Jan Spisar 1936.08.07 – 2019.03.05
My father loved listening to the golden boys of the Rat Pack, especially Dean Martin. King of the Road is the song I recall best from an album that was played repeatedly in my childhood home. My father liked to have fun and openly shared his happiness (and sometimes sly self-satisfaction) when immersed in activities which pleased him. Playing or watching a sport he loved, conquering a challenge of some sort, basking in the fun of a classic comedy or musical, listening to his preferred music, sharing a glass of cognac with friends, appreciating the stars from a sailboat anchored in the harbour of an uninhabited cay in the Bahamas. Among a multitude of other things.
King of the Road may have been the soundtrack flowing out of our living room, but My Way was the reality of my father’s life – both in a literal sense and in the way Frank Sinatra sang it. Perhaps more than anything else, that phrase defined my father, at least during the period of his life of which I was a part.
In recent decades, my ability to accept his demand for acquiescence to his point of view gradually faded. That also was when he gradually slid over to the losing side in his battle with Parkinson’s, which had by then deteriorated his physical abilities significantly. That altered him greatly, as his power was very much linked to his physical vigor. And he was defined by his power as much as by his attachment to his autonomy. As a result, I very much remember him in his prime — as he was when he was in complete control of his life and destiny, when he came across as invincible. On some level, I know it would please him to be remembered in that state.
I had a complicated relationship to my father. To because nothing ever was truly with him — My Way pretty much says it all. My father adored Patsy Cline, which always surprised me. I Fall To Pieces isn’t a sentiment I can image him sharing, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying that and many of her other songs. I glimpsed an unexpected tenderness from him only a few times; not that he wasn’t capable of sensitivity, but that privilege wasn’t often extended to others, and never to the degree in which he indulged in it himself. He was, however, a caring person in his own way, and would go out on a limb for others when he was inspired to do so.
About a year ago, my father made a snowman for my son, who was more than old enough to make his own. But my father trudged out into the knee-deep snow one morning (no small feat for a man some 30 years into a Parkinson’s diagnosis), rolled three huge snowballs, stacked them, then gave the snowman a face and arms. In his usual hack-everything style, those were made from oddball items, not the typical stones and branches. I remember the mischievous smile he sported while showing off the completed work. He’d done it as much for himself as for my son. That smile made him seem like a little boy, which he’d always remained, in many respects. For better or worse. Mostly better; that was definitely nowhere near the worst of him. But that’s not something to recall right now – he never did the kind of internal work it would have taken to gain deep self-awareness, and I suspect he never appreciated the impact his reluctance to compromise and his intense tendencies had on those around him.
My father was my father in some senses but, in others, not at all. I didn’t fit him well, despite seeming to share some traits with him; the similarities were superficial. My father’s greatest demand of others was a willingness to join him in his convictions, whatever they might be. And my own convictions were strongly misaligned with his, for the most part. That disconnect was unfortunate for both of us. I was never quite the daughter he wanted me to be, but he wasn’t one to hold onto a grudge too tightly.
My father would invoke logic, humor, and charm in service of his point of view. He could be winningly charming and convincing in the right circumstances. When that didn’t work, though, he’d be likely to lose his temper and those exposed to his outbursts didn’t soon forget the experience.
During a period in my life in which I was contorting myself to accommodate a relationship with my father, my partner was unavoidably impacted by those contortions and directly impacted by the challenges on numerous instances. Yet, my father’s positive qualities also left a mark. “One of my best memories of your father is him teaching me how to drive stick. … Your dad said to just forget about the gas and play with the clutch until I could feel it starting to engage and letting go, and I felt it right away. So I think of him whenever I am driving.”
My father was capable of joy and I suspect that his willingness to help others was in no small part motivated by the thrill he knew he’d get out of surfacing a solution. In that regard, he was the ultimate engineer. In this particular case, the joy of helping was no doubt linked to his love of cars – he had a long standing interest in the mechanics and capabilities of automobiles and motorcycles. This interest fed into a love of Formula 1 racing. I never could muster up the interest to join him in that passion, but I did nurture a special love of tennis, which he established as one of several regular family activities. For decades, I both played (casually) and followed the pros. I still feel a deep connection to the sport that sparks joy — as does skiing, another of his favored sports.
