Sweet and Sad
April 21 is always a somber time of year for me. Five years ago today I watched Mike, one of my best friends from college, ride off on his motorcycle from a happy hour I threw in San Francisco.
Half a decade later the pain is still very real. I struggle to bring up Mike in conversation. When he does come up (which isn’t an uncommon practice given that he and many of my other close friends in college had a hugely formative impact on my life) I quickly try to hide behind a ramshackle aegis of good memories and anecdotes to avoid the end.
Today I’m two years older than Mike ever got to be. And as my own twenties wind to a close, and I try to reconcile the lessons and experiences I had in this chapter of my life, my memories of Mike and the lessons I learned from our friendship remain an unwalked and painful path through some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the last decade.
But I want to know them. I want to understand them. I want to find a way to carve Butler’s memory — and respect how formative he has been in building me into the person I am today — into this final narrative of my first foray into adulthood.
In doing so, I’m reminded of a poem I once saw carved onto the walls of a subway station in Washington DC. It was an excerpt written by the early transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, a painful memory of his experiences winding the corridors of a military hospital during the height of the Cold War. On the walls of the DuPont Station were these lines from his somber verse The Dresser:
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night — some are so young;
Some suffer so much — I recall the experience sweet and sad . . .
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the transcendentalists. Despite their literary acclaim, history tells us that many of them were basically the period version of hipster douchebags.
The famed Thoreau basically just sat in Emerson’s backyard the entire time pretending he was an outdoorsman. Emerson himself was kind of a pompous jerk at times (“no law can be sacred to me except that of thy nature” is pretty easy to say when you’re rich and not getting killed in the Civil War, homie). And Walt Whitman, as evidenced in his pretty outlandish Songs of Myself, is self-absorbed to near Kardashian levels.
This all being said, they are some of the best writers in American history. Whitman is no exception, and that last line (“I recall the experience sweet and sad”) perfectly describes the conflict of emotions I feel when I crack open the locked door in my mind hiding the five years or so I spent with Mike.
So, with a deep breath today, I’ve decided to pull out that set of worn brass keys and unlock that door. I want to find some way to square away what I learned from Mike.
Pain and all.
“Seriously, where the fuck are we?”
It’s dark. Really dark. The lounge we’re in is seemingly lit only by the bizarre techno remix of late 70’s disco songs that the hipster Brooklyn DJ in the corner is blasting.
I’ve been told, somewhere, that this is all on purpose. In the actual prohibition the lighting was kept low to hide the color of the liquid in the coffee mugs we were drinking out of — an abortive maneuver to help give time to the speakeasy’s owners to ditch some of the alcohol in time during a raid.
But while this is a seedy “underground” speakeasy in New York, it certainly isn’t prohibition. It’s 2010. And to even really see Butler’s expression I have to light up my iPhone and go off of its lambent glow, an increasingly difficult task given the potency of the n-number of drinks we’ve had this evening.
“Dude, I don’t even know,” I slur. “Like…there’s a guy…in front. We go down this fucking alley to fucking Narnia or wherever. Like what the fuck is this place?”
“And how do they even know we went down the right part of the alley,” Butler lights up. “Like seriously! Some poor design here. They need like a fence or something.”
I nod in complete agreement of Butler’s assessment, and swig another whatever-the-fuck-is-this from my coffee mug.
Putting the cup down, I measure the room and notice it’s just him and me at our table. Edlyn is gone somewhere, possibly getting more drinks. Nan never showed up. And the rest of our friends from college who decided to come out to Manhattan as a farewell CS Club trip are dispersed throughout the bar on an adventure.
Butler picks up on what I’m doing. “Yeah, I have no fucking idea where Ramos is. Parris is still here but he’s...busy.”
He nods to the corner, and sure enough there he is. We both drunkenly raise our glasses in a cheer to him — one which he does not return or even notice due to the pitch black lighting and his feverant dedication to giving a girl who just joined us standing CPR.
I settle back in my chair. Butler has already done the same. And almost on cue both of us start laughing, noting how ridiculous it is that we’re drinking alcohol out of coffee mugs in an overly-into it speakeasy that’s playing techno-disco music somewhere on the Lower East Side.
A pause settles. I break it. “Is this what you thought it would be like after college? Like, after all of the CS Club and everything?”
Butler laughs. “You mean, did I think we’d be sitting here in New York drinking alcohol out of coffee mugs in a fake speakeasy playing disco?”
