Best essays of 2017: This little light: On fathers, sons & the little Pixar lamp

Once upon a time in the Pixar offices my dad played ball with me, and "Luxo Jr." was born

Published December 29, 2017 7:00PM (EST)

A still from "Luxo Jr."  (Pixar)
A still from "Luxo Jr." (Pixar)

We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. Read all the entries in the series.

Sometimes when I think about money, and not having enough of it, I daydream what it would be like to win the lottery. Then I snap out of it, because as a white, upper-middle-class able-bodied English-speaking male American citizen born in San Francisco in the late 20th century, I already won the lottery. And I should appreciate my good fortune.

There was a rule in my house that tennis balls were fair game as long as the tube had been opened. I loved the surely toxic smell of new tennis balls  that would rush out with the phwoosh of the tube’s pressure release, but my dad would invent games for us kids with the old ones , like “Step-ball.” How high could you throw the ball up the staircase and still catch it clean when it came back down? I got very good at not fumbling the ball . I was the shortstop on every Little League team I played for, and he was my coach for most of them.

When I was about a year old or so, my father took me into his office for the day. My father was a computer scientist, and he worked for a weird little startup that didn’t make any money. I remember going in there as a kid and thinking the people dressed strange.

At some point during that day, my dad played with me with a tennis ball. John Lasseter, an artist who worked with him, watched us, and suddenly the short film he had been trying to figure out was right in front of him. Using my actions, proportions and personality as a model for his main character, Lasseter created the short film “Luxo Jr.”

The name may not mean anything to you, and you may have never seen the short film,  but you’d probably recognize the title character. He’s a little lamp with a short body and a big head.

The startup that my dad worked at was Pixar. John Lasseter went on to direct many of Pixar’s greatest hits: “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Cars.” And today, before every Pixar movie, that little lamp hops out, jumps onto the “I” in “PIXAR,” squashes it, and looks out to the audience.

In a way, that little lamp is me.

But let’s go back to the short film my little lamp debuted in. It was late 1985. Pixar (then a part of Lucasfilm) was bleeding money, and would continue to do so for years. Steve Jobs bought the company in 1986 for $10 million, and would sink many more millions into Pixar before one movie  —  “Toy Story”  —  brought sustained profitability to the company.

For many years, Pixar was a hardware company. They made some of the finest computers for the purposes of digital imaging. But in the mid-‘80s, that meant they were selling those computers mainly to hospitals and government entities. The potential of computer graphics wasn’t well understood. Before Pixar, my father spent one election night debuting his digital paint software on national TV by turning states red or blue as the votes were confirmed. That sure as hell caught on.

But despite Pixar being a hardware/software company, they felt it was important to produce short films ,  if only to demonstrate the capabilities of their machines. So for the Siggraph Conference in 1986, a major gathering for the major nerds of major computer graphics, Pixar debuted “Luxo Jr.”

“Luxo Jr.” is a beautiful short. In the film, a large lamp watches a smaller child lamp play with a toy ball. They pass the ball back and forth, the larger lamp encouraging the smaller lamp as he figures out the physics of the new toy. Eventually, the little lamp, emboldened by the larger lamp, hops atop the ball, only to open a hole and flatten it.

The larger lamp shakes his head : C’est la vie. The smaller lamp hops off screen, dejected.

But in a third act twist, the little lamp pushes a beach ball back across the screen, and with an enthusiastic leap right in front of that big lamp, chases after his new toy. The older lamp shakes his head in bemusement, as if to say, “oh, kids.”

The premiere was a giant success. The Siggraph audience applauded throughout the entire reel, enough so that the light jazz piano score was completely drowned out.

Lasseter tells a story about how after the premiere of the short, he was approached by Jim Blinn, a computer science expert with NASA, who would go on to win a MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant.” Lasseter was nervous  —  he was not a programmer.  He didn’t think he’d have the technical answers to Blinn’s questions.

Blinn asked him if the larger lamp was a mother or a father.

As Lasseter tells it, this was a pivotal moment for the development of computer-generated movies. Up until that point, computer-generated movies were largely experimental tests of the equipment  —  “light passing through a prism” and the like. But a computer genius asking about the family relationship that exists between two lamps? That’s the moment when computers became a tool to serve a story instead of a technical novelty. Pixar would soon mostly ditch the hardware and software to focus on the development of feature films. “Luxo Jr.” was nominated for an Academy Award. And Lasseter gave Blinn the answer: father.

But I have one more answer for Jim Blinn. “Luxo Jr.” is, to me, a home movie. It’s me and my dad. Encouraging, comforting, energetic and kind, that big lamp, Luxo Sr., is as much my father as I am Luxo Jr. Every time I see my little lamp logo hop out in front of a Pixar movie, it’s not me I think about  —  it’s my dad. How he spent an afternoon hitting ground balls to me the day before my first Little League practice, and how proud I was when the other coach on my team said, “Well, I think we found our shortstop.” I must have been 7 years old, and I still remember that moment with such clarity. I can still feel the hard fabric on the bag of baseballs, the position of the sun in the sky.

When I look at the father and son lamp playing with a ball, it’s impossible for me not to feel like I won the lottery. My father’s greatest gift to me was enabling me to be myself , and I’m reminded of it by a little hopping lamp in front of every Pixar film.

Don’t worry, my dad isn’t dead. I realize I’m setting you up for that  —  building him up only to drop you off an emotional cliff. Dad still works at Pixar, and even if it’s no longer a weird startup that makes no money, the people still dress super strange.

I recently became a father.

