For my grandfather

Wes Clark

Gramps died. You may have heard about it. It was sudden, but peaceful. Losing him was really hard, but the memorial service and other rituals of mourning did help to handle the grief. Gramps, Wesley A. Clark, designed the first personal computer, and that’s what most people knew about him. If you’re curious about his work, or his sense of humor, here are some more links. I knew him very differently. Below is what I wrote for his service last Friday. I cried a fair amount when reading it. Here’s a video of the service.

Let’s all imagine we’re sitting around a table. And someone is proposing a toast. If everyone clinks glasses with everyone else exactly once, how many clinks will there be?

He asked all of us grandchildren that at the dinner table at one time or other – no matter how young we were at the time. Yes, it’s an interesting way to make conversation with someone who hasn’t started to read yet, but it also tells you a lot about Gramps: he expected the best of you, and he respected you as a person, no matter how brief a time you’d been alive.

My father shuddered every time Gramps told this story. We were staying with them on the upper west side, and Gramps and I went out one morning for bagels and things. When walking back along Broadway I said I wanted to cross the street and go on the other side. Gramps said we weren’t going that way. I said I was. He said fine. So I crossed Broadway by myself at the next light. I was probably three years old.

I came back a few blocks later. I was never out of my grandfather’s sight. I imagine I had a great time on the other side of the street looking around, then I got bored.

I was willful, and he was fine with that.

He thought that people deserved a lot of respect. A lot of chances to explore, and to find joy. You can see that in his designs. You can see it in the puzzles and games around his home. And you can see it in how he treated his grandchildren. He believed in my music, and my making a career in it, maybe more than anyone else. Certainly more than me. Now that my life is giving me more time to make art, I’m gutted that he won’t hear another note that I write.

In February or so of 1993, my parents and brother left me at that same upper west side apartment with Gramps while the three of them went to tour houses in Princeton, where we were soon to move. So how does Gramps keep an eight year old entertained all afternoon? He gets out the voltmeter, and we pass the fairly rainy day by sticking it into things: a potato, butter, water, salt water. And I wrote down the results: high, low, medium.

It was an analogue device with a needle swinging back and forth to give you the reading. After a few samples I looked back at my notes and I thought that maybe I wasn’t being specific enough, especially since there were numbers on the dial that I could be writing down instead.

So I decided we should probably go back again, with a better system figured out for taking notes on what we were finding. I picked how many significant digits to use in my notations, not that I knew what that term meant, or that Gramps told me. But I learned about trying something a few times to work out the kinks, then going back and doing the whole job right. I learned about measurements and accuracy. I learned a very small amount about volts, and about the things in that kitchen, many of which had holes in them by the end of the afternoon.

This is a story about an elegant act of babysitting. But it’s also a story about design. It’s a story about creating an interactive system and trusting the person – not the user, the person – to figure out what they want to do, learn, or feel.

I sometimes feel like he made the world into one big interactive system capable of producing joy. And it’s our job to live up to his expectation that joy is something that we can make.

At least to me, he was the only Wesley in the world, and not a mere device.

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