Sunday, March 23
Erik Winn was tall and skinny and had skin like tanned leather. He wore glasses and shaggy sweaters and tall leather boots. His teeth were terrible, until he had them all out and got dentures. He smoked constantly – hand-rolled cigarettes from a big can of American Spirit tobacco. He rolled more expertly and effortlessly than anyone else I have ever met. He drank coffee, slowly, all day long. He seemed to live on peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, now and then a baked good from Trident, where he was very nearly part of the physical structure of the place when he was living in Boulder. He was, whatever else my description might suggest, a handsome man, and I know there were women in his life before I knew him, though by the time we worked together he was almost monk-like in his ascetism and claimed variously to have given up on love, on art, on a lot of what my Christian heritage is always calling the things of the world. He played classical guitar, skillfully, and sang, though I always had a hard time getting him to start.
He was an unapologetic radical in most things, unconventional even in his radicalism. He was a genius, a self-taught scholar, a philosopher, a technologist, and a crank.
He wrote object oriented code of a kind deeply concerned with ontologies and proper names. He made terrible puns in the comments, insisted on Hungarian notation, hacked with a kind of ragged yet controlled intensity. He was a Free Software zealot, helped run a free computing collective in Portland, worked on Debian, and argued fiercely at SparkFun that we should embrace the ethic of open code. Only a handful of people working there now likely remember who he was, but he shaped the entire thing all the same. Nearly everything we do with a database still flows through a handful of his lines; most of the code I’ve written in the years since is informed one way or another by a reaction to his style and concerns.
He lived somewhere on the other side from me of a lot of Buddhism, somewhere way out beyond the Marxists on the political part of the spectrum, in a neighborhood adjacent I think to the anarchists but too rich in the experience of defeat to sustain very many illusions. He was suspicious of orthodoxies and pieties to the point of a nearly crippling refusal to accept consensus reality. He was bitter and jaded and laughed a lot, went on extended tirades and wanted us all to be kind to one another. He was funny. He was decent, from a deep-down place, to everyone I ever saw ask him for anything, except maybe when the bullshit of the world and the sheer folly of everything were too much for him to function.
I will not forget the story of the truckload of weed out of Kansas that they lost after someone in a random parking lot circle passed them a joint and when they got out of jail the truck had just vanished. I won’t forget the stories of the squat in Portugal, of Boulder in the 1980s, of the life at the edges of things and just a little outside the lines of the sanctioned order. I won’t forget all those rides down the Diagonal back into town in that beat-to-shit little Honda with the sun going down behind the mountains and the wind through the windows. All the time he lived in that van in Casey’s driveway, watching our drunken antics and ridiculous arguments with a quiet amusement. The winter nights and summer afternoons we talked for hours about what the good life might be.
For a long time, I was afraid to talk to Erik, because I was afraid that in talking to him I would feel like a fraud and a coward and a sellout. And now he’s gone, and I won’t ever talk to him again, and this is what that kind of fear gets you. I should have been a better friend to Erik. I’m grateful I knew him when I did. I wish we lived in a world he could have more easily reconciled himself to.