Mourning James Kim

James Kim and I were not close. I did not have the pleasure to call him a friend. Nor was he an enemy, which considering from where I knew him (and how I acted there) makes him rather unique.

I worked with James at the now defunct cable television network, TechTV. I was a writer and producer for both the web and broadcast sides, and James worked in the network’s product lab, occasionally reviewing products on air and writing about them.

We didn’t work together much – we were on different programs – but I recall enjoying the few occasions on which we did. I also recall mercilessly mocking him about his penchant for digital audio devices, but I hope now he didn’t take that too seriously. He was right, after all; digital audio is pretty damn cool, and his enthusiasm and understanding of its intricacies is one of the many ways in which he was way ahead of his time. He turned his passion into a career, becoming a senior editor at CNet, covering (mainly) digital audio.

I’ve been following the story of his family’s disappearance and partial rescue since I learned of it on Monday, over a week after they disappeared. They had apparently become lost while traveling through Oregon, after visiting friends over the Thanksgiving holiday, and found themselves on an impassable road in an unforgiving wilderness.

Over these past few days, as I’ve waited impatiently for press conferences, refreshed CNet’s homepage endlessly and bothered distant friends for news and consolation, I’ve been confronted with the fact that our world is at times very, very small and at other times insufferably large.

The story was brought to my attention by a colleague who had heard about it on the podcast of another former colleague of mine and James’. I then spent the next two days absorbing as much news as I could find about this sad tale, most of which was produced or delivered by even more friends and former co-workers, all of who’s lives had been touched in some way by James Kim, and who, for several days, shared in the misery of not knowing, the elation of Mrs. Kim’s and her children’s rescue and now the despair of discovering that James has not survived.

Across thousands of miles, members of a professional family (of which I was a part only briefly) have come together over our love and respect for James and concern for his family. A cell phone provider donated services to the rescue, members of the family arranged for a helicopter to search the wilderness (which ultimately rescued Mrs. Kim and her two daughters) and a satellite company re-tasked a military-grade keyhole satellite just to find James.

There’s something about being missing that strikes fear in all of our hearts. We want the missing to be found not only because we love them and miss them but because we hope we never become lost ourselves, and reach out, instinctively to those who are. It must seem to be the cruelest irony that in this day of advanced technology and almost instantaneous information exchange (in fact, it was a computer program designed to isolate individual cell phone signals at individual cell phone towers which led to the discovery of Mrs. Kim) we were unable to find a single man who wanted desperately to be found.

It’s tempting to think that his last act on this Earth, that of striking out, leaving his family in the wilderness to find help for them was futile. That they were rescued, right where he left them, while he was not, is tragic and horribly disturbing. But all that I’ve heard so far indicates that what Jim did for them over the week in which they were lost together, from making their refuge seem more like a camp-out (to keep the children at ease) to burning the vehicle’s tires (to keep them warm and signal for help) undoubtedly contributed to their survival and rescue. His family emerged physically unscathed, in no small part due to his ingenuity and care. In this light his last act appears heroic, and that he ultimately failed is through no fault of his own. James was a strong, brave man in an unusually difficult circumstance. I dare say he did better than any of us would have, and I hope that he is remembered thusly; as a man of courage and ingenuity who died protecting his family.

For most of us, life will now go on. The headline will change, and we will become absorbed with new, more pressing distractions. CNN’s homepage, as a barometer of human interest, has already been struggling with the momentum of disregard, the Kim story having slipped once or twice from its headline area throughout the day. This has been a big news day, after all; the Senate confirmed Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense, more soldiers died in Iraq, some jughead’s stupid scheme to feign retardation failed – after 20 years, an electrical equipment plant in Milwaukee exploded, killing 37 people and NASA found evidence that water (and therefore life) could exist on Mars this very day. Which again brings us back to the irony of our simultaneously intimate and horrifyingly huge world. That we’ve found elusive signs of life on a distant planet, but were unable to do the same in Oregon, that James Kim was unable to do so, is a great tragedy of our time. One of several, it seems, that has played out this very day, and one of thousands that will surely do so before the year is out.

Our lives will go on and so will the Kim family’s, but for them the headline will not change for a very long time. My thoughts are with them and with the people who saw him every day and will now have to fill that void in their lives. James was a smart, talented and loving man. He will be missed.

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