I shake my head. “No I mean, like, this. Vudu is killing it right now. You’re totally going to be one of those successful startup guys. Johan is making insane money at eBay. Like, did that all seem apparent to you at the end of college?”
Butler shook his head noncehelantly. “Not really, but who knows right? I mean, does it matter if you don’t see stuff coming?”
I return Butler a serious glare, softened by seven shots of liquor. “For me it does.” Butler sees that I’m serious and clicks what I’m talking about, as one of the few people in our friends that sees how I think. He sighs.
“Look, Andy, things are going to get really crazy soon. And while you may be good with people in ways none of us really are — or anyone in some cases — you’re not going to be able to foresee what’s going to happens.”
Butler takes another draught from his mug, quoting Alan Turing knowing that I’ll know its significance: “we can only look so far into the future, after all.”
This is a problem for me. For the last four years I’ve dragged myself through some rough, hard times by keeping my eyes on the prize. But weeks away from the end of school, the prize is here.
Soon there won’t be a big crusade I’m fighting. Soon my life is going to switch from being some scrappy renegade college kid to some product manager in Sunnyvale. And I’m scared. I’m scared I’m going to lose my edge and never do anything worthwhile in my twenties — or at all. I’m scared I’m going to lose my passion in the monotony of being a corporate 9–5.
I’m scared I’m going to become boring.
I tell this to Butler as he listens intently, his dark eyes locked on me throughout the conversation and lit up only with the occasional photo flash from someone’s smartphone or a bouncer sweeping the room with his mini-maglite. I feel like he’s searching to see if my melancholy is just me being drunk. After a few minutes of me gushing my concern of losing what makes me me, he qualifies that my concern is real.
His response is direct.
“No, that’s bullshit.”
“I think you’re not really concerned with losing your passion. Because that’s just you. I think what you’re really concerned with is that you’re not going to be the Andy you are today to other people. In effect — you’re not scared you’re going to become boring.”
“You’re scared you’re going to become boring to other people.”
The last line drops like a hammer blow. The room somehow seems quieter, and an ephemeral silence drops between us.
“Look, Andy,” Mike sighs leaning in, “your biggest strength is that you can read people really well — better than any of us or anyone I’ve ever met. But it also is your biggest weakness. It means you care too much about what they think, and you’re always trying to be the person in that moment they want you to be rather than who you actually are.”
I shake my head. “I don’t think tha-”
Mike interrupts me. “-no, no you’re wrong. This is totally the truth. Remember how we went skiing, and you were like, ‘oh I can snowboard’ and got a fucking concussion because you tried to go down a blue slope on your first day? Or what about how on our first day meeting — and your first day in college — you try to do TopCoder and fuck everything up titanically?”
Ed. note: By the way, he’s not joking on that one. I somehow broke Java on my first TC SRM so bad that I found a bug that provoked a stack overflow. But that’s another great story.
“All of that shit is you just trying to be like us. And here’s the truth — you’re not like us. You’re not like Johan. Or Parris. Or me.”
“You’re like you.”
I’m a mixture of hurt and confused at this point. Butler sees that, and tries to comfort me after shooing away a waitress.
“Every time I’ve been angry with you over the last four years — well except that time you dated my ex-girlfriend for a year — it was because you weren’t trying to be you. It was you were doing this: you were trying to be exciting for what you knew I was looking for.”
“You ask me how to be happy and not be boring? Here’s how you do that: be fucking boring. Be nerdy. Be weird and talk about all your dumb econ shit that we don’t understand but you go crazy over.”
The last line Butler utters is the one that stays with me forever.
“The trick to being happy isn’t constantly being someone people like. It’s learning how to be happy with the person you just fucking are.”
Butler leans back, satisfied in his sophistry. He finishes his drink as he sees me processing what he said. “Remember that A2. Don’t be fucking lame just to make everyone else happy.”
“And when you’re done, go get us another set of drinks. It’s your round.”
I’ve learned a lot watching Mike. I’ve learned a lot feuding with him. I’ve learned a lot staring over his shoulder and watching him code, or seeing how he played ‘Smash, or hearing him rap the lyrics to Drama in the PhD at parties.
But above all else, what I learned from Butler was the value of being yourself and being relentlessly you. Mike was a master at that.
And I’m grateful for the four years I had to learn that lesson — a lesson I’m still learning to embody and apply years later.
We miss you Mike. I miss you.
Thanks for being an amazing teacher and an even better friend. I’ll see you on the other side one day.
Just not yet.