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RIP, Bruce Chadwick

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Bruce Chadwick was one of my oldest friends. Sometime yesterday, he took his own life. This is a long post wandering through some memories of him.

Bruce and I met when I was in seventh grade, at Wilbur Middle School in Palo Alto; I think he had skipped a grade and was in eighth, but I think he then repeated eighth grade. He lived just a couple blocks from me, in the Circles.

In seventh and eighth grade, we spent a lot of time together in the school's computer lab, the Independent Learning Center, learning to program in BASIC on microcomputers running an operating system called SLIDOS. I think Bruce was the one who wrote a horse-race program where you could pick which horse to bet (imaginary money) on, letters representing the horses would move across the screen at random speeds, and you would win or lose depending on the outcome of the race. It was quite a popular program, as I recall. Later, he was among the first of my friends to learn to program in Pascal.

We spent hours together at his place using his father's acoustic coupler modem to dial in to Stanford's computers and play the original Colossal Cave text adventure. We were excited when we found out that the game used a text file listing naughty words so it would be able to respond to the player's use of such words with "Watch it!" We mapped the mazes of twisty little passages together.

In middle school, he was probably my closest friend. As eighth grade drew to a close, the two of us and a couple of other friends decided, for reasons that are obscure to me now, to attend Palo Alto ("Paly") High School instead of the other high school in Palo Alto, Gunn, where most Wilbur students went.

We continued to be friends throughout high school. I think it was junior year when we started hanging out in the math (or maybe physics?) lounge/office area after school; we generally stayed later than the teachers. They let us use a typewriter there, and Bruce and I co-wrote a silly story loosely derived from Alice in Wonderland, full of puns and bad verse.

We became fans of Douglas Hofstadter together, and we speculated about whether the "Doug Hofstadter" whose name was on a math-contest plaque was the same guy.

There was a glass case in the lounge that contained various objects and items. One of them was a Space Wheel toy, a spinner that spun back and forth endlessly along two plastic rails. The teachers had placed a card next to it suggesting that students should try to figure out what kept it going. It noted that relevant concepts included angular momentum and perpetual motion. One afternoon after the teachers had left, we got tired of wondering how it worked, and we lifted the glass lid off of the display case and took out the wheel; we opened up the base and discovered a battery and a magnet. A trick! We carefully wrote “electromagnetism” at the end of the list of concepts on the card, and replaced the whole thing in the display case.

After high school, I went to Swarthmore and Bruce went to the west-coast equivalent, Pomona. We stayed in touch only sporadically, occasionally meeting up when we were both back home in Palo Alto for vacation. Then Bruce moved to New York for grad school; he got a Masters from Columbia in Political Science, and then a Ph.D. in Political Economy and Sustainable Development. During the '90s, he spent a fair bit of time in Brazil, working on sustainable development.

When I went on my Wanderjahr, I stopped in New York for a week or so, staying with Bruce and his grandmother, known as Oma, for several days. Bruce showed me his web pages at Columbia (this was April 1997; I think he was one of the first people I knew who had a website), and took me to a friends-of-his-family seder (growing up, I had never known that he was at all Jewish). At the time, I wrote that it was:

[...] the shortest and probably the silliest Seder I've ever been to—kinda fun, but not what I'm used to. Most of the discussion involved deciding how best to skip ahead to the next glass of wine. [...] The Haggadah was somewhat old-fashioned [from the 1950s, I think] and very hard to follow, which made it all the more tempting to skip most of it. [...] Had gefilte fish for the first time in years, confirming my suspicion that I don't like it much.

Bruce took me to the Natural History Museum and to the castle in Central Park, and we had a fondue dinner with Oma and a friend of hers. I took a photo of Bruce and Oma that came in handy recently when Bruce was looking for one. (That's on Facebook, and non-public; I'll try and post a publicly visible version soon.) And I bought my first Palm Pilot, which I was dubious about at first but it pretty much changed my life.

Bruce had intended to have a career in academia. He spent a couple of years as an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Columbia, and a few months as an adjunct at Montclair, but then his academic career sputtered to a halt. He started a consulting business, focusing on investment analysis and sustainability, but after nine years of that, around 2014, it too stopped being viable work.

