When a hit-and-run driver collided with Chris Meadows’ electric bike October 8, several people died later in the hospital. The blogger. The gamer. The documentation writer. And the ultimate tech support guy. Chris won a National Merit Scholarship in high school and read two books a day when in the mood, and he typed more than 120 words per minute. On deadline for the TeleRead blog on ebooks and related topics, he might race along at that speed or close to it.
As “Robotech_Master,” Chris was internationally known to thousands in the games world. He wrote The Geek’s Guide to Indianapolis: A Tour Guide for Con Gamers and Other Visitors and hosted strangers who found themselves without another place to stay in Indy.
But ten words from his life stand out most of all: “This is Chris. How can I make your day better?”
That’s how Chris began his conversations with customers in his Ozarks twang when he was working in tech support for such employers as a Best Buy contractor. Chris was not only brainy, he was also kind, perhaps in part because he faced his own challenges. Unknown to many of his friends and colleagues, he was living with Asperger’s Syndrome or a similar condition.
A formal diagnosis never happened—his parents say experts weren’t nearby when Chris was growing up in Arkansas and Missouri—but he exhibited classic symptoms. Among them were oft-rigid behavior and struggles reading nonverbal clues in faces and tones of voice. Later in college, Chris discussed his situation with medical professionals and had a firm grasp of the potential diagnosis. Then characteristically arming himself with knowledge, he moved forward.
Working as an advanced tech support staffer, Chris turned his challenges into assets. The angriest customers might cuss out Best Buy or another client or employer, but Chris would remain unperturbed—protected from grasping the full extent of this person’s wrath. His own voice would be perfectly calm.
This disarmed conflict time and again and allowed new conversations to begin about the real issues with eventual satisfactory resolutions.
A word prodigy at age two
As if to make up for his social difficulties, Chris was a whiz with words, as both a reader and writer. He began early just after starting to talk at age two. Son of two librarians, he would watch his father typing away; and his mother, Judy, recalled that he would “ask what every character was.” Mark Meadows at the time was head catalog librarian at Arkansas State University, and he and Judy filled their house with books and encouraged Chris to ask questions. When it came to family literacy, a cause dear to TeleRead since our founding in the 1990s, the Meadowses walked the walk.
Of course, with Chris’s intellect, they had a head start. His reading skills at age five were at a sixth-grade level with 80 percent comprehension as tallied by an education professor from the university. As a six-year-old, Chris read 103 books to win a school competition. “He is probably one of the most gifted children I have ever seen,” Dr. Baron Conaway at the time told the Jonesboro (Arkansas) Sun.
“Chris, himself, seems unaffected by his unique talents,” the Sun said. “He likes outdoor sports, Donald Duck comics, ‘jazzy music,’ cooking, and his two-year-old twin brothers. And he writes a weekly letter to his grandmother in Missouri.”
“As a child,” recalls Chris’s brother Alex in a long, detailed email, “he spent much of his time reading, writing, listening to music, and recording his own playlists onto cassette tape. Chris read at a blazing pace. Even in middle school, he would check out stacks of books from the library each week. In the summer, he would read an entire novel between breakfast and lunch and another before dinner. He particularly enjoyed spy novels, space novels, and fantasy novels. And when he wasn’t reading, he was writing.
“In the corner of his room was a stack of spiral-bound notebooks, filled in the cramped, jagged, and left-leaning scrawl of his southpaw penmanship. As his palm trailed his creativity in left-to-right motion, his hand had a constant silvery smudge of graphite where the edge of his palm slid across the page of text. He rarely shared his stories, but wrote them because they needed to be written. He always favored the style of beginning the story in the middle. Usually with a monologue or conversation between two characters. His stories frequently built upon some trope or genre or show that he was interested in at the time, and ranged from stories of life in outer space, to paramilitary GI-Joe inspired dramas, to a young boy named Chris.”
Chris’s family and friends grew accustomed to his oddities and chalked them up to the quirks of genius. Even as an adult he had trouble distinguishing between Alex and twin brother Aaron (the former on the left, the latter on the right in linked photo). He simply loved the two equally and called them “uggah-nuggies,” leading the brothers to name a camp site on the family farm in honor of the sobriquet. “Chris,” says Aaron, “was always oblivious in the most charming ways.”
The family was likewise good-humored about the rigidity of personality that Chris sometimes showed. “When his Uncle Denis, and I were getting married,” recalls Chris’s aunt, Rebecca Meadows, “we were all waiting, visiting among several of us, in the church library until time to start the wedding. Out of nowhere a 16-year-old Chris said in a loud voice, ‘Excuse me, this is a library and there should be quiet! I’d like to read this book!’ He had picked up a book in the church library and started reading. Later, when we got our wedding pictures back, there was Chris with his head in that book during our wedding ceremony! We got a big kick out of that!”
