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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Handling Serious Events

I like the future. Why? At the age of 13, I realized it was promised to no one. When we have an accident, tragedy strikes, or we go through near-death experiences, how do we handle it?

Not by ignoring it, that's for sure. Each person has their own way.

Nobody I know has a life shielded from these events, and the way they handle them or the way they help those around them that are going through them is a strong indicator of moral conscience. I will discuss eight incidents in my life and how they affected me (and others) and try to make some sense of how we handle times of trouble.

Death In the Family

Me, two months after the event
At my house in Sunnyvale, California one evening, I was watching over my two younger sisters. Three days after my thirteenth birthday, my parents had gone out to something. My two older brothers were out of the house (my brother Tom had joined the US Air Force, and was soon to leave for basic training). So, when the call came from Michigan, I answered it, and I found myself speaking to my aunt Alice. My grandfather Howard, my father's father, had died.

Though I was only 13, I knew that people used different words when referring to death. Alice used the phrase "passed on" and I instantly understood. At that age, you really don't quite know how to process this kind of news, though you certainly know what it means.

I knew my grandfather and I loved him a lot. I remember the trips to Lake Bogart, near Marcellus. My father's parents lived in very modest means. Catching fireflies in the temperate evenings. Talking to grandpa about cars and refrigerators. Watching grandma crochet rugs in bright colors and patterns.

So, at the moment I said goodbye to Alice and hung up the phone, I began to think. What would happen if my father died? How would I take it?

My conclusion was that I would have to approach the matter with delicacy. But, at 13, I knew very little of this kind of problem.

When my parents came home, I heard the car door slam and I moved close to the front door, which had three steps down to the door and waited at the top of the stairs. They entered the house and I waited for the door to close. My dad looked at me standing there and cocked his head fractionally. Perhaps he thought there had been a problem with my younger sisters.

I said, "Dad," and I paused to make sure he was listening. Then I said, "your father has died". I wasn't happy about the news either, so my voice did have some sympathy in it, and I hoped, the proper amount of gravity.

He was stricken by the news, and backed up a few inches to the door, but he didn't turn away. My mom was there too, and was probably just trying to process the news. She held him then and I went down the steps to join in. It wasn't easy for anyone.

As a testament to my wonderful parents, they took my grandmother in. At that point, she already had cancer and so she spent the last six months of her life in our family room crocheting a nice colorful rug for me and sweaters for my sisters. Talking and talking. I was really too young to understand that nobody really survives stage-4 lung cancer.

But one day, I noticed her makeshift accommodations were gone and another day I knew she had passed on as well.

Car On the Tracks

I was 22 and driving to and from UC Berkeley every day from Santa Clara where my (then) wife Josie and I had an apartment. Driving back took me down 237 and past the tracks just south of Alviso, where there was a stoplight. Today there is no stoplight at the tracks, since they built an overpass many years ago. Now, that light was rarely red because the train passed infrequently. And the intersection was really not that well maintained. When the light went yellow, the person in front of me stopped suddenly.

I was driving a very small manual transmission Dodge Colt at the time at a speed that left me unprepared and that car did not handle gravel well. It began to fishtail as I attempted to stop. The next few seconds became a blur to me, but what happened was that I was almost able to avoid the car in front of me, except that the tail end of my car scraped the tail section of that car on the way past. My car hit an abutment at the side of the road and bounced off with a horrible crunch. Still moving on the rebound, my car came to a rest on the tracks, stalled, in third gear.

And the train was barreling down on me from the left.

So there I was, with my car stalled, my seatbelt tight (they get tighter when sudden jarring motions occur), and a train coming at me fast. I turned my head ninety degrees to the left to see the train. At the rate it was traveling, the massive train would strike me in five seconds or so.

I popped the clutch, moved the stick shift into neutral, reached for the key and cranked it. Once.

Unfortunately, the car didn't start.

