chain-fed paper). He’d take me down to the basement of the university computer center, where his buddy Al was a technician in the computer support area. I remember being amazed at the huge computers whirring away behind glass walls, their tape drives spinning back and forth, lights blinking. Al had a brand new NeXT computer, a 1 foot black cube that I was fascinated by. I remember when Dad did the first iteration of what would end up becoming the art and life in africa web site. This was in about 1988, and the technology available involved taking photographs of different views of every piece of art in the Stanley collection, transporting them to 3M headquarters in Minneapolis, where they were scanned using a flying spot scanner on to individual frames of a Laserdisc which could be indexed by a computer. You’d type the piece of art you were looking for into a computer program, and it would control the Laserdisc player to bring up the art on a TV screen, and you could slide a slider around on the computer to rotate the art. Eventually, this became the art and life in africa CD-ROM program, and finally the web site. I learned about how computers work from these kinds of experiences that he made possible.
When I was in high school, Dad made a deal with me – he’d double any money that I saved up from a summer job, and we’d use it to buy me a computer. I spent all summer working at Hardee’s on the Coralville strip, and saved up about $800. $1600 was just enough to buy a brand new Macintosh and color monitor at the computer center.
I don’t have any photos of my Dad from this time – about the closest I have are a couple of pictures of him and my mom at Grand Teton National Park in 2003. I have fading memories of a very important part of my life, that really only he and I shared. Now he’s not here, and that part of me has lost the only other person who remembered some of those things.
I miss Dad’s laugh. I miss calling him on a Sunday and him saying “hi, buddy” to me, and us talking about his web site, model airplanes, the garden, or other things happening in his life. But there are things I will always remember – swimming in an ice cold lake, out to an island, with him in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Packing what felt like tons of food and supplies over portages in the Boundary Waters. Sitting in our tent, reading in the evening. He was reading about Captain James Cook, I was reading about Captain James Kirk.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not important that I know or remember everything about Dad’s life, because one of the things that happens when you die, is that your life’s work – including the work of raising your kids and being a partner to your spouse – dissolves into the world. You lose any semblance of control over your own destiny and the destinies of the people you care about. In return, what you were is dissolved into the fabric of everything those people do, and the impacts they have on others. I know that Dad’s granddaughter, Sylvia, will get to do some really fun and interesting stuff, at least partly because Megan will remember how fun it was to go camping in the southwest with Mom and Dad, and how important it was that her intellectual interests were known and cared about by them from a very young age.
I’m grateful that Dad’s memory will continue on through everyone in this room, and through the thousands of students whose lives he changed imperceptibly, who will remember his stories about art and life.
If I can live to have a fraction of the kind of positive effect my dad had on the world, it will be a good life. If I can die surrounded by love, like he did, it will have been worth living.
My Brother-in-law wakes me at 3 a.m.
Lying on the floor at The Bird House
“You should come downstairs”
Megan and baby Sylvia are sleeping in the bed above me
“Your Dad stopped breathing”
I lift myself out of Ambien sleep, foggy and null
As I walk down the stairs my head becomes clear
Dad is there waiting for us
I take his hand and tell him how much we love him,
That we will always love him
That it is OK to walk the path of the ancestors
The Yaba Soore.
We take his hands and kiss him
As I kiss his chest I feel his heart beating strong and fast
He’s warm and I kiss his shoulder right above the temporary tattoos of his two Fentanyl patches.
I walk outside, look up at the stars in the ice night. Orion has set. The deer are sleeping in a hollow in the woods. The Interstate hums and throbs over the rise
I take a drag from my vape pen – I developed the habit in the spring, worrying about him.
Walking back into his room I am overcome with grief, sobbing and hugging my mom
“It will be alright. Love you.”
Dad, I hope you are hanging out with your friends
The old guys from Boni
Drinking millet beer and telling stories about the people you love
We will always tell stories about you, until we meet you again on the path of the ancestors
On TV, the path of a jet from Boston is traced out, over the ponds and streams and mountains and lakes where I was born, over the Berkshire Connector, over the road to Montreal.
Banking swiftly into a straight line with that feeling you get when history is ripped free of itself and the universe that had been falls away.
What we feel in the pit of our stomach, when a tsunami breaks in the quantum foam, when the underlying connections are ripped clean for an instant. And the true humanity of it all is made plain by an exodus of human beings, people walking calmly and quietly, hand in hand, helping the injured, making their way together across the bridge of time.
In memory of those who fell
And the universe they carried with them
I met Carl when I was working as a systems programmer on the “Directory and Authentication” team at The University of Iowa. It was the summer that the Iowa River overflowed its banks and we hauled computers up the hill from the Lindquist Center to higher ground. We had all relocated (permanently, as it turned out) from our old offices in that 1970s brutalist concrete bunker up to the formerly “dead mall” up the hill. My new office was a cubicle perched atop a piece of steel plate covering the old escalator shaft on the second floor of what had been JC Penneys. You could feel the steel flex when you walked on top of it.
