Thanks Frank

My friend Frank Pierce died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve.

Frank is a friend who I initially “met” online. Meeting someone online nowadays is not a big deal, but around 1990 it was a weird thing to do or to even acknowledge. In those days, there was an Internet, but it was not accessible to the average person. I met Frank on The Back of the North Wind, an electronic bulletin board system that resided on the spare PC of a woman named Dawn Gibson who, if memory serves me right, lived in Arlington, Virginia. In those days, you used your 2400-baud modem to dial up these computers, play games, swap software and engage in electronic conversations with people in your community. I wrote more about those days a year or two back in this entry, if you are interested.

The Back of the North Wind drew an eclectic crowd. You had to know someone who knew someone to get on the board because it was not advertised on Mike Focke’s BBS list. My friend Debbie who I met on a board called Zonzr directed me there. I quickly spent almost all of my electronic social life on Dawn’s board. A good part of the reason was Frank Pierce. Frank was an older gentleman who was fifty something at the time. He was virtually unique among people in his age group for indulging in this online community thing. His passion was discussing politics and he quickly found that an online community allowed him to engage in his habit very easily. Somewhat to Dawn’s disgruntlement (for she hated politics) her board was nearly taken over by an inner ring of Washington area amateur policy wonks. Frank and I were two of the main contributors to those political discussions.

The thing about Frank though was unlike lots of amateur policy wonks, he knew about what he was talking. Frank had a depth of understanding that always amazed me. Our political discussions evolved on The Back of the North Wind and later on the message board I set up and which is still in business, The Potomac Tavern. (Frank was the co-host.) There was not much about the world that Frank had not studied in some depth. When the conversation moved from politics to other areas like religion, Frank was equally well informed.

Since I “met” Frank in 1990, I figure I have known him for sixteen years. Over those years, I figure I actually met him in person less than a dozen times. Our last meeting was about two years back when I met him at a Starbucks near his house. We spent about an hour discussing Potomac Tavern business and just chitchatting. I also had the privilege of being invited to his house a couple times. Once he hosted a Back of the North Wind get together in his backyard. We did these get togethers once or twice a year for a number of years. More recently, he invited me to stop by so I could take him for a test drive in my new hybrid.

Frank was tall, thin as a rail, bony, grey haired and both gregarious and scholarly at the same time. He and his wife Nancy had been married forever. If my memory serves me correctly, he is also survived by two sons and a daughter. He was active in the local German American community, spoke excellent German, and even wrote a newspaper column for a German newspaper called, no lie, The Potomac Tavern. It discussed current political topics happening in our nation’s capital in the context of a real tavern with a regular crew of erudite patrons. Frank recently related a story of a reader who came to Washington and was disappointed to discover that there was no Potomac Tavern in the city. Frank’s portrayal of this fictional tavern was so convincing he had some people fooled.

For among Frank’s many talents, he was an excellent writer. He wrote a number of books. None of them was a best seller, but he knew how to target the small markets. You can buy a number of them from online sources like Writing alone would suffice as a creative outlet for most people. However, Frank was also a photographer. On The Potomac Tavern, if you dig for them, you will see many an amazing photograph taken by him, often carefully retouched with Adobe Photoshop. Frank’s photography occasionally dabbled on the risqué side. He spent some time doing figure photography, and a number of his models posed in the buff. I recall one trip to his house when he showed me his portfolio of nude photography. As with all his other art forms, he excelled here too.

Frank was also incredibly generous with both his time and money. While on The Back of the North Wind, he grew to know a woman named Judy. Judy lived in the backwoods of Virginia somewhere. Frank saw potential in Judy: a very smart woman who simply did not have the resources to go to college. For whatever reason, Frank decided that he would make an investment in Judy. I do not know to what extent he did it, but I know he helped pay her way through college. Frank could do these things, you see, because along with all his other talents he was a shrewd investor. This, plus his modest lifestyle, gave him the leeway to occasionally indulge in these acts of targeted charity.

