Monday, September 8, 2014

When Things Just Aren't What They Seem

Truthfully, I hoped I would never have to write a piece like this. However, the last couple of weeks have made it so that I can't seem to write anything without this taking up the forefront of my mind.

Twenty seven years ago, I met a guy, a little older than I was, in the San Francisco Bay Area music scene. We were both relative newcomers, working on getting our first bands into the clubs. We had similar backgrounds, similar family lives, we were elder siblings with wild dreams, and we were both a bit on the gaudy and goofy side. I mean that in the absolute best way possible. We both had a penchant for garish clothing, big poofy hair, enjoyed being creative, and making things that we felt spoke to our individuality. We also both loved combing through the bargain bins at Tandy Leather Company, picking up whatever inexpensive notions we could find or afford, and making our own stage clothes with them. One night, I went out to promote for one of my band's early shows and ran into this guy, doing the same for his band. We looked at each other, pointed, laughed and said "dude, nice Tandy Leather bargain find"... and then laughed some more. We started talking. That's when I first got to know a wonderful man, and a friendship developed that would span several years and several bands, for both of us.

We became good friends, albeit in a "band rivalry" kind of way at first. We'd always high five each other for the shows each other was playing, but always in the back of our minds, we kept a tally:

"Hey, congrats on your first Friday night gig!" (we just nailed a Saturday slot).
"Dude, you're opening for Band X? Awesome!" (we just inked to play support for Band Y).
"Hey congratulations for headlining at the Omni!" (we're headlining at The Stone).
"Aww, dude, we're playing the same night? What a bummer!" (I'm totally stealing your crowd).
"Dude, you're gig drew 700 people? That's awesome!" (ours drew 800).

and on and on and on... and we would always laugh about it. We started as rivals, became friends, and in time, became like brothers.

We'd been there through each others ups and downs, the high points and the low points, the transitions that looked like bright futures and the valley where we felt we'd screwed everything up. In 1989, I really felt like I had missed everything, that I'd made a terrible mistake leaving a band that had a solid track record & history and venturing out on my own. It looked all so promising at first, but then, misfire after misfire, in the latter part of the year, I was band-less and alone, and felt like I might never perform again. He jumped on top of me at a club one night while I was feeling down, and in his ever sunny, ultra-cheerful way, gave me a pep talk, told me I just needed to have some faith, keep pushing, and not give up. He believed in me, and knew I'd find something much better than anything I'd been through thus far.

He was right. About two months after that particular pep talk, I agreed to go check out some friends from another band that I'd actually written off before, but decided to give them another look due to the fact that they had two new guys join the group, and they brought a whole new sound and energy to what they had been doing. With that, I decided I had to give them a listen. Subsequently, I joined High Wire, the band that would ultimately be the best group I'd ever perform with.

As things tend to happen, life wanders and meanders, and ultimately, my time with High Wire and with professional performance would come to an end. I'd get married, start a family and change careers, becoming a software tester. My friend would likewise move in different circles, relocate to Los Angeles, and have his own meandering river to follow. We'd reconnect several years later, first through mySpace, and then through Facebook. We'd touch base a time or two, here and there, we'd talk about old gigs, new challenges, where each other was in life, and how we'd gotten knocked down but always got up again. Through it all, my friend had that super sunny disposition, that "Shaka" sign we'd alway throw each other, telling each other to just "hang loose". We'd been buffeted, we'd tumbled and been knocked about, but we always knew we were all right and we'd deal.

On August 26, 2014, the biggest miss of my life took place. Me, the software tester, the one who says never to take anything truly at face value, woke up early to work on a project, and while reading Facebook, saw a post that shook me to my core. It was my friend, my long time, happy go lucky, super positive friend, saying goodbye. Goodbye to everyone. Goodbye to life. And with that, all went quiet. I couldn't believe what I was reading. I wanted to believe it was a joke. It had to be. Maybe it was some trigger and he'd come back and apologize, say he was sorry for getting carried away, and all would be well. We who were his friends went and checked with his family, other friends, those of us who could spent the next few days talking to each other, getting the word out, trying to do anything, by whatever means necessary, to find him. We donated money to Search and Rescue efforts. We asked for friends to share details about him with their friends. Most of all, we did not sleep, we did not eat, we stood at hair trigger attention. We had to know. Was he OK, or not? Was he with us, or not?

Sadly, on Friday, August 29, 2014, we discovered the news. He had been found, on a remote beach in Maui. He was gone. Our efforts to alert the media, to get Search and Rescue teams out to look for him, to get flyers all over the island of Maui and other islands in Hawaii, were what had primed the Park Ranger to be looking for him. When he was discovered, they were able to make an identification; it was indeed him. A bright candle in many of our lives had been put out.

The days since have been challenging. I have so many questions. My heart aches to realize that a friend who was always there for so many of us, to cheer us up in our darkest moments, reached out to none of us in his. We had no clue. Many of us would never in a million years have believed this would happen, certainly not to him. It just made no sense. Yet once we started looking back, over the years, to the challenges and issues he faced, and the ups and downs that went with them, we realized a deeper pattern, one we hadn't seen, or really, one we didn't want to see. That bright and sunny disposition was masking what were to him years of deep disappointment and unfulfilled dreams, of recurring problems and painful memories, to a point where he believed that it would be better to end it instead of moving forward.

I'm left here today to think "What could I have done? How could I have helped? Couldn't he call me?" and realizing that I was asking someone to make a step to a friend that was casual at best today. Of all people, why would he have called me? If so many much closer friends were not reached out to, why would he choose to reach out to me, an old band acquaintance from 20 years earlier? The fact is, my connection with him wasn't strong enough to be that kind of a lifeline... and that realization stings now.

For those who have kept reading through all of this, I thank you. It's not my usual topic, and I'm afraid I'm stumbling here, but if there is anything these past two weeks have taught me, it's to trust those weird feelings we sometimes get. It's to not believe the gloss and the sheen on the surface. I know this from software. The prettiest products often hide the most devastating bugs. I fundamentally know that about products I test, but putting that same reasoning to human interactions is much harder. Still, part of me now feels, after looking back at conversations and interactions, the clues were there. They seem obvious now, but I missed them then. In software, when we miss a catastrophic bug, we learn, we regroup, and we try again, to make sure it doesn't happen to another release. Sadly, today, this miss can't be called back, It can't be patched. We cannot release an upgrade.

My hope with this post today is that I can ask my friends, my readers, and anyone who comes across this post in the future to do me a favor. Never take those relationships you have for granted. Be they your friends, your family, your co-workers or even casual pals from a scene you may share, look to see if there is something that might be a warning sign. If you think you may sense something, and your gut reaction tells you things may not be all right, reach out to them. Talk to them. Let them unburden if they choose to. If they don't, let them know you are there for them anyway. Do everything you can when things just aren't what they seem. You may do more than just cheer someone up. You may save a life. My friend has shed the pain he was feeling. It is no more for him. For those of us who are left behind, we will always wonder "What could we have done?" The simple answer at this point, and the painful one, is "Nothing, but maybe, just maybe, we can be more alert to help see that it doesn't happen again".

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