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The Anarchic Tar

I want to introduce you to someone I have never met, spoken to, corresponded with, no, nor even heard of up until a day or so ago, though I feel in some sense we are old friends.

But more on that later.

His name is -- at least I presume, with some justification, this is his name and since I've never met him, presuming is all I can do here -- Mike Benham. I further presume with some justification that this is Our Old Pal Mike, himself:

I happened upon his web site, www.thoughtcrime.org, by a roundabout way, of course. I think I was pursuing a mysterious IP address (not his site's) by way of Google after a traceroute had previously ponied up unsatisfactory results. I was clicking randomly on the Goog's voluminous output, Benham's web site opened up, and bit by bit I was drawn in.

Observing obscure proprieties, let us begin with a brief biography. I have no real notion of how accurate the following information is. I happened upon most of it as I was drawn into Mike's site and found myself increasingly surrendering to my own notorious storiopathic tendencies. But all in all, the information seems to jibe with something-r-other; which is to say it all seems to add up, so let's just assume it probably approximates the truth.

From a May 2003 article in SF Weekly, we discover that Mike apparently grew up in Atlanta, an only child. While in high school, he'd worked for software companies as a programmer. He applied and was accepted to UC Santa Cruz but dropped out in frustration after one quarter because he had "tried but failed to get into advanced computer courses he felt he was qualified for". In 1999, a San Francisco software company hired him and he developed an interest in internet security. In August of 2002 Mike apparently uncovered a flaw in the way Microsoft's Internet Explorer handled SSL e-commerce transactions. "This is one of the worst cryptographic vulnerabilities I've seen in a long time," said [Bruce] Schneier. "What this means is that all the cryptographic protections of SSL don't work if you're a Microsoft IE user." After some griping, Microsoft provided a patch.

He's also an anarchist. And a pamphleteer. He's the founder(?) inventor(?) discoverer(?) of the Distributed Library Project. He cooks. He's a storyteller. He hitchhikes. He rides trains in the hobo manner and knits in counter-counter-revolutionary mode.

But the thing about him that first captured my interest is that he's a self-proclaimed (sea-going, not software) pirate.

That's what he calls himself, anyway. The term doesn't quite work for me inasmuch as there are some nasty connotations in my mind to the word "pirate". These additional meanings don't seem anywhere near appropriate in Mike's case so I prefer to think of him as The Anarchic Tar.

When I was a little squirt growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my family had a boat -- a "stinkpot" as opposed to a wind-powered vessel. Gas was cheaper in those days, and seemingly plentiful. We spent summers cruising Puget Sound, exploring both the American and Canadian San Juans, poking our nose out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, tempting the mighty Pacific herself. I've always loved maps and charts so the navigational duties fell primarily on my barely pubescent shoulders. By the time I went away to college, I'd become quite the little sailor. Well, "stinkpotter", is the term upon which I suppose some would insist.

Anybody who has spent any time at all on open water learns pretty damn quickly that the ocean is an incredibly dangerous place. It's beautiful, it's inspiring, it's freeing, and it can kill you before you've even figured out it's stalking you. The scope of the literature of the malevolent and unforgiving sea stretches back over millennia. If you have any doubts on this subject, I can recommend many a good and convincing book since learning about any of this stuff firsthand will likely earn you your very own hook inside Davy Jones' Locker.

But, apparently, not in all cases. Some people obviously have ocean-chutzpah to a degree I find borderline unimaginable.

That's on the one hand. On the other, look at it this way: somebody, somewhere, had to be the first person to sail out into the open sea, knowing little or nothing about what the hell he was getting into, and then return in one piece to tell all his little sailor friends what they ought to look out for should they ever be so bold as he had been, and to try what he had tried.

I invite you, then, to read what you might call The Incredible Tale of the Sea Collective, or, as I think of it, The Voyage of the Anarchic Tar, or, in the words of the author himself, And Together We'll Face The World!

Okay, so it's not the most swashbuckling and seaworthy epic I've ever read, but I nevertheless admire it greatly. But why in god's name should I? Our Hero, Mike, seems foolhardy, after all. I think he's lucky to have survived. I would never have had the guts. I've had too many experiences of feeling the sea creeping up on me from behind, breathing down my neck, eyeing my frail form designed for terra firma, and wondering how I was going to like being fed to the fishes. I should be appalled at this stunt of his, but I'm not.

Readers of this blog will know that three weeks ago today my friend of many years, Shannon, fell off his building in Brooklyn and died. The shock and inexpressible sadness of this thing still clings to me like wet crape, though certainly with each day that passes it gets a little easier to live with the fact of my friend being so suddenly dead. I can feel the things I really miss about him sorting themselves out into various categories, and every once in a while in a fit of self-centeredness that appalls even me, I will think "Oh, my life is diminished to this or that degree by Shannon's sudden absence."

Shannon was not an anarchist in the political sense. He was an anarchist in the sense of Puck. He'd make mischief and most of the time it was benign, but sometimes, it has to be admitted, it was a little bit cruel. Nevertheless, I've realized over the last three weeks that some very welcome anarchy has fallen away from my life and this makes me incredibly sad. This is one of the things I will really and truly and deeply miss about Shannon. He was a crazy man, a demented archer sending strange and often astonishing arrows over the comforting ramparts I'd constructed around my vision of the world. The crazy man outside the fort is gone. Peace is at hand, and I pretty much hate it to death.

But then I encounter the Anarchic Tar.

Well, I didn't meet him, of course, and it's not likely that I ever will since we are on separate coasts and our circles seem so widely spaced. Still, in stumbling across Mike Benham's site, I'm reminded of something that (I'm astonished to realize) I'd managed to forget over the last three weeks. Anarchy, at least in some sense, is the natural state of the world and therefore far more robust than any vision of the world I could create in my own head.

I'm not a particularly spiritual man, but I do believe in spiritual things. I don't believe in ghosts, for example, but I do believe deeply in ghost stories. I used to think most ghost stories were about the dead longing for the living, but I realize now just the opposite is true: they are about the living longing after that which has died. I don't believe anything that actually constituted the being I knew as Shannon has survived his death, but I do believe things for which he served as a vessel still survive. Freedom is abroad in the world, but not in the sense George W. Bush means when he claims "freedom is on the march". Freedom exists, and it runs thread-like through all people. Some, like my friend Shannon, and apparently Mike Benham, carry the thread more convincingly than others. Their grip on it is more robust. I, in contrast, carry it a little more tentatively, but I admire enormously and maybe even envy a little those who grasp onto it with both hands. I'm the guy on deck looking up with admiration and glee at the sea-monkeys swinging through the rigging of the ship's top-sail. Every once in a while, with their trusted encouragement and reassurances, I allow myself to climb up and join them in their perilous and thrilling endeavors.

Nobody will ever replace my friend Shannon for me. But I do remember now that I don't have to think of him as the sole possessor of the many qualities I admired about him. Those qualities exist in the world, discernible through other people I meet and sometimes befriend. And so I remember now that I don't have to grieve for what Shannon was; I can be content with grieving for who he was. Which is, in itself, a lot of grieving, to be sure. More than enough, if I might be allowed an opinion on that subject. But still, the world seems a little less empty today for my having come across the existence of the Anarchic Tar.

So thanks, Mr. Mike Benham. May god grant you fifteen men on a dead man's chest. And, too, some yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

And not that I have any right to make the request or anything, but, you know, do try not to fall off any tall buildings as you Spiderman your way across the face of the planet. That sort of thing so upsets the horses.


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