Five Years

You don’t know when the sad will fall. You can sometimes see it coming; like , it has some predictability. Unlike the water, it does not afford much opportunity for control, and you never know quite what to expect. When you see it coming, you can brace for impact; with practice, put on the happy face and soldier on.

That’s the idea, anyway.

It hit like a tsunami a little after 7 pm. The date was August 30, 2017; the place a cafe on a side street in Como, Italy.

John should be here.

3 hours earlier, I stood on on the stage in the final session of RecSys 2017 with my friend Sole and a committee of amazing people. We announced the 2018 conference and invited everyone to join us in Vancouver. The conference itself until that point was a blur; one colleague described me as a ‘man hunted’. Dozens of people to talk to, a more focused list of contact objectives than usual as we tried to make sure we connected with all our co-chairs & I prepared for a post-conference workshop, and a failed recovery from inbound jetlag. But I found the emotional energy somewhere to think of John from time to time during the conference.

I don’t remember how all that manifested. I know I wished he could have been there when we announced the upcoming conference.

I definitely remember 7 pm, going to my first RecSys Steering Committee meeting.

John should be here.

He should be in this room. It should have been John who talked with me about what to expect, told me what happens in these meetings.

August 14, 2017, Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’m tagging along for drinks with a group working on data science in journalism. Also joining the group is Mark Riedl (no relation), one of my Twitter heroes.

He tells me about meeting John at a conference banquet some ten years previously. It’s one of those stores that is so typically John, filled with his care for younger researchers.

I had no idea how much I needed that.

If only John were here.

It’s late December. Still 2017. In a conference room, trying to figure out a grant proposal.

We're struggling with it. The project is great, but the grant won’t write itself.

If only John were here. If I had even had one more year with him, I might have been able to learn what I needed to know to write our way out. We’re having the kind of problems he was good at solving.

My colleagues here are good people. Safe, so I don’t have to keep it together. I can lower my guard (at least a little; we do still have work to do).

If only John were here.

But I don’t have the presence of mind to embrace the moment, to take the time I need. I don’t say what I’m really thinking, and my friends don’t know why I’m sad.

February 23, New York City. Another steering committee meeting, also off an exhausting travel experience. The pain isn’t acute this time, though. It isn’t John’s space.

If John could see me now.

This is what he trained me for. We’re figuring out how to build and nurture this new community. How to develop and support an intergenerational and interdisciplinary band of researchers dedicated to making computing systems good for people. To measure when, how, and why they go wrong.

Taking big questions of human flourishing in the information age and subjecting them to the cleansing, confounding light of science.

It’s what John lived for, and I get to do it. With an incredibly thoughtful, rigorous, and compassionate group of people.

February 26, 2018. I’m in my morning routine, making coffee and smoothies. In one of the waits I turn on my phone and open Gmail.

‘Tentative good news on your CHS CAREER proposal’

I can’t call John.

I knew that would come. I’d prepared for the day, ran mental drills. I knew, if I landed the grant, I would want to call him and be unable to do so. I brace for impact; the rails hold.

I call Joe and give him the good news. I wapp some friends, they join Jennifer and I that night. I spring for the 18-year Macallan and raise a glass.

I can’t call John.

John Riedl (CC-BY by U:Rummey)

It’s now been five years. The night John died, I wrote ‘I feel a bit like Rocky, training for the big fight, but Apollo’s dead.’

I didn’t run off to Siberia and retrain as an oncologist.

Somehow Jennifer and I made it through; we didn’t know it at the time, but John’s death was only the halfway point in the losses that defined the eighteen months we now call the Year of Hell. Eighteen months that forever changed our life together.

Some people say the hardest times, the most trying times, are when you learn and grown and mature the most. I have no idea what they’re talking about. We survived, scarred and bruised. @mermatriarch put it well when she said ‘what doesn't kill you gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humour’.

Joe is fantastic and has guided me well through finishing the Ph.D and launching my own academic career, and was very supportive in the remaining loss of that year. He mentored me in to co-organizing RecSys. I had always seen GroupLens as a family, but the family really came through in the wake of losing John.

The best way I know to honor John’s memory is to do good science with good people.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. Trying to figure out what on earth fair recommendation looks like. Working with great people. Trying to help my students achieve their dreams.

I have some safe places now. People with whom I can drop shields, be me, be sad or happy or whatever. Maybe to finish grieving, if that’s a thing that is ever completed. I'm doing better now than I have been since before he passed.

I didn’t see anything make John prouder than to see his students succeed. I can’t think of a better tribute to give him than to do that, boldly and kindly.

I don’t usually drink Heffeweisens, but I had one today. John’s beer. Wish you were here.