Introducing “Another American Childhood.”

I haven’t done a very good job keeping up with the constant stream of fail fast references and my terse commentary regarding them this year because my blogging time has been spent on another writing endeavor that will probably sound very nineteenth-century: poetry. I spent a lot of time writing in high school, studied literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, and my first career was as a writer and editor in the Penobscot Building in Detroit. I’ve been writing ever since, but my technical career and family life have certainly taken center stage the last 15 years or so.

Back in January when my dad was in the hospital, I instinctively turned to poetry as an outlet, and the idea for organizing some of these random pieces I had collected over the years as a gift for his upcoming 60th birthday came to me as I walked the bright, miserable hospital hallways. I realized I wanted to do something for him that I had never been able to do for my mom, who died in 1997 at the age of 44 after a 20-year struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

As I started to write and edit in earnest, I realized that, in today’s multimedia world, it would be more interesting to pair the words with images. Given that I happen to know two talented photographers, Dave Limer and Andy Schmitt, I introduced them to the project and was relieved when they agreed to help. We began pairing images with words and, to be honest, I was very surprised how quickly a basic structure came together. We shared some lunches together — seven to be exact — and a lot of emails — about 146 — over the next months, and made many, many revisions. As we neared our deadline, I thought it would be helpful to have someone with an English background review everything, and was lucky to have another literary and creative friend to call on, Michael Slawnik. Dave, Andy, Michael, and I, who work together on a daily basis as technologists, pulled everything together in time to print one copy of the book for my dad’s birthday in mid-August. It was a great day.

Early on in the process, I thought of expanding this project as a charitable effort to benefit MS, which has impacted my family in a way that is still unraveling itself. I had originally chosen Blurb as the publishing solution we would use because they print beautiful books, but the idea was concretized when I learned of their Blurb for Good program, which donates a portion of their own fees to your fundraising effort. Their technology and philanthropic model are fantastic.

I’m very happy to finally and publicly introduce Another American Childhood to you. Navigate the poems and photos on the website. Check out the page-by-page preview of the book. Buy a copy or donate directly to the MS Society if you can. And join the conversation on Facebook, where, over the next 16 weeks, we’ll be discussing the poems and photographs in order to give you a little of their background and the behind-the-scenes fun we had pulling this all together.

Any support you can give will mean more than you can imagine.

I Heart Ann Arbor.

Back in April of 2009, I started writing a note about how much I love Ann Arbor. The recollected adoration was prompted by the visit my Dad and I had just made to the University of Michigan’s Cardiovascular Center (CVC), a beautifully designed facility on the campus of my alma mater. Our visit for his test began on time and he was actually done early (and surprised me by walking up to me in the atrium where I was waiting well before the time I had set to go back and check on him). The CVC provides consistent wireless throughout, which makes waiting time go by quickly and communicating with others very easy. You can  check out an iPod if you need a device during your visit. Even the graceful Jane DeDecker bronze in the lobby is beautiful. It is such a far cry from the doctor’s offices of my youth that it barely feels like a medical building.

For whatever reason, I never finished that recollection outside of starting a draft of it and leaving it in my WordPress to-do purgatory. For all the wrong reasons, I was reminded of it this week. On Sunday, home alone, my Dad called 911, and EMS was able to get him to Henry Ford Macomb, where he was admitted for shortness of breath and placed on a ventilator. We didn’t even catch up with him for six hours, until his significant other got home and found him missing. The sedation required to be on a ventilator comfortably, and the ventilator itself, have both made communicating with my Dad impossible. The initial diagnosis is pneumonia, dramatically exacerbated by the congestive heart failure he has been battling for years.

After a few days at Henry Ford, it was clear that my Dad’s vitals were not improving. In fact, both his temperature and pneumonia were worsening. Given that the strength of his heart is going to be an ongoing complication in his recovery, and since his cardiologist is from UM, it was determined that the best route would be to transport him to Michigan’s Cardio Intensive Care Unit (CICU).

Detroiters know that Macomb Township and Ann Arbor are about 60 miles away from each other. I assumed that he would be transported via a safe and easy drive in a responsibly-driven ambulance. I was surprised, and a little distressed, to learn that he would be going by helicopter instead. It was leaving UM and would be here in 30 minutes.

 

Angels in Maize and Blue

Angels in Maize and Blue

 

Michigan Survival Flight is a dazzling unit with militaristic precision. The three-person team walked into my Dad’s hospital room in maize and blue jumpsuits pushing a gurney loaded with medical equipment. Kris, one of the RNs, immediately took control of the situation, comforting us, hugging my wife (already — and predictably — a mess), and executing his game plan with a confidence and ease that was perfectly paired with his athletic, Top Gun persona. Wilson, the other RN, moved with the same quiet, formal confidence, and they migrated my Dad’s medicines and even his ventilator to their more portable equipment very quickly, with the support of the pilot, Dean. It was wonderful, and terrifying, and as they finally loaded him into the helicopter, put on their helmets, and flashed us the thumbs-up before taking off, I recognized through my tears something I had never seen before: It turns out that angels do exist.

Three days later, it is slow going. My Dad’s temp is stubbornly high. His pneumonia is starting to improve. He is still out like a light. His major organs are holding up and in spite of everything he’s doing pretty well. But he’s not out of the woods. It could not be more frustrating not to be able to talk to him, or more precisely to not know if he understands what we are saying to him. We are waiting for him to shake this fever, get off the vent, and talk to us. Please. Here, in this city of visible angels, a city I love. But, naturally, I love my Dad more. And when he wakes up and I can talk to him again, Ann Arbor will be the most beautiful city in the world.

Proust and the Squid

I’ve been enjoying the wonderful Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf the last few weeks. I’m almost done with the book (it is one of those books that I will regret finishing) and highly recommend it if you are interested in the brain, reading, or learning in general. One of my favorite quotes is about, of all people, Socrates (p. 78):

In the last analysis, Socrates lost the fight against the spread of literacy both because he could not yet see the full capacities of written language and because there would be no turning back from these new forms of communication and knowledge. Socrates could no more prevent the spread of reading than we can prevent the adoption of increasingly sophisticated technologies. Our shared human quest for knowledge ensures that this is as it must be. But it is important to consider Socrates’ protests as we grapple with the brain and its dynamic relationship to reading. Socrates’ enemy never really was the writing down of words, as Plato realized. Rather, Socrates fought against failures to examine the protean capacities of our language and to use them “with all our intelligence.”

Though there were many things in this segment of the book that I found fascinating, learning that Socrates was against the development of reading and writing was certainly the most surprising. Ms. Wolf’s comparison of his perspective on reading to the adoption of technology rang particularly loudly with me as someone who deals with the use of technology on a daily basis.

It is hard to imagine what the world would be like without the art, history, and communicativity of the written word, one of the most profound technologies ever developed and certainly one of the hardest to learn. I’m confident that many of the tools that we see evolving today — and which many people are reluctant to adopt — will be taught in the kindergarten of the future, right along with the alphabet.