Similarly to my father, I seek joy and can revel in it. Not all people have that capacity, and it’s a characteristic that has profoundly influenced the shape of my life. It also drove a wedge between me and my father as our individual sources of joy differed and set us on divergent paths from quite early on. I managed to resolve that point of contention only periodically, when I could bring myself to interact with my father on the basis of his interests alone. He never seemed aware of the imbalance.
My father was nothing if not a fearless explorer and entrepreneur, and he very much wanted to share his experiences. I rode shotgun on his adventures, even as a young child. A few were his alone — such as when he joined a Mount Everest expedition to Base Camp 2, or when he explored the Galapagos — but he included me in many of his activities, even when I was conventionally ‘too young’. My father had a substantial disregard for convention and limits, which I always appreciated. One of the things we aligned on, and I think I took that further than he did. I’m not sure he was entirely happy about that.
Collectively, the activities and adventures on which I joined my father formed the backdrop for my childhood, but several left a particularly significant mark.
Sailing played an important role in our family, beyond being a shared activity — and not in the way one might think on hearing ‘sailing’. It was not a luxurious diversion; rather, it was an education. Every summer, starting when I was, perhaps, 3 years old, we drove from Toronto to Florida then loaded up a roughly 30' single-mast sailboat with supplies for a multi-week excursion to explore the Bahamas. On making it across the Gulf Stream in our relatively small vessel, we rarely alighted on shore, and never at the touristy spots. Our weeks were spent navigating between islands (often uninhabited); snorkeling colorful reefs alongside tropical fish, stingrays, barracudas, and nurse sharks; searching for sunken vessels; exploring beaches and rocky outcrops on small cays; snacking on cashews while laying on the upper deck, picking out the stars and constellations in the brilliant Milky Way that lit up the otherwise pitch black sky in the middle of, essentially, nowhere; chasing our dinner in the sea — whether grouper, conch (not much chasing there…), or lobster, which my father taught me to spear. That my father made our spears out of hollow tubing, thick rubber lengths, and arrow tips speaks volumes about his approach to pretty much everything. Life was one big hackathon.
When my father was 20 or so, he badly damaged his leg ski jumping — off the purpose-built kind with a long, steep incline for getting enough air to do flips, or just fly a good distance. As a result, he had a permanent post implanted to enforce one of his femurs. That incident was no deterrent; he kept skiing and, later, went on to make skiing a central activity for our family – alongside which there was often an element of hacking as well. Our ski adventures always included maximizing time on the hill; as with sailing, skiing wasn’t a luxurious indulgence — it was training. We trained before our trips, with squats and balancing on a board on a roller pin, and we trained during our trips, with races, jump competitions, and challenging the limits of our abilities. As a young child, I was brought along to do steep runs which terrified me and which I ended up sliding down — and even the sliding was scary. And then there were the times in Quebec when the weather was so bad the lifts were shut — so we hiked up. Repeatedly. Or the flight out of Zurich after skiing at Interlaken: we overnighted in the airport, for whatever reason. My father wasn’t fazed by anything— everything was hackable.
He instinctively included family in every aspect of his life so, from the youngest age, I had exposure to his professional world. With my father being an entrepreneur and an engineer, that exposure had a certain flavor which seeded the confidence and fearlessness which made so many of my later life choices possible. In those early years, I watched my father work unceasingly — always motivated by curiosity and passion for solving challenging problems, by his own goals. Not that he was never frustrated or unhappy, but every minute of effort was self-motivated. I never once knew my father to do anything out of a sense of duty or external compulsion. He was always the captain of his own ship, whether in his workplace or in the lab which dominated the basement of our house. Or anywhere else.
My father lived a single, integrated life which was never compartmentalized into work, home/family, social, or any other categories. His life was his own and he imposed himself on every aspect of it.