Part of our task at this job was to do provisioning of enterprise services. Occasionally some new person who needed early access to things would get flagged and we’d create their HawkID ahead of time and pre-provision access to groups by sticking override codes in our provisioning database. Carl was such a person – a senior IT security administrator – and I was on-call that week so I got to provision his early access. The day he arrived, something told me he’d be a cool dude, and I always wanted to make good impressions on the IT security folks. I walked his username and initial password over to him directly. He was really happy with that and we became friends immediately. We were the ‘vintage 1978’ dudes.
Over the years, I took many long walks at lunch time or in the afternoon with him. We’d IM each other and if something at work was pissing us off, we’d say ‘fuck it’ and go for a walk and talk. That always helped us both. When I moved away from Iowa City we drifted apart over the years. We’d IM occasionally and he’d share his pics from his trips to Japan and Scotland. I didn’t go back to Iowa City for a long time. The last time we saw each other was probably three years ago.
This afternoon I got a text from a friend who worked with him: I should call back, urgently. I called him and he gave me the news that Carl had been found dead in a park this morning. Five minutes later another friend called to give me the same news. I felt my heart drop into my feet. I felt dizzy and disconnected from reality. I still feel that way. I will probably feel that way for days. Life is too short and too precious. That seems like a cliché, but it is not. Take the time to connect with dear people and to live each moment – we don’t have that many of either. Here’s to you, my friend. Safe travels beyond the gray curtain. *hugs*
I’ve had severe chronic depression since I was twelve years old. The warning signs were probably there before that, but twelve was when I first remember knowing what despair feels like.
Several people either in our family or close to it died in close proximity to each other that year. The winter of 1990, I started compulsively washing my hands. I was obsessed with germs, cancer, chemicals and death. I was sure I would get cancer from some toxic chemical I was somehow exposed to. I went to a child psychologist who prescribed Tricyclic antidepressants, which seemed to work, but made me very hungry all the time. I binged on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I had been a very skinny little kid, and now I started to gain weight.
The next year, in junior high, I started to become ashamed of my weight, and started to wear baggy sweatpants and hoodies because they were comfortable and easy. A girl in my math class loudly told another girl that “girls don’t like Nick because Nick doesn’t like girls.” I don’t remember what I did to make her say this. I was genuinely not interested in anyone of any kind in junior high. I went on antidepressants in the winter. The fall of my second year in junior high, there was a mass shooting on the campus of The University of Iowa, and I remember riding in the car past the Physics building where it happened, on my way home that night, the snow quietly reflecting the police car, ambulance and fire truck lights on Iowa ave.
I took part in various talk therapy regimes in high school, none of which seemed to really help my mood or cognitive patterns. I tried different antidepressants, and eventually ended up on Prozac, which seemed to have fewer negative side effects than the tricyclics. I got a good group of friends, some of us computer people, some band, some journalists or debaters. We pretty much all smoked pot, and that helped quite a bit.
The fall of my first year in college, I ate a pot brownie and had a week-long dissociative episode. I no longer wanted anything to do with pot after that, and ended up having to get back on stronger levels of antidepressants. I did not live in the dorms in college, instead living in a condo with a good friend, very far away from downtown. As a result, I did not have a normal social life during college. My friends were all coworkers, most of whom were 10-20 years older than me, at my wonderful job at a public policy center. They were and are absolutely wonderful people. Working there was the high point of my college experience. I gained valuable IT skills there that are the basis for my current career. In college, I did not take part in the usual underage/heavy drinking, but man did I eat a lot of pie. By the end of college, I weighed 295 pounds. I had never dated anyone, either in high school or college. By this time, I didn’t think that anyone liked me or could ever like me. My predominant cognitive untruths were:
- No one likes me
- No one could ever like me
- My body doesn’t matter (disdain for the flesh)
The last year of college, I did behavioral talk therapy with a very kind guy named Len. He helped identify these cognitive patterns and we talked about how they could not be true. The spring of my last year in college, I took a handful of magic mushrooms, and found that I could understand and visualize math in a way I had not been able to before. I believe this was the beginning of my emergence from depression. It took another three years of thinking about my negative cognitive patterns before something finally clicked.
After graduation, I got an entry-level job in IT at the university. I was very fat. I had still never dated anyone. I was out of breath doing the most minor tasks. In 2003, I took a photo of myself with my Nokia camera phone, and saw how fat I was. I did not want to die early, fat, having never had any real loving relationship with anyone beyond my immediate family. I threw the Prozac in the trash and bought a bicycle. I started biking around the trailer park where I lived, every night, first for 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 45 minutes. I started to walk, and then to run. I started the Atkins diet.
