My Father and Me. A Memoir. For Mayer Spivack (1936 – 2011)

February 14th, 2011

My father, Mayer Spivack, passed away on February 12, 2011, in the Kaplan Family House, a beautiful hospice outside of Boston. He passed away, at the young age of 74, after a difficult year and a half battle with colon cancer. During his illness he never lost his spirit of childlike curiosity, enormous compassion, and his dedication to innovation.

His passing was at times difficult, but ultimately peaceful, and took place over five days, during which he was surrounded by love from close family and friends. His presence and spirit, and the intense experiences we all shared over those last days with him are unforgettable: the most incredible experience of love and spiritual connection I have ever had. He was as great in death as he was in life.

This is the story of my relationship with my father: the things I appreciated most about him, what I learned from him, and what he gave to me at the end of his life. By sharing this, I hope to amplify and share his gifts with others.

My father was a truly unique person, and a Boston legend. He was multi-talented and worked in many fields at once, mastering them all (you can read more about his actual work here). He had a vast intelligence, a palpably original approach, and an even greater heart. He was a true Renaissance Man, a great intellectual and artist, and often an unintentionally entertaining and eccentric genius. He had a profound influence on all who knew him well.

As a father, he was a large, warm, loving, fuzzy bear of a man who never really lost his childlike innocence. He was the kind of father everyone wanted to have and when they met him they instantly wanted to hug him. His greatest accomplishment was his compassionate heart: Everyone could feel it.

But despite his brilliance, or perhaps because of it, my father never really fit in. There was no box that could contain him. He was an only child, a loner, and an outsider with little interest in conformity. He had a disdain for formality and social conventions, which always manifested, much to our embarrassment, in the most formal and conventional of settings. He described himself as an iconoclast. Despite his unconventional ways, he was loved and appreciated for his humor, his quirkiness, his unselfconscious originality, and his always out-of-the-box thinking, even (and sometimes especially) by those in the mainstream.

One funny story we recently remembered illustrates his irrepressible spirit: He was invited with his wife to a major European conference of art restorers in Italy. There was a formal reception at the home an Italian Duke. My father, never comfortable with any kind of formality, playfully took one of the candles from the reception, and wore it on his head for the entire night. During the 5 course formal dinner and the reception, he was introduced to various members of the Venetian nobility and the European art world, all the time, balancing this burning little candle on his head, yet also acting completely as if it wasn’t there and not acknowledging it at all. Everyone thought that, because of his first name, “Mayer,” he was actually the eccentric “mayor” of some city in the USA and so despite their horror they were too afraid to point out that there was a candle on his head.

In another infamous incident, my father sat on the Arts Council for the city of Newton, Massachusetts. One day a photo was taken of the Council members, none of whom were actual artists, aside from my father — they were prominent upstanding Newton business leaders and socialites. In the photo they are all wearing three piece suits and looking very formal and proud. My father is also wearing a three piece suit, except that, much to the dismay of the other Council members, his suit pants are tucked into gigantic calf-height silver moon boots (to him it was winter and it was perfectly logical to wear snow boots).

In a similar vein, whenever my father was invited to a black tie event, he would reluctantly attend, dressed appropriately, except with a black dress sock tied around his neck instead of a bow tie. Of course he would never acknowledge this to anyone, and they were all too shocked to point it out to him.

One more example of my father’s individuality: when we were children in the 1970’s in Boston, my father got a great deal on a World War One field ambulance. That was our family “car.” He also had a longstanding love affair with army surplus, to which he had special access through his position on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. From some special warehouse, he acquired a full Coast Guard extreme-weather helicopter rescue snowsuit — a bright orange practically bulletproof insulated monstrosity. To him it was extremely practical – warm, waterproof, and visible even in the worst white-out snowstorm conditions.  He was entirely unselfconscious of the fact that he looked like he had just descended from a rescue helicopter when he wore it. And so this was what he wore, along with his usual silver moon boots, all winter, every winter, through my early childhood.