I quickly considered trying to undo my seatbelt, open the door, abandon of the car, then run away from the tracks. I had a premonition that this course of action would simply take too much time. So I pumped the gas once and carefully turned the key again.

It started! Yes!

I popped the clutch, put it in first, and drove off the tracks, parking myself near an abutment on the other side. And that's when all the events finally caught up with me. I closed my eyes. All I could think was that I had to wait for the other guy whose car had been grazed. I reached for my wallet and my insurance card.

And tried to calm my nerves.

To say that I was jittery, exhilarated, frightened: that would all have been a naive understatement. All I could think was: did that just happen?

When the guy in the other car stopped behind me and got out, he came to my window and said something like, "Woo hoo! That was a close one! Are you OK, buddy?" I said that I was, but I was concerned about the damage to his car. He was dismissive. "Don't worry about the damage to my car: it's nothing. I'm not even going to make a claim. You're just lucky to be alive!" Then he added, "It looks like your car got the worst of it anyway."

I honestly didn't know what he meant until I stepped outside the car and saw that the entire passenger side  was messed up by its collision with the earthen abutment before I wound up stalled on the tracks.

Luckily the car would still drive, but it needed repair. So I drove it home, confessed to Josie, who was mad as hell, and arranged to have it repaired. And it was expensive, for sure! I was working at Calma at the time, so I could (barely) afford the repairs. And they took some time.

I got out the ten-speed bike and worked out a way I could ride to the Fremont BART station. Even though the car had been fixed, it seems that Josie had landed a job and so she had need for it. My daily bicycle journey got me up at 6:00 AM, took me up Lawrence Expressway, east on 237 across the Abel street overpass (which gave me the toughest workout on the path), and up Warm Springs road, and so to the Fremont BART station where I caught a train to Berkeley. And then back each afternoon. I ended up riding forty miles a day for several months.

I secured a bike locker at the Fremont BART station and stocked it with extra tires and inner tubes. And I got really good at avoiding rocks on Warm Springs road. I could repair nearly anything on my bike with the tools and supplies in my pack. And fortunately at my work, which was the Lakeside Drive location of Calma, there was a shower I could use at the end of my day. Before working for many hours.

So, at the tender age of 23, I was in the best shape of my life and working for a computer graphics company. Funny what accidents can lead to.


In the winter of 1982 I went out on my first cross-country ski trip with three other friends: George, John, and Norman (who was really a friend of George). I had really never been on skis before. One of the guys had borrowed a large blue station wagon with chunky-looking snow tires.

The plan was to drive to Owens Valley, traverse to Palisades glacier, and do some glacier climbing. Little did I realize how insane this scheme was at the time.

George, John, and I had been friends working for Tom Hedges at Calma, in the systems group. We were wild a crazy in those days.

When we got to the parking area it was mid-afternoon and we all got our skis on, our packs on our backs, with tent and climbing gear, and headed off into the snow. George was breaking trail.

It turned out that it was snowing. Actually, it was snowing quite a bit! What we didn't know was that it was a portion of the worst winter storm in years, and was leaving a lot of snow on the slopes.

So the going was rough. George was having a hard time breaking trail, and so Norman and George traded off. We weren't making as much progress as we wanted.

And it was getting dark. You see, Owens Valley is kind of a bowl valley, and the sun set a bit earlier than we figured. Soon it was pitch dark and we were using small flashlights to light our way through waist-deep snow. Not good.

George started having problems. He experienced a dry heave or two and notified us that he probably couldn't go on for a bit. A group decision was made to pitch camp where we were, which was on a slope. We took off our skis, stuck them straight up in the snow, through the straps in our packs, and proceeded to carefully unpack the tent poles and canvas.

Now, we were aware of the danger of avalanches and so we tried to keep quiet when pitching the tent and setting up camp, but obviously we just couldn't be quiet enough.

I remember hearing a buzz. The kind that you can feel in your jaw and in your guts. It was the sound of the snow coming down the slope directly at us and the friction of masses of snow against the snow pack underneath it. I will never forget that sound.