By 2004, I weighed 160 pounds. I had lost roughly 140 pounds in 10 months. I was running every day.
In the fall of 2006, I took flying lessons and started to date. My first three dating experiences were a fizzle, a very scary obsessive and toxic relationship, and then a superficial and uncomfortable short-lived thing. In 2007, I got my private pilot’s certificate from the FAA, and started to work at the airport part-time. I got stronger on that job, and flying improved my mind, my body, and my relationships. I got a wonderful set of friends who I am proud to call friends to this day. I met the woman who would eventually bless me with the honor of her partnership in marriage – a strong, smart, beautiful, relaxed, scientific, iconoclastic, confident and funny woman.
In 2010, I did something about my problems with my body image and had a lot of ugly excess skin removed from my stomach. I didn’t do this for anyone but me, and it was worth it. I was still working out every day, and I hadn’t had a need for antidepressants in seven years. In 2012, I got married. I was struggling with wanting to advance in my job, and not getting to where I wanted to with that job fast enough. The late fall of 2012 brought the Sandy Hook shootings, and I remember feeling very strong depression for the first time in years, walking around outside our apartment building, smoking a cigarette and feeling that the world was a terrible place. Then a friend and mentor called and offered me a job – what I thought was my dream job.
In early 2013, we moved to Pennsylvania for the job. The job forced me to grow and learn in ways I cannot fully comprehend. It challenged me. It was a wonderful team, but we were up against truly insurmountable institutional dynamics. We could not win. I started to wake up at 5:30 a.m. without an alarm clock, then 5, then 4:30, then 3:00 a.m. – worried about problems at work I could not solve. My fight-or-flight reflexes were fully charged up nearly all the time. I sensed real danger to my livelihood, and by the late winter of my second year at that job, I found myself at the top of a parking structure after work, looking at the mountains, and considering jumping off the parking ramp. I knew I needed help. I immediately went to my physician and got on Paxil for the anxiety and depression, and Lorazepam for the anxiety and sleep issues. This helped a lot – and I sought out talk therapy, which also helped a lot. I started to gain weight again. I gained 20 pounds, and realized I needed a change.
In the spring of 2015, I weaned myself off of Paxil. Getting off Paxil was interesting – I had another dissociative episode that was almost exactly like the time I ate the pot brownie in college. I felt like I was walking around 10 feet behind myself for two weeks.
I got a job that allowed us to relocate to Colorado, a place we have both always wanted to live, and where some of our very best friends live. The sun, the less stressful job, the natural beauty and outdoor recreation, and the fact that Denver is further south all have strongly helped my mood. My battle with depression will never be over, but now I recognize when I am at a low point, and I can do something about it.
When you spend most waking moments staring at your phone
When you plan parts of your day around trying to entertain others on a social network
When you spend half of dinner looking at your phone instead of talking to your wife
When you are on a hike and lament not having a signal
Facebook is no longer worth it
When you post things with strong opinions and then worry about a flame war on your posts
When you dread waking up in the morning to check notifications because half of them are going to upset you
When you simultaneously must check notifications compulsively
When you design posts to get the maximum number of comments or likes
Facebook is no longer worth it
When you let an algorithm modify your behavior
When you don’t care about invasion of your privacy
When you say things to friends and family that are deeply damaging
When you still can’t get enough
Facebook is no longer worth it
I will miss the social connections
I will miss the wonderful pictures
I will miss the connectivity to distant friends
But Facebook is not worth it
Hopefully I won’t just ignore these.
- Listen to my body when it tells me something is wrong
- Listen to my wife more
- Live in a place that makes me happy
- Spend more time with friends and family
- Watch Blazing Saddles and Caddyshack
- Lose 35 lbs
- Hike a 14-er
I REALLY want to like “Halt and Catch Fire,” but the endless cute in references like characters named “Gordon Clark” and “Cameron Howe,” and “Computers aren’t the thing, they’re the thing that gets us to the thing” are extremely distracting. Come on guys, you have a good script. Just go totally original and stop snickering at your own cleverness.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Nicholas Roy, all rights reserved
I set out across the land
Knowing not where I would stop
Settling with unease each night along the way
A route through brambled undertuff
The stars to light my way
The heat of days
The salt-crust red of skin
Dust and callus hands beridged
I found along my arc through deepest steamcrossed plain
A field girded round with wire rusted, barbed in vain
No longer were the cattle bound within its mesh
Flesh had long ago made way for sun bleached scaffolding
The beat of many rays
The rhythm found
I trudged along
Not asking what to seek
The time would come when I laid down
To rest of that was sure
Parameters for marking home
Elusive as the dew
Thirst of days
No water found
Heat and ache and nothing new
Then one night, under the stars
I cast my thoughts adrift
Found peace in looking up at them
Felt rain within my chest