I expect to blog more about Frank in the weeks ahead. I am getting details of his death second hand, but it sounds like Frank died from the complications of bronchitis. I can say that I was shocked to learn he had died, since I believe he was in the bottom half of his seventies. He always seemed in such abnormally good health. He was so skinny and his mind was always so sharp that I fully expected him to be pontificating on my forum into his nineties.

Among the many topics I explored with Frank over the years was aging. For me death was and still is a very scary thing. Frank was not scared. He was pragmatic: there is nothing you can do to stop death, so the only thing to do was to enjoy what life that is given to you to its fullest. From a man who did not seem the least bit religious, this was a both a very pragmatic and positive philosophy. He succeeded in walking his talk. He lived his final years as if he expected to live a hundred years more. He said he was not concerned about death, but he was concerned about leaving a legacy. At that, Frank clearly succeeded.

Frank taught me many life lessons I might never have grasped otherwise. I am trying to emulate his philosophy and to see every day as a gift full of boundless potential. If I can manage to do it, and I have a lot of work to do to achieve this, then perhaps Frank will have passed on to me his most treasured gift.

Frank, I am going to miss you like crazy. You have been such a positive presence in my life these last sixteen years. You are one of these people who, when you pass on, leave a large and beneficent wake. You touched and inspired many people. We in your online world were a small fraction of them. Thank you for your friendship, which has touched me in ways I still do not fully realize. I am hopeful that I will carry forward your positive spirit into the second half of my life. I hope that I can draw on your positive energy and pull some people into my wake too.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

We were cyberspace pioneers once, and young

In 1984, I purchased a Commodore 64 computer and a 300-baud modem. I cannot recall exactly how much money it cost me. I think it was around $300. For the money, not only did I have a “personal” computer but also I had a way to reach out into a new electronic frontier. With my girlfriend (and subsequent wife) looking over my shoulders, I connected my C-64 computer (with its whopping 64K of memory) to my phone line. I then dialed long distance to another computer in Arizona. I found the phone number to dial from a newspaper article. This was my first adventure into cyberspace. I was 27 years old.

The C-64 was nothing fancy. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in dabbling in computer science, it had great virtues as a learning tool. Between the Apple 2e at work and the C-64 at home, I learned far more about computers than I ever expected. When programming in BASIC was no longer enough I experimented with assembly language. I even wrote some self-modifying code. These plain machines were almost as addictive as crack. Eventually I succumbed. Information technology became my second career. Now it now keeps me very comfortably out of poverty.

The C-64 eventually proved limiting. However, I could not afford an IBM compatible PC, which were running at least $2000 in those days. My employer at the time gave me a loaner computer so I could work from home if needed. It ran an 8086 processor and MS-DOS 3.1. The modem burned up the phone lines at an incredible 1200 bits per second. My monitor resolved green letters against a black background. I could use it to dial into work. However, I could also use it to dial into IBM PC compatible electronic bulletin board systems. There I could download programs and games. After a year or so that got somewhat old. Instead, I started to spend more time in the bulletin boards actually chatting with fellow BBSers.

BBSers. BBS = Bulletin Board System. We denizens that spent way too many free hours connected to electronic BBSes were BBSers. In those pre-Internet days, those of us who could not afford AOL or Compuserve dialed locally. “Sysops” put their PCs online and used neat software like PCBoard to capture conversations and share files. We chatted with people who at first were virtual strangers. However, over time they emerged as real people. Moreover, they lived locally. Most used aliases. After a while, you learned the cool BBSes to hang out. Armed with Mike Focke’s monthly updated lists of local BBSes we dialed around a lot. It was like bar hopping, except you never had to leave home.

I was not beyond my high hormone years so I spent a year or so on adult BBSes. I was married by then but it was okay with my wife. She even tried BBSing out for a couple months before she lost interest. Locally there was a naughty BBS called The Doctor’s Office featuring “Doc” and “Nursie”, a married couple who were also swingers. If you wanted then instead of leaving dirty messages to strange women, you could go into chat mode and have this thing called cybersex.

