A Beautiful, Moving Story About ... Google Calendar

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A loving sister, a loving brother, an ailing father. This story is older than history, and humans live it again every day of every year. 

The Chinese poet Su Shih could write this in the 11th century

This fleeting life spent in sickness and worry --
The pure vision passes before my eyes just for a moment. 
When cocks crow and bells sound, flocks of birds scatter --
Soon the drum beats at the prow and people call to one another.

Olivia Judson, writing yesterday in The New York Times, could detail her father's final months in a Google Calendar she shared with her brother. The document became a shared diary of their relationship with their father and each other: its tiny movements intimate, its arc gutting.

As you might expect, there are times when reading someone else's journal entries is disquieting and revealing. I discovered aspects of my brother's relationship with our father that I hadn't appreciated. One of his entries said: "Asked about my accident (first time)." This was more than a year after my brother had been hit by a car and badly hurt. My heart cracked: I had not realized how inattentive my father had been.

Going back through the calendar now, more than 18 months after my father died, the entries chart a relentless physical decline -- profound fatigue, sore hips and knees, aching wrists, swollen legs, inflamed teeth, increasing forgetfulness, the savage indignities of old age. One day, he took a bath but couldn't get out of the tub. Luckily, the housekeeper arrived; she couldn't get him out either, so she recruited the postman to help. My father thought this was hilarious: I admired his ability to laugh.

For through it all, there's such courage. Yes, he's just had a pacemaker installed and he's feeling rotten, but he's making strawberry jam. One day, "He sounded very low -- lonely, old, and scared." But another, he's reading a history of some sinister French aristocrats and planning to install a wood stove in the fireplace. A beloved friend is coming to stay. He's just learned a new poem.

It is these stories that remind me of the possibilities in today's communication tools. It's not that the Internet is superior or inferior or equal to or a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but all these services are there, and we sometimes can't be. Humans find ways to push meaning through the pipes.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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