Nor will I ever forget the reality of being instantly surrounded by a numbing cold, swimming in it, and then frozen into place.

An avalanche had struck. OMG.

My hands were above me and I could feel that they were free of the snow. I was on the downslope of the group, and so I struggled at methodically working my way out of the snow. Norman had also gotten out, and we worked on getting the others out of the snow as well.

We had discussed creating a breathing space with your hands when an avalanche hit, and apparently everybody but me had done that. But my arms had provided some breathing room, luckily.

Once we were all out of the snow, we quickly realized couldn't dig our our packs or skis and so we were resigned to walk through waist-deep snow.

The first miracle was that the storm had cleared up at just that moment, and the stars and moon were visible, majestic. So we could see snow surface a little bit. The second miracle was that, after some very difficult walking and coming to a close-by rise, we saw a tiny light in the distance. We knew it was a lodge, because we had been consulting a map before we began our ski trek. So without flashlights and skis, we at least had a goal. We knew there were streams in between us and the lodge because of the map. The real question was whether the snow pack would hold as we forded them.

Falling into a stream under several feet of snow was likely an unpleasant end.

And, as it turned out, it was the hardest march of my life.

I had worn blue jeans and I wasn't aware that cotton was not what you wanted to wear under these conditions. The gaiters just weren't cutting it in the waist-deep snow. If I had been wearing wool pants, I'm sure it wouldn't have been as difficult.

By the time we made it to the snow-slush road that led to the lodge, my legs were simply made of rubber. I could barely go on. In this case, John proved to be the iron man, and commanded us all to man up and make it to the lodge.

When we got there, there couldn't have been a greater contrast. We opened the door and there were about four groups sitting at a table having wine and eating their dinner with pleasant candle light, and a nice fire. We came in, without money or packs, a miserable, wet, frozen group of four hikers. We sat beside the fire for a bit, gathering our warmth and wits. Tears of joy commingled with misery were shed.

The lodge folk kindly agreed to put us up for a night with the agreement that, in the morning, we would recover our packs and skis and pay them.

They were a life saver, literally. I remember playing their upright piano. For me, it was to work out my frayed emotions and to recover my inner calm. For the people eating dinner, it was probably just a bit of entertainment.

Me and Dad at Christmas, 1982 (by a VT-101)
About one month after the avalanche
The next day, we were able to find our stuff, recover our packs, and return to pay our kind hosts. And pay them many thanks as well.

That may have been the closest I came to dying. And the worst part is we had plenty of time to know we might die. But at least there was tiny speck of hope. And a happy ending. The next year, and many years thereafter, I went back to cross-country skiing.

And I made sure to wear wool pants.

Disabling Pain

In 2000, my oldest daughter was two and we had a six-week-old baby. I took to running at Manresa State Beach for a few miles each day, to keep in shape, and I was doing great, health-wise.

On a beautiful late spring day, Mary and I decided to take our daughters out to Anna Jean Cummings park in Soquel to the playground. That park is known as "blue ball park" because it has several blue spheres set onto the side of it, made of concrete. Each is five or six foot in diameter. You can't miss them. The lower parking lot was completely filled up, so I dropped them off and went to park on the upper area.

I decided to scramble down the steep slope to the park. And for a while it was going pretty well. And then I lost control and bounded some very hard steps down. There was so much force, I knew my hips and legs were going to suffer.

And they definitely did hurt at the time. But some months later, that turned into disabling pain. My reaction wasn't optimal: I toughed it out, living with pain in every step. Only looking forwards to the time that I could sit down. In 2002 I couldn't walk at all without terrible pain, and so I consulted an orthopedic specialist. It turned out I had Avascular Necrosis, or AVN.

This ailment happens when the blood supply to the bone in a joint dries up and the bones in the joint start to grind and pulverize. To me this happened bilaterally in both hips, at the ball joints where the femurs meet the pelvis. What happens is that an edema forms and the terrible pressure causes unbelievable pain.