This was very novel in the late 1980s. Hopefully the person you were having cybersex with was of the correct gender. (Women were hard to find online in those days, but somehow Doc and Nursie found them.)

Since Doc and Nursie were local, I went to a couple of their parties. No, I never got naked. I never came close. Some of that did happen from time to time, usually after midnight and in somebody’s hot tub. I did not hang around that long. As for the parties, I found that they were somewhat boring. Many people on the board turned out in real life to be smokers, or obese or dealing with many mental issues. So within a year I lost interest in the Doc and Nursie’s board. However, there were other boards with adult areas (like Zonzr) that attracted a better class of clientele. Under an alias, I had a lot of fun seducing women over the course of conversations that stretched for weeks. No, I never seduced someone this way that led to a real sexual encounter. Actually, I found the idea of online seduction in cyberspace more attractive than following through.

After a while I found that I was much more interested in spending my time on BBSes talking about politics than I was doing the electronic equivalent of heavy breathing. The reality was that sex chat got boring quickly. In addition, I was blessed with a wife who was a pretty sexy creature, and who was broadminded enough to let me indulge myself online. Since it was never illicit, it was a bit like drinking flat champagne. However, there were plenty of BBSes in the Washington DC area that offered political discussions. I was referred by a friend I met on Zonzr to Dawn Gibson’s very private little BBS called The Back of the North Wind. There I spent nearly nine years keeping the place lively. Also on The Back of the North Wind, I met people who would turn out to be my friends.

We would get together periodically, sometimes at someone’s house and sometimes at a public park. Riverbend Park north of Great Falls on the Potomac was a favorite place for get togethers. The BotNW people were fun, intelligent and very eclectic. I liked the exclusive and private feeling of the place. Dawn did not allow aliases on her board. She did however get very tired of the political discussion. So she created her own areas of the BBS featuring creative works including short stories and poetry. Dawn was always blessing us with her latest poetry.

Then the World Wide Web happened. By 1995, the end of the BBS era was easy to discern. Dawn kept the BBS going until 1998 anyhow. Her board was probably one of the last to disappear. However, by then it seemed something of an anachronism. Why dial up weird phone numbers and wrestle with terminal emulators when you could simply open up Netscape, jump to Yahoo and surf to whatever caught your fancy at the moment?

A new era began and an old era closed. Nevertheless, there was something unique about BBSing that the Internet does not really provide. BBSing allowed me to find people with similar interests who were also local to me. It was cool to meet some of these people in person from time to time. People who would never run across each other in real life could become friends. In addition to Dawn, my real life BBS friends included Jim, Frank P., Frank S., Debby, Angela and many, many others.

As the BBS age drew to a close it seemed likely that most of these friends would disappear into the vastness of the Internet. Fortunately, I had some of their email addresses. Some took the opportunity to close that chapter of their lives. Others nibbled around the edges. Still others, like me, missed those days and sought to recapture them. After The Back of the North Wind closed down, I tried substitutes like local Yahoo message boards. However, it was not the same. The Internet was full of foul-mouthed bozos with 8th grade educations who were as deep as a baptismal fount. Finding good conversation was tough. Finding good and local conversation on line became nigh impossible.

I was nostalgic. Eventually I decided to create my own place in cyberspace to try to recapture those glorious BBS days. It is called The Potomac Tavern. It has been on the web about five years now, two of which were on ezBoard. Eventually I discovered phpBB and decided to host the darn thing myself. If you have an interest in general conversation with an emphasis on politics and have the perseverance to visit regularly, perhaps you should check us out.

Trying to keep the local feel of a BBS in the Internet age has been difficult. The Internet makes location irrelevant. Nevertheless, since many of the members are people I knew from my days BBSing, many of them are happy to hang out on The Potomac Tavern. There are about a dozen of us regulars there saying our peace. It is small, but a fun place on the Internet. We have liberals and conservatives. We talk nice to each other. We do not tolerate rude people. Many of our conversations have real depth. Although I once had pretensions of some bigger and grander place in cyberspace, I am now quite content with our regular crowd of intelligent and artistic people just chatting about whatever is on our minds.

