Posted 2009-12-07 21:24:58 by
Alan died on November 14th.
Alan's relationship to me was complicated. He was my mom's boyfriend of 20 years and my half-sister's uncle. That counts as complicated, right? He was a long-time mentor of mine. He taught me to code, how to communicate, how to fucking think. He shaped my life to an incredible degree. But I didn't really consider him a father figure, probably because his relationship with my mom was rocky enough that I didn't feel emotionally close to him.
He was also my long-term financial plan. I always just assumed one of the crazy startups that he sucked me into was going to hit it big eventually. His latest project, Aleph One, really felt like it was on the cusp: it was just starting to turn a profit, and the data analysis tools that had been in development for nine months had just in November finally come into their own. But there's no way it could move forward without him; he was the linchpin holding it all together, as literally irreplaceable as anyone can be.
He was so incredibly smart, so intense, so driven. More so than anyone I've ever met, on all three counts. In this respect he was a guiding light for everyone in his life without ever really trying to be. Oftentimes my mom's relationship with him felt more like hero worship on her part than anything else.
For what it's worth, my last interaction with him was a good one, my mom's was even better, and he was unconscious as soon as he hit the road and brain-dead by the time he got to the hospital. It sucks for all of us, but he barely had time to register that anything had happened at all.
Sam probably got it the worst. Sam was Alan's other girlfriend, and Sam's other boyfriend, Chris, is on dialysis after kidney failure, and was waiting to be approved for a transplant. He was scheduled for surgery to remove his thyroid the day after Alan's accident. Sam flew in from Princeton to be with Alan before they wheeled him off to harvest his organs -- mom made them wait -- and then flew back to be with Chris for his surgery. Shortly afterward he was approved for the transplant, but the donor they had lined up didn't work out and they're looking for a new one. Sam is in a really dark place right now. It's the best argument I've ever heard against polyamory.
I saw Alan's body before they pulled the plug. He was breathing. Every little part was still functioning except for Alan himself. Like in the recent xkcd strip, the particles were all there, but the magic was all in the arrangement.
He still has a paper in the pipeline to be published in a math journal. Life is just so fucking random.
The memorial service was on November 22nd. He would not have been able to stand all the ritual, the slow pace of the ceremony, the food on the table or the cut flowers; he refused to eat vegetables because he didn't want to kill plants. (One person brought an avocado rather than flowers: this is a man who knew Alan well.) On the other hand, he was an atheist and would have wanted the ceremony to be wholly about the mourners.
It was a diverse group of people: Alan had a double Ph.D, in math and computer science, was a near-pro-level table tennis player, was an avid surfer and biker, was heavily into yoga, was running a hedge fund, and was once upon a time a professional programmer and electrical engineer. So seeing all his math friends, his engineering friends, his finance friends, his yoga friends, his sports friends and his family all come together and hardly know one another was a supremely weird experience.
I'm really hoping I can take this as inspiration to take charge of my life, to figure out what's most important to me and focus hard on it. He was so good at that, it was astounding: he literally never had any downtime, not a single minute wasted. He loved his job -- his coworkers were all personal friends -- he loved La Jolla, and he loved biking, which is what he was doing at the moment of his death.
The specific circumstances of Alan's death are getting strange. As far as we know, there wasn't a collision; the front wheel simply stopped short, and he flipped over the top, bringing the bike with him because he was clipped into the pedals. He landed on the back of his head, and there was no damage to his hands or to the bike at all. He hadn't been wearing a helmet, but the CT scan made it pretty clear that he hit hard enough that it wouldn't have mattered.
The paving on the corner it happened on was terrible, so for a while the prevailing theory was that the tire got stuck in a longitudinal crack, apparently a serious threat to bikers. But Jeff, one of Alan's closer friends and probably the most athletic person I know, certainly the person with the most experience going over the handlebars of bicycles of anyone I know, spent several hours at the scene of the accident investigating, and he insisted the crack wasn't nearly deep enough to actually stop the wheel.
The conclusion he eventually came to is that Alan's right foot came into contact with the back of the front wheel as he was overcorrecting to the left after coming around the right turn. We tried clipping the right shoe into the pedal, and there was a scuff mark on it right where it met the tire. It was only possible in the first place because it was a small-framed bike -- Alan was very short -- and because they don't make wheels in smaller sizes to match the smaller frames.
Sam said he had actually been actually aware of the danger, that he just needed to make sure his wheel and feet never came into alignment, but I'm not sure he was aware of quite this degree of danger. And I'm not fully convinced of this explanation anyways. I do trust Jeff's sense of it more than my own, but it doesn't feel plausible to me that the shoe could've provided quite so much braking power without actually getting wedged into the frame, which wouldn't have been possible.
From a rational perspective, I can't change what happened, and the the bike riding I do is under vastly different circumstances, so it doesn't affect my future decisions. But the emotional desire to understand what happened is still there: in our EEA, it was in our best interest to discover the details of how somebody died, because it provided valuable information on how to avoid a similar fate. This is what causes the compulsion to check out the scene of an accident and probably explains morbid curiosity in general.
(In general, observing the situation's effect on my psyche has been super interesting. I spent a bunch of time in Alan's apartment, dealing with his personal effects, and that place -- La Jolla in general, in fact -- just exude Alan-ness so heavily that I kept half-expecting him to walk around the corner. And whenever I think of Aleph One, it's near-impossible for me to not feel a flash of optimism at its prospects. My heuristics are all screwy.)
But at this point I'm trying to just go on with my life. I'm working again, and also working on the project I'd started with Elena -- though I don't know if Elena herself is up to it now. I finished the video game I'd been playing before. I'm reading the same book I was before. I'm jogging every day again. Life has a lot more hugs in it now.
Zoia, Alan's mother, posted this to a mailing list of Alan's friends:
"Now he's in the Presence of the Great Mathematician, and all his most intriguing questions are being answered, and it's an exhilarating new journey through countless 'aha' moments that'll take a whole eternity for him to enjoy."
I thought that was a really beautiful thing to believe.