For my most devoted fan, in memoriam

jekThere was really only one person who came to this blog multiple times a day, as I could see from my web stats. Mondays through Fridays. Business hours. Since 2010 or so, when he googled me for my mailing address. His name was John Kenny, of Philadelphia (later Malvern), and he was my father. Secret father, I should clarify. But still my biological father.

My mom had me “out of wedlock” in ’78. It was not a kosher thing to do back then. She let John know I was coming, let him know that I came, and then raised me alone, as he wasn’t interested in being part of the process. In his mind he needed proof, and proof didn’t come til DNA paternity tests were available in 1994. So in May of that year, we got a test done and I met him for the first time. I was 15 but looked 11 – tiny, skinny, wearing my grandfather’s oversized pink golf polo shirt. I missed my final exam in algebra to take the DNA test. But I knew John was my father the moment he walked into the DSS office in Philadelphia. He was very embarrassed, and very nice to me, and fed me cheesesteaks and fries after the paternity test, urging me to order dessert. Somewhere in a filing cabinet of an administrative building, there remains a Polaroid of all three of us – taken by a state agent as part of our case file. I would pay big money for that photo now. Just to laugh at the absurdity of life. And then frame it.

He paid child support for my last few years of high school, and we corresponded for the next 11.5 years. In secret. At his work address. As per his request. He had married, had another child, moved on, and for valid reasons of his own, did not want to announce my existence to anyone. I went along with this for over a decade. Met him on his lunch breaks in the parking lot of the Mellon bank in Malvern, in the parking lot of the Paoli library, in various diners. One time he drove me to my brother’s middle school, and we stared at the lacrosse field while it rained heavily on his red pickup. “I wish I could have been in your life growing up,” he said. “I wish you could have come to my house for Christmas. I wish things had been different.” He wished a lot of things. He wrote me 25 letters and I saved every one. In them he often he talked about how fleeting life is, how “in his next life” he’d own his own business, or get out of heating and air conditioning, or stay in Hawaii.

The last visit, on Christmas in 2005, we drove to his deceased parents’ house in Blue Bell. “I just wanted you to see it,” he said. And we sat there in silence for a few minutes. Maybe it wasn’t silence. I think he talked about his parents a little – mostly about his father, whom he adored. But I was so angry, I didn’t say anything. Why show me the house of your parents, to whom you never admitted my existence? I could have known them. They died while I was in college. But I didn’t ask him about this. Earlier I’d gotten up the courage to ask when he intended to tell his son about me, as he spoke often of wanting us to know each other. But he threw up his hands and gave me a look. I gave him a look back. This was the extent of our communication about our relationship. Most of the time we talked like coworkers or old friends, keeping the topic to politics (he was more conservative, but we were both anti-war) and real estate (he said invest) and careers (he said go into computers) and relationships (he said don’t get married, not for a long time, focus on your career). When I got out of his truck that day, he said, “Stay in touch, girl, and I will too.” I remember thinking, no you won’t. If I don’t initiate contact by writing to you, you will never write to me again. And that is exactly what happened.

So, years passed. We did not write each other anymore. During those years, I met my half-brother on my own, after he’d gone to college. My father found out, and was apparently “relieved” because he did not know how to tell him. I went to grad school, graduated, then kept working at MIT. One day I came to work and found a large envelope in my box. It was his handwriting. Oh wow, I thought. Finally he wants to establish contact again. But he had only wanted to show me photos of my brother competing in the Olympics in Belarus. He must not have known that P. and I were in touch, so I already knew all about his athletic prowess. The envelope contained simply a few pages printed out from a website, with a profile of my brother. He had highlighted a few parts, like the part where my brother explained that our father was his hero. But there was no letter. No stick-it note. Not even a comment in the margins. And he hadn’t included a return address, so I could not write back. Curious.

At that point, I made a discovery: right after googling me to get my office address at MIT, my father had started visiting this blog (because it was linked from the same profile page on MIT’s research site where my office address was listed). I could see the referring link in my web stats, and saw that John had started visiting. Obsessively. Like, weekdays, 3-5 times a day. And this went on for years, up until days before he died.

Now, let me explain something: I started this blog in 2004, as a means of keeping in touch with friends before moving to England. I had exactly three readers, so I wrote about whatever I wanted, including my occasional visits with my father, and my occasional frustrations with being his complicated secret. I wrote about dreams I had about him or his son. I was pretty honest, because I was writing to no one, and it was anonymous. But upon realizing that my father was checking on me and reading everything, I started to censor myself. I wrote less about feelings and more about accomplishments, or other formal updates. Basically, this blog became my conduit for communicating with my father for the past five years. And he didn’t know that I knew that he was visiting it multiple times a day! I felt a weird sense of connection to him because of it. Honestly, it was heartbreaking, and infuriating. If he was obviously so interested in keeping tabs on me, why couldn’t he just call me, or write?

