How much can you connect with other people without the benefit of seeing them face to face, shaking their hands, or giving them a warm hug?
Assuming the answer to this question is “very little” denounces not only a lack of imagination, but an ignorance to the concept of epistolary friendship. History gives us plenty of examples on how the human need for bonding can transcend all barriers, and overcome the gulf separating individuals –back when ‘Distance’ meant something– through any means at its disposal: From running envoys, letters in the mail (which could take MONTHS to arrive), telegram cables, and now through the planetary neural network we know as the Internet.
It was due to my everlasting fascination with the infinite potential of the world wide web that I got to find The Daily Grail more than a decade ago. I remained an anonymous lurker for some time, until I felt the need to create and account in order to write and join in a discussion. I don’t remember what my first comment was about; I think Greg Taylor (the owner and editor) was asking the opinion of the community, which used to actually participate back then (ahhh, the good ole days before Facebook ruined it all…), but I do remember my comment was a bit of a humorous tease aimed at one of the most recurrent members of the forum: a guy using the cryptic moniker of ‘earthling‘.
Lucky for me, Earthling found my text amusing instead of insulting, and I instantly felt welcome in the Daily Grail community.
Over the years, as my involvement with TDG grew deeper and I took upon Greg Taylor’s invite to become a news admin and writer for the page, so too grew my relationship with many other ‘Grailers’ as we used to call ourselves, particularly with this Earthling dude who didn’t mind coping with my lousy English and poor syntax. The level of camaraderie and passion for discussing all sorts of topics that was enjoyed by the members of the site is impossible to convey to those generations who either grew before the online forum revolution, or outgrew it with the arrival of selfies and Snapchat; The comment threads were huuuge and it would last for weeks until we moved on to another topic, and in almost every single one of those threads Earthling would be eagerly participating with a hunger for knowledge that was more than palpable. It was like lighting in a bottle… or rather, on a computer screen.
Thus The Daily Grail became my daily habit. Each day I would log in whenever I had time, and each day I would follow on a thread also followed and commented on by Earthling. I learned to recognize his dry, Teutonic humor even before I learned he was actually from Germany. I also started to learn a few other tidbits about him, like the fact that he worked on computers and used to own a beautiful white Mustang; likewise I too shared things about my life in Mexico and what I did for a living, along with ‘deeper shit’ like my growing obsession with synchronicities and lucid dreaming. We didn’t use (or even know!) each other’s ‘real’ names and yet paraphrasing Charles Darwin, “from so simple a beginning” can a true friendship easily grow.
When you use an ‘alias’ in order to share things about yourself that even your own family doesn’t know of, your ‘alias’ slowly turns into your real identity; and the people who know you by it into your real family.
Before I move on, it’s important for me to clarify why I say “before Facebook ruined it all.” If you think our old comment threads were mere echo-chambering babble among like-minded individuals, such as the ones filling the digital walls of the Big Blue Brother, you’d be sorely mistaken! Our discussions could often turn FIERCE and quite heated, because the Grail was a locus for people with different backgrounds and perspectives, and where no agenda was pushed except for the searching for Truth —“Caveat Lector“ was the old warning adorning the top of the page– and if you were defending or debunking a particular point, you knew damn well you’d have to ‘stand your ground’ against members who disagreed with you. Earthling and I, for example, didn’t see eye to eye on a certain number of things, like the influence of fossil fuels in Climate Change. Not unlike in the stage play Twelve Angry Men, sometimes you found yourself in the majority of an argument and sometimes in the minority, and you knew the rest of the Grailers would not let you get away with a simple “I don’t know” or “Because I believe so!”.
And also like Twelve Angry Men (and women) the discussion could turn nasty and (very rarely) out of control before myself or other moderator stepped in.
Like all of us humans, Earthling was not immune to behaving like a real asshole sometimes, and I remember the time when he got into a huge, petty fight with some member who felt so insulted by one of his comments the other person quit the site never to return, even though I tried to moderate a reconciliation to no avail. Earthling could indeed be quite abrasive at times, a sign of a great intellect who had little patience for those who were just too stupid not to get what he meant; but he was never mean-spirited, and his opinion was always highly regarded by all members.
Alas, the only thing that doesn’t change in life is change itself. As the years progressed the comments on the Grail grew thinner and more sporadic –by then smartphones had become a thing and the O.G’s (Original Grailers) were moving to different digital pastures. Earthling’s participation also turned more infrequent; occasionally he’d pop in and say hi, which always filled me with great joy, but he never stayed for too long anymore. Until eventually he stopped coming by at all.
From so simple a beginning, friendships can easily come to an abrupt end… or so I thought.
