When I started writing on Livejournal in high school, a series of still-inexplicable events led me to re-encounter an old friend from elementary school there: Chris, the Livejournalist formerly known as cobalt999. Through him, I found my way into a more culturally and intellectually stimulating circle than I’d ever experienced before, albeit one in which I didn’t really belong. I found my way into a circle of — not to put too fine a point on it, but — homosexual Livejournaling teenage geeks. Smart, engaged with ideas, skilled with the written word, not contributors to any of my girl-related psychodramas: the ideal peer group!
One other Livejournalist, one of the group’s most well-respected, didn’t seem to fit in: Tom, known as tomcan, and later as cool_moose, a man of fewer words and a much earlier birthdate than everyone else. I admit to looking askance, at first, at that “1937” in his profile. What kind of sixtysomething guy, I thought, talks to gay teen geeks on a blogging platform geared toward 14-year-old Russian girls? Yet nothing he did or said came off at all like the acts or words of a sketchmeister — precisely the opposite, in fact. I had to know: what was Tom’s deal?
We cobble together mental models of people, especially those with whom we rarely communicate, out of conversations, rumors, writings, artifacts — non-contiguous fragments. I’ve built a mental Tom both gloriously storied and seemingly incoherent: he made money doing something with lumber mill control systems in the seventies? And despite coming up in Seattle, he became a Canadian patriot? And he helped paraplegics, including a close friend and former hockey player, restart their lives? And he took in kids whose families had failed them for reasons as petty as their sexual orientation? And he became beloved in South America while working with Chilean dissidents and Bolivian orphans? And he lived through a bout of cancer? (“Cancer died of me,” he insisted.) And he offered a font of wise counsel to young people — including young people I count as friends — whose potential he understood when nobody else seemed to?
I picked up these facts and guesses, extrapolations and interpolations, overstatements and understatements from Tom’s sparse Livejournal posts, answers to my curiosity-driven questions to friends like Chris (who were much, much closer to him), and conversations that sprouted from Tom’s many comments on my own posts. We didn’t agree on much, worldview-wise; half the time, we’d hit philosophical bedrock on some economic issue that he saw in moral terms, but I didn’t. (He liked to respond to my pro-market positions by evoking Pinochet’s death squads.) As much as I wish I could say I’ve come around to Tom’s distinctive brand of left-wing views — views won with superior age and experience — I find myself with less involved with morality than ever. But he indirectly taught me an even more useful lesson: even basic perceptual clashes shouldn’t prevent you from having friendly, fruitful conversations with people. Quite the contrary.
Despite talking to him on the net for nearly a decade, I never could assemble all I knew about Tom — or thought I knew about Tom — into one clear picture. I met him once, in 2008; surely I could have just sat him down and said, “So tell me your life story” — I’ll bet he would have — and proceeded to straighten out all the guesses, gaps, and imaginings in my knowledge of his life. But would I really prefer that? Do I need to assemble Tom into one clear picture? Doesn’t the hazy, adventurous, geographically multifarious, sometimes self-contradictory legend of my distant elder sparring partner — CanLit as rewritten by Borges in a pastiche of a foreign sixties protest song — hold its own kind of fascination?
You’ve surely sensed an elegiac tone here, and indeed, I recently heard from Chris that Tom has passed this mortal coil. I hadn’t communicated much at all with him in the last few years, despite often wondering how he was doing up there in comparatively frozen British Columbia. That I never once actually asked him might cast me in a damning light, or even point to troubling social-psychological issues on my part. But I’ve long thought of it, with woeful resignation, as my normal behavior, albeit one of which I should’ve broken myself long ago. Tom clearly didn’t have the same problem; I’ll add that chapter to his mythos.