Sunday, June 2, 2013

Here is a version of my remarks at Affys memorial. It's not exactly what I said, I didn't have much written down. Instead this is culled from my memory of what I said, or wanted to say. But I wanted to share it with you in case you wanted to have it.

Photo of George Bertelstein by Jessica Rose

Standing here now reminds me of the last time I stood before many of you in the woods and spoke. That was at Affy and Katy’s wedding.

Unlike George, I have an almost complete in ability to speak in any way other than off the cuff. So I hope you’ll forgive me if the transitions and relevance of my comments don’t totally flow in a way that makes sense. But that’s what having a conversation with Affy was like. He’d make three or four logical leaps in his mind that he wouldn’t share and then he’d give you the conclusion, and it was up to you to try to put it all together and figure out how he got there.

Afran Abraham. Abraham is fitting. Affy was a father, not just to Leo and Sophie, but in a way he was the father of our mirth. From the time we met him it felt like any gathering of people was just that, a group of people in a room, until Affy got there, and then it was really a party. It’s like, when he got there everyone could totally relax and have fun. Like air had been pumped into the room. Affy was fun in a completely unselfconscious way. He could dance like no one was watching while also totally hoping everyone was watching. He was like a miniature Bacchus, our personal God of carefree enjoyment.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this has hit me so hard, why I’ve felt so unstable the last week and a half.  We’ve lost people before, I’m sure we all have. But this was different. When we were in our teens and twenties we knew some of us weren’t going to make it out. That was who we were, it was how we lived. When we made it into our thirties I thought we were safe. That the danger had passed and we wouldn’t have to do this again for another thirty years. The reason I’ve been so unstable is because I’ve lost one of my pillars. I’ve lost one of the people who made me who I am. Affy was one of the few people who have ever made me feel totally accepted, totally comfortable. He did that for a lot of people. He treated everyone like they were his best friend. He made me feel so comfortable I would do things for him that I probably wouldn’t do for anyone else.

I’d like to tell a story about that, if you’ll indulge me. This was back when we were both working at Togo’s, and living at Affy’s parents’ house. I was renting a room in the attic. Some of the old Togo’s crew is here today. So we lived on the north side of campus, and worked across campus on Telegraph. Togo’s had a very simple dress code, pants and a white polo shirt. I had just been promoted to low level shift manager, and it was my job to enforce the dress code. So one day Affy shows up. Late. And he’s wearing the most ridiculous pair of acid-wash, cut off, jean shorts you’ve ever seen. And that’s not the worst part. He’s also wearing, and if you will, please close your eyes and try to picture this shirt. It’s a purple t-shirt, and says, “LOVE” spelled out in glittery, rainbow puff paint dots that look like tiny Hershey’s Kisses. And I’m like, “Affy, you can’t work in that outfit.” But I also know that he’s going to have to walk all the way back across campus and all the way back, and he’s already late. So I grit my teeth, and I take one for the team. “The team” being Affy.

“OK Affy. We’re going to trade clothes.” So we go to the office and trade clothes. Now, Affy was slightly larger than me, so now not only am I wearing this Tobias Funke outfit, but it’s huge on me. Have you ever seen someone in baggy cutoffs? So now I have to walk back across campus in this outfit. And it’s the first really nice week of spring, and the college girls are out in their it’s-finally-spring-and-I-can-get-some-sun outfits. So there’s just beautiful girls all around looking hot in their spring garb, girls I want to date because I’m eighteen, and I’m wearing Affy’s acid wash Daisy Duke nightmare outfit. So what do I do?

I strut.

Because I know that’s how Affy wore it over there.

I strut, because if you’re going to wear the man’s clothes, you have to sport the man’s confidence.

I think many of us are searching for answers, and I don’t know if there are any answers to be had. Something that has helped me, that has gone through my mind often these past days, is a prayer we say each week in church. We say this prayer to God, but I think it works just as well for Affy, or for each other. I’d like to share it with you, and though I know that we have many different faiths and beliefs, I hope there’s something we can take from this.

We confess that we have sinned against you
In thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone
We have not loved you with our whole heart,
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.