Why all this ancient history? I mention this because sometimes you can recreate the past. While The Potomac Tavern has its own unique feel, somewhat similar to what Dawn Gibson created on The Back of the North Wind, and many of the same members, it is still a different kind of place. Frank P., Angela, Jim and Debby — friends I made in those BBS days — now hang out in my forum. Others, mostly friends of Frank, have also joined the forum and contribute everything from poems to daily facts to new discussions.

We recreated the past on Sunday. I got a number of my old BBS friends to show up at my house. While a few had to cancel, and a number who did attend do not actively patronize my forum, it was still a fun time. It had been at least seven years since we did something like this. There were eight of us altogether. They provided dishes, I provided a grill and meets. We drank beer. We laughed. We talked about Hurricane Katrina and day laborers. We ate cheesecake. All of this happened on my deck, screened from the bugs, on a perfectly glorious Labor Day weekend.

One thing has changed. We are older. In some cases, we are also wider. Twenty years ago, I was young. Now I am pushing 50. In addition, I was one of the younger people at my own get together. Most of the attendees were now in their 50s and 60s. However, it did not matter. Time rolled back. We were still the fun, interesting people who helped create cyberspace twenty years ago when it was uncool and geekish. Places like The Well and Yahoo Personals owe at least some of their success to us cyberspace pioneers.

Yes, we were cyberspace pioneers once, and young. Moreover, despite the odds at least some of us remain good friends after all these years. We still enjoy each other’s company, in person when we can arrange it, but mostly online. After twenty years, I realize that I have lost the artificial distinction between friends who are online friends and friends who I know in real life. They are all my friends now. Even those I only meet virtually can be as dear to me as those I know in real life.

We were among the first astronauts of the Internet age. If we have inscribed on our tombstones “cyberspace pioneer”, it would certainly be fitting.


When you live in cyberspace can you find real community? Does having with a network of friends online amount to the same thing as a network of friends in real life?

For the last few years I have been puzzling over these thoughts. I have been wondering if my family’s social life has become too virtual. I was arguably the first. Back in the mid 1980s my Commodore 64 was hardly warm before I had purchased a 300-baud modem and was discovering electronic bulletin board systems (BBSes). It quickly became my favorite hobby. At first I was online to download software. But gradually I found discussion boards. I found connecting with people online fascinating. Suddenly my community expanded beyond family, established friends and immediate neighbors into a much larger and diverse set of people, many of whom seemed far more interesting than the people I bumped into in real life.

Back then the Internet was virtually unknown and certainly not available to the average person. Its closest equivalent in the mid 1980s was an online service called Compuserve. Unable to afford a service I found instead lists of local electronic BBSes put together by a man named Mike Focke and started dialing. When I got an IBM compatible computer I graduated to the much larger world of IBM compatible BBSes. While chatting on line with other people from the Washington area I started to care about silly things like whether PCBoard software was better than Wildcat software. One nice thing about BBSes though was they were local. Most of us were too cheap to pay long distance charges to chat electronically with people. So after some initial shyness I got a chance to actually meet some of the people I met online. To this day I maintain a core set of friends from those days including Frank Pierce, Angela Smith and Jim Goldbloom.

But those BBS days are gone for good. The Internet arrived in the home. The location of people on the other end of a conversation became irrelevant. This was both good and bad. I missed those BBS get togethers we had every 3 to 6 months, usually with the online gang from The Back of the North Wind BBS. I still hung out online but it wasn’t quite the thrill it had been. The BBS world slowly died out and in 1999 even the venerable The Back of the North Wind BBS shut down after 12 years of nearly continual service.

