A few weeks ago, I found myself crammed into a sixth floor hotel room in Puerto Rico. I was one of four groomsmen in my close friend’s wedding party. The groom’s dad, who we dubbed Big Smooth (he’s 6-foot-8 with a booming but pleasant voice) was handing out our ties.
The ties were a shiny lime green color that might have otherwise been incongruous for five guys in black suits, but was appropriate in the semi-tropical setting of a Puerto Rican beachfront resort, and perfectly paired with the bridesmaids’ dresses. Big Smooth was walking around to each of us, conducting tie checks to make sure our top buttons were buttoned, the white from our shirts was hidden underneath the knots of our ties, and each of our tie clips rested at the same height on our shirts.
Meanwhile the wedding photographer glided around the room, snapping obligatory “groom getting ready” shots—the kind where one guy helps the groom put on his jacket as the other groomsmen smile awkwardly and sip $9 beers from the mini bar—before heading over the bride’s wedding day headquarters.
In the corner of the room, though, the groom’s younger brother slash best man was oblivious to our jokes and stupid comments, each of us taking turns sarcastically asking the groom, “Hey man, it’s the big day…you nervous?” No instead he was feverishly scribbling on hotel stationery with a hotel pen, simultaneously transcribing and editing his best man speech off the screen of his laptop, cutting and adding jokes like a veteran stand-up comedian moments before a set.
One of the guys even suggested that he just read the entire speech off of his smartphone. We all got a kick out of that image: a nervous 23-year-old using his index finger to scroll through his three-minute address while the older relatives look at him like he was from another planet. (By the way, it would turn out to be the best best man speech I’ve ever heard.)
Fast forward to this past Monday night when I accompanied my girlfriend to the memorial services for her great uncle Bill, who passed away at age 82. I’d never met Bill, but I knew a few stories about him from my girlfriend’s mother, including the one that explains his moniker at the offices of the New York Times, where he worked for 46 years, retiring in 1991.
Bill was a makeup editor at the Times in the days when they still laid out the entire paper by hand, and one night a young Times employee dropped a cart containing the next morning’s layout, just moments before it was headed to the presses. Cool as a cucumber, Bill swooped in and recreated the layout from scratch and on time. Known then for quick hands and equanimity under pressure, he became “Billy Changes.”
Years later when the journalism industry underwent its own series of changes, and newspapers began to use computer programs rather than quick hands to lay out their pages, Bill decided to retire rather than recreate himself from scratch. And I can’t say I blame him.
As an 80s kid and a 90s teenager, changing technology has always been a given for me. I’ve listened to my music on a plastic Fisher-Price record player, a Walkman, a home stereo, a boom box, a Discman, and now an iPod. I have a closet full of “pre-viewed” VHS tapes I bought at Blockbuster back in college that I can’t bear to throw away. And frustrating as it can be, I know better than to fight the evolution of consumer electronics or baseball statistics or fashion.
Still, I can’t fathom how a lifetime newspaperman—or anyone who’s spent a prolonged period of time cultivating a very specific skill set in a particular industry—gets used to the idea that yesterday he was in high demand, but today his role no longer exists. I think of it as listing all the things you claim to be “extremely proficient” at on your resume, crossing them all out, and then walking into your office to interview for your own job.
Towards the end of Monday night’s memorial service, Bill’s son stood up in front of family and friends to poignantly and honestly eulogize his dad. I was still thinking about the guy they called Billy Changes, wishing I had met him, wondering why some people are lauded for staying “old school” but others are dismissed as “dinosaurs.” With that in mind, I couldn’t help but notice that Bill’s son didn’t reach into his breast pocket for index cards or even just a few crumpled scraps of paper.
That’s because he was reading the eulogy off of an iPad.
Ultimately it didn’t matter whether Bill’s son read from an iPad, or a legal pad, or a cocktail napkin, because he shared some very sweet memories about growing up in Brooklyn with his brothers under his father’s care. And from both his words and the nods around the room, it was clear that Bill served as a father figure to more than just his own sons, and that he’d be missed in his personal life as much as he would have been in his heyday in the newsroom.
Look, I can’t predict whether five or 10 years from now all eulogies will be read from iPads or whether best man speeches will be delivered via smartphone (or, for that matter, if speakers will just text everyone the gist of what they planned on saying).
I just hope that regardless of where future speakers are reading their speeches from, that they are delivered as thoughtfully as the ones I’ve described above, and that amid all the technological advancements, that never changes.
About the iPad: Bill’s son conceded later that he had actually bought it for his dad, though I’m not sure whether Bill got around to using it in his final months.