I don’t think I ever bought one of Tom Negrino’s books. The law of averages suggests that I must have, solely due to how many of the things he wrote.
I always envied that kind of skill. His books are bloody good; not a bad apple in the whole barrel. Being a productive and consistently-good tech book author requires a special kind of discipline and focus. It requires good instincts, confidence in your skills, an intuitive understanding of how to deliver the greatest amount of value to a reader, and (oh, damn it, Tom) the ability to write well and not slow down the project by being oh-so-precious.
Tom has those talents in spadefuls. I have them in…
I’m stuck for a way to express the opposite of a spadeful.
Spoonful? Or would I be better off sticking with the spade and persuing the digging angle? “Tom writes as efficiently as a man digging a trench through soft loam, while I seem to approach every page as though I’m sure I must have lost a dime somewhere in all this dirt, and I’m terrified that I’ll just re-bury it unless I proceed with the utmost care and caution”?
Well. There you have it. I imagine Tom would have written “I’m a fast writer. Andy isn’t.” and then boom…on to the next clear, well-written sentence.
Books aren’t my user interface to Tom, anyway. I’ve been lucky enough to know him personally. He’s part of a big extended family of people whom I love dearly and will miss when they’re gone. He’s among the two or three dozen people I looked forward to seeing two or three times a year at Macworld Expo and, post-Macworld, at the many other watering holes where members of our tribe of nerds tend to gather.
Honest, I feel closer to Tom than some members of my actual legal family. I wouldn’t always know ahead of time that Tom would be attending a certain conference, but I always knew it was likely. One of the other members of the family would tell me “Oh, yeah, Tom and Dori are here. I said hi to them in the press room about an hour ago.” And then the ten-year-old kid in me would shout YAYYYY!!! Tom is like the cousin whose presence (and backpack full of Star Wars action figures) makes a boring grownup’s party bearable.
I simply enjoy Tom’s presence. I enjoy catching up with him. I enjoy being at a table in a restaurant with him. I enjoy the simple mutual understanding that this life is naught but a vale of tears and that humankind was born unto trouble just as surely as sparks fly upward, doubly so if one is a book author. I enjoy the shared history and the gentle reminders of the time when Mac users were all considered a slightly odd demographic, and the mild stigma bonded us into a distinct community. If I knew you were a Mac user, I knew that you were at least 80% cool. Tom and Dori are, combined, about 280%.
I also dig “Tom and Dori.” A lot. It’s not a given that two excellent, successful writers can maintain any kind of relationship, let alone the titanic bond of warmth and mutual admiration that those two have. The phrase “peas and carrots” comes to mind. Their bond has been obvious every time I’ve seen them together and only slightly less so when I’ve seen them separately.
Tom “went public” with his terminal cancer diagnosis in a blog post last year. That’s when I learned that he was born with spina bifida. I think he’s wise enough to have leaned on friends for help and support as needed (and Lord knows he has many friends who’d do anything for him). But part of the grind of a chronic illness, I imagine, is that it’s simply a part of one’s life…part of What Must Be Handled If One Wants To Get On With It. I have the luxury of wallowing in a three-day flu. I know it’ll be completely behind me soon. So it’s a dandy excuse to knock off work and sleep for 52 hours. A person with a chronic illness, however, learns early on to Just Deal. Spina bifida is incompatible with a fulfilling, ambitious, successful, and easy life…so, Tom just got on with it, and had a fulfilling, ambitious, successful life in which his backpack contained several extra bricks that aren’t in yours or mine.
I wonder if that sort of stamina helps him as a writer? “Yes, this sucks. Yes, this is hard. Let’s just deal with it and move forward.” Whereas (and I can’t overstress this point) I’m the sort of writer who pictures himself struggling with his Muse every single moment of every single day. In my mind, I toil away in a freezing garret, alone and unknown, my only luxury a single white lily, which reminds me of the Truth and Beauty which I must achieve with each word, certain that my genius will never be understood or appreciated within my lifetime. That’s rich. Because in reality I am on the sofa with my MacBook on my lap, a remote control in my hand, snack crackers ever at the ready, and the knowledge that the next thing I write will definitely be read by a lot of people and I’ll probably get paid for it.
(The part about the single perfect lily was accurate, however. O beauty! Eternal, yet so fragile! [shed single tear] Why must I be cursed with the ability to understand it in such painful detail, even as pale, tart ugliness is lauded by those around me! Et cetera. By the time I get bored with this line of thought, all of my editors have gone home for the day and there’s not even much of a point to my starting work.)
You might have read that Tom will likely no longer be with us a week from now. As he wrote on his blog, his health has been declining precipitously, with no rescue realistically in sight. He’s decided to end his life on his own terms, and he and Dori have picked a date.
My tendency to overthink things and be oh-so-precious with words is nudging me to speak of Tom’s life as his greatest creative work. “…And now, true to form, Tom is wrapping things up, ending the project when he’s sure it’s complete. He’s content to close the back cover.”
But that’s glib. He’s ending his life because after living with cancer for a long time, his health has declined past the point where the powers of determination, family support, and medical science can push back. His choice isn’t based on “quality of life.” Tom’s life will end soon no matter what he chooses.
I’m pleased for Tom, because he’s clearly made the right choice for himself. I’m grateful that he wrote that blog post; it was a generous gift to his friends and fans. Tom has made his thoughts clear.
I can only speak for myself. It feels like Tom is choosing to “be there” when he dies. Both of my parents died from terminal illnesses. I was present during that final week or two when it was clear that their life forces were slowly tapering down to zero. They were heavily medicated to keep them out of pain.
I don’t fear death as much as I fear the idea of my death being taken out of my hands. I’d hate to die before I can tell everyone I love how much they meant to me. Or without making it clear that certain tasks, goals, principles, and even specific material objects were important and might even have defined me.
(Or without secure-erasing my browser history. Okay. Yes. Fine.)
I’m even more worried about existing as a mere memento of myself…to have a pulse and an active EEG, but little else. Once I’ve lost everything that defines me, plus the potential or the interest to define myself anew, aren’t I just hanging around the fairground after the tents and rides have been packed up and trucked away?
Willy Wonka said (in the good movie) that he wasn’t going to live forever and he didn’t want to, either. This is the man who invented lickable wallpaper. Suffice to say he’s a man of great wisdom.
I seem to be fishtailing around my emotions right now. I regret that Tom won’t be popping up in my life any more. I don’t regret Tom’s decision. I’m saddened that he’s leaving us too soon. I wish I had written and posted this earlier.
But I’m tremendously grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to tell Tom that I treasure him. It’s much more pleasant than writing a eulogy that he’ll never hear.
I feel an evening of deep sighs coming on.
I will pivot this ending with a formal declaration. If I’m hit by a bus or something and my family (not just the legally-recognized ones) has gathered around my bed in the ICU and is wondering if I’m even still in there, here’s what I want you to do:
Play either “America” from the Broadway score to “West Side Story,” or “Are You Man Enough” by the Four Tops. Or, in a pinch, the theme song from “Friends.”
If I don’t even try to do the hand claps…look, I’m sorry, but clearly I’m gone and nothing can bring me back. Start divvying up my body parts and my comic books. And please, someone delete my browser history.