#100HappyDays Day 100 ➝ the Why-I-Did-This Edition

Micha Mosaic
This is my favorite picture of Micha and me, composed of all my other favorite pictures of Micha I pulled from everyone’s Facebook accounts (sorry ’bout that). She lives on through all of our memories, most of which involve middle fingers. Click here to download the big-ass file; to truly honor Micha, do it from your mobile phone which has a limited data plan.

About 100 days ago, a group of us survivors made a vow to participate in the 100HappyDays project.  We were drowning in shock and sorrow, and it seemed an engaging project to distract from the pain by instead focusing on happiness.  For me, it served two purposes: I needed a balm for my soul, and I wanted to get closer to the other participants who were Micha’s other besties.

For day 100, I will attempt to explain what made Micha so special.  Such a thing seems obvious when you met her in person, but there’s so much more to Micha than what you perceive.  So in essence, this is the eulogy I wish I had the strength to deliver at her funeral.  It’s the hardest post I’ve written in awhile. Be warned, it’s a mix of the dark humor and honesty that permeated our friendship.

Micha came from a broken home.  By the time I knew her well, she was already living alone while her family remained scattered around the Metroplex.  When we met, I had just moved to Southlake from Dallas, where my junior high years were an emotional apocalypse that resulted in high amounts of mental baggage, while my brother was away at college, leaving me alone with my parents.  So it made sense that two separate souls like us bonded so quickly.  It’s the simplest explanation of why two random people decided to be brother and sister (the more-complicated one is here).

Micha was career-oriented in all aspects of life, one of her best traits.  She showed those traits in high school activities, so they must have been part of her DNA.  Later as an adult, she cared both about her job and the company she worked for, a combination I’ve never achieved at the same time.  But she inspired me to do both, especially during the short time we worked together at Dell.  I saw her advance via promotions and take on greater responsibilities which made her stand out, even in a company that large, and each time I thought, “I can do the same!” — and believed it.  She was confident, critical, visionary, engaging, judging, and the person I always wanted to be.

We were the same age, yet she was the older, wiser soul I always looked up to.  And when I hit lulls in life, Micha was always the best at helping me talk it out.  She less gave me answers vs. letting me figure it out on my own, and her responses were typically unvarnished.  Now that she’s gone, I don’t really have anyone like that in my life, and I’ve backslid into internalizing things once again.  Don’t get me wrong, I have other best friends the same age, but none of them have the same experiences I shared with Micha.  And outside of my family, no one has known me as long as Micha did (twenty-four years).  I struggled with the decision to remove her from my iPhone favorites, which I did eventually because it hurt too much to see her name & face everyday following the funeral.

Interestingly enough, our relationship had several identifiable quantum leaps over the years.  The first was on the last day of high day of our high school senior year.  I bore witness to her evisceration of my ex-girlfriend live on stage, as the two participated in a Lincoln/Douglas-style debate as the final examination of debate class which Micha made sure to win by all means necessary.  It was her means to extract punishment against the woman who had broken her big brother’s heart.  Not many people would step up to bat like that, and Micha was always as protective of me and her clan for the remainder of her life.

That same day, we also made an explicit decision to keep in touch.  Such decisions were a big deal in the dark age before email and texts — long distance calls cost major money, and your options were to either pick up the phone or write letters.  We were cheap and chose the latter.  During that post-graduation summer, I remained back in Southlake, working a summer job and preparing for school that fall.  Micha had left immediately for Lubbock to attend summer school at Texas Tech, a combination of determination and restlessness taking her out west.  I’ve kept all of her letters (she told me she did the same), which I can’t read without gesturing theatrically, embodying Micha as if she was speaking them aloud herself.

Micha Correspondence
It’s a good thing I have large enough feet that a leftover showboat was big enough to hold all of these postcards, letter, and photos that Micha sent over the years.

We exchanged visits between Denton and Lubbock until her graduation, when she and Jay relocated to Austin/Round Rock and we reoriented the commute from west/east to south/north.  After a traumatic breakup with my college sweetheart, where I was thankfully shaken out of my comfort zone and prompted to finally leave school, I had the grand vision to move to Austin myself & eventually moved in the summer of 2000.

My relocation resulted in the next of our relationship’s quantum leaps.  Both young and kidless, I spent tons of time with Micha and Jay, just us and the dogs Six and Bus.  On weekends when Jay was checking off the miles with his bicycle, Micha and I would hang out on Saturdays, adventuring around Austin, whiling away at gardening, sucking up pancakes at Kerby Lane, playing drunk racquetball, and burning down the house.  It was such a weekly habit that years later, we’d still call each other early on the occasional Saturday because such mornings weren’t truly Saturdays without a few minutes together.

