So I'm sitting in front of my computer and I'm weeping. Sneer all you want at the fleshlessness of online community, but on this night, as tears stream down my face for the third straight evening, it feels all too real.

Three weeks ago I logged on to the Well, my favorite online computer conferencing service, for a quick browse through my usual haunts: the "Media," "News," and "Weird" conferences. I was looking for a good time -- some gossip, some sophisticated debate, some downright foolery.

But I was brought up short. In the News conference, a man named Tom Mandel had opened up a topic entitled "My Turn." In it, he announced that his lung cancer, first diagnosed last October, had taken a serious turn for the worse. He did not know how long he had left to live, but feared his time would be brief. So he was saying good-bye.

Death is not new to the Well. If anything, over the past year, it has become a regular, if unwelcome, visitor. But death for Tom Mandel was inconceivable.

Mandel is the Well. One of its most prolific contributors, he is its history, its voice, its attitude. And when I joined the Well, a little more than a year ago, Tom Mandel was the first online personality to impress me as a real, live human being.

Though not a human being I felt attracted to in any way. Tom could be tough on "newbies." And I was quite the blundering rookie, poking my Bay Guardian trained nose into every ongoing discussion. Suddenly, I couldn't avoid this guy whose name was . I couldn't visit any conference or start declaiming on any subject, without berating me, harassing me, backhanding me.

Acid-tongued, arrogant, condescending -- that was my first impression of the dread Mandel. Don't Feed The Mandel, others advised me, as they saw me explode from his provocations. One Well elder informed me I was being hazed -- it felt to me more like getting scorched with an acetylene torch. Man, did that guy piss me off.

Today, it's clear to me that shaped my own online persona more than any other Well mandate. He forced me to purge my words of dross and idle rhetoric, spurred me to think more clearly, encouraged me to hold my tongue when unsure of the facts. And as the months went by, my feelings toward him began to change.

Partially because we both enjoyed exercising our idiosyncratic insanities in the Weird conference. Weird is one of the stranger neighborhoods on the Well, a place where the Well's collective id is unleashed, a place to madly babble and be babbled. And in Weird, everyone is equal. I made fun of , he made fun of me, and we became, in the oddest way, weird comrades.

And then, a month ago, I met him, face to face. We had both been invited to breakfast in Tiburon, to celebrate the visit of a Weird stalwart from out of state.

He looked a bit worse for wear and tear, the way a man looks who has undergone severe chemo- and radiation therapy treatments for several months. But he gave me a big smile. He told me my baby daughter was cute. His laugh was strong.

I didn't talk to him much -- we were at opposite ends of a long table. But as we walked back to our cars after breakfast we exchanged some delightfully snide remarks about some histrionics just then breaking out in the Media conference. I marveled at how only a year ago I had alarmed my wife and sister with the steam coming from my ears as I battled with . Now, he was no ogre, he was my friend.

Such is the stuff of virtual community.

I'm certainly not the only one who felt that way. After Mandel opened his "My Turn" topic, hundreds of other Well denizens responded with their memories, their love, their exhortations. As time has passed on the Well, this community has become unfortunately expert at crafting online wakes. Now, their gathered messages were like strings of pearls, the purest poetry, and Mandel's responses, ever fainter, ever more infrequent, were missives from another world, full of an unexpected, and dazzling, spirituality and grace.

And so I cried.

And then fled to "weird"-- where we played with even fiercer passion than usual, where we said what could not be said, and denied what could not be denied.

Eleven days after Tom Mandel opened "My Turn," he died in a hospital bed, listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony. He was 49 years old. And even now, as I write these words, the Well pays its respects, laying virtual flowers on his grave.

Tom, I hardly knew you, but I'll never forget you.

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