35 years or so ago, my older brother Joseph took it upon himself to teach me long division. Never mind that I was in kindergarten and had yet to attend an actual math class or formally learn things like addition and subtraction – division was what he was working on in 3rd grade, and as he explained to me at the time, “you’re just as smart as me, so I should be able to teach it to you.”
I still remember the pride I felt as he sat there patiently explaining the concepts one by one, stopping frequently to say things like “you’re getting this better than most kids in my class!” There was something effortless in the way he was able to transfer knowledge to me, as if a similar mind with much greater understanding of the universe (to a kindergartener, a 3rd grader seems like the Oracle of Delphi) was willing to take the time to enlighten his less experienced protégé. That evening with Joey in his room, hunched over his marble notebook as he explained something that in my mind was “advanced mathematics” is one of the great memories of my childhood.
This pattern would be repeated throughout our adolescence – at each milestone, Joey was there as a mentor, whether teaching me to swim (often via bribery - “If you swim down and grab the rings at the deep end, I’ll buy you an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen”); about the Latin roots of words being used by the writers of the Saturday morning Tarzan cartoon (“avia means bird and terra land - that’s why they’re called avians and terrans – the writers are being , or at least trying to be, clever”); about atomic theory (“everything – EVERYTHING – is made of electrons, protons and neutrons. Isn’t that amazing?!?”). He had a way of sharing not only understanding, but also a thirst for it. It’s the best gift I’ve ever been given.
Twelve years or so after the long division incident, Joey was studying at Georgetown University, having been admitted as a junior after getting his Abitur in Osnabrück, Germany and spending a year in Paris. In that time, my view of him as a kindred spirit who happened to be much more talented (and soft spoken) had grown rather than diminished; he was, after all, now fluent in four or five languages – alive and dead – and I could barely be said to speak English (and a little BASIC on my Apple //e). He was, as I was fond of saying, my “genius brother,” and I looked forward to spending time with him under any pretext.
One afternoon he asked if I was studying calculus, which I was. He said he had an exam coming up in his class at Georgetown and he could use some help. When I asked what they were covering in class, he said “well, it’s a final exam, but I’ve never actually been to class.”
“When’s the exam?” I asked, with more than a bit of skepticism in my voice.
“Four days,” he answered, with that combination of sheepish embarrassment and impish pleasure that only he could muster.
It was ridiculous of both of us to even consider trying, but we sat down at the kitchen table and started working. Day one, differential calculus. Day two, integral calculus. Day three, techniques and problem sets. I remember the clarity I felt as I explained these concepts to him – how transferring my understanding of these ideas to him somehow galvanized it inside my own mind. It was as if I was explaining things to a smarter, more nuanced version of myself, and it was ridiculously nerdy fun.
It was also the first time I felt like I could teach him anything, which gave me no short amount of pride. Joey was good at making me feel good about myself, and I like to think the feeling was mutual.
He passed the test, of course. I believe he got a C in the course - not too bad for a semester crammed into what amounted to 72 hours. It also represented a new phase in our relationship, where our lives started to diverge, and I could share things with him that I had learned, and things grew more balanced between us. That’s the way with brothers, I guess. You start with a mentor and end with a close friend. I’m very, very happy we were able to make that transition, and that our relationship seemed to grow deeper and more fulfilling with each passing year.
Joey, I’m thinking of you today even more than I’ve thought about you every day since we lost you. I’m thinking about you as I fly to LA (remember when we discussed the pros and cons of living there as we sat at the café in Paris for hours in 2005?) to shoot a movie premiere with two prototype cameras I’ve named after you. And this spring, when we finally ship our new “Joey” cameras, I’ll continue to get to say the phrase “I believe the future of the company is Joey” like it’s our private joke. Because it is – like so many we shared over the years.
But it doesn’t make me miss you any less, big brother. I’m happily married and blessed with some amazing friends, but I will always miss the other half of my brain. And I will always think fondly of that last day we spent together walking in Frankfurt, as you shared your thoughts about the history of the town; the feel of the people; the magic of walking in a train station when it’s busy. I promise to carry your sense of curiosity, generousness and laughter with me for the rest of my life, and to share it with as many people as possible.
It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for me.
Love you, slobber, slobber.