During my stint in Austin, Micha had just gotten her job at Dell, and the company still had the street cred of a hot startup.  I tried hard to get a job there myself, but no one would hire a fresh college graduate with no experience and a fine arts degree.  The universe displayed a great sense of irony years later, when after working at Perot Systems in Plano, TX, that company itself was bought by Dell in 2009 for $3.9 billion.  The day the acquisition was announced, I called Micha at her desk & bragged about how Dell wanted me so bad they paid through the nose for me!  To this day, I still carry around this warped sense of inflated self-awareness.

Unfortunately, a crappy job market pushed me out of Austin in 2001, and I relocated to Dallas, TX for several years.  Of course Micha and I kept in touch, but over the course of 13 years she encountered new friends that filled her life more than I could hundreds of miles away.  These friends, some of whom I hadn’t really known well until Micha’s last days, are truly amazing — each is liking looking at a mirror,  perfect reflections of Micha’s soul and spirit.  Each of you — Alex, Jennifer, Jig, Nelwyn, Vaden, Jig, Charles, Laura, and more — were so lucky to be in Micha’s close orbit.  You may not know I was incredibly jealous of your access to her, not because I thought it challenged my own relationship with Micha but because I missed being able to see Micha as often as you did.

Micha Report Card
Micha’s dominant character trait was judgement, as evidenced by her report card regarding our friendship.

Micha and I kept few secrets from one another.  We often shared intimate thoughts less because of getting things off our chests vs. we just had to tell one another because of some secret brother/sister code.  The one secret I never told her: I had feared the worst since that fateful Thursday she called with news of her diagnosis.  This is because I come from a family where the worst can and does happen, despite the odds.  I give her credit for always being honest with how she felt during her cancer treatment.  It’s one thing to put on a brave face, it’s another thing to respect those you love by being both honest and hopeful.  If something like cancer ever happens to me, I hope to approach it with the same defiance and zest.  It always seemed more like a speed bump to Micha’s life than a hinderance.

Our relationship always had that sense of foreshadowing.  We found ourselves together during major moments of global tragedy: once driving around town the night Princess Diana died, another time packing away Julie’s house while north Texas was littered with space shuttle Columbia debris.  I’m sure if we were alive then, we’d find a way to be present at Dealey Plaza at the same time.  Yet we were also together during some more-intimate yet tragic moments.  Shortly after graduation, our high school classmate Jason passed away, as the first of our class to meet such an end.  I’d listen to her tell me stories about Jay and Ted shortly after Jay’s father passed away.  We regularly discussed her mother Julie’s slow decline.  I felt like I was there for all of it, even if I was hundreds of miles away.  We’d commonly cold-call (later text) each other just to say, “DIE!”, then hang up.  We played the good twin/evil twin model daily, slipping back and forth between the two roles (although let’s admit that Micha is always the evil one).

For awhile, as our families grew and it became harder to escape on the weekends, we settled into a pattern of seeing each other only once a year.  One time, I looked up remaining life expectancy, did some math, and told Micha that we only had 40 more times to see one another before we died.  Then my Dallas company was bought by Dell, and I found myself traveling to Round Rock every week for a year.  I told Micha that these weekly visits counted against the 40 figure.  “DAMN IT!” she said while shaking balled fists at the gods.  Micha would get a little bit of revenge against me soon enough.

I learned about Micha’s cancer the day of her diagnosis.  She called me and said, “You know how you’re always telling me to die?  Well, you might get your wish.”  Point, Micha.  Although shaken by the news, I had the gumption to immediately reply that she’d beat this, if only long enough for me to do the deed myself.  Above all, my goal was always to destroy Micha before Reagan had the chance.

Our decades-long joke (besides clown-related humor) was, “the good really do die young — holy shit, we’re going to live FOREVER!”  In this case, not just the good but the best died way too early.  Did I mention foreshadowing?  As I type, I still smile about the fact our friendship allowed us to be that way to one another.  Yes, it’s stupid, but the ability to be an adult and stupid/silly was one of the best things about being Micha’s friend — otherwise, life’s too short to walk around with sticks up your ass.