And it can't be cured.

Since both my hips were affected, I had one operation in late 2002 and another in late 2003 to have the edemas relieved. This meant drilling through the angled length at the top of the femur, removing the edema, packing the hole with dry white bone mixed with human growth hormone (HGH) made from my own blood, and sewing me up.

Each time, I was on crutches for 12-14 weeks post-op. I slowly recovered my walking abilities. The pain was once again tolerable but never really gone.

I used a little morphine after each operation. They give you a little clicker to administer it. But I was convinced it didn't actually do anything. After the first operation I may have used codeine once or twice. In the second operation, I didn't use morphine or codeine at all.

I just don't like painkillers.

I had done my research after the diagnosis and determined that most likely the AVN had been caused by a large dose of prednisone I received when recovering from some very bad poison oak. So prescription meds were my enemy.

So I live with the pain. And now it's about time to get hip replacements. Which I understand will really fix things up. Until they need to be adjusted.

I've been waiting for the technology of hip replacements to get better. And apparently it has. My orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Nicholas Abidi, is a genius, so I'm not really worried.

For the last several years I have had limited mobility, some pain, a couple of times when I couldn't walk without crutches for 2 days, and a disabled placard. During the worst pain, I actually had to take some ibuprofen. Twice in as many years. And I can't even think about riding a horse or a motorcycle. walking for any long distance, or particularly standing in one place is hard. Sometimes agonizing. But, at present, it's no great concern, and I manage quite well considering.

For those of you who read my blog post where I chronicled the Steve Jobs memorial at Apple, you should know that I was in agony for most of it, because there was no place to sit down.

Maybe with hip replacements I can get back to running.

And at blue ball park, they finally put in some stairs right where it all started.

Mike and Mary's Tragedy

Mary and Emily Melville in May, 2002
We knew Mike and Mary Melville for years because Mary and my wife, also named Mary, were in the same birthing class in 1998. Their daughter Emily and our daughter Helen were the best of friends. They had many a play date together. We visited them a few times at their house, and I was aware that Mike owned and managed an auto repair shop in Santa Cruz. We went to Emily's birthday parties, and they came to kids' birthdays as well.

We honestly enjoyed being with them.

On May 5, 2006, our friends Mike and Mary Melville were coming back from Disneyland with their two children in their Toyota Sienna near Paso Robles. From northbound 5, Mike had decided to take the 46 cutoff through Paso Robles and so over to 101. Somewhere in front of them on that two-lane road, a motorist decided he wanted to pass, although there was a double-yellow line. Little did he know that a Mack truck was coming his way, in the other direction. The truck swerved to avoid him, and that's when the Melville's Sienna was hit head-on.

Mike, Mary, and little fifteen-month-old Katie were killed instantly. There was nothing left of the front seat. In the back, little eight-year-old Emily got a skull fracture, several broken ribs, and a broken collarbone.

She was the sole survivor of the Melville family.

My wife Mary was heartbroken by the tragedy. She really knew Mary Melville well, and probably saw her twice a week. To have friends die for no apparent reason, and just out-of-the-blue was unthinkable. How could God let such a thing happen, she wondered?

This shows that, when tragedy strikes, it can easily be something that is totally out of our control, like a plane crash or a meteor falling from the sky.

Or a tsunami.

Michele and Emily
Emily pulled through and Mary's family, the Garcias, stepped up. They are wonderful folk. Mary's younger sister Michele became Emily's guardian and still cares for her to this day.

Emily has grown into a wonderful young teen with a fabulous smile (yes, those are braces!) and she has a stand-up cutout of Justin Bieber in her room. We last saw Emily and Michele shortly before Christmas. And a week before that we all went to the Christmas Lights train in Santa Cruz.

In the aftermath of the accident, we gave all the support we could to the Garcias. There is no doubt that staying in touch with them and being at Garcia family events from time to time is a real privilege for us.

