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.