For Carl

Four Words for Carl Nelson

Eulogy by Rick Cook (all rights reserved)

I’ve been asked to say a few words today about Carl Nelson. After some thought I’ve managed to come up with four of them.

The first word is “Weird”

To paraphrase Shakespeare: “Some are born to weirdness, some aspire to weirdness and some have weirdness thrust upon them.”

Then there’s Carl – Always Six sigma west of Strange and surfing down the far end of the bell curve.

Carl didn’t have to work at being weird; he was weird. A great big bundle of teddybear weird wrapped up in his own personal weird field.

Let me put that another way: Looking out over the group here today I see several weird people. Some of them, like myself, are a thin veneer of weird over a deep core of straight. I see one or two people here who are a thin veneer of straight over a deep core of weird. Carl was a thin veneer of weird over a deep core of even weirder. And somewhere, buried deep within, like the singularity lurking at the heart of a black hole, was a kernel of truly, truly weird.

If you observed him carefully Carl gave you the impression that he was not only weirder than you imagine, he was weirder than you can imagine. You always got the feeling that Carl inhabited some kind of strange parallel universe that occasionally intersected ours at a particularly oblique angle.

How else do you explain notions like orange-flavored super glue and DVD rewinders?

Those are both products he was known to ask for at various stores.

He wasn’t malicious about it. You got the feeling that if a clerk had handed him orange flavored super glue or a DVD rewinder he would have thanked them and walked away happy, somehow satisfied that there was more order to this universe than he had given it credit for.

But, I mean, orange flavored super glue and DVD rewinders?

I stress Carl’s weirdness because it was a source of genuine pride for him. In the same way he was proud of his extremely high intelligence. Not that he had worked at either. They both just happened to him and he thought it was kind of neat.

The best programmers, like the best physicists, are completely outside the box. Carl was not only outside the box; he went through life like a recent escapee from the State Home for the Terminally Bemused. I don’t think he understood us on a deep level and he certainly found a lot of what we do anywhere from mildly amusing to downright silly. But in general he liked us, so he was willing to play our silly game.

If I’ve given the impression that Carl was some kind of emotionless Giant Brain From Planet Ozone I’ve miscommunicated. Carl was also a genuinely warm person. He was a pleasure to be around and not merely because he was so damn funny. Which brings us to the second word.

The Second Word is “Nice”

Carl was also nice. In all the years I knew him I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper. Carl hadn’t always had an easy life and no one who knew his history would have blamed him if he’d been deeply bitter and openly angry. But if he was bitter or angry I never knew him to inflict it on those around him.

When I was around him he was always patient, especially with small children and the totally clueless. I don’t think he cared for the clueless much, but he doted on small children. Perhaps he shared their view that the world was full of a number of totally illogical, and hence wonderful, things. I think Carl and Lewis Carroll would have gotten along famously.

About the only time Carl got upset was when someone was unkind to the people he cared about. Then his displeasure came out in the form of absolutely deadly humor. Carl had a way of cutting those he despised to ribbons with his wit and doing it so skillfully the victim didn’t realize what had been done – until later.

The Third Word is “Unobtrusive”

There’s another word that describes Carl: Unobtrusive. Not chameleon-like. He wasn’t that showy and he never appeared to be something he wasn’t. Certainly not sneaky. Just. . . unobtrusive. The guy was six-foot-two, 250-pound wallpaper. You didn’t notice him unless he made the effort and most of the time he just didn’t make the effort.

That, combined with his keen powers of observation and rapier wit, made him a force to be reckoned with. If you made Carl the editor of your group’s newsletter, I guarantee you you would have an interesting – if unsettling – publication.


The unobtrusiveness didn’t always work to his advantage. Carl was ferociously competent in his unobtrusive way. If you gave him a job the job got done. It wasn’t so much that Carl seemed to work at it. It was just – there was Carl and the thing happened. No muss, no fuss. It wasn’t that he made it look easy. He made it look like he wasn’t doing anything at all.

His typical work day would consist of sitting in an armchair in the McDaniel’s living room, listening to the conversation and occasionally adding a zinger or two, petting a cat, staring at his laptop and heading off God-knows-what problems at the Mesa Community College computer center. His laptop, by the way, was like Carl. It wasn’t a Windows machine, which is for the conventional minded. It was not a Linux system, the normal choice of the uber-geek. It was a Macintosh: Powerful, efficient and unobtrusive.

Carl was also quartermaster for the SCA’s Estrella War. For those of you not familiar with Estrella, the quartermaster’s job consists of procuring whatever the war needs from printer cartridges to folding tables and seeing to it that it gets to the right people at the right place at the right time. It is tremendously demanding, quite difficult role and becomes high pressure as the war approaches. None of which you could have figured out by watching Carl do it. Again, things just happened.

The result was that both his talents and his contributions were tremendously underestimated. As a result he never got the credit he deserved. I suspect that about now some of the people at the Mesa Community College computer center and the Estrella War are discovering just how competent Carl was.

The Fourth Word is “Successful”

One of the things I’ve heard since Carl died is regret over how little he accomplished with his tremendous abilities. Some have even gone so far as to proclaim ‘what a waste.’

But the real measure of how we do in life is how we play the hand life deals us. It’s never a perfect hand and in spite of the talents Carl was dealt, he got a less perfect hand than most of us. Still, he did exceptionally well with it.

Carl’s goal in life was to do exactly what he wanted to and by and large he was successful. He lived his life the way he wanted to and on his own terms. No one else’s. From his friendships to his work, Carl did what he wanted, as much as he wanted and that was that. If that doesn’t sound like much of a goal, I ask you to consider how difficult it is to accomplish. You’ve got to be awfully special to arrange things precisely to your liking and Carl was certainly special.

I started this with a paraphrase from Shakespeare and I’m going to end it with a bit of an old Irish song. Don’t worry; I’m not going to sing. If anything my voice is worse than Carl’s. But I’d like to share this with you in Carl’s memory.

Oh all the money that ere I spent, I spent it in good company.
And all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit to memory now I can’t recall.
So fill to me the parting glass, Good Night and Joy be with you all.

Slainte Carl.