Based on his TeleRead articles, at least, Chris generally favored such authors as Cory Doctorow and other writers popular among young adults. While generally sympathetic to the public domain, he was far less interested in old books than new ones. My preferences often were the reverse. But Chris had built a following for his kind of literature, and he served our readers well, so I haven’t the slightest regret for letting Chris focus on what he loved.
360-degree media critic
As shown by an in-depth post on Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Chris was fascinated by the multi-media nuances of book-movie-game tie-ins, sometimes to the advantage of the movie over the book, as in RPO’s case. Chris wrote: “A number of the elements that the novel’s critics explicitly decried as problematic were transmuted or eliminated in the movie. The plot was rewritten in ways that managed to capture the essence of the story while considerably improving it. It’s like the difference between a first draft and a final novel after it’s been edited and workshopped to a fare-thee-well.” For good measure, Chris even analyzed the book and movie in the context of Gamergate. He concluded that the former might have been an unfair victim of the understandable backlash against the sexism of certain gamers. No question—Chris was a 360-degree media critic.
Early on, Chris evinced a passion for cartoons and board games, not just books and movies. Alex recalls the three brothers arising early on Saturdays to take on the Harmony Gold Robotech cartoon series inspired by Japanese anime. They also “had the toys, we found the role-playing game at some point, and we bought all 18 of the novels written before and after the shows”—plus other Robotech offerings ranging from DVDs of old TV episodes, games and tickets to the film based on the series.
“Chris enjoyed movies quite a bit,” Alex says. “His first undergraduate degree was in broadcast media. He especially enjoyed Hong Kong films with Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Samo Hung. He loved anime of all sorts… He loved Hayao Miyazaki films.
“I think his favorite movie was Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro—a charming Japanese anime with a clever and somewhat zany master criminal and his varied companions. He didn’t just love these films, though; he loved the story around the films themselves. He knew arcane connections between certain animes, and certain blockbuster films, and between different movie studios, and producers. He recalled perfectly a litany of facts about the entire James Bond franchise and would point these sorts of things out to anyone he watched with. He would frequently watch movies together with his online friends, sort of his own mystery science theater.”
Chris earned two bachelor’s degrees, in mass media and computer systems, respectively, from Missouri State University—his love of movies may have helped explain the media major. As for computers, they were a great incentive for him to learn to type so fast. Computers were his favorite way of interacting with the world, as demonstrated by the many text messages he sent me rather than phoning. And convenience wasn’t the only explanation. With understandable exceptions such as family, he truly felt more at home with texting as a demon typist and denizen of the virtual world. Chris favored mechanical keyboards, the clickety-clack kind. “When Chris was on the computer,” Alex says, “it frequently sounded like a battlefield, with intermittent silence and bursts of machine gun-like typing.”
He was also a master copy editor. One employer, O’Reilly Automotive, tested Chris and other tech writers and discovered he was so good at tracking down spelling and grammatical errors in a test document—he found all of them!—that the company couldn’t even assign him an accurate score. So says Alex. Having seen Chris in action as a writer and editor for TeleRead, I’m hardly amazed. Would that he’d have been able to share his proofing-related brain cells with me!
With Chris’s brilliance at explaining tech in plain English to the rest of the cosmos, it was natural that he ended up as a supporter staffer for the old MCI telecommunications company and later for a local Internet service provider.
“Chris had an uncanny knack for talking people through complex procedures,” Alex says. “His patience was absolutely infinite and he was completely unflappable in dealing with customers. Part of his Asperger’s Syndrome symptoms was a nearly complete inability to register emotion in someone’s voice.
“This seeming limitation was an absolute superpower for phone support. The most upset and irate customer was met with absolute professionalism and complete calm. At which point, Chris could deliver a complete walk-through on any process needed for any product required. He had found his calling.” In time, Chris worked as a phone support staffer for Anthem’s Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance products.
“Chris provided phone support to doctors and nurses on policies and products,” Alex says. “He was frequently praised by peers and managers, and recognized by vice presidents in the company for his flawless service.”
Imagine how much the TeleRead blog benefitted from Chris’s first-hand experiences demystifying technology and other complexities directly for consumers. Not to mention his love of tech!
Chris squeezed half a dozen computers into his apartment in the historic Indianapolis neighborhood of Irvington, and over the years he owned scores of tablets and ereaders and similar gadgets, including the Palm Pilot on which he began reading ebooks in the 1990s. “When he arrived at new destination,” Alex says, “he would begin by unpacking his arsenal of tablets, phones, and ebook readers and establishing his command center. He had stands, and keyboards, battery packs and charging cables. And he always had something to do on them. I’m not sure what he was doing most of the time. Writing, researching, chatting with friends, and who knows what else.”