In his late 20s, my father escaped the former, and very Communist, Czechoslovakia. One might imagine how a free spirited entrepreneur might clash with Communist ideals, particularly as implemented by the Russians who invaded his country of birth. On arrival in Canada, he quickly assimilated and managed to prove his considerable technical competence — a long time executive at an early engineering job called my father the cleverest engineer he’d ever met. They went on to form a successful company in the burgeoning cable industry. My father became a trail blazer again when satellite TV was in its infancy. That’s how I got to have breakfast with Ted Turner and meet various crazy technical entrepreneurs — which was great preparation for the dot com era and entrepreneurship more generally.
My father’s entrepreneurial bent with respect to his professional life merged with his taste for adventure numerous times. A memorable example was when he installed a satellite dish for Arthur C. Clarke at Clarke’s home in Sri Lanka. I recall a photo of my father with Clarke in a traditional Sri Lankan sarong and, in the background, the satellite dish installed in the yard, gloriously framed by lush tropical flora; and another image from that same trip – my father windsurfing in the Indian Ocean, waving. The story goes that he was waving for help and subsequently had to battle the current to avoid being swept out to sea, but I’m not entirely sure whether that was fact or fiction — my father loved to mischievously embellish his tales. Another photo I recall is of my father lounging on a speeding yacht, taken during a meeting of a select few engineers leading the charge in the early days of satellite TV. I think those meetings were convened by Bob Cooper, who produced Coop’s Digest — a trade magazine in which my father appeared numerous times, and of which he once graced the cover. It was a remarkable time with remarkable opportunities.
Following the satellite TV phase, my father graduated into another new area of technical research and development — establishing the early technology for free space optical communications. I benefited unexpectedly from our technical discussions on that topic later, when I met Google’s Larry Page near the end of my engineering PhD at the University of Michigan. He stayed behind during a lab demo I’d done in association with the Gerstacker Building groundbreaking ceremony, and we had an extended discussion which covered a broad range of topics. It happened that, at the time, Larry had a keen interest in free space optical communications. He was surprisingly soft spoken, even a little shy, but clearly loved to geek out on cutting edge science and engineering, and we spoke for nearly two hours. As we settled into the extended conversation, Larry opened up and offered stories from his Google adventures. As yet a few months in advance of Google’s IPO, those early day stories were still warm in Larry’s telling of them and it was obvious the experience still made him feel like a kid in a candy store — he encouraged me to head to Silicon Valley and give being a tech entrepreneur a shot, and to contact him if I did. I learned a ton from that one conversation, and at least part of it had been facilitated by the discussions I’d had with my father.
As Parkinson’s gradually imposed increasing limitations on his physical abilities, my father resisted. He underwent surgery to implant a device which would stimulate a targeted region of his brain with electrical impulses to subdue certain Parkinson’s symptoms, particularly the tremor which made it difficult to write or even eat. This, in conjunction with medication, worked remarkably well for my father for decades and the activities he loved remained central to his life — skiing, tennis, table tennis (at 81, he easily won against my 11 year old son), volleyball, waterskiing, fishing, swimming and snorkeling, sailing, hacking away at everything from electronics to car engines. He struggled, too, with challenges swallowing food and, later, staying awake. His body had conquered much in its time and was, not surprisingly, tired.
On several occasions in the past decade or so, he wrote brief notes to me which were almost illegible due to the tremors which persisted despite treatment. In those, he lamented the difficulties of getting old. It was typical of my father to gloss over the nuance of his particular lot in terms of ‘getting old’. I didn’t always love that he did that, but will miss his pragmatism.
When I was a young child, my father would sometimes tell me bedtime stories. One was about a King who asks his daughters to each bring him something to demonstrate the magnitude of their love for him. Two of the King’s daughters bring him precious items such as jewels and gold. But the King’s favorite daughter brings him salt. This infuriates him and he banishes her from the Kingdom — along with all the salt. It’s not long before the King wises up and realizes his error. I always loved it when my father told me that story, and I knew the story held meaning for him, as well. In my father’s world, materialistic rewards were nice, but other things were far more interesting and valuable. I admired that outlook, and appreciated him for it.
In certain ways, my father was one of a kind. He will be missed. And always remembered.
Goodbye, Tato, and thanks for all the fish… and lobsters — they were delicious.