For my wife the Internet was a way to connect with people of a very narrow interest that she would never have met otherwise. Around 1999 she jumped into the homoerotic fan fiction (Slash) universe big time. She has been happy in that community ever since. She considers her online friends just her friends. While a handful live locally most are distant. And yet we have met many of them. On our recent trip to Canada we visited one of her friends in every city we visited. She’s very tight with her online friends and her world is certainly richer as a result. And while she has shared intimacies with people who in some cases live as far away as Australia we don’t know most of our neighbors. We know some of them because our daughter went to school with their children. We know our next-door neighbor but not the one on the other side. Those neighbors I haven’t met might as well be on the other side of the world. They don’t seem interested in me and I haven’t sought them out either. We are unlikely to interact at anything more than a superficial level.

My daughter’s friends are mostly people she knows from school or through Girl Scouts. They meet in person from time to time but spend much more time interacting in cyberspace. In that sense she is a wholly modern ordinary teenager. Instant messaging is her primary means of communicating with friends. When she gets phone calls it is often from a friend explaining why they can’t get online. And yet even she has her virtual friends out there who will likely always remain anonymous.

I sometimes feel hypocritical and tempted to declare that this sort of online life is unnatural and wrong. Yet it is not without its allures and benefits. For me in the 1980s and 1990s it was a godsend. It gave me a sort of a social life without leaving home. We had something of a social life in those days but it involved around our daughter and her friends. Through her friends we met her friends’ parents and sometimes we found things in common. But they were rarely meaningful relationships. The reality of those times was that they were packed with parenting chores. The computer offered brief escapes into a world populated with adults. There I could talk about things I cared about like politics at my convenience. No one wanted me to read the The Very Hungry Caterpillar at all! And I could do all this without leaving home. It felt good. I felt optimized.

This new way of making and meeting friends and lovers may be the way it will be from now on. Yet something in me still yearns for the traditional sense of community that I have largely spurned. So this year when my local Unitarian Church once again made the appeal for people to join covenant groups I decided it was finally time to try it.

A covenant group is a group of people who agree to meet regularly to talk. I asked our minister to assign me to a random group. I was hoping I might get into a group with people around my own age. But it seems in our church that covenant groups are largely full of people age fifty plus. Perhaps most people my age are too busy with the childrearing chores to attend covenant group meetings.

Yesterday I attended my first meeting. I actually know most of the people in my covenant group. I know them in the sense that I recognize their faces from services. Some of them I know by name because I have talked to them a few times. But I have largely not really talked to any of them. A covenant group provided a structured way for me to get to know them as people.

This particular group has been around for a year or so, but there were a few vacancies. I and another lady filled the vacancies. We met in a room in the basement of the church for about an hour and a half. We introduced ourselves. Since I was new I gave them a short biography, both professional and personal. And I unloaded on my problems of the moment: my ailing mother and my wife’s imminent job loss. And I learned about some of their issues and struggles.

Every meeting has a discussion topic chosen by the group. Yesterday’s topic was how we got to where we are with our religious convictions. Being Unitarian Universalists a lot of us didn’t have religious convictions. I heard more than a couple in my group confess to being spiritually vacant and left-brain dominant. There were more than a few ex-Catholics like me in our circle too. I confessed that while I spent much of my adulthood as an agnostic it didn’t quite fit anymore. In that sense I felt more spiritual than many of the rest of them.

Despite being the youngest in my group it was still an enjoyable experience. We may all be white middle class people but we are a fairly eclectic and interesting bunch. Our group includes a physician, a man working for the State Department, the manager of a childcare center and a number of retired people.

So although I have a busy life I have covenanted to spend one night a month for a year with these people. I am there to get to know them at something beyond a surface level. In the process hopefully they will get to know more than a little something about me. I have heard of covenant groups that blossom into tightly knit friendship circles. Only time will tell if that will happen with our group. But everyone in my group seemed to be nice, decent yet complex people struggling through their lives and their issues. Perhaps in some small way we will find an old fashioned sense of community. Perhaps in time I will grow to find more of my friends in my community and fewer online.

Continue reading “Covenanted”