05 Dec 2008

Goodbye to the Best Friend I Never Met

Ever since the Internet became popular, there has been a lot of discussion about whether its made us all closer or just more disconnected.  Real connection is possible.  It’s rare, but you can find it.  I never understood it as well as I do right now.

I lost a good friend this week.  My writing team knew her as Editor Jen.  A friend for the last 10 years, and my Head Editor for the last four months, Jen Koplitz died too young.  She was found in her apartment on Tuesday, December 2.  It appeared she died of heart failure.  I do not know any more details than that.

Jen and I “met” in a now-defunct writing community (WBM) way back around the turn of the millennium.  Online companies now are trying to figure out how to make communities work for them, but this one did it right.  Jen is one of about a dozen people I’ve still kept in contact with all these years later, even after the site owner decided he didn’t want to run a writing site anymore.

Jen worked in kitchens for most of her life.  She owned her own catering company in the late ’90s.  She was still working with food when I got my first job working for someone I knew from WBM as a forum moderator.  When I got laid off from that job, another friend I’d met through the WBM friend recommended me for the Google Quality Rater job.  Once I got that, and I knew Jen was unhappy with her work, I told her to apply with Google as well.  She also got the job.  We were co-workers for two years until our contracts ended within a few months of each other.

Then Jim hired me.  When I had to put together a brand new writing team, Jen was the first person I thought of to invite.  She quickly became my top editing prospect, not only because of her respect of the English language, but because of her enthusiasm and her drive to help me make this the best team possible. She dove in head first, immersing herself in style manuals and helping me hammer out style rules for things not covered by other resources.  Two days before Thanksgiving, she was still helping me determine guidelines for capitalization for degree programs and course names.

I don’t have a lot of close friends; I can count them on one hand, with one less finger to count on today.  I talked to Jen almost every day, far more often than I talk to my best friend who lives two miles away from me.  Jen sent me a box of Godiva dark chocolate truffles for my birthday last month.  How she remembered that dark chocolate and truffles are two of my favorite things after all these years, I don’t know.  That box of truffles reminded me on Tuesday night, before I knew she was gone, that I needed to figure out what I was going to send her for Christmas.  I was trying to decide between something about Keith Olbermann or something about Rachel Maddow, or maybe Gordon Ramsay, as she loved watching all of them.  I’ll never make that decision now.

Jen had quite a way with words.  Her dry, sarcastic wit was always intelligent, and often made me laugh.  Having worked in kitchens for many years, she used a lot of foul language, but knowing how I don’t, she usually tried to temper it for me.  I will never be able to hear the word “hoser” without thinking of her, and I’m sure my writers will always remember what she deemed as the “cheese factor,” when writing tended toward the sappy and overblown.  She lived in Wisconsin, so cheese was something she knew well.

I’m still having a hard time accepting that she’s gone.  I never met her, but I was trying to convince her to move to New York.  Part of what makes this so hard is that I’ll never get to meet her, and I lack the closure of being able to attend her funeral service.  I’m not much of a speaker, but I guess this is my version of the eulogy I would give if I could.

I’m very grateful that her brother was thoughtful enough to go into Jen’s Gmail account and send messages to her online friends.  She had a lot of us, and not knowing what had happened to her was very hard for us.  I’m sad that we had to find out in a short email, but it’s better than never knowing the truth.

If you have people online that you care a lot about, tell them.  I don’t have to worry that Jen never knew how much I cared about her, because I let her know regularly.  She was a real friend, whether or not we ever got to have lunch together.  Do your friends online know how much they mean to you?  Tell them.  And it wouldn’t hurt to leave a list of email and website account passwords for loved ones to use in case the worst happens to you, so your online friends will know what happened.  Not everyone would have the foresight of Jen’s brother, to let people know, especially in a time of grief.

In addition to feeling sad, I also feel guilty.  In the wake of grieving for a friend I’ll never meet, I have to figure out how to replace an irreplaceable editor.  I hate that I have to think of things as her supervisor instead of as a friend where business is concerned.  It’s not that my other editors aren’t competent, but I came to depend so much on Jen’s perfectionism, dependability, and her ability to call BS when she saw it.  She pulled more than one all-nighter for me to meet client deadlines.  And as capable as the rest of my editing staff may be, I just don’t know them well enough to figure out how they can possible fill Jen’s shoes – because she went above and beyond the call of duty so many times.  (But I do thank all of the editors for stepping up yesterday.)  Jen truly loved what she did, and I think she was finally happy with her life; I am grateful that she found happiness before the end.

I’m reading back over what I’ve written so far, and I think Jen would send it back to me for a rewrite.  The writing isn’t tight.  Some of my sentence structure is horrible.  She might think it reeks of the cheese factor, as well.  But it’s honest, and I think she’d give me bonus points for that.  She would hate to know how much I cried for her yesterday, but at the same time she’d be grateful to know how much I cared.

So here’s to Jen. I’m raising my virtual glass.  Jen, I’m going to miss you so much.  The world lost an amazing person in you, and the English language has lost a champion.

I haven’t heard back from her brother about where to send flowers or donations, so I wanted to send a memorial donation to the American Heart Association.  If you would like to do the same, I’m having acknowledgement sent to The Koplitz Family, 1000 Lime Kiln Rd #5 Green Bay, WI 54302.