Just seconds before my wife gave birth  —  up until then a normal delivery, the culmination of a normal, healthy pregnancy — about 15 doctors and nurses flooded into our hospital room as an alarm blared. My memory is spotty here  —  my brain has blocked a lot of it out  —  but I remember the OB/GYN thrusting our son onto my wife’s chest and thinking, “Huh, I didn’t think babies looked like that.” He looked gray. Floppy. Dead.

And before I could even move, a specialist pulled him off my wife  —  his umbilical cord must have been cut at some point, but I have no idea when  —  and someone called out, “No breath. No pulse.”

A white-haired man with a lanyard around his neck pushed his thumbs deep into my son’s chest cavity over and over and over again. He’d lift up my son’s arm, let it fall back to the table, and it would just slap the table, limp. Another specialist put a bag-valve mask over my son’s face, pumping air into his lungs.

My wife was screaming at the OB at this point, wanting information, salvation, but the OB was watching the resuscitation as closely as possible, and nobody — no nurse, no doctor — was responding to my wife.

It’s tough for me to say this, and I think this is where a lot of the sadness comes in, but there was a point there where I had this distinct thought: “I can’t control what’s going on with the baby. But if he dies, which seems like it’s going to happen, I can’t let this destroy my marriage.” I took my wife’s hand and we stared at each other, hoping for the best, and realizing that “the best” might include our son’s death.

The injected him with drugs — epinephrine, I’d later learn — and continued CPR. A nurse called out, “One minute, no breath. Two minutes, no breath.” An intubation tube threaded deep into my son’s tiny throat.

TV and movies make it seem like these situations are chaotic and noisy, but the truth is it’s quiet. So quiet that you think to yourself about how very quiet it is. The only thing piercing the stale air was the upbeat music blasting out of our laptop speakers. I think we were playing HAIM. I remember thinking that I should turn it off, but that would have required walking away from my wife.

In just a few moments, you have a lot of time to worry.

You think to yourself — not vocalizing anything, for fear of distracting the man compressing your son’s chest — how long can a human go without oxygen? How long before brain damage? How long before death? You have a clock ticking in your head. Some rogue synapse fires a thought: Didn’t the Kennedy daughter have something like this? You shove it away and hope for something to change.

I often think about winning the lottery, but there’s no greater lottery win in my life  —  no more dire dice roll  —  than the one that ended with my son coughing after two and a half minutes of resuscitation. It may have been longer; I don’t know. But he coughed. They ripped the intubation tube out and he cried. His skin started to pink up; they placed him in a rolling bassinet and raced him to the NICU. I hadn’t even touched him.

I woke up at 2 a.m. that night shaking. I couldn’t stop for 45 minutes. I didn’t want to wake my traumatized wife and I didn’t want to leave the room for fear that she would wake up, not see me, and worry there had been some emergency in the NICU she had missed. They warned us that babies who go through that difficult of an event sometimes forget to breathe. Tests were being run, trying to ascertain just what had happened and what might happen as a result.

My father is a great father, a man universally respected. He’s brilliant, but humble. You could know him your whole life and never know he won three Academy Awards for his breakthroughs in computer graphics. He was my first coach in every sport, my editor on my college application essays, the first call when I exceeded my goal SAT score.

He was also on the first flight to Los Angeles the next morning, arriving at the hospital in time for breakfast.

I always idolized my father, and still do. And I couldn’t escape the feeling, in those early days of my baby’s life, that I had already failed to live up to his example. I hadn’t protected my son.

* * *

They’re not exactly sure why my son needed to be resuscitated after delivery, but some combination of his umbilical cord being wrapped tightly around his neck, his size, and his twisted position in the birth canal caused him to get stuck. It’s extremely rare for a full-term baby to need the level of resuscitation our son needed. Statistics are tough to come by (and I’m not a medical researcher), but babies needing this level of resuscitation happen in less than .05 percent of births. But of those who do, approximately 30 percent will die or face disabilities due to oxygen deprivation.

Thankfully, after a little more than two days in the NICU, our son was discharged. He had passed all of his tests. The head of the NICU and our obstetrician agreed that, though the delivery was rough (“He just ran 10 marathons”), he wouldn’t face any long-term consequences from it. He’d be fine.

Two big lotteries in my life ,  and I’d won both.

As we walked out of the NICU, once it became clear my son would be OK, I saw the white-haired specialist who gave CPR to our son. He was typing on a computer. I saw the mousepad. It’s such a nothing detail, and so coincidental, but it was a “Toy Story” mousepad. I pointed it out to my dad, and I can’t tell you why, but just seeing that mousepad with my father there, my son’s heart monitor beeping strongly in the background, made me feel good.

My son is 10 months old now. Not quite as old as Luxo Jr., but as he approaches my age at that pivotal moment, I’ve been comparing myself to him more and more. He’s big  —  long, heavy and with a head circumference that’s never been lower than the 98th percentile of babies his age. His favorite thing to do is jump. Whether he’s in his jumper or I’m holding him, he has such power and force to his squats that it’s easy for me to imagine him squashing a toy ball or a capital “I” on a movie screen. He has my eyes, my smile, my love. And as he becomes my Luxo Jr., I find myself identifying more and more with Luxo Sr. The film becomes less about me as a baby, and more about me as a father.

I’m trying to be a good father. I want to be a good father. I am a good father.

I just hope I can live up to my dad.

By Spencer Porter

Spencer Porter is a television writer who has written for Fox’s “Family Guy” and Cartoon Network’s “We Bare Bears,” amongst others. His non-fiction writing has appeared in Stanford Magazine and The Daily Beast, and he can be found on Twitter @porters. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.

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