A Death on the Net

A Death on the Net
... and then two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
Mandel and wife Maria

for Tom Mandel, 1946-1995

[NOTE: Yesterday's inevitable rupture of an old untended friendship among the plethora of my virtual friends on Facebook put me in mind of another good friend and true from the past, Tom Mandel, and this memoir from 2005. I'm moving it here so that it will not perish from the Net. Godspeed and God bless, Tom. Godspeed.]

THESE DAYS NEW FRIENDS come more rarely and old friends begin to leave more often. Fate, accidents, God's will, and misunderstandings take them, as they shall take us all, as the years roll on. And as these years roll on the need to acquire new, often slight, friendships pales before the deeper ones that endure. But some end too soon, far too soon, and their leaving lingers as if the debt you owe to them is the debt of memory; one on which only the interest can be paid, never the principal.

Those friends that have left the world come back to the mind unbidden and at strange moments; moments unguarded and almost, well, casual. This morning I remembered, as I only sometimes do, Tom Mandel -- " the first friend I ever made before I met him."

At dawn, I was watering the eclectic collection of potted plants out on my deck that looks far out to sea from the Laguna Hills. This morning the sea faded into a long blue-grey haze as the light from behind the hills slowly descended on the smooth surface of those waters. Behind me the random selection from the iTunes library chose, at that moment, to play a song I've been favoring this past week or so, Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying."

When it got to the lyrics,

I went skydiving. I went Rocky Mountain climbing. I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu. And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter, And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'.And he said some day I hope you get the chance To live like you were dyin'.
He said I was finally the husband,
that most the time I wasn't.
And I became a friend,
a friend would like to have...

And there was the shade of good old Tom Mandel standing slim, well-dressed, and sardonic in my haphazard memory palace. And I thought before his shade faded,

"Oh, yes. Tom. Tom Mandel. There he is. What a good man he was. How I regret that I failed him in those last days. I should have been more courageous. But the past is the past and that was the least of the past. What matters now is that, every now and again, I think of him and what a good friend and what a good man he was. That I keep him in my haphazard prayers. Died young. But did he? How long is a life anyway? Has it really been twenty years years since he died? Turn around a decade's gone."

Which seemed little enough to remember. Sort of small shard of a tattered memory, to tell the truth. But it did lead me back to something else I wrote years ago in 1995 when his death was new and had not been, as all events are, faded and misplaced under the fallen leaves of our days. So I found it and read it over again after many years and thought, "Well, not perfect but it never is. Not too bad. It does hold something of who he was; something of what he could have been."

It went like this:


I knew "mandel" long before I met him. This is common enough in these days when more and more of us live second-hand and "virtually" in cybersomewhere. People bump into other people on America Online, or the Well, or some place else on the Net, and after a time arrange to meet. Meeting "mandel" though changed my life. This is uncommon on the Net where few personalities have the power, like the Velveteen Rabbit, to become real. "mandel" had the force, clarity, and sheer staying power to become real. He also had the ability to make the online medium grow and mature. He taught me a lot about the power of the Net to make the things of the mind come alive. He taught me more still by his death.

Tom Mandel (1946-1995) was one of the foremost early members of the Well, an online system that once was best known for its new-age feel and the high level of discussion among its members. I first fell into the Well in 1986 and within a day ran into "mandel". It was hard not to run into "mandel" in the Well in those days. He was everywhere -- in every conference and in almost every topic. He was ubiquitous. In a very real sense, he was one of the main ingredients of the Well. His role? To be a Pain-in-the-Ass. He was very good at this. He was a Great-Pain-in-the- Ass. I loved him for it.

On the Well, there was no blithe comment that disguised ignorance with style that failed to draw mandel's fire. The was no grandiose but brain-dead theory that he could not smother with an inconvenient fact. Tom was the online blatherer's worst nightmare. His knowledge was wide-ranging, his opinions firmly held, his writing clear and he had facts at his fingertips to buttress his positions. He hated intellectual pretension and had no patience for fools or received wisdom. He could discuss the intricacies of the publishing business, the nature of Alzheimer's, the state of education, foreign policy, economics, the prospects of this year's baseball season, the books of Asimov or Aristotle, and the Military-Industrial complex with equal ease and assurance. If you were stupid or crossed him, he would flame you hairless -- sometimes for the sheer fun of it. He was a great and worthy opponent and a better friend.

Mandel discovered online conferencing while recuperating from back surgery and became, in his own terms, addicted to it. I prefer to think that this new medium gave him a chance to make a contribution that had a more direct impact on the world than his work as a professional futurist at Stanford Research Institute, a west-coast think tank. And, in the end, he did.

