Wednesday September 30, 2015

• Alex Fucking King

Alex’s contact entry in my phone, still, is “Alex Fucking King”. His contact photo is an old Twitter avatar upon which I drew cartoon eyes and a marionette-style open mouth. I wish I could remember why. My ringtone for him is a duck quacking.

When Alex Fucking King called, I always answered the phone laughing.

In an age when nobody uses their phone as a phone, he called with impressive frequency. Sometimes he’d call to say he was in the neighborhood and to invite me to lunch, or out for drinks. Sometimes he’d call because we had plans and he wanted to coordinate or offer to pick me up. He was one of my rare “actually-calls” friends. Alex was old-school like that.

One day, Alex called and asked what I was up to. We chatted for a few minutes about whatever my answer was, and had a couple of laughs. Then things got a little more serious.

“So I’m afraid I’m actually calling with bad news.”

He had gotten sick while on vacation in Hawaii. Cancer, turns out. Ever the appreciator of specifics, Alex went into impressive detail about what had happened, how things were likely to go down, and how he was feeling about all of it.

“Well shit.”

I wish I’d had something more thoughtful to say, but that was all I had.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve done this call a few times already. Nobody knows what to say.”

Alex Fucking King was the kind of guy who would tell you he had cancer and then help you deal with the news.

***

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[Joe Hildebrand, Alex King, and me. WordCamp Denver 2009. Photo by Brad Crooks.]

I met Alex through my friend Joe Hildebrand. There was a small group of us that worked in lower downtown Denver (LoDo to locals), and we’d meet regularly for lunch. At some point we had the idea to start a podcast called “LoDo Conversations”, with Alex, Joe, myself, and our friend Corey Gilmore. We were probably inspired — like so many others — by John Gruber’s The Talk Show, so the idea was that we would talk about tech news.

In reality, the show was mostly us talking about How I Met Your Mother, interrupted by bouts of me and Alex arguing about pretty much everything. I don’t have the recordings from any of those old shows, but I remember it occasionally got pretty heated. I can’t imagine why we capped out at 7 listeners.

We argued off-air, too. I was young and brash, and Alex had this matter-of-fact way of stating things that really brought out my inner contrarian. He was also highly critical of Apple, going so far as to carry a Palm Pre instead of an iPhone at one point, declaring WebOS as superior. The nerve of that guy.

Whenever a new Apple device came out, we’d get together to debate it. When Apple would make software changes, we’d debate those. Alex always had a keen interest in what I was working on, so when I’d pitch him on my new projects, we’d debate those too. I remember sitting in his car one night, outside my apartment, arguing about whether or not an iOS notes app could be successful without a sync solution. (Okay, he was right about that one.)

A few weeks ago, Apple announced new iPhones, a new Apple TV, and the iPad Pro, and it just so happened that I went to see Alex a few days later. It was clear from the setup — his hospital-style bed placed in the living room, instead of his basement with the giant projector display and full bar — that things weren’t looking so good. But that didn’t stop us from having one last debate over the merits of the new Apple TV user interface.

***

Alex’s wife Heather had asked friends to write remembrances for his daughter to read some day; a way for her to get to know her dad through the eyes of his friends and peers. (Even now, writing that sentence is like a punch in the gut.)

I told him that I was having a hard time writing about our relationship because it kinda sounded like we just argued all the time.

“Feel free to write that.”

For all the times we’d acknowledged our frequent conflicts of opinion, we’d never really broken it down. Alex pointed out that it wasn’t about the arguments, but what we did while we argued. Over dinner. Over drinks. At his office while checking out his life-sized Stormtrooper. While taking a drive or walking around Denver. This wasn’t a difficult relationship founded on begrudging respect; we were friends who enjoyed learning from each other and probing to get to the core of our opinions and biases. It was always fun.

Plus, I finally admitted, he was almost always right.

“Feel free to write that too.”

***

One night, Alex called me to see if I wanted to go get a drink. I think he was between rounds of chemo, and just wanted to blow off some steam. We went out and had an amazing time, and I tried to avoid asking too many questions about his treatment. As a younger, single friend who lived downtown and didn’t mind getting into trouble after a few drinks, I figured my job was to be a distraction. So I did my best to distract.

But at some point in the evening — over dinner, I think — he brought it up. Not in a morbid way, or even in a sad way. Just matter-of-fact. He had already sold his company (because Alex Fucking King was the kind of guy who reacted to cancer by making sure his employees would be taken care of) and was talking about the various steps he was taking to get everything in order. Curiosity got the best of me, so I asked. How was he dealing so well with things?

“This is the hand I’ve been dealt. I can be sad about it, or I can enjoy what I have left.”

***

When someone dies, people use the word “loss” a lot. Suddenly everyone has a great story about this amazing person and all of the things they’ve done. In Alex’s case, it’s all true. He was one of the good guys. Infinitely patient, thoughtful, and kind. He spent his time building things that would reach far beyond him. He was my friend, mentor, and occasional foil, and every interaction we ever had made me better. His death really is a loss.

A loss to his family, a loss to his friends, and a loss to the entire online world. He didn’t just make cool stuff, he actively worked to help other people make cool stuff. Alex Fucking King didn’t get nearly the time he deserved, but we’re all better off for the time he got.

***

The symphony of absurdity that would play whenever Alex called my phone wasn’t a reflection of his personality so much as it was a reflection of our relationship: a little bit antagonistic, but always in the spirit of fun.

Still, he’s getting the last laugh. Now I’ll never be able to have an unemotional reaction to a duck.

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