Tom's Death

In mid-November 2007, my family and I were visiting San Diego. On November 15th or so, Daryl Wise called me and told me that Tom Hedges had died.

We all expected it could happen sometime. After the cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he had various treatments, including radiation treatment on the lymph node in his neck. This caused neuropathy that caused his fingers to tingle, then get numb, then his hands didn't work so well. Eventually it progressed into his arms and then his lungs had a hard time doing their work. On his 57th birthday that April, I saw him and he wasn't looking good at all.

We had tickets to visit Disneyland. A day or so later, I got another call from Daryl that the memorial was going to be right in the middle of our booked stay at the Disneyland Hotel.

On November 19, 2007 I took my family to Disneyland. The kids were so happy to go there and we were all having fun. For me, it was just a bit of a strain walking all over. But I managed nonetheless.

On the late afternoon of November 20, while my family was enjoying the theme park, I flew down to speak at the viewing. When I got there, Tom's body lay in state, in a casket, so gray. When I got up to speak, I glanced at the notes I had prepared. As for most talks and lectures I have done in the past, I simply made a few notes in preparation, preferring to speak from the heart. When I talk to a crowd, it turns out to be as much an improvisation as my piano playing. Only this time the notes were on my new iPhone. So here's what I said:

I skipped the notes and gave a sigh and made mention that it was strange to see Tom in this way. I felt that, at any moment, he would get up, look over my shoulder, and say "what the f**k's the deal, Mark?" like he so often did.
Because he was constantly working on electronics, Tom was known as Tuner to his family.
Today, the LA smog was so thick it strongly reminded me of Caltech in 1975 when Art Collmeyer called me in Chem lab to offer me a job. You see, Calma, where Art worked, was where I met Tom. 
Tom Hedges in 1978
Source:Tom Schaefer
Then, Tom was a towering, grinning guy with a chipped tooth and frizzy long hair drawn into a pony tail like kewpee troll! 
Soon I was to realize he was exceptional in every way. Calma was also where Tom met Robin. 
Eventually I came to work for him in the Calma systems group. 
This situation was swapped later when we created Fractal Design but I don't think it made much of a difference to our working relationship. Tom and I were partners for at least 17 years at Fractal. 
In the late 80s Tom was diagnosed with lymphoma and treated with chemo and radiation therapy. I remember sitting with Tom as the chemicals went in and later until 2AM when the nausea subsided. They say that what doesn't kill you just makes you stronger but that just wasn't true in his case. Soon thereafter, buzzed on some whacky steroid (megadoses of prednisone, again), and forewarned not to, he showed up at my house in Aptos and promptly caught chicken pox from my stepdaughter Freja. That nearly killed him because his immune system was in a weakened state from the chemo. 
At the hospital I visited him. There he said to me, "Mark, you can be president."
That's probably the only reason I became the CEO of Fractal Design. 
Before that we co-authored two software products named ImageStudio and ColorStudio. Our product manager at Letraset, Marla Milne, made an altered group portrait of Tom's family where the entire family had the same distinctive chipped tooth! Tom had it fixed within a week! 
Fractal saw Tom and I through some pretty wild times and a hell of a lot of hard work.
It was a heavy scene. So many good friends from Calma, from Fractal Design, Metacreations, and from his family were there to see him off.

And afterwards, I boarded the plane and headed back to Disneyland, shaken. He's really gone.

I think having to tell my father when I was 13 that his dad had died might have prepared me for that moment.

But it's another thing seeing your friend dead.

Truck Overhead

That next year, I was coming back from a very late event, driving on 17. It was pitch black and there was a terrible rainstorm. My usual path over the hill, which is to take 17 to Summit Road to San Jose-Soquel road and down the hill with fewer problems, wasn't available because a tree had fallen across the road. So I backtracked to 17 and headed south towards Santa Cruz. The rain was so hard that areas of the road were flooded and my little roadster would hydroplane. So I kept it kind of slow and was extraordinarily careful.