Besides giving the Well a wide range of innovations such as the True Confessions and Futures conferences, Tom went on to be the master builder of the Time/Warner online presence. But his most lasting contribution was the example of how he lived out his life and, in the end, his death openly and without apology on the Net.

In what has to be "the year of the Internet", when stories about the Net and the Web and the Online Services and the wonders of the Information Stuporhighway cannot be escaped in any medium, there are few examples given where people can see exactly what the new medium can be in its full potential. Most of the time, we are given bromides and platitudes about all the cool stuff, all the neat software, and all the "information" that is just lying out there to be found. What the Net now has in spades is content. What it needs most is a clue about how to use it, about how to live and how to be. "mandel" knew about this. He'd used the medium to discuss his childhood, his thoughts, his work, and his needs. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer six months ago, he used the medium to discuss the progress of his disease and, finally, as a means to say farewell to all those who knew him, not as a person, but only as "mandel". In these final topics, continued over the months, a discerning person might finally see what this new medium could become if used openly and wisely.

What Tom Mandel knew, and what many companies and individuals still refuse to learn, is that online is not about selling something to someone or bringing information to the starving masses. What it is about is people wanting to connect, in a real and genuine way, to other people free of the filters of older media; to establish, no matter how ephemerally, communities of like-minded souls who are not separated by the brute facts of geography; to create a place where it really is the content of one's character that is the first and foremost thing people see. Through his work on the Well and Time Online, Tom Mandel gave the Net an example of how to transmit your soul through the medium of conferencing.

"mandel" didn't supply software or hardware or a Net connection. "mandel" didn't make it easy to point and click your way mindlessly through mountains of data and hundreds of slow and mostly boring Web pages. What Tom gave to the Net was himself. And if you watched him long enough, you learned how to do that as well.

Given to his tendency to monstrous procrastination in his work, he loved the warp and woof and immediacy of online discussion. He could, it was said, "Type a hundred words a minute and think faster." Because of this and his encyclopedic mind, he could lead and indeed dominate dozens of topics simultaneously. If you wanted to argue with "mandel" you'd better have your ducks in a row, a lunch packed, and be wearing your surge protector because you were in for the long, wild ride.

There was nothing he would not discuss. All topics were grist to his mill, including the topic of his death. For many months on the Well and in Time Online, he had discussed with cool candor and no little emotion, the progress of his cancer as it relentlessly consumed him. The treatments and his reactions to them were set out for all to see and comment on. He kept almost nothing back.

Finally, when it became clear that no medical procedure would save him and that his remaining time in life was shorter than he had hoped, he started a discussion on the Well that he titled "My Turn". In this topic, he announced that he was going to die and be unable to participate in the medium he loved much longer. The effect was electric and hundreds of responses flowed into the topic over the next few weeks, until, upon his death, it was closed. The discussion continued, without "mandel" in the Obituary topic.

Tom Mandel died while being held by a woman that he loved and listening to Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony. At first, I thought it was a beautiful way to die. Then I felt that it was like the Net "mandel" loved and helped to grow, a thin thing, -- nice to contemplate but not really much good when you just sat still and looked at it. Poetic, but it didn't undo the sheer cold fact of his death. A fact which I do not approve of at all. Finally, I decided it was as good a way to die as any and better than most. So it will have to do.

But I don't really think about that time all that much now. Instead, I think about meeting him in the world for the first time. I remember how much smaller he seemed than I had imagined him from his presence on the Net; how he seemed both tough and frail at the same time. I remember knocking back serious shots of single-malt. I remember late-night rambles through Manhattan and San Francisco. I remember his apartment piled high with drifts of books, papers, tapes, and monographs -- crowded with the endless subject matter that made up his mind.

And I think about the last time I spoke with him the week before he died. I apologized for not saying anything online in his "My Turn" topic; I didn't have any words for that subject. He understood that he said. I told him I'd see him somewhere a little further down the road. He understood that too. He said "I'm afraid to go there, but we all have to go. We have to be men."

And that's how we left it, Tom and I. I suppose I could always go online and somehow rejoin the Well and read any part of the hundreds of thousands of words "mandel" left there on any subject under the sun. I could go to Time Online and read the hundreds of testimonials to him in those conferences. But somehow I don't think I will. I no longer think of him as "mandel" -- like the Net he loved and helped build that's just too thin. I think of him now as Tom Mandel, the first friend I ever made before I met him.