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My Friend, Howard

Wherein I remember my friend.

In the year 2000, I returned to the United States from a trip to Nepal as a different creature.

I resolved to make changes in my life. One of my decisions was to “get in shape” and with the help of my friend Howard, I did so.

Every morning for several years after spending an hour lifting iron, Howard and I would each step onto a large and creaky industrial scale housed in a corner of World Gym San Francisco. We would chart these numbers. My weight was important to me. Emotionally, I equated “weighing more” with “being stronger”, even though I knew intellectually that such things were bullshit.

(I had never been able to crack one-hundred-sixty pounds. I could do full bench sets at two-ten but I always weighed less than three-quarters that. An accomplishment, but not one I took to heart.)

At least once a week, Howard would step of the scale and describe his weight using me as a unit of measurement. “I weigh 1.4 Brandons,” he would say. Other days it was 1.6, 1.5, or (eventually) 1.3.

Many years ago, the two of us worked at competing companies. I was employed by the Inktomi corporation and he was employed by a fierce up-and-comer called Google. We would rib each other whenever one of our masters scored a victory. The day Google stole AOL as a client from Inktomi was a particularly rough day: After every. single. rep. he would say “by the way, did you see in the news today how we took AOL?”

Dick.

Howard had a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon which makes him the smartest person I have ever known and probably will ever know. He invented a technology called “GFS (Google File System)“. It’s basically one of the primary things that makes Google work. According to his biography page at Google, he was a “Principal Engineer”.

Think about that for a moment.

Principal Engineer. At Google.

(dot com)

(He was one of their first 40 employees. After their IPO in 2004 he became ludicrously wealthy – wealthy enough to buy a house in downtown Tokyo with cash. He never really talked about the money. That’s part of who he was. The humility.)

In the year 2000, I returned from a trip to Nepal a different creature.

I first met Howard at . . . hrm. To be honest, I don’t rightly remember. I remember attending parties and night clubs with him. The details of it has been lost in the fog of my memory. I expect it was at some nerd or goth gathering. Perhaps Shrine of Lilith. Maybe Death Guild? It doesn’t really matter.

(Here is a memory: he and I went to a party at Murray’s. It was a subdued affair but was later crashed by about thirty people who shouldn’t have been there. The party became overwhelming. We both got stressed at the same time and decide to leave.)

When I said that I wanted to get strong he immediately stepped up. “Come work out with me, dude. Every day, World’s Gym on De Haro. Seven a.m. sharp.” Seven in the morning? Seriously?

He pestered me about it for a week before I relented and joined him in The Sweet Agony that is weight lifting.

Howard was a short, burly man – a barrel with arms and legs who could lift an extraordinary amount of weight. He had a simple process for weight training: Lift heavy and eat often.

His process worked for me. Within a year I had transformed from a skinny hillbilly into someone with the build of an Empire Strikes Back period Mark Hamill. I got strong and lost whatever body fat I had. I took his advice andate when my body said it was hungry (which ended up being all the time).

In the year 2000, I returned from a trip to Nepal a different creature.

During our workout one day he said to me, “I think I screwed up my rotator cuff so I’ve got doctor’s appointment to look at it.” This is a not-uncommon weightlifter injury, so I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

He stopped doing the heavy iron. He started missing sessions, either due to “recovery” or “physical therapy.” This went on for a couple months. Eventually, he moved to Tokyo and we stopped our daily lifting routine.

We stayed in touch. Via email, via Livejournal, via IRC. He moved to Manhattan. He would fly to the Bay Area to see us plebeians from time to time, a humble millionaire jet-setter. I would get succinct emails: “Come see me! I really want to say hi.”

In late August of 2007 I saw him at Zeitgeist. This was a very strange time for me and he knew that. I remember him looking me at me sharply with his odd, green-hazel eyes and saying, “You should come visit me in New York. Seriously. I’d love to see you.”

I made a comment about not having vacation time or money and pushed it off. I needed to be a hermit for a while. I didn’t go. It was only later that the… urgency… of his invitation made sense.

On March 11th, 2008, at about one in the afternoon, my friend Howard died of cancer.

He didn’t tell anyone that he was sick. Not even his family. This is who Howard was. He was never going to burden anyone with this. He was not going to be That Guy With Cancer. He didn’t want to be looked at with pity.

He was my friend and I loved him.

I still do.

He had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003. The timing coincides with all of his weightlifting “injuries.” He didn’t tell me about it. He lied about it.

There are moments where the lie makes me very, very angry. It’s a stupid, selfish emotion to have. But it’s there.

I am angry that my friend died alone.

I know that he didn’t want to burden anyone with the sterile, tubular mess of his death. I understand that decision and I respect it but that doesn’t mean that I’m happy about it. I was his friend and I loved him and I would have been there because that is what friends do.

Had I known, there existed no force on this planet that would have prevented me from being by his side.

My anger is selfish. I feel an incompleteness in my life. It will never be whole. I wish to be able to tell myself: “I did all I could.” I wish to tell myself that he understood how much I cared about him in his final days; that he would slip into the long dark knowing for certainty that someone cared.

That I cared.

This succor is denied to me forever and I am angry for it.

Am I angry at him? Possibly. I’m angry that he didn’t trust me enough with this – though apparently he didn’t trust anyone. Am I angry at myself? Absolutely, if only because I do not tell those close to me that I love them with regularity.

I say this to you, my friends, who read this now:

I love you.

I do not want to miss the opportunity to say this in the future.

Comments on My Friend, Howard

  1. That is so wonderful that you had such a good friend and you should remember how he lived, not how he died. Howard would not want you to beat yourself up about not being with him in the end. He kept his illness private because that is how he wanted it. Sometimes we end up hurting the very people we are trying to protect.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I also felt very similar to you when I found out that there was no way to get in touch with him anymore several years ago, just to say hi and know how he was doing in life, and I felt extremely sad at the time to find out that he passed away. For me, I met him in Tokyo, and I mostly knew him as a friend. He was there for me when I was deeply sad, and he was there for me when I was also happy both in my professional and personal life. He would tell me his thoughts straight to whatever was happening in my life at the time and he would tell me his, and I could tell him whatever I thought, and I didn’t have to worry about what he would think of me, he was a good friend.
    I also wondered why he stopped communicating with me, and it was around 2006. He used to tell me he was back in the US, but he would come back to Japan very soon, then we could meet up for a chat, but I never heard from him again. I wish he told me what was happening to his life then…
    He was truly an honest, kind, down-to-earth, funny and always a gentleman, and I wish I could just say hi again, catch up with him of current events, and go for coffee and eat sushi with him in Tokyo again…

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