Last month I received a text letting me know a friend of mine had died. He was young, only in his 50s, but had lived life hard. His name was Bill. Bill was a coworker of mine, and four years ago when I moved into a new apartment I invited some people over to break in the space. Bill couldn’t stay long, but he gave me a gift card to celebrate. It was a small, but unnecessarily kind gesture that really stuck out to me. The next year, my good fortune continued and I moved into a house. Because of the timing of things I ended up throwing a housewarming and there was Bill again, helping to welcome the space, bringing with him a dozen donuts and his usually crass sense of humor.
Sometime in 2017 Bill disappeared from work for a while. He tore his bicep and took a leave from work. His health was always up and down. One day, I got a call from him asking if I could come over to his apartment to help him out. In a drunken haze he purchased a new laptop and a 70″ television, and when they delivered the TV he had no way of setting it up considering both its size, his condition, and the fact he was short a functioning arm. I helped him get it all set up, but was sad because—while outwardly happy and gracious—he was badly slurring his words stumbling to a point where he almost fell down a few times. The next year Bill disappeared on another leave, but no one really knew what happened. We figured it had to do with his family, or his health, or any number of other matters which Bill was prone to keeping private.
When I quit that job I started to let a little bit more out about what my intentions were to some friends I’d made in the company. Bill was one of the people I talked to. I told him I had started my masters program in counseling and was going to work at an alcohol and drug rehab, and that both decisions were driven by my own struggles with addiction and a desire to work with people who needed that kind of help. It was then that Bill let me know his last leave of absence was spent at the very facility I was going to work at.
When I found out that Bill had died I felt a sense of grief, in part knowing that same week would have marked two years of sober for him. The date was on my calendar, but I didn’t so much as send him a text to say congratulations or let him know I was proud of him.
That thought led me to this project, in a way. Cooped up in quarantine I’ve felt an inflated lack of self-worth, particularly tied to an inability to remain “productive” amid everything that’s going on. That’s a problem, and one I’m not alone in experiencing. But thinking about Bill, and how I was proud of the changes he was making in his life—even though he might not have known—helped me feel like I wasn’t seeing my own situation clearly. I thought if I could distill that idea, what with all the swirling events taking place around us, it may be a worthwhile venture to spend some time focusing on those kinds of thoughts using a medium like a podcast. As is the theme of this year, however, things have changed drastically since then.
My story of Bill is unrelated to the idea presented in the audio, but it’s not without connection. Last week I learned another friend died. And yesterday M. and I spent the afternoon at a gathering to support a mutual friend whose mom also died last week. A while back my sister sent me a TED Talk by Johann Hari, and when I finally got around to watching it yesterday I was struck by line that seems serendipitous to where I’m at right now and what this first episode is all about: “we live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life.” In a number of different ways right now, it feels like life is sending messages that this “machine” desperately wants us to avoid hearing.
No doubt, David Foster Wallace wasn’t talking about the acknowledgement and understanding of institutional racism when he gave his Kenyon College commencement address. And Bill wasn’t exactly the most woke guy on the planet, so bringing up that story in context of racial equality brings with it a certain sense of irony. But somehow it’s all tied together.
Last Saturday I attended a march with the friend whose mother died last week, and in a text a few days back that friend wrote me “The last time I talked to her was Saturday before I went to pick you up. She’d told me she was proud of me for going to march.” I have to believe that the same machine that wants us to overlook what’s important is connected to the system that wants us to think we’re alone, that no one’s watching, and that little of what we do can have a greater impact. But even in the face of such pressure, the movement taking shape right now is not the result of remaining silent. And those voices and actions are being noticed, and from them more positive momentum can develop. My main objective right now to keep listening and learning, but it’s in the spirit of continuing positive action despite a machine that is trying to stifle it that I share this episode and the concepts I hope it communicates.
- This episode features the song “Self Driving” by Smo, used under a Creative Commons license from the Free Music Archive.
- The clip featuring Chenjerai Kumanyika comes from episode one, “Turning the Lens,” of Scene on Radio’s Seeing White podcast series by John Biewen.
- David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address can be heard in its entirety here.