Micha’s funeral was only the few I’d ever attended.  I’d done a good job up to that point of avoiding them.  The first was for our mutual friend George’s father.  We were so young at the time, it was hard to register what was truly happening (after all, us kids were going to live forever, right?).  The second funeral was for Archie, Micha’s father.  I remember being tardy, because I had gotten lost on the way to its location east Dallas.  I went up to Micha after the ceremony and apologized for being late.  “No big deal, Matt. It’s only MY FATHER!” she said with equal measure love and sarcasm.  When I was driving down to Round Rock last June for Micha’s own funeral, that day’s silliness played over and over in my head.  BTW, I was almost late for Micha’s funeral as well.

Micha Inscription
Words do have the power to change lives, as does a fear of no afterlife.

Besides her friendship, the greatest thing Micha ever gave me was a student bible.  Years ago, I had no relationship with God and was a very outspoken atheist.  While I was comfortable with this, it always bothered Micha but she never explained why.  I found out the reason when she gave me that bible.  Inscribed on the inside are words that make me cry every time I read them: “Heaven would be a lonely place without you.”  Less than a week later, I met my wife Jenn and my life changed forever for the better.  I believe in God now as a result of those two women, having two children, and more so after losing Micha.  It has to exist, and Micha has to be there — I will accept no other answer.  When I was writing this paragraph, the following verse serendipitously appeared in my Twitter timeline and seems quite apt:

Anyone who is among the living has hope — even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

– Ecclesiastes 9:4

Now 100HappyDays has come to an end.  I’m a few days late on this final edition, because this has been the hardest blog post for me to ever write.  On day 100, am I happy?  Very much yes — my career has taken off in the past three months, my wife is healthy, my toddler girl is exploding in the good ways, and my son started kindergarten.

Am I sad? Undoubtedly so.  The pain of Micha’s loss is still sharp, and I find myself crying unexpectedly when my busy mind calms down enough to wander towards memories of her.  I apologize to my Austin friends for not keeping in better touch — for example, I haven’t spoken with Jay or the kids because I’m hesitant to talk about my grief.  I know I shouldn’t be, but just bear with me while I get my shit together.  Time does heal all wounds, even if it’s not enough for my tastes (after all, I’m an American. I want it here and I want it now).  I promise I’ll talk to y’all soon.

I’ll end with something said 20 years ago.  In one of Micha’s missives from Lubbock, she composed quite a bittersweet letter.  It ended with the following:

There is one other thing I would like to say to you, Matt.  Because life is so short and one never knows when it is going to end I want to tell you what a wonderful person and friend you are.  It takes a special person to put up with me and you do it freely (well usually).

I love you,

Always,

Micha

I love you, too, Micha.  I’ll see you someday soon enough.

The World I Spent Eight Years Creating, Part 2: Iscar and the Far Reaches

Iscar and the Far Reaches

I remember how it started.

Bored during Mrs. Beckman’s 5th grade class, losing interest in her lecture, I started to doodle on spare sheets of loose-leaf notebook paper.

It started with an island. But it was not just any island, mind you. It was one whose outer composition was that of a coral ring, whose inner space had been filled like a salad bowl with fertile soils deposited by long-dried-up river.

Inspired by embellishments J.R.R. Tolkien used on his Middle Earth maps, especially the one found in “The Fellowship of the Ring”, I drew concentric, wavy outlines around that island. These would represent the lapping shorelines that for eons had tried to destroy this mythical outcrop, to no avail.

A lone city rose on the island and would become known as Iscan, the capital of the ancient Iscar Empire, my world’s closest analogy to the late Roman Empire administratively divided between Rome & Constantinople. Iscan was itself parceled into cardinal regions (North, South, West), with the coral island itself becoming Central Iscar. It was quite a formidable location for the capital, its impenetrable coral borders having repelled many a foreign invader. Although the outer fringes of the empire waxed and waned (perhaps that what accounts for East Iscar being missing), Central Iscar remained stout.

After drawing Iscar, I kept going with inspirations from real-life. One prominent example was the neighboring island country of Vancover. Just one letter off from the British Columbian city, in my mind it was differentiated by being pronounced “Van-cahver”.

Another example was the Salty Sea, an homage to our planet’s Dead Sea. It also played off the Dead Sea’s proximity to the Fertile Crescent, as this sheet of paper was the start of my world, much like ancient Mesopotamia gave birth to many earthly civilizations.

And the isthmus connecting the inner & outer regions of Iscar was totally copied from Panama.

In general, Iscar and its neighbors represented the wholesome, peaceful part of the planet. As you journeyed further north and east, the landscape would become more treacherous. I find it fascinating how in fantasy worlds, there is such polarity between good and evil…realms of light vs. darkness, while in our world things you find that things are typically a shade of gray.