My poor brother and I would have to be dropped off every morning at elementary school this way: We would pull up in an an antique white ambulance — a big man in an orange emergency jumpsuit, sunglasses, and silver moon boots would get out, tromp through the snow, and open the rear doors (where the stretcher would normally be) and then my younger brother and I would pop out, much to the shock and awe of our fellow schoolmates. Thus were the origins of my own life as an alien and outsider. While these experiences were a source of horror and embarrassment for us growing up, today we laugh hysterically when we remember them — they are what we are made of and I wouldn’t trade them back for anything.

My father was a huge influence for me as an innovator. He was a prolific, constant professional inventor and my childhood was filled with his inventions, in various stages of development. He was such a good inventor that corporations like Polaroid, Otis Elevator and others, would hire him to come up with inventions. I remember him once telling me that he made 100 inventions for Polaroid in 100 days. There was another time when my father was hired to invent new uses for Silly Putty — he received a giant vat of the stuff from the Silly Putty people. With the attention of my father, two kids, and all our friends, the Silly Putty gradually dispersed throughout our house, until little blobs of Silly Putty could be found in every corner, crevice, crack, cranny and nook.

My brother and I grew up inventing things with our father. In fact, we were not allowed to have or watch a TV as children – instead we had three rooms dedicated to making things, in which we spent most of our time: one for building things with wood, one for drawing and painting, and another was my father’s studio. These rooms were stocked with all kinds of tools and art supplies.

As an inventor, my father always had tools and various devices hanging off of him, clipped onto his belt, in fanny packs, in holsters, backpacks, special cases, and in holders of his own making. Our nickname for him at times was “Inspector Gadget.”  He was always infatuated with some new tool or device.

I remember, for example, what we refer to as his “Hot Glue Phase,” when I was in junior high school. Hot glue is a plastic that you melt through a device called a hot glue gun. It creates a white plastic goo that hardens as it cools and is unfortunately able to fasten just about anything together, much to my father’s delight, and our misfortune. I remember going to junior high school with a rip in my pants repaired visibly with hot glue, my sneakers repaired with hot glue, my book bag repaired with hot glue. There was nothing that hot glue couldn’t be used on, we discovered. Clothes. Plates. Furniture. Our house was at one time filled with little spider web strands of hot glue residue, stringing together our possessions, our home, our clothes, us.

One of my father’s most memorable inventions was “The Body Sail” – a precursor to the Windsurfer, on which the sail was not attached to the board  but rather was held by hand using a special boom. He once won the Charles River Boat Festival sailing that contraption – of course, wearing a full body scuba suit. My brother and I used to use his Body Sail on ice skates in the winter, on frozen ponds. My father, of course, preferred to sail it on roller skates, in full bodysuit, helmet and gloves, right through parting waves of startled lunchtime crowds in Harvard Square.

No story about my father would be complete without mentioning his love of sailing. It encompassed not only his Body Sail invention, but a series of boats, particularly multi-hulled boats such as catamarans and eventually trimarans. In his later years he moved to Marblehead outside of Boston, a worldwide center of sailing, where he became an avid fan of high-speed sailing, eventually designing and starting to build his own trimaran out of aerospace composite materials, which, had it ever been finished, would have been among the fastest, and certainly the most computerized and advanced, trimarans on Earth.

My father was also a classically trained artist and particularly a widely shown sculptor — I grew up surrounded by his artworks — photos, drawings, and sculptures made from found objects, industrial artifacts, natural materials. I played in his studios – surrounded by tools for making things, prototyping, and inventing. As an artist, my father was also truly unique. An early pioneer of the use of “found objects,” his artworks were made from rusty pieces of industrial machinery, wooden molds for casting pieces of ships, old rusty farm tools, pieces of found wood and materials from nature. I grew up surrounded by these artworks. There were hundreds of them and he had numerous exhibitions.

One series of works he called “Foundiron” consisted of pieces taken from the intestines of large industrial boilers and furnaces. Another series used wooden molds for casting brass for ships, appeared like a set of primitive human figures – perhaps from Easter Island. Later works included a two ton angelic shape made from the massive steel blades of a snowplow for train tracks, and gossamer drawings in air made from the unwound springs of massive clocks that reminded one of Picasso’s drawings. His Shrine Series included animal bones, bird wings, industrial spindles, parts from clocks, early computers, and metronomes, and melted industrial alloys. One of his larger installations is made from three giant steel train car hitches that he cut apart and welded back together like hands grasping each other, and now stands permanently in Boston’s new South Station.

