It’s been said a person is lucky to have one friend. And were I to have just one, it was Anatoly Rhyzenko. Since 2004, he served as the webmaster of Planet Waves, and in the process, on that long journey, became my business partner, my fellow prankster, and best friend.
For 16 years, we tracked one another online nearly around the clock, building just about everything you know as Planet Waves, plus all of our side projects, and free websites for many of our friends. Or favorite thing to do were elaborate April Fool’s Day pranks, which could happen any time of year, on any occasion.
We worked together with a mutual sense of purpose that I’ve never experienced before. We fed another’s work ethic, determination and passion for doing something meaningful on the internet.
Last week, Anatoly succumbed to complications of colon cancer. He did not die of cancer; that, the doctors managed to cure, though in the process destroying his colon and immune system.
Since late 2017, he endured nine surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy, gene therapy, and a month of radiation treatment in late 2019. This was all agonizing, and the recoveries became more difficult. By far the two hardest months for him were when he was staying at a remote clinic for radiation treatment, and the last month, when he was subjected to three operations, all of which failed. Like many before him, he was essentially an experimental subject.
As he went through these procedures, our organization learned how to work without his presence. We would pass his security document with website access to a designated person, and we would do our best.
While this routine provided some time to prepare for losing him, that only gets one so far. It’s both sad and strange to not have him here to talk to, or to plot and scheme with, or to plan the next stage of work with. A website is a farm, and there is always something to attend to.
As he said to be shortly before going into the hospital a month ago, “We have work to do.” He fully intended to live. With the proper care, he might have.
Late Nights Online in Paris
I meet Anatoly soon after I moved to Paris. I was looking for a developer for a side project, called Planet Waves Parenting. I advertised on Craig’s List in Australia, and he responded from Ukraine.
That project went nowhere, but I discovered a dependable person who was not afraid to work with drive. I think he did 10 different versions of the Parenting site till I liked it, and I realized who I was working with.
I learned that he was a chess player. Most of my male friends are, so even though I don’t play, I learn a lot about strategy from men who do. On one occasion we were threatened by a copyright troll, and he quickly came up with the one angle that demolished their case.
He had been in the Soviet navy on the crew of a submarine — one powered by diesel, not nuclear. I gather that it was not pleasant. Being on a submarine crew demands the ultimate discipline in military service, and he had plenty. Every day I was greeted with good morning sir, and he meant it. I don’t think we missed a single day working together from our first day in 2004 till his first hospitalization in 2017.
We communicated mostly by instant message. Mostly via AIM and later Jabbr, he’s personally entered no fewer than 5,000 edits into my articles as we went to press. He invented the official Planet Waves salute of the Kissy Face emoji.
The green light on his Jabber account was on until Tuesday morning. I keep wanting to text him. Through many phases of his illness and in particular the past month, I would check in with him every few hours. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I still feel the impulse to see how he’s doing.
We worked constantly and had fun all the time. He was absolutely tireless, positive, and could keep up with my ideas and pace of production. I would provide the content and the creative direction, and he would make the thing happen. In web development there is a lot of do it, check it, and revert if it doesn’t quite work. We did lots of that.
Spontaneous Trip to Ukraine
One day in January, I spontaneously booked a flight to Kiev and got to spend two weeks with him. The intensity of our work schedules had seemed to prevent this, but when I got the inner guidance to go, I checked with him quickly and bought my tickets, and was there a few days later.
I got to spend two weeks with him when he was feeling good, and we published Planet Waves first from an apartment in Kiev and then one in his home city. And for the first time, we worked together in the same space. It was not that different, just more fun.
In 20 different restaurants, I watched and listened as Anatoly gave the wait staff the second, third and fourth degree, making sure that not a molecule of gluten got in my food. None did. In many of the photos of us, he looks like the head of my security team, surveying the street and ready to block anyone who might get near me.
As it turned out, those were among the last weeks left of the old world: the world where people would approach one another, hang out, eat together, and work together, without the kind of fear we experience now. I found Kiev to be a fantastic place to travel, with a hint of Paris but much more laid back.
We roamed around Kiev for a week, taking Ubers all over the place, and eating in many of the amazing restaurants in that town. We explored the city with the help of a guide and photographer who took the photos of us. Her name was Anastasia though Anatoly had her contact information.
We then headed by train 12 hours to his hometown of Zaporizhia, so I could meet his wife Iren and daughter Cate, who was just one year old when I met her dad. Who was known by his family for working a lot, for always being online, even if only guarding the For Directions.
When we parted ways on the last day of January, we had agreed to meet up in Paris in May and work from there for a few weeks. Then Europe, Ukraine and the United States locked down.
Some of our many projects…
We have created many editions of the Planet Waves homepage, though none so beautiful or successful as the current version. There have been several versions of the Planet Waves FM website, with the most beautiful being the current one. Anatoly handled development for nearly all of the Planet Waves annual editions. We did three different versions of Book of Blue. We have a compilation of my best sex writing on a site called Yogi Slut.
One of our favorite projects was the Dixon Dorms website, dedicated to informing students and their parents about the contaminated residence halls at SUNY New Paltz — and the worldwide exposé on PCBs and dioxins that resulted.
Over the years we did much work on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which took place fairly close to where Anatoly lived. The nuclear issue was, as a result, near and dear to our hearts, and we rarely missed a commemoration of Chernobyl in some form, if only privately.
However, as mentioned, our favorite thing to do was satires. Anatoly had a fantastic wit, and was an enabler of my love of pranks. Some had five different technical elements, including using offshore servers, VPNs, a twitter account or whatever it took. One fake article linked to a fake website to make it more convincing.
One of my favorites among these the Emotoscope, a spoof on a newspaper horoscope column using emojis instead of Sun signs. One year we announced to the world that I had been appointed the White House astrologer.
One April Fool’s Day, we reported that Dick Cheney had claimed credit for the Sept. 11 incident. That one went viral. Some were furious that it wasn’t true. (Betty Dodson was so angry it was a joke, she didn’t talk to me for a month.)
Buddha with a Bulldozer
We have spoofed everything from The New York Times (a single fake “opinion” article, banned on Facebook) to the local news website in the Hudson Valley and many things between. I just remembered a modern classic, the Sicilian Anti-Defamation League, a mock on political correctness as told by a Mafia don. One of our last projects was GLU-Anon, exposing the international gluten conspiracy.
Late last year we posted an article about how the local community would dispense with the traditional New Year’s Eve celebration and instead, host an orgy in all the businesses. This got about 40,000 visits in a few days in a small local community, nearly blowing up the server — our biggest viral hit, which caused quite a brilliant fuss in my Catholic town. (We got it going by emailing it to the biggest yentes in the community — people in the media, and real estate agents.)
Anatoly was a technician, an artist and Buddha with a Bulldozer, or sometimes a pick and shovel, doing the gritty part of web maintenance and security that few want to do.
The internet is a different place without your presence, though you also seem to be everywhere.
For most people, the internet is a cold and alienating world. For me, has been as warm as a house with a fireplace. And if Planet Waves has ever kept you warm on a cold night, you can thank Anatoly for that. He built the place and has kept it standing.
Thank you for all the chess moves, and your impeccable loyalty.
May the Four Winds blow you safely home.