Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone."
-- Eternal, Joy Division
Saturday afternoon. It's a little cold outside, the blue sky sucking the last of summer's heat up into the heavens. Ferns are still deep green, but their tops are starting to curl in, turn brown. I try and spend the day outside, chasing my kids. I have a migraine again. So I spend some time in the dark and quiet of the basement, trying to will it away.
Browsing my usual artificial worlds, I find a Myst-cryptic note, just sitting out in public.
"Julian, it's James. Need to get in touch with you. If you can't remember my last name, track Walt down and ask him. I'm in the book in Seattle."
It took me half an hour to realize who it was, dig around old files, find his last name, make the phone call, leave a message, and wait.
I know, somehow, what this is. It's a death call. Someone from the old crew is gone.
20 years ago, I was a scared college kid. Too young to know better, I'd shipped myself off to college, running away from high school, parents, old friends, and the country town where I'd grown up. Too young to drive. Too young to drink. Lonely as hell. A geek surrounded by 20,000 strangers. So I lost myself in the geek. I discovered the thing that saved my life and kept me from the spiral of despair that ends in a mother's tears: the net.
See, even way back in the mid-'80s we had the seed of it on campus: mailing lists and proto-Internet relay chat. The dorms were even wired, if you cared to bring your own 300 baud modem and had an Apple 2 or Commodore 64 and could make it sing. I hopped into the chat rooms as soon as I discovered them. With the amber monitor between me and the other people, I was a different person. Stronger. More confident. Less afraid.
It was perhaps a month after I discovered the chat rooms and mailing lists that I had the courage to meet these folks face to face. It happened because there was a hiccup in the wiring to my dorm. Addicted to the human contact, I ventured into the terminal room in the basement of the Computer Center, only to find most of my "friends" sitting at VT100s, chatting. 20 people, sitting in a room, backs to each other, chatting. All too shy to turn around and speak to each other using the vibration of air.
We grew up a lot in the coming years. The intranet would still be our watering hole, but we met more in the meatspace. We shared pizzas, swapped stories, played games, told jokes. I discovered girls, and thankfully some of them discovered me. I got in shape, losing the puffiness of disconnected youth. In this froth of hormones, bad glasses, and questionable haircuts, a few mentors kept the crowd sane. One of these was mentors was John. He was several years older than most of us, quite a bit older than me. He was a social lubricant. Much of our vernacular -- the shared jokes, inane stunts, and collective stories -- came from John. He had an uncanny ability to take a room full of people too scared to talk and turn us into a private army.
He lead us on expeditions. He woke me up at 4AM one morning and dragged me into his car, already full of friends. We drove for an hour. He pulled over at an apparently random turnout on the side of a local mountain, and told us to hop on the roof. We drank hot coffee from his thermos, shivering silently, until the reason for the trip became self-evident.
He'd wanted to see the sunrise.
But while he helped the rest of us feel OK about ourselves and the world around us, he was always a little distant when I looked him right in the eye. He seemed to be looking at the world through Vaseline-covered glasses. I knew of, but didn't witness or was too self-absorbed to notice, his lifelong struggle with depression. I never got a sense of who he really was. I was just glad he was there because he made me feel like I belonged.
I never kept in touch. For all the reminiscing, college was brutal. I did things I'm not proud of. I'm not proud of who I was. I tell myself now that we all made mistakes when we were young. When I finally finished my last course credit, I loaded up my Pontiac Phoenix and I drove west as fast as I could the very same day. I left most of those friends behind, closing a door on the first act of my life, hoping to start again, as a person I'd be happier knowing.
The headache fades by the afternoon. James calls. It's awkward from the first syllable.
"Hey, so, what's up James?"
"John's gone. They found him out in the woods in Colorado."
"Aww sh*t James. sh*t."
"We'd kept in touch. We talked almost every week. I knew he'd been having a rough time lately, but I never thought..."
I didn't know what else to say. Profanity seemed our only lingua franca.
"Anyway. I thought you should know. I've kept in touch with a lot of folks from back in the day, but didn't know if you knew some others."
"Yeah, a few..."
We laundry list our address books. He's a clearing-house of connections. I've kept in touch with two people.
We quickly run out of things to say. James and I were never all that close, even back then. We were just part of the same community. We hang up. I don't really feel sad. I feel empty.
In the coming hours, I will realize that it's not that I miss John: if I did, I would have kept in touch. What I miss is how he made me feel when I needed it: safe, belonging, part of something.
We talk about virtual communities a lot around here. Over the last 25 years, I've been part of dozens, from that first one to this one. The most often heard refrain is that these virtual communities aren't "real." They're not the same as the face-to-face, sitting-watching-football, church-on-Sunday communities we have away from the zeros and ones. I've argued hard against that, because if it's true, then I'm so much more alone than I feel.
So here's the thing. The sad part of virtual communities isn't that they're ethereal.
It's that they're so easy to leave, so easy to lose.
Thanks for stopping by John. Sorry I missed you.