He was also a photographer and some of his images — for example macro images of honeycombs and turtles, still remain in my mind as if I saw them yesterday. At one point his entire office was rigged up with a complicated system of prisms, blackout shades, lenses, reflective materials, and rear projection screens so that he could take photos of shapes made of pure light that he called Lumia – which he then blew up to massive size and animated with a bank of slide projectors — some of these images can be seen on his weblog.

Another area of life that my father dove into deeply was music. He had a profound connection with music. His music collection included many of the greatest works of classical music, but also Jazz and folk music, and even Indian classical music. Our childhood was filled with music, and also with musical instruments of all kinds – particularly unusual instruments: aboriginal instruments, vibraphones, banjos, harpsichords, flutes, guitars, percussion instruments. My own broad taste in music came from this. My brother, Marin Spivack, took it even further, becoming a masterful Jazz saxophone player, as well as learning to compose for and play guitar, drums, piano, bass.

My father’s fascination with science and his massive appetite for knowledge translated into a home filled with books about science, scientific journals, and discussions about physics, biology, chemistry, brain science, psychology, architecture, engineering, and anthropology. We spent countless hours discussing science, the future, the brain, and technology, and coming up with new theories and inventions.

In my own life as an innovator, my father was my biggest fan and supporter. He taught me to invent – it was his passion. He wrote about it, and refined his theories and methods for innovating and enhancing creativity over the course of his life, and as children my brother and I were his very fortunate experimental guinea pigs.

I can remember being brought by him as a child to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where my father had done his graduate studies — there my brother and I were subjects in early experiments on children and computers: we were observed as we played the early computer game, “Wumpus,” and learned how to use computers, by his colleagues. I still remember my father’s love for MIT — how he took my little brother and I on nighttime expeditions into the hidden catacombs under the campus, and the many times we met with his friends, colleagues and relatives from various MIT departments. My father wore his MIT ring proudly right until his last breath: It was the only club he ever wanted to belong to.

As I got older my father shared with me his work with architects and designers, and his “Design Log” methodology for documenting and improving any kind of design process. Later, as an adult he shared his new theories about human intelligence, learning disabilities, dyslexia, and what he called “syncretic associative thinking.” His theory of syncretic cognition proposes that there are two fundamentally different, yet complementary, forms of human intelligence — linear and syncretic. According to my father’s thinking, syncretic thought is associative and seemingly chaotic, yet out of it great creative leaps and innovations are born.

Dyslexics, of which my father was one, were examples of the extreme case of syncretic thinking: despite difficulties with linear logic, dyslexics are often brilliantly creative; in fact many great geniuses – especially artists, but also scientists — have been dyslexic. My father believed that instead of viewing dyslexics as “learning disabled” they should be viewed as “creativity enabled” and trained and taught differently, to leverage their unique cognitive abilities.

Instead of being viewed as bad at math or slow at reading, dyslexics might instead be viewed as unusually talented at associative thinking, brilliant in the arts and inventing. It was all a matter of perspective. My father advocated passionately for the often-overlooked talents hidden within dyslexia in his own writing, and also in his parallel career as a trained psychotherapist working with hundreds of people, especially learning disabled people, engineers and artists.

My father’s interest in the many flavors of intelligence extended not just to humans but also to animals: He had a long fascination with animal intelligence. His homes were always filled with animals – particularly highly intelligent parrots of various breeds, with whom he would speak, whistle, sing, and explore his theories about learning and cognition. When I was just a newborn, he had a pet crow — which he said was one of the most intelligent of birds.

My father painstakingly studied crows and eventually learned how to mimic their various kinds of calls. I can distinctly remember how, throughout our entire life together, he would suddenly start embarrassingly screeching, “Caaah  caaahhh Caaaaaaahhhh,” whenever he encountered a crow in some random tree.

