Ilya Zhitomirskiy, your passing is a damn shame

November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finding out that a friend has died from reading the news is strange and unsettling, but that was how I found out. Ilya and I had no mutual friends, except for mutual acquaintances,  people that I introduced him to that he promptly forgot, but who still remembered him, because he was in so many ways unforgettable. Joanne was one of those people. Technically she’s the one who told me, but she found out about it through the news. The only other information I got about it was through the news. My friends knew that I knew him, but none of the people that he was close to for the last few months of his life knew that we knew each other so it feels like the friendship we had might not have even existed.

When Joanne first told me, it felt like a fist had wrapped itself around my heart, or some other ambiguous place in my chest. I never really understood or believed in such a feeling until she said ‘Ilya died’ on gchat and then I felt it periodically for the next two hours, and in a milder form for the next few days as the shock wore off. I say ‘wore off’ like it’s past tense but it still has these weird elements of feeling like parts of my life are in a dream and it’s soon going to go away because I’ll wake up and realize it didn’t happen. I refused to believe it on any level until I saw that the home page of Diaspora* had been modified in his memory. One of the regrets I know I shouldn’t have is that I wished I had called him last week when I thought of it, instead of assuming I could keep putting it off, and do it ‘eventually’. The other thing that forced the reality into my brain was calling his phone, hearing it go straight to voicemail, and hearing the message greeting in his voice.

I remember being irritated by all the mythologizing that goes on when a famous or semi-famous person dies, where we can’t say a bad thing about them and we have to talk in hushed voices like we’re going to offend a sleeping spirit. But I feel like I can actually understand that a little more. That’s not to say that now I think someone who made slight advances in their field should be deified because they didn’t cheat on their spouse and didn’t order ethnic cleansing of some sort. But even thinking about reading comments on the internet about how, ‘oh he was an over-privileged rich kid, who cares?’ or even the less harsh ‘it’s a shame, but lets move on as a people’ makes me feel shriveled and cold inside. I can think of a handful of things he did that were annoying and irritating off the top of my head, but I had a certain fondness for him that will probably now remain immortalized because he can never annoy me again.

The first time I remember noticing that Diaspora was actually a big deal was when the roommate of a friend mentioned getting an assignment for her radio show to interview one or all of the co-founders. I gave her Ilya’s contact information, thinking that he would appreciate me spreading the word. What I hadn’t realized was that the New York Times had beat me to it and he called me within minutes of me talking to her to say that it had blown up, and not to give anyone his number because they were all being barraged by interview requests. After that I was more careful, although he would still periodically say things like, ‘we did an interview with New York magazine and talked about this… but don’t tell anyone I said that.’

The speculation about his cause of death is the most unsettling part to me. He really did always exude this really happy, creative personality that at first thought wouldn’t lend itself to suicide. The first articles that I found mentioning his death said nothing about suicide, but right after I heard, a very choice one or two things he had said to me almost in passing came back in my mind and made me think that was what happened. It felt like I had access to insider information that I didn’t want access to. And it felt like this was the worst way to work through this, without being able to ask anyone not writing for Gawker or TechCrunch if my friend had killed himself or not.

It’s a shame all the press Diaspora is getting now, in light of such a terrible thing. I have a Diaspora account but I never got that into it, and even though it was apparently way more important to a lot of people than it was to me, it was more something I was interested in because it was the pursuit of a good friend. I tended to roll my eyes at his zeal and enthusiasm for everything, but all while secretly smiling and charmed by him and jealous of his passion and his energy for ‘awesome and epic projects’. I always looked at Diaspora with a skeptical but impressed smirk about the almost-naive idealism that seemed to drive everything he did.

Especially at 5’7″, he always seemed too small for his brain and his ideas, which were too big certainly for me and my feeble attempts to keep up with some of the conversations we had about APIs and open source and privacy, most of which I didn’t get. But when I inevitably looked lost he would smile like it was fine that I didn’t get it, and any feeling of inferiority I had always had to do with me, never with him making me feel that way. And even though I didn’t always get it, he seemed to value what I had to say about it, even though I have no idea what any of that was now.

He just had this rare gift of being insanely gifted but also impossibly charming, but at the same time completely genuine. He didn’t judge people who were less intelligent, which is most of us, and he believed in people. We had no mutual friends, and whenever I introduced him to my other friends with a five minute conversation that was inevitably about robotics or hacking or whatever topic grabbed him earlier that day, they all seemed to come away with the conclusion that he was charming but full of himself and maybe kind of a phony. And first impressions can be hard to break. But what they interpreted as phoniness is what I was continually fascinated with in him, that he really did believe in projects, and DOing as a very active verb, in finding out new information and creating new things that make people’s lives easier and better, and most importantly, more fun. He seemed so inspired by idealism that it sometimes seemed like talking to a little kid. I always wondered with fascination and amusement what he would be like when he ‘grew up’, if it would fade or not, and it mostly fascinated me because I got the feeling that it would not, and I was eagerly anticipating how he would turn out. It breaks my heart to know that this will never happen.


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