I knew he was proud that I’d gotten into MIT. That I published academic articles. That I traveled and lived abroad. That I was painting. That I built a prototype for Joe Biden and gave a demo at the White House. At least I hoped he was proud, because he was the only reason I was writing about any of those things. I also knew that he had gone back and read older posts, including the ones from 2004-5 where I was honest about my feelings:

(Dec 2005) Seeing my father, every four years or so, is roughly the equivalent of screaming your last breath down a cavernous steam vent in the basement of a church while the service is going on upstairs — you have to be quiet, but you’re still trying to scream, and you attempt maintaining the silence and the scream at the same time, until they actually become one and the same, and what comes out is neither sound nor stillness, but a painful wind that promptly expels all your guts, leaving you to die an anticlimactic and unnoticed death while everyone above you is praying. That’s what seeing my father is like.

I felt terrible that he saw those posts, but also oddly relieved. It’s not like we were hanging out anymore. In a way, it was an opportunity to be honest with him without saying to his face, “Hey, I’m your kid and it feels shitty to keep me hidden from the world, please stop.” But he knew that already. He just didn’t know how to solve it. The other thing, despite the circumstances and our mutual inability to communicate like adults, was that we liked each other. Really. There was a lot of mutual admiration between us. I was only mad at him because I wanted to know him better, and I knew he wanted to know me better, but sneaking around in parking lots was not the way to do it.

In 2013, I posted a photo of my brother and I together in Manhattan, which was a spontaneous and nice visit. My father FLIPPED OUT, of course. I checked the stats. He must have clicked on that photo 75 times. I couldn’t know if he was furious or thrilled. I guess I never will. But I wanted him to know that his kids knew each other.

After that, he really ramped up his visits. He wanted to see if P. and I were hanging out on a regular basis. Which we weren’t, of course. I posted less often, especially when my relationship was crumbling. In December, I only posted twice, and he came to that last post (a recording of O Come Emmanuel) day after day, waiting for me to write something new. I remember feeling a bit bad that I had nothing else to report. It was a hard time for me personally. But I recall checking the stats and seeing him continue to check, right up until around Christmas Eve. And then the visits stopped. In January, nothing. In February, nothing. Was he on vacation? Had he retired? But I had a funny feeling. He came to mind a lot. I even thought, you never know – he’s healthy, he could live til his 90s. We could have a relationship again as real adults. In fact, I had that thought yesterday. Hours before learning he had died suddenly, at Christmas.

I won’t write about not being told of his hospitalization, or death, or the funeral. Of not getting to say goodbye, or ask him questions. I feel ill thinking about it, though I do not fault my brother as he has been put in a crappy position, and objectively I can understand the family’s perspective. But it’s 2015. Is it really so scandalous for someone to have a 36-year-old clandestine daughter? Am I still clandestine? I don’t know. It just feels awful to be cut out of so much. More than anything, though, it feels really awful that John isn’t reading this anymore. I can’t describe it. He was my only real audience. Now I am writing to no one. And I don’t want to write to anyone else. I got used to writing to him this way. To have that severed, suddenly, is so strange. Just so so strange and sad.

In Dec 2012, I wrote this post, but didn’t publish it:

I had a dream that my father called me out of the blue. “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?” he asked, without saying hello. He sounded very far away. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

jekletter

Goodbye, Dad. I’m sorry I never called you that before.

Product design sprints by Google Ventures

Colleague E. sent out a link to this article by G-Ventures re: quick & dirty design sprints, based on a tweaked model by IDEO. I’m posting this video summary so I won’t forget, when I’d like to return to it later.

Reposted notes from their article:

Before the sprint: Prepare
Get the people and things you need.

Day 1: Understand
Dig into the design problem through research, competitive review, and strategy exercises.

Day 2: Diverge
Rapidly develop as many solutions as possible.

Day 3: Decide
Choose the best ideas and hammer out a user story.

Day 4: Prototype
Build something quick and dirty that can be shown to users.

Day 5: Validate
Show the prototype to real humans (in other words, people outside your company) and learn what works and what doesn’t work.

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

– W.S. Merwin

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

– Derek Walcott

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