Memorial Day 2017. I have an invitation for you. Today asks us to remember those who lost their lives in wars. Part of the grief from their loss is that they did not have time. They left a legacy of honor, yes, but their time was cut short, leaving not enough of themselves behind for us to treasure. Let me introduce you to a few people who had a lot of time and who changed the world.
In 1996, a former oil engineer named Andy Hildebrand invented Auto-Tune, a computer program that corrects pitch and timing in recordings. Singers and instrumentalists who don’t quite get a note right can have their performances, well, fixed. Before its advent, studios had to re-record tracks or manually adjust them using synthesizers. All of that ended in a flash with Auto-Tune. Someone told Hildebrand he’d ruined Western music. Time Magazine called his invention one of the 50 worst of all time—up there between DDT and Red Dye No. 2. Love or hate it, we are so used to it that Auto-Tune isn’t going anywhere. But here’s a little interesting tidbit: Andy Hildebrand failed first grade. He struggled through his academic life until college, where he found a passion for science and decided to work hard. He was also a musician, a studio flutist at 16 so something of a prodigy in fact. Science, music, and an invention that changed everything, but I doubt you know of the man.
Next, a sad note, and bittersweet. A teacher of mine—for I think that’s how she would prefer to be remembered—died in 2015 at age 98. Her name was Louise Cowan. She’d thought her age rather amusing when she turned 90 and continued to lecture until a few months before her death. Dr. Cowan was unusual in many ways. An intellectual, a reformer, historian, critic, writer—no single word catches her aura. Thousands of Dallas teachers have taken her classes. Many more community members have felt her influence through lectures at the Institute of Humanities and Culture and other Dallas venues. And her little tidbit is this: She majored in music as an undergraduate. A singer, she decided to abandon it all because she was only adequate, not the best. The Dallas Festival of Ideas and all those Pegasus statues you see around town stem from her influence. She was brilliant, a word that gets thrown around too much. We admired her but knew we wouldn’t catch up with her, not in this life.
Now, your invitation: Write. You’re groaning. Why? Legacy. Not many people have heard of Andy Hildebrand. Fewer have heard of Louise Cowan. Both have left a substantial legacy. Neither is a celebrity in the strictest sense of the word. And it doesn’t matter. This fabulous story is about a man who survived World War II. He didn’t write it, and he couldn’t now, probably. But his son has done it.
Lots of things that you do don’t count as writing. Texts (where r u?) and emails (Check ur messages) are examples. No one sends letters anymore; that’s accepted. But you don’t need to write a book either. That cliché about everyone having a book in them? Doubtful. But stories, definitely. A BYU series called The Story Trek goes around the country collecting stories. They knock on doors, often, and find no one home or willing to talk. What a sad thing.
Recently, I was in line at the bank. Yes, sometimes, you really do have to be inside. A woman next to me was worried about getting some checks to Ireland. We chatted about the reasons why for a few minutes. Her daughter lost her husband a few years ago. Last summer, she married an Irish pastor whose wife left him 17 years ago. The details were fascinating. I told the woman she should write the story down. She was thrilled with the idea. Apparently, she hadn’t thought of doing so.
We document everything these days. If you’re under 30, chances are your wedding album is online and probably includes a videography. Physical photographs are so 20th century. When you’re gone, we can watch videos or listen to voicemails, but these are too painful most of the time. Think of the scene in The Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis’s character’s widow weeps through his wedding toast. I’d rather have my folks smile instead of watching me say “Ummm” 20 times.
Most people doubt their specialness. The familiar “I was born…I went to school…I worked at…” are not stories but facts. Write about your first day of school, your favorite job, the time you met your partner. You are more interesting than you think. Today honor those who didn’t have a chance to live. The poppies which symbolize their sacrifice cover us all eventually. The poem from which those poppies come passes the torch to us. Don’t be lost. Write yourself down.