Make Your Own Luck

I am a list maker; it helps me put boundaries around projects and set short term priorities. It’s also useful for organizing long-running projects, whether house maintenance or thinking about how I’ll approach my Movember campaign. Starting at the head of the year, I make notes about men’s cancers, mental health, and personal stories that motivate and inform my involvement with my singular fundraising effort for the year. Along with my leather journal of ticket stubs and concert notes, it’s something upon which to reflect.

At the peak of pandemic concerns, cancelled summer plans, a sore lack of live music, and considerations of our new reality, I found out my cousin David was being treated for prostate cancer. It was a gut punch. I didn’t add much else to the Movember list, because that news inverted my scientific order of the universe.

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50+ years of engineering family togetherness: A respite from getting in trouble at Grandma’s house

David is three years older than me and has been my nerd hero for the last 45 years. He made it acceptable to be nerdy in our family, an identity that I craved as one of the youngest of fourteen cousins. He gave me my first computer programming books (a primer on assembly language and later a BASIC book, both of which I’m fairly sure were long-term borrowed from a library). He taught me how to program, and exposed me to the elegance of understanding hardware at a very low level. David had some minor infamy in high school for spinning the reels on the PDP-8 (donated by Bell Labs) tape drive at high speed until he melted the tape (it’s family apocrypha, reality may differ, but also the backstory of mild bad-assery). When he went to MIT, my weekly diet of nerd bits slowed down, only to be bounced to a higher orbit when he presented me with my own MIT tee shirt.

Three years later, we found ourselves on the Princeton campus together, where I find him playing guitar in one of the cafes or clubs, generating dissent at the Graduate School’s “high table” customs, re-opening the Grad School pub (the “Debasement” in every connotation of the word), and challenging the scientific and engineering status quo. When David passed his general exams, we got drunk at lunch (and I proceeded to take an history final exam mildly buzzed, pressure-testing the lower bounds of “pass” but giddy with joy). His PhD research in amorphous silicon cells led to careers with companies that made all manners of display, photographic, and energy devices; when you see the news commentators standing in front of large interactive multi-screen displays, there’s a lot of David’s innovation shining through.

Living on opposite coasts, we don’t see as much of each other as we did during the regular cadences of Thanksgiving and Jewish holidays, interspersed with other life events, so it falls to a steady stream of mental reminders — any song by Renaissance (he was the first to play “Live at Carnegie Hall” for me), the mention of the word “derrick” (what happens when you have a substitute metal shop teacher, don’t ask), a small car dent (memories of a Sunday spent trying to pop one), Steve Howe’s “Mood For A Day” (a song he learned with uncanny ease), a poorly maintained miniature golf course (we may have accelerated its demise), my old computer books that I can’t bear to recycle.

I always thought David made his own luck; no matter how things seemed stacked against him he found a way to persevere and win.

At one point in his thesis work he needed a high-end vacuum pump not to be found at Princeton, or anywhere else in the US. Ordering one from the manufacturer would mean missing the Dean’s date for completing his work, so David hopped on a plane to Germany, picked up the pump, and flew home with it like a companion animal only to find that he needed an import license to avoid several thousand dollars in duty. A few days later, a properly imported pump and David were back in the E-Quad basement, with enough runway to take off with a PhD.

David has dealt with his cancer the way he made his own luck in every thing else — with diligence, precision, broad thinking, an incredible attitude and enough humor to keep an entire family laughing. A few weeks post surgery he was out for a hike in the Pacific Northwest. He inspires me in different ways, as our perspectives age, and always makes me think of creating opportunity when pure luck doesn’t suffice.

This is why I Mo My Own Way. Sometimes we need the science and the support provided by the Movember Foundation to back up our luck. And it’s easier than flying a vacuum pump over the Atlantic.

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By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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