Over the course of the 2000s, Bruce and I kept in intermittent touch. We generally saw each other every couple of years (often with our friend Sarah, who I'd also met in seventh grade and who'd also gone to Pomona), when he came back to the Bay Area for various reasons. (And once in 2009 when I was in NYC for work.) I didn't have a very clear picture of how his life was going; I knew he was disappointed that academia hadn't worked out, but I guess it sounded to me like things overall were going okay, and that he would figure things out. But regardless, it was nice to see him. Even after he picked up the odd habit of saying “or so” in place of “or something.”

We also stayed in touch online. He posted occasional comments on my blog posts, and when Facebook came along we started regularly interacting there. Not generally in any deep way; just the nice casual friendliness that FB makes so easy. His father died in 2003; he sent me condolences when mine died in 2005.

The last time I saw Bruce in person was in 2011. (I had been thinking it was a year or two ago, but nope, electronic evidence suggests that it was 2011.) He came to my office for lunch and a tour. We caught up on life, and he told me about the death of his mother (whom he hadn't gotten along with, to say the least). He wasn't doing well financially, but he seemed optimistic.

In 2013, in a Facebook discussion about giving money to people on the street, Bruce posted a comment that I liked:

Yes, as tempting as it is to say, “I won't give cash, but I'll give you food” so that homeless people don't spend on drugs or alcohol, the truth is that homeless [people] need cash as well. Not everything is food. They need better shoes, they need a toothbrush and toothpaste. They need soap and a place to wash. They may need a doctor or a dentist, or any of a hundred things that we don't think about until there's no money to buy them or way to store them. They may need something to make them feel that there is a reason to make it through the night (kids of course tend to be one). And, quite honestly, given what their lives may actually be like, day in and day out, maybe they can be forgiven for feeling like they'd like to tune out for a bit, even if you'd prefer they didn't with your money. So when someone is down and out, the “no cash” rule is a rule that makes the donor feel good, very possibly without good reason.

Sometime in the past year, he asked me for advice on how to become a tech writer. I told him that I would write up the answer as a blog post, as I had been meaning to do for some time, but I never got around to it.

Two weeks ago, he posted a sad note on Facebook about a new medical diagnosis: Meniere's disease. One of the things he'd enjoyed most in recent years was dancing, especially tango and samba; the loss of hearing for low notes made samba difficult, and the vertigo seemed likely to make all dancing difficult. But he sounded like he was feeling reasonably hopeful about it, talking about possible surgery and noting that people tend to adapt to the vertigo.

Since then, he'd been his usual cheerful self on Facebook, posting puns and fun videos and photos of interesting NYC buildings. He was pleased that a subway station that's been in the planning stages since the 1920s was finally going to open on January 1. There was no sign I saw that anything was wrong.

But Thursday morning, the 29th, I got a Facebook message from a mutual friend, telling me that Bruce had posted something that looked like a suicide note. I went and looked at Bruce's FB page, and yeah, there was a several-page letter that made pretty clear that he had decided to end his life. He'd also posted a couple of farewell playlists; the letter and the playlists had been automatically posted by a delayed-posting system, so it seemed likely that he had sent them some time previously.

Given that, I suspected that he was already gone. But I called his cell phone and left a message, and texted him, just in case, asking him to call me.

Dozens of his friends from all over gathered in the comments on his last posts. Some wrote notes directly to him, offering help, asking him to call them. Some wrote about steps being taken to try to find him before it was too late. The police and his roommate and his SO headed to his apartment, where they found printed copies of the suicide note but no sign of where he was. We brainstormed about places he might have gone. Some local-to-NYC friends spent the day searching likely places; many thanks to those who did that.

I spent the day checking Facebook every few minutes to see if there was more news. There wasn't.

Until late last night, when his SO's daughter posted to let us know that police had found Bruce's body, in a car. The New York Daily News has a brief and not-too-inaccurate article.

Bruce's letter seemed, typically of him, to be lucid and carefully thought out; but I don't think he had really considered his options. He seemed to feel that there was no possibility of finding work that was a good match for his skills and interests, and that he therefore might as well end things now before his precarious financial situation got significantly worse. The idea that there can't possibly be anything good in the future is an insidious one; it can seem very plausible. And I certainly can't guarantee that Bruce's life would've gotten better anytime soon if he hadn't done this.

But the outpouring of love and affection and offers of help from dozens of friends suggests to me that there were many possibilities that Bruce hadn't considered. I don't know whether he was dealing with depression in some form, but I suspect so.

At any rate, I'll end this post with a reminder: if any of you in the US are thinking of suicide, I urge you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They may be able to help.

Farewell, Bruce. You'll be missed.

And sympathies to all of Bruce's multitude of friends and family.

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