Returning east, we find Lake Iscan, a great inner sea like the Caspian, with one amazing unique feature. The distant volcano Zueveus has been erupting forever since man can remember, gouging the plains with great trenches of lava that flow like a fiery river. As those chunks of molten earth reach Lake Iscan, they cool into large floating islands that lazily drift across the water, a constant thorn in the side of the lake’s mariners. If you look closely, you’ll see an easter egg: one of the islands is shaped like a tiny Texas.

A similar freak of climate affected the boringly-titled Desert of Doom: a never-ending sandstorm that scoured the trees and mountains of the West Iscan realm until it was shaved down into a sterile waste. Where did the storms power and authority come from? I don’t know — it apparently didn’t concern me in the 5th grade. I do recall it being inspired by Jupiter’s great red spot. But as an adult, if I had to make something up, I suspect this sandstorm is a curse the Iscan people by a conquered nation pushing back upon the aggressive empire’s western expansion. Few of the civilized people have travelled beyond that atmospheric maelstrom.

I especially dig the topography I was able to bake into the drawing. For example, on the east side of Vancover, where the mountains gently slope towards the Doran River. Or along the shores of the Sandy Sea, as the trees shift from deciduous to coniferous.

One feature that I never developed a story for was the Tomb of the Gods, which appears as a giant crystal in South Iscar. Tucked into probably-impassable mountains, what did it contain? What did it mean? Did it infer a “chosen people” status on the Iscar Empire? Was it a cursed place that bespoke of doom to any/all visitors? Did anyone even know it existed? And what are the visual implications of a crystal as big as a metropolis?

Those are the stories I remember, and it was just for this one sheet of notebook paper. And I haven’t even enumerated all of the other interesting geographic features & cities. Perhaps this inspires you to imagine some history of your own. If so, let me know!

The D300 Log

Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo

I was behind the Bruce front desk, with my back to the Bowling Alley and my nose buried in the building’s maintenance log. I finished up my work for the evening and closed the log. Turning around, I was taken aback by the steady stream of people walking left past the desk and up the front stairwell. I checked the time. Because it was late enough in the evening that no programs should be in progress, I walked outside to check out the scene.

Stepping into the front stairwell, I looked up and saw these people were walking up to the second floor.

I stepped out of the stairwell onto the D300 wing. The line of people stretched as far as I could see. I asked the nearest person, “What’s going on up here?” His response was to look at me and snicker at some joke I wasn’t yet privy to.

I eventually traced it to the community bath located at the center of the hallway.

At the door of the bath was Aaron, the D300 RA. In his hand was a can full of change. He was charging admission for people to enter the bathroom.

The residents at the front of the line recognized me as the Assistant Hall Director and began to get nervous, like kids whose dads have shown up to shutdown their delinquent behavior.

“Alright, what’s going on, Aaron?”

He waved the can in front of me, jingling the change in a clear communication that I was also expected to pay admission. He smiled sheepishly and said with his voice rising, “Umm, 10 cents?”

I glanced at him without saying a word. Then I stepped past him into the bathroom.

Bruce Hall community baths were ancient yet simple in design. In the center of the room were two sinks, flanked on the right by five shower stalls and on the left by an equal number of toilets. Whenver I stepped foot in there, I always recalculated the amount of my life wasted in that room when I was the D300 RA myself. I even thought about my favorite graffiti, which was written in Stall #2. Scrawled low on the left stall wall and written partially upside-down, you would have to sit on the pot, lean over as far as you could, then crank your head to read the simple words, “You are now shitting at a 45 degree angle.”

The bath was empty except for one person standing up in the far left toilet stall. The stall door was open, but the man standing in there wasn’t going #1. Instead, he was giggling. He popped out of the stall, and whatever smile he had disappered when he came face-to-face with me, his AHD. I told him not to worry, that I was just checking things out. He smiled and giggled, then slinked out of the room.

I entered the last stall and saw before me the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever seen.

Its circumference compared favorably to my upper arm. It stuck up out of the water, even to the edge of the toilet seat. Measuring its total length was problematic, since the other end snaked to some unknown distance down the hole, like a ghost shit that tore open the fabric of space/time.

Seriously, you should have seen this fucker! It still haunts my dreams.