When I got to Laurel curve I suddenly noticed down the straightaway in front of me that a large truck, perhaps a Ford F-350, had careened out of control on the other side of the concrete barrier that separated me from the ongoing traffic. The truck hit the center divide and, because it was so tall, tilted over and literally flew through the air, seven feet above my lane! Because it was still in the air, and I was so close to it by that time, I simply hit the accelerator and zoomed directly under it.

I can remember thinking "YES! I'm still alive!"

And I was around the next curve and so I couldn't see what had happened behind me. As I considered pulling over and trying to help whoever had the misfortune of crashing, I realized that if I parked at the side of this busy narrow mountain road under these conditions, that my life expectancy would be about thirty seconds. This was clearly true since you could barely see the lines on the road and the rain was torrential.

Again, the exhilaration, jittery nerves, and fright all at once.

I dialed 911 and reported the crash and made it safely home twenty-five minutes later. Oh. My. God.

Dad - dated April 24, 2011
My Dad Passes

When my dad died on April 29, 2011, I was at home. My brother Tom called me and gave me the bad news. My father had been diagnosed with heart problems and his heart couldn't pump enough blood to keep him awake. Consequently, he was on oxygen all the time. I snapped his picture on my iPhone 4 at Pea Soup Andersen's a mere 5 days before he passed.

We had a memorial service and a viewing. I gave him my best send-off, with lots of great memories, lots of stories, and lots of love.

He always had good things to say about people and he was never irascible like some get when they are in their 80s.

Now it has all come full-circle. My dad lived a lot longer than his dad. Probably because he didn't smoke.

Having a friend die and then having your father die has been a difficult and emotional experience. But it has taught me something: enjoy your life while you are still around to enjoy it.

There have been several moments in my life when I could easily have died. I know Im lucky to have survived my life so far. And I'm grateful to be here.

Processing the Event

After death takes someone you know or love, take time to process it. work it over in your mind. Come to peace with it. Remember the good things.

And the bad things, if they exist, you should work out as well. Go ahead and rail. Don't lock the feelings inside. Shed some tears to help yourself grieve.

Write something about the person who's passed. It will help with the memories, and also help to put the event into perspective.

After a near-death experience, it is equally important to take time to process the event. Consider what you would do differently next time.

When a near-death experience is the result of something you could not control, it is usually much worse to process. Sometimes this can lead to a loss of faith, and a negative view of the world filled with perfidy and a general lack of justice.

And sometimes, it can lead to a loss of innocence. Or, if processed correctly, it can lead to an inner strength that can help you cope with such events in your future.


  1. There is only one copy of each of us (and each moment in time and experience) forever. The universe is irreversible. Good luck with the hips. I am suffering from blindness in one eye, and neuropathy in my feet and spreading. Still athletic, but don't know for how much longer. 46. Loved all the human stories. RIP Tom.

    1. I have been blind in one eye since birth. Actually, I can see out of it, but nothing is recognizable due to optic nerve damage. It just gets filtered out by the brain.

    2. I often have the illusion (sensation) that I am seeing out of both eyes. I don't know if my brain is interpolating based on accumulated experience before the blinding event in my mid-30s, or perhaps aided by the very dim and extremely cloudy and blurry vision I get in bright light with the blinded eye. I have to close the left eye, to see the darkness in the right eye. As I am looking at the screen now, I appear to see brightness from both eyes.

      I can still shoot a basketball, and can now make a reasonable percentage of shots with both eyes closed, after glancing at my distance and orientation.

    3. Yes, I have compensating behavior that helps me. In the dark, I can navigate perfectly from memory, for instance. My depth perception is really good when it comes to fitting a car into a tight space. It unnerves those in the car with me. Tight lanes and curvy roads don't faze me at all. Perhaps is just experience, but it really is uncommon for a monocular person to have these traits.

      I can only call them compensating behavior. Like a totally blind person having the best hearing.