The message I take from this that we have to commit to loving each other. I think that when we look at the regret in our life, it’s the things left undone that we regret the most. So I urge you to take the time to reach out to the people you love. Do it small ways. Let them know you care, that you’re thinking of them, that you love them. We are a community, and it’s only by loving each other with our whole hearts that we will be able to survive.

Thank you.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Love of a Good Man

I should be grading, but I'm not. I was grading on Sunday when I learned that one of my closest friends had died. His wife called me to tell me, and ask that I help inform our friends.

Afran was young. Too young to be lost like this. His children are too young to have lost him. His wife is too young to be a widow, and a suddenly single parent. They are all too young to face the enormous task of living a world without him. They are all forever changed.

Over the last week I've been asked to help with some small tasks for the family. Part of that has led me to have contact with many people in Afran's life who I either did not know, or did not know we had in common. The common refrain from all of them is that Affy was a bright, charming, witty, wonderful person. They're not wrong. He was also a man who liked to play the fool.

This was a guy who could have what, on the surface, appeared to be a very knowledgeable conversation about literature, when the truth was that he spent time memorizing the synopsis and analysis on the dust jackets of important works. He could have read the books. He would have understood them, and likely come up with insights and connections to other works that I would never have figured out. But he was busy playing Madden.

If you met him at the right time (say, after a dust jacket binge), you'd think he was Will Hunting. If you met him at the wrong moment you'd think he was a living, breathing Homer Simpson. Here is how he described himself in a Facebook note a few years ago:

"11. I got 760 on my GRE in Math (99th percentile). I’m not a dumb as I pretend to be.

12. That’s not true. I can be quite dumb on certain subject matters, and astute on others. Depends."

What it usually depended on was whether he wanted to do the thing or not. If he didn't want to do it he'd pretend he didn't understand it. I once found him washing a cereal bowl by holding it under the faucet, filling it with soap, and then dumping it out and putting it in the drainer. No scrubbing, not even using two hands. After that I never asked him to do dishes again. Point, set , match, Affy.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. It was a very real example of platonic love. Love that could be expressed openly and honestly and physically. One of the other things people have talked about recently is how much they'll miss his hugs. They were epic and comfortable hugs. Affy was a moderately large man, and when he hugged you knew you were being hugged, and you knew what was behind it. (I am happy that I can say this about many of my friends.)

The physical expression of love could also be wonderfully violent. Another random fact from Affy's Facebook note:

"8. The worst fist fights I had in my life were with my best friend Roberto. A drunken brawl outside Albany Bowl was, in my mind, glorious. That said, never doing that again. Ah, teenagers."

To me this was platonic love at it's best in young men. The desire to fight and wrestle, but with the ability to end it, bloodied and battered, with hugs and drinks and composing heroic poems about each other. Keep in mind this was several years prior to "Fight Club" coming into the wider public consciousness. Often we would have these fights over the course of a night out, and then go into work together the next morning full of silly pride.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. As I noted in one infamous speech, his wife thought he and I were a couple when she first met us. Affy and I shared things I haven't shared with most other friends, at least not to the same extent. At various, and occasionally overlapping, times we shared jobs, apartments, girls we'd made out with, enemies, a phone line and game consoles. I've never before or since gone halfsies on a video game system, but Affy and I had both a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo that we shared. We were so comfortable together that I'd sometimes wake up and find him perched at the foot of my bed playing Donkey Kong Country, even when I wasn't alone. It didn't phase him, and eventually my girlfriend got used to it.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. Our friendship was born out of a love of theater and poetry. We fancied ourselves romantics. I even dabbled in writing poetry because he inspired me. None of mine was very good, which I learned when we did a reading together for his poetry class his senior year of high school. They hated me. It was fine, because I'd done it with Affy, and he supported me.

One year, just before Christmas, we were out shopping together. We'd been up to Telegraph, and down to Fourth Street. We were at the Barnes and Noble on Shattuck Avenue when we decided to call it a day. We walked outside, and then Affy dashed back in asking me to wait. He came out with a Yale University edition annotated complete works of Shakespeare, which he presented to me as a gift. He had this amazing, self satisfied smile. The kind you get when you know you've done something great for someone else. I had 30 pound book and a long walk home. And that was Affy, equal parts thoughtful and careless.