In another famous story from my father’s MIT days, he became fascinated with echolocation — the form of navigation through sound used by animals bats and dolphins. Bats in particular became a bit of an obsession for my father. Bats navigate with high frequency clicks. These clicks bounce off of surfaces like walls, buildings, plants, insects, other bats and the reflections are turned into images in the bat brain.

My father decided that bat echolocation would be a great way to help the blind navigate through cities. So he invented a bat clicker device you could wear on your head. It would emit rapid loud clicks that were within the range of human hearing. He spent a week blindfolded, wearing this device, walking around the MIT and Harvard campuses, and apparently he was able to navigate successfully with it.

He recounted that after many days of using this contraption, blindfolded the whole time, his brain adapted and he was able to discern the different types of materials, objects and surfaces from the subtle differences in sound reflections. He was able to cross streets, navigate around buildings and obstacles, and could even find his way through crowds (although we all suspected the crowds were probably parting of their own volition around this strange blindfolded man with the clicking machine on his head). The astonished people of Cambridge who encountered him must have thought he was some kind of alien exploring a strange new world. And one can only wonder what the bats themselves must have thought.

At various times in my childhood my father also had pet frogs, lizards, turtles, fish, snakes, squirrels, cats, and later, his beloved pug. We grew up with enormous aquariums, terrariums, and aviaries — as kids these were wonderlands. This love of all kinds of living things would eventually guide him to his second wife: Boston artist, Louise Freedman. We knew they were made for each other when, for their first date, they chose to go to a local cemetery pond to collect pond water and frogs together.

As their lives merged, so did their always increasing menagerie of animals. And gradually there was less and less room, or time, for humans in their house. During my college years, my father and his wife had started raising African Grey parrots, and had also become close friends with Harvard/MIT animal cognition researcher, Irene Pepperberg, and her famous parrot, Alex.

When I would visit their home on school breaks, the parrots were as much a part of the family as my brother and I, and occupied a central location in the family room. A typical mealtime conversation in our family was a combination of English words, chirps, clicks and whistles, spoken by humans and parrots alike. My father and Louise eventually moved into a home that literally was like a tree — surrounded by trees on many levels, on the edge of a huge nature sanctuary on Marblehead Neck. There amongst the branches, they could almost live as birds. My brother I joked — half-seriously — that for an upcoming wedding anniversary, we would throw out their couch and instead replace it with matching human-sized perches for them.

But my father’s fascination with animals wasn’t just about intelligence, it was also about love. I remember one day as a child, while frantically evacuating from Cape Cod ahead of a fast oncoming hurricane, my father suddenly backed up miles of panicked traffic when he stopped the car in the pouring rain and lightning to scramble around on his hands and knees, risking his own life, to rescue a turtle that had strayed onto the freeway. This deep love of animals, and people, that he manifested throughout his life, was at times a source of embarrassment for me, but later became what I admired most about him. For my father, this simple love of all living things was his religion. But for most of my life, I didn’t realize what an accomplishment that was.

Although my father influenced me in so many ways, the most important facet of life that we shared — and struggled over — was spirituality.

He was a dedicated scientific materialist and rejected superstition, which to him included all institutionalized forms of religion. He even sometimes referred to himself as an atheist, although I think more accurately, he was an agnostic. I on the other hand, while also deeply interested in the sciences, had come to the conclusion that science alone could never fully explain reality or consciousness — I felt that there was a common underlying truth in all the great religions which science had so far completely missed, a truth that was essential for a complete and accurate understanding of reality. This debate between science and religion became the fulcrum on which we wrestled endlessly and in many different ways.

I had always known, even as a child, that there is something more than meets the eye about reality that is extremely subtle, yet at once vividly evident. Growing up, I had a number of spontaneous mystical experiences that I could not explain, and later I witnessed highly unusual phenomena taking place in monasteries in Nepal and India that convinced me that there must be more to the mind, and to reality, than our western scientific worldview could presently measure or explain. I was perplexed by the apparent incompatibility of these experiences, and the Western scientific framework that my father and I both lived and worked in.

