Tag Archives: memory

Screenshot of the Spotify playlist

Wish You Were Here

Last weekend, I went back to the town Jeff and I shared as kids.

Woodstock is quiet and comfortable, with a picturesque central square ringed by historic buildings. On every block, a house holds some faint memory that at once fills me with glee and melancholy. My hometown invites me to return, but it never seems to allow me to go back.

The occasion of this trip was to celebrate Jeff’s life. Our friends gathered across generations for hugs, laughs and tears. For my part, I had many things I intended to say but struggled to find those words when I finally stepped to the microphone. Later, when the crew moved north to a karaoke bar, I nearly drowned in a flood of memories while crossing the Square. Instead, I walked alone on rainy streets for hours until it became tomorrow.

To prepare for this night, Jeff made a playlist. In the din of conversation, however, his music became background noise whose message was overlooked. I wanted to listen to the playlist on the long ride back to Indiana, but I couldn’t find it on Spotify. When Jeff’s brother sent me the link that night, I couldn’t stop listening.

Music is a conversation

I don’t know if the order was important, but the first song in Jeff’s Funeral Mix is the Pink Floyd classic, “Wish You Were Here.” That recording begins with someone tuning channels on an old radio, the sound initially only flowing into my right ear. Once the familiar riff begins, the song switches to stereo and doesn’t let go. It was as if Jeff was teasing me, making me think my headphones are broken only to let me off the hook before the joke went too far.

From the start, I could hear Jeff speaking through every song.

Back in August, just two months before he died, Jeff wrote about the importance of curating playlists. For the times when his family, friends, and support group were not available, music was his companion:

Half the therapy is in constructing the lists themselves, some of which I have not even had time to really listen to. But I know the tunes and I know why they are included in each list, and just knowing that, having that familiarity, sometimes feels enough.

I had this in my mind as I listened to the music Jeff had assembled. The selections are eclectic, mixing rock with country, rap, jazz and novelty songs. Jeff chose every one of them for reasons that are not always obvious, reasons that I may never understand. Together, the songs become a long conversation, like the kind that unfold on distant car rides or during midnight phone calls.

Even without the luxury of a fresh take on his world, Jeff left us a full half-day of thoughts and feelings packed into his playlist. In one click, I can shuffle his songs into a new order and let him talk to me about something new.

Sometimes, Jeff tells me it is time for him to go. Later, he comforts me. There are Monty Python skits and children’s lullabies for humor and whimsy. He speaks directly to his family in both overt and subtle ways. Sometimes, he shares what he is feeling about leaving us, or about playing with the bad cards he was dealt. For songs with no clear message, I am left to speculate what Jeff might have told me about his music if I had listened sooner.

We have time for love

Not being a Spotify guy, I have recreated the playlist in Apple Music for my own convenience. Not everything translated across platforms, though, so a handful of songs are missing or differ from the exact version Jeff chose. I also added two songs of special importance to me, when I think of my friend.

The first is Louis Armstrong’s contribution to the James Bond canon, “We Have All the Time in the World.” It harkens back to one of our first projects, a short film at a camp at Indiana State University in 1985. This song was the joke, moving slowly and sweetly as young Jeff frantically scrambled on screen to avoid being late for class. As with most of my projects, I didn’t quite finish, but the memory of our collaboration endures.

The second is a song from a musical I have never seen. I heard it by chance on the drive south out of Woodstock, on one of my wife’s playlists that we chose when I couldn’t find Jeff on Spotify. Ben Platt’s “For Forever” is sung by a lonely kid who imagines a close friendship with a classmate he didn’t really know. I cried as I listened, both for the strong bond the lyrics describe and for the underlying guilt echoing in the context of the plot, making me question the many times I should have been a better friend.

With my two additions, I listen to Jeff’s playlist over and over because I need our conversations to continue, even if they are imagined. I need Jeff to tell me that it was time for him to go, but it will be OK. I want him to share his pain and then crack a joke or find a way to laugh at his circumstance in the next song. I want him to express love for his family and for me, and I want him to do so for forever.

213 songs can be rearranged in many ways. With this gift, Jeff has invited me to an infinite number of conversations with him, each consuming up to a half day. That’s more than enough love to last a lifetime.

Young Jeff in the dim light of the WHS dressing room

Losing Bits

Earlier this month, my computer broke. It was a long time coming, an inevitable journey for a laptop Apple now calls “obsolete.” Having already suffered everything from missing screws to intermittent lines showing the age of the screen,  the slowness eventually made it impossible to complete a backup. My data at risk, I brought the computer in for care.

A week and a few hundred dollars later, a new solid state hard drive lived in my laptop with most of the age dusted off. However, the replaced drive wouldn’t release all of its data and cost me some applications and my bearings. Some of the bits have not yet returned. Some never will.

I’ve experienced other catastrophic computer failures in my life. Despite devoted backup practices, a screenplay was once eaten by the clicking of a SyQuest drive, and a similar thing happened with Iomega a few years later. In both cases, large chunks of my life disappeared, including my first decade of email activity. While I don’t need to every day, more than once I have wanted to look for something old, something that did not survive the waves of technology.

