Brendan had a secret life in California. Each July for over a decade, he trekked westwards to a small university nestled, as he once described it, “among golden, sunburned hills on a beautiful peninsula.” His New York colleagues assumed that he traveled as a legate of the eastern establishment of letters, dispatched to bring a measure of erudition to the intellectual wilds of the far west.
But the “quintessential New Yorker” was really a double agent, a camofleur as cunning as any Jesuit. For you see, Brendan was not an emmissary, but a fellow traveler who constantly surprised us all with his deep understanding of the culture of technology that shaped the valley cradled by his golden, sunburned hills. It will come as a shock to his computer-averse literati friends, but Brendan was a nerd.
I recall the time he enthusiastically waxed about the virtues of a newly acquired word processing software package — “the ease with which I erase my work is thrilling…,” he exclaimed! On another July afternoon, we sat together, listening as an executive breathlessly described how a coming interactive TV future would wash away print and usher in a new media world. The audience –publishing professionals all– sat in rapt, credulous attention. In a whispered voice, Brendan observed that the product could only generate “shit”, and thus was hopelessly doomed. It was an observation worthy of the most hard-boiled venture capitalist, and right on the money. A year, and several tens of millions of Dollars later, the company sank without a trace.
C.P. Snow once eloquently despaired of the great gulf separating the “Two Cultures.” By example, Brendan revealed the gulf to be little more than a mirage, a construct of our innate reluctance to cross into unfamiliar terrain. Brendan charged into the new with relish. He held his own with entrepreneurs and dreadlocked nerds, engineers and techno-publishers, gently probing the overlooked consequences of their artifice. In one conversation with an advocate of “internet democracy,” he tempered the innovator’s utopian enthusiasm by observing the impact air conditioning has had on the shape of our Republic. For you see, Washington’s insufferable heat and threat of malaria once forced the pols to meet only briefly and in winter. But the high technology evil of air conditioning made possible year-round, continuous sessions of Congress, to terrible effect. God help us when our Representatives finally learn to type and discover the new vastness of cyberspace!
Others have described Brendan as “as quicksilver, moving swiftly, effortlessly, in unexpected directions.” He was that and more. Each of us recall a different Brendan, for this very public man was also a very private individual. He had many secret lives, one secret life for each of us, so generously shared.When I learned of Brendan’s death, like many of you I turned to his books, seeking some fragment of the life I knew. I found it in the pages of “Lindbergh Alone.” Brendan was a shape-shifter, a shadow passing over the landscape like the silhouette of Lindbergh’s small plane. Hearing the engine, we crane our necks and catch a fleeting glimpse of the body in motion, a flash of wings, all too soon gone. But even as the shadow retreats to the horizon, the memories remain, sharpened all the more by the briefness of the passing.