In my attempts to reconcile these two worlds, I became obsessed with physics, computer science and artificial intelligence. I began searching for a grand unified theory. I sought to create software that could simulate physics, the brain, and the mind.  With some of the world’s most cutting-edge physicists and computer scientists, as well as at some of the top artificial intelligence companies, I worked on on several major initiatives in computational physics, parallel supercomputing, and artificial intelligence, as well as my own software projects and theories.

All of these attempts failed to achieve their goals so thoroughly and so repeatedly that eventually I began to question if it was even possible to do. I reached a point where I began to doubt the assumptions behind these projects — I began to question my own questions. This led me to a deeper exploration of the mind and the foundations of reality – a journey from cognitive science and physics to philosophy, and finally to spirituality. Paradoxically, I ended up back where I began, looking inwards rather than outwards, for the answers.

My quest for spiritual meaning took me through a survey of all the major Western and Eastern religions, and while traveling in Asia for a year after college, I landed in Tibetan Buddhism, with its intense focus on the nature of mind and consciousness. I was home. For me, Tibetan Buddhism had the perfect combination of rational and objective logical analysis (my father’s influence), and the mystical direct experience of the union of consciousness with divinity that I had tasted in my own experience.

In Tibetan Buddhism I finally found a rational yet holistic framework that could account for all the dimensions of observed experience: both the outer physical world and the inner dimensions of consciousness. From the Buddhist perspective, we humans are manifestations or projections of a deeper ultimate nature of reality, as are all sentient beings, and in fact all animate and inanimate things. This deeper level of reality is the origin of both the subjective and objective poles of experience, and it’s nature is transcendental, empty, yet aware.

The direct proof and experience of this can be found many ways: through logical reasoning, through prayer, through love, through nature, through art, through meditation, and perhaps most easily, by searching for the source of one’s own consciousness. Consciousness is a unique phenomena that we all have direct, equal, and immediate access to, yet which science cannot measure let alone explain. By persistently searching for the source of our own consciousness, and discovering that we can’t find it yet it is not non-existent, we are inevitably brought to a direct realization of the ultimate nature of reality.

Over decades of searching for consciousness, first through science, then through Buddhism, I had come to the conclusion that rather than consciousness emerging from the brain, it had to be the other way around: All experience, and indeed the body, brain and even the physical universe, emerge from consciousness. I had discovered that consciousness is a gateway to a sourceless, deep and endless wellspring of mysteries. And more importantly, I had found what I thought would be conclusive evidence that would finally convince my father that I was right.

But when I tried to relate these realizations to my father, he was entirely unconvinced. He argued that my experiences were not really objective, and that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain; a wonderful side-effect, a remarkable illusion that nonetheless could be reduced to neurochemistry and atoms. I countered that in the special case of consciousness, subjective observations could in fact be objective, under the right circumstances. I claimed that it was possible to scientifically and objectively observe consciousness by looking at it under the microscope of carefully trained meditation. But he cast doubts on these claims, citing numerous examples from psychology and neuroscience.

So I tried many other arguments. I cited the work of philosophers like John Searle who provided many illustrations of how conscious experiences could not be reduced to the brain or any kind of machine. I used lines of reasoning from Buddhist logic. I even cited recent findings in quantum theory that seem to imply that the act of conscious observation interacts with experimental results. But all of these arguments failed to convince my father that consciousness was fundamental or irreducible. He remained a skeptic and I felt invalidated. And so I strived even harder to find a way to map my experiences to his worldview, so I could finally prove the scientific foundations for my experience and belief in divinity to him.

This ongoing debate between my father and I — between science and religion — was not unique to us; it had been going on for millennia, and yielded many great works of both science and art. Our conversations were often frustrating and ended in exhaustion and exasperation, but we also sensed that somehow we were getting somewhere, if not mutually, then at least as individuals. We were foils to one another, worthy opponents. Like many who had come before us, the dialectical process of trying to convince one another of our conflicting views of reality, caused us to generated volumes of new writing, theories, inventions, and ideas we could not have arrived at on our own.