Fast forward to May of 2018, when I receive a DM from Greg Taylor telling me that Earthling (a.k.a. Bernd Stramm) was in a hospital in Canada with a likely terminal illness, and was inviting me to come visit him. The news startled me since I hadn’t heard from my old forum friend in quite a while, and now to learn that he was dying caught me off guard. It was a stark reminder that no matter how much the potential of the digital world keeps expanding –when I became a Grailer, you still had to warn members if the link you used opened a video window, since most were still using 28.8 modems!– on the ‘real’ world we were still bound by unavoidable constraints. Online my friend Earthling could login and chat with me anywhere he wanted, but on ‘Meatspace’ Bernd Stramm was bound to a hospital bed in Canada, and his ‘subscription’ was about to expire.
For all the things I bitch and moan about Facebook, the social media still has its uses: I ‘friended’ Bernd and we reconnected again. He told me he had cancer on the esophagus and didn’t know how long he had left, but the doctors told him it wasn’t much, and on top of that he was also afflicted with ALS. Visiting him to Canada was out of the question for me due to one of those unavoidable real-world constraints (money), but once again the expanding potential of the digital age came to our rescue, and we opted for the next-best-thing: Skype. At first we had to try to find a way around the issue that since he wasn’t using a microphone and trying to understand his voice was difficult for me –he was now being fed directly through a tube (“very boring” he said)– we opted for the solution of me speaking on Skype and he replying with text messages. Clunky but effective.
My unemployment, which I had started to perceive as a ‘curse’ for wasting my life in useless paranormal topics instead on focusing on my professional career (Protip: There’s NO money to be made in this field, unless you are in the business of selling lies and fear) had now brought an unexpected silver lining in the form of the free time I had each morning to converse with my old web friend. We chatted about many different things just like the good old days, from the deep to the trivial: Gobekli Tepe, movies, his two sisters, science fiction, Elon Musk and trips to Mars, Germany’s pitiful performance at the World Cup (Bernd had the initial suspicion Putin was going to rig the event in order to make Russia the champion), Artificial Intelligence (which he knew a great deal about, since he had worked in the computer labs of several big tech companies) and Bernd’s ideas on robots, such as how three-legged automatons would be “far more efficient and stable” than two-legged ones –Dr. Stramm didn’t keep Nature’s obsession with symmetry in too high a regard, which I found amusing.
In these 3 months I learned more about Bernd’s life than in the past 10 years. I learned about his hunting trips with his father –and how the only thing they ever shot once was a chicken because they were starving– and the road trips he’d made from one coast of the United States to the other, all alone on those endless American roads while driving one of those fast cars he once owned. Of how he emigrated to Canada in what was initially a short trip to set up a business with his dad, only to never return to his natal Germany which he had left when the wall still divided Berlin. A Germany for which he didn’t seem to hold much love —except for the beer and the football– since his old school teachers had discouraged him of following in the paternal footsteps of becoming a dentist (“my grades weren’t good enough” he told me), which became a catalyst for turning his interest in computers instead, and pursuing a Masters and a PhD from UC San Diego (too dumb for a dentist but smart enough for a scientist, apparently); maybe he still secretly kept the fantasy of finding one of those non supporting teachers just to rub his diplomas on their face…
He told me about his love for sailing and regaled me with anecdotes of the days when he participated in regattas both in San Diego and Ensenada, which his team won more than once. His nostalgic reminiscence was inevitably tinged with the frustrating realization that all those things he used to do were now out of his reach; and yet I kept seeing the picture that, with the exception of a couple of big disappointments –like how he was once forced to hide in Canada due to a student who started stalking him when he was teaching at the university– his was an example of a life well lived, despite its unfair brevity. A life spent doing things outdoors instead of staying indoors thinking about them, like so many of us waste our precious time.
As I previously mentioned, Bernd and I didn’t always agree on things. We both shared a deep concern for the current refugee crisis in Europe and the Americas, and he explained to me his ideas on how a universal income might be the only way to keep the wheels of our economic system turning, in a future in which automatization and job scarcity will become the norm. But when I mentioned my interest in psychedelics and suggested how in his current situation the use of substances like psilocybin would be a good idea, he showed no interest whatsoever in meeting McKennas’s machine elves.
Occasionally our ‘dialogue’ would be interrupted by some nurse checking in on Bernd, and also “the padre” as my friend would call him: A religious caretaker working for the hospital whom Bernd seemed to be fond of, even though he wasn’t sure of exactly what church denomination this guy was a member of (not that Bernd cared, for that matter). The tone of voice of this ambiguous priestly person as it was picked up by Bernd’s microphone sounded quite friendly, and since I always prefer to Skype with the camera off, he probably never realized I was a ‘non-corporeal entity’ spying on Bernd and him –the whole situation was theologically ironic, if you think about it. On one of those interruptions “the padre” recited to Bernd a beautiful poem he had composed for him, based on his interest on Gobekli Tepe which had been initially kindled by my old Grailer compadre –it was nice to see his passion for knowledge had kept inspiring and transforming the viewpoints of other people outside the forums of TDG.
Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill)
I’ll see you on Potbelly Hill
in a land before religions were born
we’ll walk on that primal plateau
where the stars sing light to the morning glow
we’ll give voice to irrepressible dreams
we’ll devise redemptive technical schemes
we’ll spend all the gold we find in gold rush streams
build a cathedral of light with insight beams
let every ear be opened
let every tongue be set free
let every eye be a light to the end
let every touch be the touch of a friend
Unavoidably, the tone of our Skype sessions would change to the morose. If I talked about climate change or serious shit like that, Bernd’s dry humor would turn gloomy and retort with “soon that will not be my problem.” With nothing better to say, I would shift back to my old habit of taunting him by mentioning Jim Tucker and Dr. Ian Stevenson, whose work makes a compelling case for the reality of Reincarnation. “You mean I’d have to go back??” he replied back with apparent distress. Despite Bernd’s analytical disposition, he was not a staunch atheist and was open-minded about the concept of an afterlife –just not one that would force him to stay on this type of existence indefinitely, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day –which he happened to like, by the way.
Our regular conversations and texting started to get compromised, by the fact that his eyes were afflicted more and more with cataracts caused by the steroids he took. We tried to circumvent it by installing a zooming window in his laptop and other gimmicks, but this was a stark reminder that our little routine was not going to last much longer.
One Monday morning, just after I finished saying my “buenos días” to him and having my first sip of coffee, he wrote a set of numbers: “1959/08/27-2018/08/09“. Confused, I asked what those meant, and he said it meant enough is enough: Unlike the United States or Mexico, he explained, Canada is a civilized enough place to let a person choose to leave this life with a modicum of dignity and under his or her own terms. Just like Bill Murray, my friend was determined to make a final dash out of Punxsutawney.
Not the greatest way to start a Monday, right? But I understood his decision, and fully supported it.
“Will you tell them about me?” he asked once again. At some point during our renewed interaction he had asked if I could write his obit and publish it here on The Daily Grail. Not only that, but Bernd wanted to read it before he passed away(!) –I guess it made even more sense now that he was planning on having a ‘wake’ with him still present(!!). The request was somewhat bizarre to me (I mean talk about the ultimate deadline, amirite?). It reminded me of how P. T. Barnum had once said to a reporter friend of his on his deathbed, how the only regret he had left was not being around to read the news about his own demise on the newspapers; the reporter made a final favor to his friend and the next morning The New York Sun printed Barnum’s obit on the front page –which pleased the old circus impresario so much, he kept on living for a few more weeks.
But the prospect filled me with dread, too. After all, I really didn’t know this man, did I?? What the hell could I possibly write about him?!
Which is why what you (and him) are reading is not really an eulogy on ‘Dr. Bernd Stramm’ because I barely knew that guy, anymore than he knew a guy by the name of ‘Miguel Romero’. What I’m writing here instead is an eulogy to my pal Earthling, one of my best friends in the Grailer community for many years, and a dedication to what his witty remarks and dry humor meant to me, and to many other members who turned this website into a celebration of knowledge and weirdness.
I remain as fascinated with the Internet as I was when I first opened my first Eudora account or when I subscribed to my first UFO newsgroup, waaay before Google was a napkin sketch in the hands of Sergey and Larry; and I still believe in the transformative power of this new technology but not out of a romantic notion that “ideas can change the world.” What the web can do instead, is help us change ourselves by connecting us to other people which otherwise would not have entered into our lives, and influence us in ways we can only understand inretrospect. And make no mistake: Without an Earthling there wouldn’t have been a Red Pill Junkie.
During one of my last conversations with him, Earthling told me he’d been having daydreams about Gobekli Tepe. Ever the reservoir of useless trivia, I mentioned to him Andrew Collins’ theories that the Shamans who ordered the construction of that ancient site in Anatolia, were supposedly members of a race of Neanderthal-human hybrids who wore capes made out of the feathers of vultures, and out of that long-forgotten past came the myth of angels with wings.
“He he,” he wrote. “We shall see.”
Indeed we all shall. Some sooner than others. And when my time comes I only hope that after I cross that tunnel of light, I get to be greeted by a tall angel with a wide, cocky smile, walking toward me on three legs instead of two. You know, just to make a point…
Until then, godspeed amigo. Danke und auf Wiedersehen.