Cary Lu

Geoff Duncan[hidden]

I only began to realize in the final stages of Cary's cancer how subtly and deeply I've felt his influence. I tried to tell him shortly before he died, but I bungled it. I'm afraid my efforts at friendship only manifest in small incidents over years, rather than large, significant single moments. In the end, moments were all Cary had to give.

Cary's family and friends have eloquently recounted his humanity, humor, dedication, and integrity. I can't add meaningfully to their recollections. Instead, there are small, discontiguous moments I had with Cary, even though they merely describe his meaning to me, rather than define it.

Through knowing Cary, I came to better understand qualities that make a good writer. I also came understand qualities that make a good person. Though it's strange to say, in the end Cary showed me that we live our lives not for ourselves, but for those around us, both close and unknown. Obvious, perhaps, but something many people - including myself - forget from time to time.

According to physical evidence, I met Cary Lu at a "TidBITS Shindig" hosted by Adam and Tonya Engst in 1993. I was new to the Seattle area, and the events were an excuse to spend a weekend afternoon with a portion of the local Macintosh community. As I remember, I was standing, bewildered, among a large group of people maintaining three or four conversations simultaneously when a slightly dishevelled man wearing a maroon shirt leaned through the circle of unfamiliar faces, stepping around an enormous houseplant.

"Adam tells me you need a new modem cable with hardware handshaking - and you have a spare internal high-density floppy drive?"

I nodded, trying to separate his words out from the surrounding din.

"I'll give you $20 and a modem cable for that floppy drive."

I knew that'd be quite a deal for him: internal floppy drives cost something like $150 at the time, and a modem cable shouldn't have been more than $20. But I needed a modem cable badly and had had no luck finding one locally. I nodded again. "Okay."

Four or five people began laughing loudly nearby. The man leaned closer. "I have to leave now, so let's bring everything to the dBUG meeting next week."

"Okay," I repeated, and tried to listen carefully through the room noise as I wrote the man's name on one of the slips of paper perpetually in my pockets. And then the man was gone - I glimpsed him leaving in the sunlight just outside the front door. Wow, I thought. Good thing I ran into that guy.

It never occurred to me that I was speaking with the author of The Apple Macintosh Book, which had been my first, serious introduction to Macintosh technology in college. I was able to get a job in the campus computing center in part due to a close reading of that book.

A few days ago, I found that piece of paper stuffed in the pocket of a shirt I haven't worn for years, and finally put two and two together:

Gary Lew
dbug meeting Weds
Bring Wayne's old floppy
f/new modem cable & $20.

Occasionally, I impersonated Cary.

During 1994 and 1995, Macworld magazine hosted live chat sessions on America Online, and once a month Cary would answer Macintosh questions online. However, these sessions started only a few minutes after Cary needed to drop Nathaniel and Meredith off at a gymnastics(?) program not far from where I lived. Traffic in the area was bad at that time of day and Cary couldn't hope to make it home in time for the AOL chats, so he asked if he could log into AOL from my apartment, conduct the chat, then leave to pick up Nathaniel and Meredith. At that point I'd never met Ellen, Nathaniel, or Meredith, and I was happy to help out.

The first time, Cary made it with only a minute to spare. The next month, Cary called a few minutes ahead of time: "I'm not going to be there by seven. Please sign is as me, explain to the Macworld forum manager that I'll be there in a few minutes, and answer the first few questions." Cary had a rapid-fire technique for responding to these online questions, but I thought I could hold out for a few minutes and agreed, honored that Cary trusted me enough to handle this.

I logged into Cary's AOL account and all chaos broke loose. The Macworld forum managers couldn't grasp that I was using Cary's account, but wasn't Cary. We'd just worked things out when Cary arrived, then the forum managers proceeded to call him "Geoff" for the next hour.

"Next time," Cary said with a smile afterwards, "just let them think you're me."

In the next few months we developed a routine: I signed in as Cary a few minutes ahead of time, answered questions if Cary was held up by traffic, and had half a glass of water waiting for him beside the keyboard. (He'd mildly rebuked me once for offering him a full glass of water; I never figured out why.) I enjoyed being Cary vicarously, and tried to answer questions in his immediate, direct manner so readers wouldn't detect a transition when Cary arrived. Although it was only for a few minutes a month, the thought process helped me refine my writing. I'd compare the transcript of Cary's responses to my own, noting how he skipped over neverending topics for the sake of clarity, and how he steered naive users away from involved solutions. Later, I would do the same thing with his articles when he and I covered similar topics in Macworld and TidBITS.

Once, Cary brought Nathaniel with him to my apartment. To my embarassment, I had almost nothing resembling a toy. No matter: Nathaniel made a beeline for my guitars. I gave Nathaniel a pick and fingered chords while Nathaniel strummed. We played "Name that Tune," where Nathaniel tried to guess the names of melodies. I looked up in the middle of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to see Cary with a wide smile, watching as Nathaniel immediately recognized the tune. I began to see Cary as a devoted parent, and later I learned Cary had used one of Mozart's variations on the same, long-lived children's song as the music for his film "Nemotode."

As I write, I'm surrounded by items from Cary: a monitor; a VGA switchbox; a plethora of SCSI cables, terminators, and adaptors; about half the RAM currently in my main desktop Macintosh; a spare mouse; a PlainTalk microphone; numerous power cables; and many other computer items.

And an audio CD of Stravinsky's Firebird and Rite of Spring, which he gave me after a half-hour discussion of reverberation and stereo recording in orchestra halls. Cary had just connected a magnificent sub-woofer to his office stereo system and was happily showing it off with Rite and Mussorgsky's "Great Gates of Kiev." I think Cary may have been playing the Russians for me, knowing I enjoyed them. Of course, Cary never confirmed my suspicions about his classical music preferences, even when repeatedly questioned.

Talking about music with Cary once, I asked him why he hadn't become a musician. He paused, grinned, and said "Physics seemed easier."