February 26, 2005

Not-So-Random Thoughts

Just over two weeks ago, Cipherdom lost one of the best friends it'll ever have. Mike Wolf, proprietor of the randomness personified blog, died suddenly on February 9 at age 35. I've seldom been at such a loss for words. Fortunately, his many other friends have left eloquent tributes that now number more than 100. People keep returning to his blog as if in hopes of finding one more post by its owner . . .

. . . As was already obvious to readers of the old Cipherdom, I haven't had the urge to write much since November 2. Or not to write here, at least. If my blogging days weren't over before, it sure felt that way upon our losing Mike. I couldn't bring myself to write about him, apart from a short message of condolence. Death is too big to deal with in a meager blog entry, which is better suited to the short, pithy posts of which Mike himself was a master. He had an ease about him and a knack for making you smile or laugh out loud at some outrageous URL he'd stumbled across, but he was just as good at writing serious stuff.

Mike's sort of casual brilliance doesn't come naturally to me, to put it mildly; I'm more methodical and never mastered the art of chatting, whether networked or in-person. Also, I've always been ambivalent about on-line life, and especially about blogging. The narcissism, the illusion of intimacy (and, paradoxically, of anonymity), the nagging triviality of most Internet activities -- all this reminds me of the quote by Elvis Costello, who early on pegged the 'net as "a boomtown for obsessives." Well, yes, though it takes one to know one, doesn't it?

Mike and I became acquainted on an Elvis Costello email list that began about 1990. I was among the initial half-dozen subscribers or so, and Mike joined in the mid-90s. Having started at a time when there was no graphical interface to the Internet, that humble mail list grew into something bigger, more special, and eventually unmanageable. What was exciting at first -- to meet so many people of like mind -- is exactly what later made it stultifying. Still, deep friendships formed there, and fortunately they far outlasted the general pettiness that caused many of us to run screaming from that particular version of Deadwood.

So . . . Many of us stayed in touch through various media and to varying degrees. I confess to growing disillusioned with it all at regular intervals, not unlike real life. The debate will never end regarding whether on-line friends are as real as the non-virtual kind. I suspect Mike never doubted the value of friends, whether he'd met them in person or not. Certainly the response to his passing is the most powerful evidence I can think of to refute the notion that life lived on-line is inferior to more-traditional relationships. I'd even say I'm a bit ashamed now to have ever doubted it.

Mike obviously had both kinds of friends, in any case. A whole bunch of people traveled cross-country to attend his funeral, which was held in Georgia, where he grew up. For the past several years, he'd lived in the NYC area. Connecticut, to be exact. I admire and envy those people for going. I also empathize with them, because it's difficult to meet a friend's family under such terrible circumstances. I know Mike had his frustrations with some or all of them through the years, just as he probably had frustrations with me, and I with him and with them, and so on and on. One of them wrote to me the other day, a beautiful message describing the services and helping me come to grips with what I'd compartmentalized for more than a week by that point. In response to some whingeing remark I'd made about the inadequacy of technology and humans, she wrote -- way more generously than I deserved -- the following:

"But, please, no alienation and isolation! We all feel that too much and I think I've learned, if I've learned nothing else through all of this, that there are more people that have our back than we ever know."

Man, I want to remember that from now on, not that I'm under any illusions about having affected as many people as Mike did. I hope he had some inkling of what he meant to everyone.

Posted by Vernam at February 26, 2005 01:46 AM


Good on you, Tom.

Posted by: amy at February 27, 2005 11:46 AM

What a heartfelt tribute to our dear friend. Thank you.

You know tho', the very last thing Mike would want is for you to stop blogging.

Posted by: Dennis at February 28, 2005 01:34 PM

Yes, please keep blogging.

Posted by: S. at March 1, 2005 08:04 AM

great tribute tom. thanks.

Posted by: Matt at March 2, 2005 09:22 AM

A beautiful tribute to an amazing man. He was so lucky to have friends like you.

Posted by: Stephanie at March 3, 2005 02:36 PM

Very eloquent Tom. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

Posted by: Leigh Anne at March 5, 2005 05:31 PM