Knowing his brother’s singular fixation on computers, Alex pranked him and a close friend, a learned Egyptologist and university history department chair who was excited to meet Chris for the first time. “When Chris arrived, he immediately began unpacking his kit, laying out device after device. As Kevin came up to him, I intercepted and made the introduction: ‘Chris, this is my friend Kevin—he thinks ebooks are passe. And then I vanished. The scholarly Kevin was completely speechless and couldn’t get a word in as Chris calmly laid into him with a history of ebooks and ebook readers and a thesis on the merits of various systems of text portability and product delivery. It was more than five minutes before Kevin could break in and apologize—though he had done nothing wrong—and extricate himself.”
Loved to play anthropomorphic humanoid cats
In a related vein, Alex recalls that Chris loved video games, especially “City of Heroes—a massively multiplayer online role playing game where players take on the persona of a superhero and fight crime in a futuristic metropolis. Chris always played anthropomorphic humanoid cats.” In real life, he owned two old-fashioned cat-cats. I can’t resist publishing for the second or third time a snapshot of Chris with both of his felines. “Benjie, a male brown and black tabby, is a Bengal cat,” Judy says. “Diva, the female yellow tabby is a domestic shorthair. They are about 12 years old.” How tragic that Judy’s son wouldn’t live to publish whatever novels he might have been mulling over in his mind. The bearded, bespectacled Chris, holding his endlessly loved cats and on the cusp of a smile, would have been perfect on a book jacket. Or maybe some kind of promo for the right game?
“The last time I saw Chris before the accident,” Alex says, “he rode down to my house for the afternoon and introduced me to a new game he was enjoying called Hardspace: Shipbreaker. He methodically walked me through a couple levels of it and advised me on the best approach to take in considering how to clear each level. In that game, you play as a space salvage yard specialist tasked with cutting down spaceships and salvaging their systems. It is a sort of 3-dimensional puzzle game, wrapped in an interesting story.”
Alex says: “When I think about all these different memories of my oldest brother, I see a few threads in them. Chris was always captivated by the story whether it was one that he was telling, or one that he was receiving, or one that he created in his technical support conversations with customers. Chris was empowered by the technology—it expanded his world, it created his most meaningful interactions through the internet, and it gave him something to share with his friends and family and with strangers. And Chris inspired the creativity in others. His stories galvanized us to create maps and sub stories and visions. His tech support removed roadblocks and created new opportunities. His online presence started communities. His advice created new franchises in ebooks.”
Yes, some very smart people in the publishing industry did read Chris on ebooks and other topics. “I haven’t entirely agreed with Chris’s postings,” recalled Bill Rosenblatt, a specialist copyright and digital rights management, among other fields, on learning of the bike accident, “but that’s the beauty of it. His has been an enlightened and enlivening voice in the discussions over publishing, technology, copyright, etc.”
“He will be missed,” said Mark Coker, the founder of the Smashwords publishing platform. Kathy Sandler, a veteran tech expert at Penguin Random House, linked from her personal tech-blog to our news of Chris’s death.
Over at the Digital Reader blog, Nate Hoffelder was both a friend and competitor of Chris. When TeleRead was owned by a small publishing conglomerate, Chris interrupted his time here to work for Nate. In a TeleRead comment, Nate said: “Chris was, well, if something had happened to me, he was going to get my blog and all of my gadgets.”
So why was Chris fated to die at only 47? “I think his great intellect caused him to be concentrating on more important things than what he was doing at the time,” his father tells me by email. “He was not good at doing several things at once—keeping several balls in the air, as the expression goes—and yet he was always trying to do more than one thing at inappropriate times. He would be driving and trying to adjust a listening device or do some other thing and not notice that the car ahead had stopped at a light, so would rear-end it. He would be thinking of other things and not notice that he was going too fast to make a curve, so would flip his car and wreck it. I think that whether in a car or on a bike, he was always a distracted driver.” During a virtual communion meditation, Mark Meadows said: “He owned five cars in his lifetime and wrecked four of them. He wrecked bicycles and motor scooters.” Chris struck an SUV when he was crossing a busy highway from a side street and very likely not paying attention. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Would it have saved his life? I won’t speculate. I just wish Chris could have worn a helmet to protect him against all kinds of misfortune.
“Even when he was a kid,” Mark said, “bad luck seemed to plague him. One little example that was a family joke is that if we accidentally left a piece of eggshell in the scrambled eggs, it was a foregone conclusion that Chris would get it in his portion.” Alex recalls: “It became such a staple of our family that on a rare occasion when someone else got an egg shell, we identified that as ‘having received Chris portion.'”
Yes, Chris got a lot of eggshells in his life. But oh how lucky his family, friends, and readers were to have him in their own!
Note: The hit-and-run driver in the October 8 accident has been caught. On another matter, if you want to donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of Chris’s favorite causes, go here. Also, we’ve published the Meadows family’s own remembrances, so you can read them directly.
Update, October 24: Len Edgerly of the Kindle Chronicles podcast remembered Chris at the start of the October 24 program. Thanks, Len. Chris reviewed his share of Kindle products over the years for TeleRead and was a guest on Len’s show of July 31, 2015.