February 7, 2011
Nicholas Felton published his annual report today. Unlike years past where he cataloged, analyzed, and quantified a single year of his own life, this time he examined the life — the entire life — of his father Gordon Felton, who died in 2010. Nick studied scores of documents, calendars, postcards, and pictures to build a portrait of his dad in data. And it's quite a portrait. By triangulating his father's movements, Nick literally maps the shape of the world with the forms of continents emerging from the mesh of connecting lines (Felton Sr. was one hell of a traveler). The document is full of stories "Name legally changed to Gordon Felton in the province of Manitoba September 9, 1954 at 4:15" and facts both amusing ("Middle name Paul added in 1968") and heartbreaking (Last Day Sep 12, 2010 81 years, 2 months and 8 days old). Ultimately though, the document is a set of mysteries. Reading it reminded me of the questions asked by Rawlston in the opening scene of Citizen Kane after the newsreel ends.
What made Kane what he was?
And, for that matter, what
was he? What we've just seen are the outlines
of a career - what's behind the
career? What's the man? Was he good or bad?
Strong or foolish? Tragic or silly?
Why did he do all those things?
What was he after?
These are questions that will not be answered by this report, but they are the type of questions the report raises. The questions make the man real to people who never knew him. How did this elevator operator find himself at the far end of the Soviet Union. Why was he in Vietnam? Why that middle name? Why the divorces? What happened in 1964?
Anyone who has lost someone close knows the complicated emotions brought on by the sorting of the collected ephemera of a life. Some survivors live with the stuff, some put it in boxes and hide it away, some throw it out. Nicholas did something harder, he tried to understand the things his dad left behind, and then he tried to make us understand. I see this as a courageous act of love. It shows on every page of the report and that's a beautiful thing.