Whoever did this must have turned themselves inside out, like “Screamers”. There should have been a trail of blood leading somewhere, but no clues were found. Analysis of the most-recent cafeteria menu was discussed amongst the crowd, but no one could correlate anything served with the end product before us. The next several days were spent keeping an eye on the Bruce Hall population, to see if any strange hospital admissions or obituaries were sighted.

The money that Aaron collected, he spent on a pizza party for his guys, the consumption of which probably contributed to Son of D300 Log at some point 36-72 hours later.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Money Toilet Paper
When I was a kid, I had amazing ideas. Earth-changing ideas! Then my entrepreneurial spirit was crushed not once, but three times.

For the most part, I hated being a kid. I was always eager to be older, although I cannot recall why. Much of it had to do with how I feel most of the time today: that I was wasting valuable time, and that I had to get on with life.

My first idea was to complete all my lifetime’s sleep at once. Basically, I would just sleep 24 hours a day until my early 20s. Then after I awoke (and showered profusely), I would be awake all day and night for the rest of my life, fully able to take advantage of my young adulthood. Of course, I failed to factor in the years of education I needed to be an adult, plus the physical and emotional development I missed out upon. Did I mention I was a kid when I thought of this plan?

As I got older, I started to become aware of the great engineering feat that was my hometown of Dallas. I learned that there were vast networks of utilities that took our waste then returned it to us in the form of clean, treated potable water. And we were going through a ton of effort to clean that water, just to use it to flush our toilets. Why use clean water, I thought, when we could use sea water instead? We wouldn’t need to clean it for drinking purposes — it would just be used to flush toilets. And its salinity might help clean the surfaces as well, just like when you flush your sinuses. My brother was the one who clarified the cost savings for using less fresh water would be offset by the cost of eleventy-billion miles of pipes requiring installation from scratch country-wide.

With my brackish dreams dashed, I turned to problems of physics instead. Pooping during the winter was a tense process, thanks to the frigid toilet seat. I had this inspiration: what if toilets were filled with warm water instead of cold? That way, during that cold dark season, the warm water would heat the toilet and (by relation) its seat. You’d never have to sit on a cold toilet seat again! My dad’s response, “Then your piss would stink!”

Crushed, I tell you!

Photo Credit: Design You Trust

Officer Cueball, Southlake P.D.

Tsk Tsk Tsk

Today I read a tweet about Volvos, which made me think of the only friend I’ve ever known to actually drive a Volvo (Katie Thomas). From there, I started thinking about other friends who are equally outliers in their vehicle make & model choices, and I of course remembered Micha & her black Lincoln sedan. In a time when everyone drove CRX-SI’s or Camaros, Micha was bucking trends.

Back during high school, Southlake was seemingly small enough that you could fit it into one of the pockets of your Z Cavaricci pants. One time, Micha got into a fender-bender at the corner of Dove and Shady Oaks. Her car was rear-ended, knocking out the tail light. The Southlake officer attending the scene was a familiar one: a big, meaty individual with a perfectly-shaved chrome dome of a head. We sarcastically referred to him as “Officer Cueball”, and he was always around, it seemed. He wrote me my first-ever traffic ticket, which was my last one when I realized you could get out of subsequent tickets by telling officers, “Sorry I was speeding, but I was trying to get to football practice on time!” After Officer Cueball ensured that everyone was safe, he instructed Micha to get her tail light fixed at some point.

Several months later, I called Micha to see if she wanted to come over. I waited a long time for her to show, but she wasn’t there yet. I started to get worried and went outside to walk around & kill time while waiting for her to arrive. While out front, I peeked through the grove of trees which separated my house from the street, and I saw some flashing lights. I walked down to the creek to get a closer look, and I saw that the lights were from a police cruiser participating in a traffic stop. And when my cat’s eyes kicked in and I could see better, I saw that the perpetrator was a sedan…a black. Lincoln. Sedan.

I gleefully ran back to the house, then sat on the hood of my GMC Jimmy to ride out the traffic stop. Finally, the flashing lights stopped and slowly up the driveway came Micha. As her headlights illuminated me, she got full view of me laughing and going “tsk tsk tsk” with my fingers. In frustration, she sped to her parking spot, got out, glared at me, then said, “Suck it, clown!” before headed inside the house without me.

I followed her inside and found out that it was once again Officer Cueball on the scene. And that when he pulled Micha over, he wrote her a ticket for having a busted tail light, the very tail light he reminded her to fix and never did. I asked her if she said the same thing to Officer Cueball that she said to me, and I got an old-school middle finger.

It’s a good thing that Micha never changed.

Photo Credit: Wiffle GIF