Much of my anxiety about this particular digital crisis stems from the death of my friend, Jeff. The last complete backup I was able to get came in July. I was therefore confident I would avoid starting completely from scratch but assured that no new writing or other correspondence since would be recovered from that backup. Many of our thoughts and interactions are on social media, but some files I wouldn’t be able to recreate.

Death never disrupted my home. Meaning, I have never had the experience of walking past a silent room knowing someone I love used to occupy that space. TV and movies tell me this is a thing the bereaved have to face: what to do with the silent room.

One of the things I have done over the past few weeks is to look at old yearbooks, the social media of my youth. I paged through surviving yearbooks from Freshman, Sophomore and Senior years—what happened to my Junior year, I don’t know—looking at pictures of Jeff and for the words he left for me. This, and a handful of artifacts preserved in some Tupperware box, are the tangible proof of our connection. As long as I keep them close and don’t write on them further, they remain as they were and always will be.

In the decades that followed high school—constituting the bulk of our relationship—the artifacts are mostly digital. While J was always a good letter writer, we embraced email to embrace each other. From politics to entertainment, these remote exchanges left a sizable digital footprint. I don’t have many pictures of us together as adults, but I had the emails. Like the yearbooks, to preserve them I only had to keep them safe.

As I type, I still hope to read them again. Most of my email was sent through a POP account, which ultimately means that the only copy likely in existence is what was on my laptop. Through much effort, I believe I have my email files back on my laptop, but they remain invisible to me when I open the application to view them. Leaving them in that state for the moment, I draw comfort in the uncertainty. I don’t know if they are forever lost, which is better than knowing for sure.

These bits comprise the digital life I have created with Jeff. Every time I open my laptop, I walk past this virtual room, knowing there is an open invitation to walk inside and sit. I can venture in and see him exactly as he was. I can keep my memories fresh. Maybe that is what I fear most about losing these messages: Without them, my memories will fade and Jeff will disappear.

There was a moment in this process of restoration when I launched my computer and saw nothing familiar. My Chrome browser lost all of its open tabs. Many applications reset to scratch. Once I found where that information lived—and realized the techs had not restored a hidden directory—I was able to get those things back.

I launched Chrome to check my work. In my Facebook window, a chat with Jeff reappeared, right where I left it. It contained the last interaction I had with him. I told him I loved him, he told me he loved me, and we ended with a joke. In this new moment, I am relieved to see his room still exists. I read it as a new message saying everything will be all right.

Today, that’s enough. I’m walking away knowing he’s in there, somewhere.

Carter Mondale pin

Voting With Jeff

Today is Election Day, so declared in 1845. It was a practical decision that accounted for a number of factors our young nation was facing.

We recognized the realities of our agrarian nature by scheduling a vote after harvest season, but not so far into winter as to make northern roads impassable from snow. We saw the effects of technology improving our communications, compounding the advantages of some states voting later than others, and so we made everyone in the U.S. vote on the same day. We chose Tuesday so as not to interfere with either Sabbath or Market Day, two institutions of our society. We tossed in the specificity of waiting until after the first Monday of November to keep the vote of electors a consistent 29 days apart.

Today is that day. While some of the magic has dulled from widespread adoption of early voting, I am still an open-presents-on-Christmas kind of guy. I like the pageantry, taking the day off to bask in democracy and share the experience with friends.

One of those friends, however, is now gone.

The earliest conversations Jeff and I had about politics came during our time at Northwood Elementary School. At some point, our teachers taught us about the election process by having us pick sides, hold up signs, and pretend we were at a national convention. Despite living in a Republican county, I started on Team Carter and never looked back. I’m certain Jeff wasn’t on my side of the fence initially, but as the years progressed we found common ground in the same pasture.

Politics drove much of our conversation over the years. We wrote—poorly—articles with political themes for the LeProCon, our high school periodical. We exchanged letters in college, occasionally commenting on the different politics of the Midwest and California. Long before social media, we emailed our debates. At some point, frustrated with the crop of politicians and policies, we created ThirdParty.org to be a forum for alternative politics. Four decades into our relationship, our politics was still central to our interactions.

On this particular Tuesday, I find myself missing Jeff more than any point since I got the sad news of his death. This is the kind of day we lived for, with high stakes following a long period of activism.

I want to talk to him about walking for Liz Watson, my local candidate for Congress, and why it took this long to knock on doors and donate meaningfully to a campaign. I want to tell him when our Indiana polls close and inquire about his own ballot choices. I want to stay up late into the night (for me) to watch the results come in, looking for virtual high fives or hugs, depending on the results. I want to conspire once again on impractical projects to change the world.

Today, I find myself angry at the arbitrary choice to vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. I don’t know if Jeff was able to vote this year. California’s early voting started on October 8th, and it is conceivable he might have stopped his last Uber at a polling center somewhere, just in case, or filled out an absentee ballot as a precaution. Probably not, though. When it came to voting, he was an open-presents-on-Christmas kind of guy, and an eternal optimist. I find myself cursing agrarian society and the Sabbath and Market Day and all of the things that conspired to keep Jeff from enjoying today.

I found an old Carter/Mondale button in my son’s car. It reminded me of those early political conversations with Jeff, so I pinned it to my chest. I carried Jeff with me to the polls, and he helped me fill out my ballot.

Today, should you be on the fence about voting, please let Jeff take you to the polls.