Over the years our friendship grew from a foundation of literature and drinking and video games, to one of sharing marriage tips, and parenting tips, and drinking, and playing video games with our kids. Still, we knew we could see each other when we needed to cry. Or when we needed to be told we were full of shit. Or to go and seriously geek out because we knew we were going to sing our way through "Mama Mia" no matter what the rest of the people in the theater thought.

In the wake of Affy's death another friend of ours told us that he had a copy of a book of poetry that Affy had written. This was years ago, when we were all in our early twenties, and I had forgotten about both the book and its contents. But I remembered one poem, one that my cousin had liked, because it was about me. I remember not being able to even really think about the poem when it was written. I think it was too much for me at the time. I wasn't ready for it.

I've struggled with the idea of sharing it. I don't want to seem narcissistic. But I do have another point to make. Here is Affy's poem about me, written almost exactly twenty years ago, a poem about a younger, more perfect version of me.

The Importance of Being Santiago
by Afran Hirsch

The importance of being Santiago is not obvious
But essential to understand.
Though I do not know his heart,
I know his actions
And thus I have speculated on the nature of his being.

The importance of being Santiago is this:
The genius Santiago is is smart enough to know
That if one is not the victimizer, one is the victim
And yet understanding this
Is compassionate enough not to make victims
Of those he keeps company with....

The genius Santiago is hilarious enough
To always be the center of attention
But always destined to be under appreciated
For his genius is constant
So that his praise is not......

The genius Santiago knows
Better than anyone
That the world needs a good laugh
So he plays the jester
Even at the expense of his reputation
Because I believe he dreads a silent dreary existence
Even more than I do...

The genius of Santiago
Is resigned to his commision
Liked by all, loved by few,
Understood by even less....

Yet Santiago himself likes few things
Loves most, and understands it all...
Even in harshness, Santiago is compassionate enough
To mix jest with villainy, because he has looked at the sun
And not been blinded. And never aims to steal vision
With self-inflicted tears, from others...

Santiago knows life is a stage
And is the best player
This writer has ever known
And loved.

The importance of being Santiago
Is as important as the meaning of life.
One may never learn it
But seeking its meaning
Makes one a better person
Than had they left the dilemma unchallenged.
Thank you Santiago, for allowing me to travel
The path that is you
With the person that is you...

Love is a secret
Cloaked in obviousness
And one of the truer paths there
Is to know the importance of being Santiago.

I don't know much about poetry. I don't know if this poem is good as a piece of poetry, but it's important to me. Reading this for the first time in over fifteen years, it's important to me for reasons beyond it being a nice thing to have someone say. I have struggled throughout my life with believing I was worthy of being loved. So many people have loved me, and I've ruined so many relationships because I didn't believe them. I didn't see myself as being worthy of that kind of love and so I thought they must be lying. It's prevented me from loving people as much as I've wanted. It's prevented me from showing people how much I love them. Reading this poem, written to a 16 year old me, from an 18 year old friend helps me realize how wrong I've been. Even with all the crappy things about me. The stupid things I say. The stupid things I do, or stupidly fail to do. Even with all of that, I am worthy of this kind of love.

We all are. You are. The people in our lives are worthy of this, and we have to show it to them. We have to remember that how we feel is not unique. We share common insecurities. We have to get past them in order to love each other with our whole selves.

If Affy had known this he might still be with us. If he could have known for sure that he was worthy of love he might still be here. Of course it's infinitely more complicated than that. But those of us who are left behind have to try to find something in this we can use. We need something we can salvage so that it doesn't just seem totally devoid of reason.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. And now I finally totally believe it.

Thank you for the gift that has been your life Affy. I will miss you forever. I wish I could have helped you understand the things you've helped me to know. I am forever changed.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


The idea of not caring what people think has clearly been around for a long time. It's a phrase I remember as far back as I have memory. It often goes something like, "I'm going to do ____ and I don't care what people think."

This used to be a liberating idea. It used to be rebellious, at least in my experience. For me it was paired with things from the 1960s and early 1970s. (Sometime things from the 1860s and 1870s too I suppose.) Things like, women wearing pants or baseball players wearing mustaches, or same-sex couples holding hands in public. But the idea of it always seemed to somehow relate to fighting off some societal oppression. Not big things, like civil rights, but smaller everyday things, like the time I wore a cape and goggles to school. Over the years I've been alive "not caring" has become ubiquitous.

