Who did you want to be like when you grew up? Did you have a role model? I found mine a little late in the game, but I did find her, and she’s on my mind today.
She always joked around about her moniker St. Jude — patron saint of lost causes. I found her anything but. Judith Milhon, writer, hacker, great thinker, champion of women in technology, and purveyor of all things arcane and cutting edge, entered my life when I least expected to meet someone quite that awesome. I was fresh out of university and a struggling freelancer. The Powers That Were at the Austin American Statesman stuck me with the mind-numbing task of writing about fashion and local boutiques. I had little interest in either, but hey, it paid the bills. Then I met Jude through a friend of a friend. She took me under her wing, cultivated my nascent writing skills, and the next thing I knew, I had crossed off one thing on my bucket list: I was published in the seminal magazine, Mondo 2000, where she was a senior editor.
I never considered myself a lost cause, but when I was in my early twenties, I was quite lost. While my peers were ratcheting up credit card debt and thoughtlessly whooping it up beyond their fiscal means “St. Elmo’s Fire” style, I was pondering my legacy. I didn’t know what to become, much less how to become. I have many memories of Jude, but my favorite memories are of the two of us sitting in a little café in Berkeley that sold nothing but pie. Well, pie and coffee. On cool, muzzy Bay Area afternoons, we talked about life over hot apple pie a la mode. Her life. My life. Where I wanted mine to go, and how to get there.
Much has been written about Jude’s dark humor, her rapid-fire wit, and her contributions to the world of technology as a woman. But I saw her softer, more accessible side. She never gave me what I would exactly call “motherly” advice; she was too objective-minded for that. She asked me candid questions, the way a good reporter would. Who do you want to be? How do you want others to see you? What do you want to leave behind? She seemed to believe that this little Austin girl was capable of mastering anything she set her mind to, and I grew to believe it, too. Apart from her staggering brilliance, Jude was simply one of the best people I’ve known. She harbored no grudges. I never heard her utter an unkind word about anyone. It never ceased to amaze me how she easily she let go of sleights. She remained chummy with one long-term companion, who lived in a house adjacent to her own, and all of her former lovers, in fact. I never thought being good friends with my exes was possible until I met Jude.
She once saved my life. Literally, herded me into her car and drove me to the E.R. I wouldn’t have gone, had it not been for her.
She was blessed with the gene of eternal youth. Jude was, quite frankly, ageless. Her hair was the color of corn silk, and she had the smooth porcelain skin of a Silver Screen starlet. She never told me her age (she never told anyone), but I assumed that she couldn’t have been that much older than me — maybe ten years, fifteen, tops. It was only after she passed away that I found out she was born in 1939, placing her in her mid-fifties when we first connected. Whatever her secret was, she didn’t part ways with it.
I think that part of the magic that was St. Jude was that she was genuinely young at heart, and her body followed suit. She was always seeking, learning and anticipating what was around the next bend; the ideas hatched from her magnificent brain were a conflicting combination of practical and quixotic. Her motley collection of friends and colleagues ranged from socially awkward teenaged hackers to bastions of counterculture, like Tim Leary. A proponent of civil rights, she marched from Selma to Montgomery back in ’65. Jude adored new music, too, and I could always count on her to keep me current. Once when I was in Berkeley, we went to see a girl band called Lush. “Big, jangly guitars,” Jude laughed. “I love it!”
I’ve grown up now, and Jude helped shape me into the woman I am, comfortable in my own mind and my own skin. The kind of woman who didn’t need to announce to the world, “Yo, guys, I’m a feminist over here,” because I had learned to walk the walk. One of Jude’s philosophies was that you shouldn’t have to tell the world who you were. Significant others were a source of companionship, not a means to an end. Jude once told me she’d never live with anyone again; keeping her personal space personal kept significant others from getting on her nerves. This unorthodox idea had never occurred to me before, but it resonated. Like Jude, I too have avoidant tendencies, needing prolonged periods of solitude.
Tomorrow, July 19, marks the twelfth anniversary of her passing. Hard to believe it’s been that long. During our last phone conversation, she told me that she was giving up the fight against cancer. She had the graciousness — or perhaps it was a part of her bizarre humor? — to convey her final farewell on this webpage. It was so fucking hard to say goodbye, because Jude was my constant. Part of me wanted to be selfish and persuade her to change her mind, but I didn’t want her to suffer. I offered to fly over and take care of her, but she assured me that she’d made peace with her sister, with whom she’d been estranged, and that she was getting the TLC she needed. This made me happy, because I’d always sensed that their disconnection had caused the peace-loving Jude inner turmoil.
This morning, I woke up remembering her comfy Ward Street digs, the vast bookshelves stuffed with musty tomes, bohemian-chic sofas and chairs, and counters littered with spent teacups, and recalled her presence in that house, quietly effervescent and completely comfortable with her own solitude. I would give a week of my life for one more day of guidance from St. Jude, because sometimes I still lose my way.
I grew up to be a lot like Jude — a far less brilliant and enigmatic version of her, but present, honest and reasonably competent. I like to think of myself as one of the many legacies she left behind. I wish I could tell her. I hope she’d be pleased.
You can read more about this amazing woman at her virtual wake posted to the WELL.