This is not a happy blog entry. If you are here to be entertained, well, you might read #4 or wait for #22.
I am in Beijing, helping the Fulbright folks interview Visiting Research Scholars to see if they get their projects funded for a year’s research in the US. (More about that later.)
I woke up here one morning to an email telling me that my friend Ken Taylor had died. Ken and I were in graduate school together; he was a bit ahead of me, and worked in areas different than mine. But we had a number of friends in common, our paths crossed frequently, and we continued to have various exchanges, arguments, and the occasional word game ass whuppin’ (always delivered by Ken) on Facebook. Some of the younger grad students were a little intimidated by him, which was not helped when we heard he had been offered a job—straight out of grad school—with tenure at Smith. Unheard of, but Ken had his sights set higher than that, wisely turned it down, and ended up working at and being chair of the very good philosophy department at Stanford. Ken was smart, generous, ambitious, and talented, but most of all I think of him as a person who, as the phrase goes, was “comfortable in his own skin.” Then he was gone.
My best friend in graduate school was Irl Barefield, the pride of Nashville. I met Irl one Friday night in the Regenstein library, while looking at philosophy journals (a typical nerd’s evening at the University of Chicago). He was just coming down with hepatitis, made no sense whatsoever, but was very entertaining. He recovered, and we began hanging out, mostly bonding over our affection for alcohol and the South; I’d just come from living in Texas for eight years, and the transition was not a smooth one. Irl and I discovered together my candidate for the single best bar in the universe, the Bucket o’ Suds. We wandered into this bar in far north Chicago one night; it was virtually empty except for the bartender, Joe Danno. We spent the evening talking with Joe and drinking his pure fruit liqueurs, Elixer Lucifer™, corn squeezins, and God knows what else. I concluded the evening pounding my fist on the bar, shouting “Irl! This is the greatest bar in the world! We have to come back every night!” Little did I know then that Irl would come pretty close to doing exactly that. For those familiar with the Bucket, no further explanation is necessary; for others, here is some useful information:
I certainly went my share—and the co-ed bachelor party the night before our wedding was there—but the 30 minute drive each way and the hangovers were not conducive to finishing a dissertation. Irl did not finish; he headed to California, got a law degree and worked as an AIDS activist and as a liaison between the gay community and the local government, mostly in San Francisco but sometimes in Los Angeles.
We lost touch over the years; my family got to meet him once, in LA, but he was on some sort of pharmaceutical that made him pretty incoherent. I had no idea—and to this day have no understanding—of the health issues he was dealing with. It was the last time I saw him; several months later I got a very late night phone call from Irl, asking if I could loan him some money. I said sure, he said he would call back the next day, but did not. Then he was gone.
When I started college at SMU, I knew a history professor there through my brother, who told me that SMU had hired a new professor, Dennis Cordell. Cordell was an expert on African history, and had done a degree in World History, which at the time seemed to be a very different approach to how history should be done. I took a course with him his first semester, then his second semester, and took a third; he was as good a teacher as I ever had. He spoke fluent French, more than a couple of Arabic dialects, and was the kind of intellectual who got a grant to do an MA on demography at the Université de Montréal.
He was also the first gay man I knew well and who I knew was gay. I think it is fair to say that I learned as much about tolerance—I may not have learned it as well as I should have, admittedly—from Dennis as from anyone I have ever met. I was always welcome at his apartment, came to love his boyfriend Joel who died at a horribly young age of AIDS, and never spent time with him without learning to be a better person. (Again, I may not have learned it as well as I should have; certainly not Dennis’s fault. He did his best.) I don’t know if I was able to convey this to him, but he came from Dallas to my wedding in Chicago, a gesture that amazed me then and continues to touch me deeply. Oddly, when I was in Dallas a number of times he would always be in Marseilles, or Bamako, or Ouagadougou; he came through Dayton once, and, naturally, I was out of town. He lived in Dallas, I lived in Dayton, and we finally caught up with each other in Paris. A few years ago, I got an email saying he was dying. There was no way I could get to Dallas in time, but I sent a letter overnight telling him how much he meant to me, and that I loved him. I don’t know if he got it in time. Then he was gone.
I’m getting older, and statistically it is no surprise that, therefore, more people I know die. But Ken’s death hit me hard—and not just because he was only 65, although that is a factor. It reminded me of Irl’s death, and Dennis’s death, and death, and the psychic devastation it can bring in its wake.
Obituaries often end with the suggestion of where one can make a contribution in the name of the deceased; most suggest a charity or foundation or project near to the heart of that person, often introduced by “in lieu of flowers . . . . “
In lieu of flowers, take some time out of your life—10 minutes—to tell someone you know how much they mean to you. Before they die, before you read an obituary, before you tell yourself you wish you had done so when you had the chance . . . before they are gone.