Nevertheless, despite my father’s strong rebukes of superstitious belief systems, and his skepticism towards my Buddhist beliefs, he was in fact a deeply spiritual man, in a very human, unembellished way. His spirituality was not tied to any system or institution — it was natural and basic: it was how he lived and the ideals he lived by: Love, Science, and Art. His spirituality was not about words, it was about actions. He expressed it in his art, his good deeds, his compassion, his joyful creativity, and his ability to love and be loved.

What I failed to see was that my father’s spirituality was immensely humble. So humble that he would not even claim to be spiritual, and certainly wouldn’t go so far as to conceptualize it. Instead, he was simply a truly good man, a mensch. While I continued to try new tactics in my campaign to convince him, and as I judged him as closed-minded and non-spiritual, he was in fact actually living my spiritual ideals better than I could understand at the time. But, not realizing this, I was certain he was missing out on something of vital importance, something that I had to convince him of before he died. And so our debate continued.

Then, in the last few months of my father’s life, we were finally able to bridge this divide. As his illness progressed, his wife called me and urged me to visit before it was too late. “He’s really getting worse, and I want you to have a chance to be together while he’s still strong enough,” she said. And so I flew to Boston and we resumed the debate.

Perhaps it was our mutual sense that time was running out, or perhaps it was that we had both exhausted all our prior arguments, but this time we reached a level of discourse that was essentially mathematical in nature; pure logic, pure set theory. Without imposing the assumptions of either science or religion, we started anew from first principles and through pure reason and observation, we derived a new common language, on neutral ground. And with this in hand, we arrived at a single nondual phenomenology — At last we had arrived at the basic nature of reality.

When we finally reached the point of agreement and mutual understanding, after decades of debate, and we both witnessed the simultaneous unification and transcendence of our prior belief systems — we saw that we had always actually agreed on a deeper level. And on that December afternoon, as we sketched out the full picture together, in a way that neither of us had done before on our own, we both breathed a sigh of relief. It was an incredibly cathartic moment for both of us.

At the conclusion of our decades long debate, we sat quietly together, just being in that understanding — a meditation on awareness and knowledge, on physics, time and space — on our mutual respect for the immensity and majesty of the universe. I will always treasure that time.

The day after that experience, before I left to return to California, I sat by my father’s bed. He was almost unable to walk at this point. As I said goodbye, thinking I might never see him again, I said, “Don’t forget what we discovered together, it is the highest realization.” He replied, “There is still one more realization that is higher.” Surprised, I asked him, “What?” He answered, “To live it!”

About a month later my wife called again. “He’s dying,” she said, “come back as soon as you can.” The cancer had advanced unexpectedly fast and so I flew back to be with him one last time.

I stayed by his side, looking into his eyes, talking to him, even though he had lost the ability to move or speak. His eyes smiled back. My brother and I kept telling him, as he labored to breathe for the final two days, “It’s ok to go now, you can let go, we love you, we’ll be ok, we’ll take care of each other.” But his drive to love and protect us all was so strong. He wasn’t ready to go. Even while in the depths of his own suffering, he was still filled with compassion, he was worried about what would happen to all of us. It was noble and beautiful to witness.

We played him the music he loved, the music he played for us as we grew up. We laughed and told him our memories and stories of him. We stroked his hair and his beard and tried to make him as comfortable as possible as he lay there, struggling, and probably frustrated that he couldn’t communicate, and at times in terrible pain. Yet through great effort he still found ways to let us know he heard us, loved us, and was still conscious.

As his breathing changed and we saw the signs of death advancing further through his body, he maintained his clarity and brilliance and even got brighter — we could feel his heart, and see his kind and intelligent spirit in his eyes. He tried to speak to us by making what little sound he could and moving his eyebrows in response to us. “Remember what we talked about, what we realized,” I said to him over and over, and I could see he was living it.

Finally, on the evening of February 12, 2011, he let go and died peacefully in his wife’s arms as she sang to him gently. All of us felt at that moment an incredible, all-embracing, boundless love and bliss, even as we grieved. It was him. My father, Mayer Spivack. Our Buddha. He went into Love.