Friday, June 23, 2017

Make It Count

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Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I stood on the grassy hill in the University of Virginia football stadium for the final time together as students. Maybe we’d stand again later as graduates, maybe we’d sit together in seats later like proper old men, or maybe neither. Who knew how often my former dormmate and I would see each other again, which meant this shouting contest between us on a sunny and crisp Saturday afternoon in late October was critical.

At 6’5”, Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! had a voice with enough bass to scare away some monsters, though not enough to frighten a cancerslayer. I was up for our final shouting contest despite being far from 6’5” or having the voice typical of someone that tall.

The contest went like this: before our Cavaliers kicker kicked off to start the game, the Cavalier players on the field lined up behind the ball. At that point, Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!! and inhaled as much oxygen as our lungs could hold. His lungs were larger, but I always killed it on pulmonary function tests, so I was no slouch. Then, our single-breath screams began as quiet and low-toned “ohs.”

The kicker raised his right arm, signifying he was about to kick. Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I raised our decibel levels like any Christopher Nolan film just before its climax. Matthew McConaughey found the black hole in Interstellar. I would find shouting glory.

The players’ feet began moving. I shouted louder. They began sprinting towards the ball’s plane. My vocal cords unleashed fury on the air and students around me. The kicker wound up his leg and made contact, lifting the football high into the bright blue sky. A screech exited my throat so loud I considered I was in the process of causing an aneurysm. But, I accepted that risk, and as the ball made its descent towards the NC State University Wolfpack players across the field, we finished our shouts and our contest ended.

“Who won?” I asked our impartial friend Dirty-D as I tried regaining equilibrium and a normal blood pressure.

Dirty-D laughed. “It was a valiant effort, Benjy,” he said, and left it at that.

That was almost 11 years ago, and Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I haven’t attended a game together or had a shouting match since. He served our country in the Navy, traveling around the world in submarines with ceilings not nearly tall enough, married and had three kids. We saw each other when we could, including a few nights ago when he came up to D.C. for training. We tried pinpointing the last time we’d seen each other. At first we feared it had been over six years and then we got excited when I recalled the time I visited him at his parents’ house before his latest nine-month deployment. That was about four years ago.

Suddenly, four years since our last encounter was a good thing. Considering family, jobs, the accumulation of obligations and new friends, that made sense and didn’t sound that bad. As Tim Urban wrote in Wait But Why, he sees the friends who live in his city 10 times more often than he sees friends who live somewhere else.

Who knew how often Walterrrrrrrrrrrsssssssss!!!!!!!!!! and I would see each other again, so we made it count: no phones except his one call to his wife and the few times I logged a beer tasting in Untappd; no TV except to check the scores of the Orioles and Nationals’ games; and no debating who really won our shouting match (me).

The next time you’re with a friend who lives outside your town or city: put away your distractions for a few hours and make it count.
My good college friend and I catching up in Alexandria, Virginia

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Google Calendar Notifies Me of Friends' Birthdays. And of Their Deaths.

Some people lie about inconsequential things like who recorded what and who peed on whom. A couple years ago, my friend Parsnip crossed the line: on Facebook, he lied about his birthday.

On the day Facebook said was his birthday, Parsnip’s timeline was flooded with thoughtful posts like “Happy birthday dude!” and “HB.” Hundreds of posts just like that from a spectrum ranging from cousins to Facebook friends he couldn’t recall ever having met.

Birthdays are meaningful and I thought deserving of a one-on-one deep conversation instead of public recognition. So I texted him, “Happy birthday Parsnip!” The exclamation point mattered. I rarely used them in writing because I thought the writer should be able to show excitement through the storytelling and not through a cheap upside down “i”. But Parsnip, who lived on the same hall as I did in our first year of college at the University of Virginia, lived his life like an exclamation point. He deserved mine.

Parnship texted back. “It’s not my birthday. I’m pranking everyone on Facebook. This is hilarious! Thanks though. My real birthday is February 28.”

This was one of many incidents in my decade-long tempestuous relationship with Facebook. Good came from this one, though: I then added Parsnip’s actual birthday in my Google Calendar as an annual event. This way, every February 28 at midnight my phone would silently notify me of his special day, and when I would wake that morning I’d see “Bday: Parsnip” at the top of my phone’s notification screen. Of course, next I would text him “HB.”

In a life filled with terrible ideas, this was among my best. I used technology to enhance instead of dilute my relationship with Parsnip. The simplicity of Bday: Parsnip and the joy it gave me knowing I could participate in his special day each year led me to add many of my family members’ and friends’ birthdays as recurring events in Google Calendar. Some friends now have kids and I want to be in their lives, too, so I added their names and birth year as recurring events. For example: Bday: Baby Parsnip (2020).

But sometimes, good things bring sad things along for the ride. On September 25 that year, I woke excited to see whose birthday joy I could share. I unlocked my phone, swiped down, and then felt ill. I saw Bday: Lings. My passionate, positive, resilient, adventurous, alive, fiercely alive friend Rachel, who I called Lings, had passed away three months before. She was among the best and my favorite people I have met.

Angry that I couldn’t text Lings “HB!” (the exclamation point was a required punctuation mark when writing to Lings), I deleted that notification in Google Calendar. In haste, I even deleted all future reminders of her birthday. In their place, I created a new recurring notification for June 11. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about my new notification “Death: Lings.” It seemed morbid and sad. I decided to leave it and see how I would feel when it would pop up for the first time the next spring. And when it did a year ago today, I felt more joy than any Bday notification. Seeing the date of Lings’ death reminded me of her life.

Today, I again remember. In particular, one image of her pops into my head. It is not the last one I saw of her alive, the one on Facebook with her face puffed up from prednisone and Lings generally not looking well. That is not the image by which I want to remember Lings. Thankfully, I see Lings nine months before her death. Her face is lean, like it always was until the end. She is resting outdoors against a rock—not one we climbed together, but still. And, she is smiling because she is grateful for this one more chance to feel the sun’s and her friends’ warmth.

Right now, I am smiling because I get to read about my last adventure with Lings and actually see this image as opposed to merely visualizing it. I will smile every June 11 when I see Death: Lings.

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