On Being Tumblr

On Being Tumblr

On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

The Quiet Man

by Norman Allen, guest contributor

N.T. Allen

For my father’s memorial service, my sister suggested that I stand before the congregation and say, “We’d like to share with you exactly what it was like to live with our father. So let’s have a moment of silence.”

It’s not that Dad didn’t speak, it’s that he didn’t speak about the personal. He could rant against George McGovern and lift Richard Nixon up as a god, but remain entirely silent about my sister’s adolescent breakdown. A few years later, he declared my hero Jimmy Carter the “greatest embarrassment the White House has ever seen,” but didn’t say a word about my recent emergence from the closet.

Dad built his life on the foundations of a suburban existence: retirement plans, company loyalty, and a close-knit family that gathered to wave him down the street each morning and waited each night for his return. True to his class and time, he made himself a Manhattan before dinner and smoked incessantly. No one was going to change that.

But behind this rigid façade lay a man tragically eager to please. As kids we could always talk him into a double-scoop cone, if we could just get him away from Mom. As an adult, I learned that this tendency went much deeper.

Dad went to medical school because his parents told him to. Failing that, he accepted their second choice and became a mechanical engineer. In a rare moment of intimacy, on a father-son camping trip to the High Sierra, he confessed that his dream was to be a park ranger. I wonder what his life would have been if he’d had the courage to follow that ambition. Perhaps he would have found his voice leading nature hikes and campfire programs.

Dad never broke the habit of trying to please his parents, but he made sure that we didn’t suffer the same fate. He applauded my high school theatricals and provided financial support for a creative college major. On my weekly calls home, he always made sure that I was writing, though he never inquired about the specifics.

True to his nature, he remained silent and stoic through my mother’s seven-year battle with cancer, and continued so when he was diagnosed himself two years after her death. During Dad’s final months, I bathed him, mopped up his bodily fluids, and listened for changes in his breathing. The only concern he voiced was for the future of his dog, an oversized Sheltie who watches as I write.

It was Dad’s Lutheran pastor who put his silence into context. Older congregants, he said, had expressed a need for guidance as they considered death’s approach. My father provided the model they were seeking. Church members who visited in his final weeks all returned with the same tale: Dad was quiet, uncomplaining, unafraid.

In the end, we didn’t ask for a moment of silence at Dad’s memorial service. Instead I shared a story about Saint Francis sending his brothers out to spread the Gospel and telling them, “If necessary, use words.” When one of Dad’s elderly neighbors caught my eye and smiled her appreciation, I knew we’d made the right choice.

Dad was a quiet man, but he renounced his parents’ prejudices, encouraged his children’s ambitions, overcame his own homophobia to welcome new family members, and remained a steady presence through his wife’s long illness. If St. Francis is right, and our actions speak louder than our words, you might say the man never shut up.

Norman AllenNorman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Why I Cried When Steve Jobs Died

by Jennifer Cobb, guest contributor

Steve Jobs for Fortune magazineImage by Charis Tsevis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It took me by surprise that I cried when Steve Jobs died. I was surprised to feel so moved by the loss of someone who was essentially a modern industrialist. But of course, his acumen as a businessman was not what I was mourning. Jobs’ work has moved us in ways that the work of his contemporary Bill Gates never has. Gates’s influence on our culture has been just as powerful, but has not touched as profoundly. Why?

The vast digital domain that we think of when we imagine information technology is essentially non-physical in nature. It is, by definition, incorporeal. But like all incorporeal things – our thoughts, our dreams, our faith, our souls – it relies on bodies for manifestation in the physical world. The digital needs the analog to express itself.

And this is what Steve Jobs did better than anyone else. He built beautiful bodies for our digital dreams. He understood before we did that we craved elegant containers for our disembodied hearts and minds. Every device he ever created, from the Apple 1 to the iPhone, was an expression of his deep, aesthetic commitment. And here he stood on the shoulder of giants, from Aristotle and Aquinas up to modern information theorists who assert that the best code is the simplest and most beautiful. As Keats so famously wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Job’s aesthetic began with the analog form of the device and then, quite naturally, extended into the digital function — the UI or user interface. The icons. The navigation. The information architecture at heart of the Apple OS. Analog and digital, form and function, hand in hand. Jobs was not just constructing bodies; he was giving them very particular and beautiful expressive capacities that are connected to something radically new in human experience; they plug us into a shared digital landscape filled with us and everything we bring to it.

Technology is our connective tissue. It joins us, hearts and minds. Jobs enabled this connection in a new way. He did not create the content that fills the devices he designed. He left it up to us to write songs, create art, make movies, write blog posts and emails and essays, send tweets and texts and build websites.

Jobs was a perfect reflection of our times. He made stuff that is so attractive, so enchanting, that he created a vast global desire for his products. His medium was technology and the context was capitalism. He made a lot of money for himself and for many other people. But by all accounts, the money wasn’t the point. The money was simply a validation of the fact that his vision was spreading throughout the world. And that vision was that the digital and the analog could be a thing of beauty when married with skill and vision.

The danger in the global mourning of his gifts is that we become so enchanted with the devices that we get lost in the interface and forget that the real point is what lies on the other side of the threshold. The devices are doorways into a larger, enchanted world of our shared creativity. They are not ends, they are beginnings.

Jennifer CobbJennifer Cobb is a business consultant specializing in marketing and strategy for public and private sector organizations. She has a degree in ethics from Union Theological Seminary and is the author of Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. She lives in Berkeley, California and blogs regularly at The Spruce Blog.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.