But now it's also become a tool of small oppression. Or at least a tool of expressing oppressive thoughts. Over the last couple years I've seen the phrase morph into something more like, "I don't care if I offend people." The one that spurred me to this writing is a post that's been going around social media regarding the pledge of allegiance.

Theres' nothing more American than not caring about offending people. This is really just one example of many posts like this one that claim some virtue in not caring about offending people. Now, I'm not going to get into a long screed about when the words "under God" were added to the pledge. I'm also not going to get too far into the separation of church and state and state except to point out that making little kids of other religions, or no religion, recite the pledge as written is horribly oppressive. (And the idea that they can opt out by sitting quietly is hogwash, singling them out as different opens them up to bullying etc.) What I will go into here is that the backwards idea that doing something oppressive is now somehow a noble act.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. We live in an era of white men claiming injustice at any threat to their power or privilege. They feel they have to take back the country and what not. And I suppose it's not new to point out that the oppressors often try to adopt the tactics and slogans of the oppressed and turn them to the purposes of continued oppression, but this bothers me. it bothers me because it's not being used in the cause for equality, it's being used to foster anti-social behavior. It's a call against civility.

There was a time when it was cool to not care what people think, like in "Footloose." Now it's been carried too far. Now it's being used to say rude things to people. "Fuck it, I'm going to drive between lanes. I don't care what people think." Just this morning a grounds keeper on campus told me "Don't worry about it." when I pointed out that they were blocking a busy drive way. "It'll only be an hour." she said, despite the fact that if she moved her truck eight feet to the right she wouldn't be blocking anything at all.

I care intensely what people think. I want to be liked. I don't think this is a bad or weak or anti-revolutionary thing. I take pride in doing small, polite, things to try to make people around me happy and comfortable. I walk on the right side of the stairwell. I drive fast in the fast lane. I wear headphones on the metro. These are small things that help people feel happy and comfortable. I curse way less than I used to. Not because I think swearing is bad, but because I know it bothers other people and I'm educated enough to find other words. I care about not offending people. I'm a religious person, but many people don't know that because I'm not loud about it. I don't care what other people believe. I don't care if other people believe the same things that I believe. But I do care that big outward displays of religion can make people uncomfortable. I work in a university, big outward displays of religion are not appropriate in most of what I do. I care about that. I don't feel censored, or stifled, or oppressed. My beliefs are mine, whether other people want to hear them or not doesn't affect me. I can be just a religious quietly as I can by being in everyone's face. But one way doesn't bother people and the other way can, so I'm quiet.

I'll give another example. I teach a class that focuses on business and government. I encourage students to know what's going on in the world. I try to help them build habits that will keep them informed. My default is to tell them they should listen to NPR at least an hour each week. But NPR is a liberal station. So I don't tell students to listen to NPR, I tell them to listen to news radio. I offer NPR and Capitol News Radio as examples. One is more liberal, one is more conservative. I offer the conservative example for my students because I don't want any of them to feel uncomfortable because they think I'm pushing a political agenda. That feeling could damage their trust in me as an objective and neutral instructor. They may then feel they have to censor themselves in order to protect their grade. I would hate for that to happen, in part because it's the kind of thing that may never come to light. Then that person has had a negative experience that I can't help fix because I don't know that it's happened. So I offer both liberal and conservative views in my class because my job is to serve the needs of all my students, not just the ones who feel comfortable with my views.

I care about people's feelings. I care about offending them. This is a good thing. We can't get to a point where we don't care about anyone or anything. We can't become completely self centered. We have to be willing to do the small, but important things that improve life for all of us. So I urge people, stop labeling anything that asks you to make an effort as "PC." As if being PC is a bad thing. Call people what they want to be called, it doesn't cost you anything. Wear headphones. Don't burn smelly candles with your office door open. Don't bring nuts to school. It's basic common courtesy. Being a dick isn't revolutionary. Respecting people isn't an affront to your rights. You should care about offending people, especially when it's small things. If you want to kiss your same-sex partner in public, kiss that person! Who cares if people don't like it, it's a basic human need, to love and be loved and express love. If you want to make Hindu kid feel isolated at school you're being a dick. There's a difference.

This is how to not care what people think