Thursday, August 2, 2012

To My Friend, T.J.

My fingernails have been clipped, filed and gnawed at so much these past few days, they’re sore.  

My good friend TJ was hit on his bike by a car recently and passed away two days later in the hospital.  He was 32 years old.  He's been on my mind so much this week, but that's because he gave me so much to remember.  


Soon after I found out, I went to the store and got Guinnesses and what I needed to make jamón serrano sandwiches, TJ's favorite foods, which I shared with my girlfriend, who had yet to meet the guy. Over the next two hours, I told her about who he was and what he meant to me...

I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time when I was 18 as I was beginning to start the UC Running Club at the University of Cincinnati.  He had recently graduated himself, was working in the local running store, Bob Roncker’s Running Spot, full-time and was continuing to train, after being one of the top guys on the UC varsity team.  We hit it off, and pretty quickly, he started picking me up in the legendary mud-brown Ford Pinto for 8 a.m. Sunday group runs at Awakenings coffee shop.  The car was such a jalopy, he left the keys in the ignition in hopes it would be stolen, so he could collect the insurance money!

I didn’t realize just how much of rockstars the guys I was running with were…  Here's a pic I took of TJ and his friend Chris Reis finishing #1 and #2 in a Thanksgiving Day race of 10,000+ people:


Truth be told, I only ran with the top guys when they decided they needed an easy 7:00 mile warm up before they jetted.  The first time I went, I ended up totally lost in the neighborhood and tried to hitchhike back.  When I finally discovered my way, 1:20 later, TJ was standing outside with another shirtless runner, hands on his hips, a cocky smirk on his face, and sporting shorts so short he looked like some dude that rolled out of bed in his underwear having his morning joe in the comfort and privacy of his own home.


On one of the Sunday rides I got to share with him back to Calhoun dorm, when he was asking about my family, it came up that my mom was a flight attendant and I had flight benefits.  When I told him I’d never been to Europe, his eyes went bright.  He started gushing to me about Madrid, how magical it was there and how they have a tradition on New Year’s Eve, where at the stroke of midnight…

“You TRY to pop a grape in your mouth on each chime of the bell and wash it all down with champagne at the end.” 

Then, in a way that seemed very non-sequiter, he asked me what I thought the purpose of life was…   I forget what I said, but the topic wasn’t something I’d seriously considered outside the context of Sunday school and with a perfunctory nod. 


“It’s in the question, man.  The purpose of life is to live…” he poetically expounded.  I mean, he certainly drew me in, and I could see the soul in what he was saying…  But what he was talking about was so outside of my thought process at the time. 

“Who is this guy?” I laughed to myself about the Pilates-practicing free spirit next to me.

Over the next few months and years, I started to find out who this guy was.

Without fail, when I would spend time with him, he would expand my reality in some way, however small.  One night, we went to Awakenings to share some hot, freshly brewed green tea with a buddy of his.  When the tea came, TJ laid down the rule that no one was allowed to refill his own cup.  He didn’t have to explain how is was supposed to remind us to be sensitive to the needs of others.  It was understood.  


By now, I was getting more used to TJ’s poetic behaviors.  They were beginning to seem less and less something I would chuckle at and more and more something I was letting sink in.

When we traveled to Spain later that winter, my world was widened once again, thanks to him.  We left for our connection flight in Atlanta from Cincinnati on Christmas Day because that’s when stand-by travel looked the best over the holidays.  Even despite this, it was going to be close getting from Atlanta to Madrid.  If we didn’t make the Christmas Day one, December 26th, when people where beginning to go back home from the holiday, would be even less forgiving.  Then...

Boom! 

Not only did we get on, but we got upgraded on our 9-hour flight to First Class!

We shot the breeze and talked about nothing in particular (certainly not everything with him was so serious, poetic and deep).  Reclining in our two Lazy-Boy-large leather seats, we were served a great dinner and noshed on cheese and chocolate-y port wine for dessert that we slowly and thoroughly enjoyed.  


At 3 a.m. our time, we were awoken from sleep by warm, damp hand towels, fresh squeezed orange juice and breakfast.  After we touched down, he was incredibly spontaneous, gusting in on old friends out of nowhere and with no prior notice of him being in town…  The first night, we shacked up at a hostel, but, by night number two, he had gotten in contact with his old Spanish teacher and arraigned for us to stay there with her and her elementary school aged daughter, Sion.  She didn’t even know he was coming but happily opened her home to us both.  Then, the fun really began...


Once during the week, we snuck past the guards into Spain’s Olympic training facility to do 1-km repeats with some of his elite runner buddies.  I had to do every other one with them, of course, because I needed way more recovery than they did.   


We did a little shopping at Zara and enjoyed countless types of tapas, churros and espresso, beers, wines and sangria.  He had already introduced me to jamón serrano from Trader Joe’s back in America, but it didn’t even compare to the fresh-off-the-bone ham legs in bars that were freckled all over Madrid.
 

The official excuse for going to Spain was to run in the San Silvestre Vallecana 10K on New Year’s Eve.  We were running in the international race, only open to a pre-qualified group of 1,000 runners with guys like Paul Tergat dotted in the mix.  Since there was the public race with at least 10,000 people right before, and since it was NYE in a major metropolis, the entire 6.2 miles was a continuous tunnel of men, women and children blowing air horns, cheering and spraying silly-string and shaving cream at us.


It amped me up so much actually that my 5K split was faster than my 5K PR at the time!  It WAS as amazing as it sounds and definitely a peak experience of my life.  The idea of living… actually living life... was something I was liking more and more.


Since I spoke zero Spanish, I needed TJ to be my in-between there most of the time.  However, luckily back at the apartment, his teacher spoken fluent English.  Her daughter didn’t… but even with me not knowing Spanish and her not really knowing much English, Sion and I made friends.   We form friendships with pets all the time without dialogue, but it seemed very eye-opening and special that you could form a relationship with another person without being able to actually exchange words.


While he was still living in Ohio, he continued to rub off on me more and more.  My life started to head in a really nice direction, but I still wasn’t really sure where I’d end up in 10 years and dipped my toe in a few different ponds trying to see what felt right.  You know, the common experience of finding one's way.

We went and got coffee at Sitwell’s in Clifton one night…  I remember I was wearing a beanie pushed back about an inch past my hairline over my long-ish hair at the time.  I think I probably saw TJ wearing his hat like that months ago, thought it looked really cool and swagger-jacked him.


Anyway, we get to talking and he tells me he was planning to move, probably to Colorado.  He was saying stuff about needing to get out of the city, make new friends and shake things up.  The latter two sounded plausible but I didn’t see why he needed to move.  He basically said, in a big-brotherly sort of way, I’d probably understand when I was older…

I only visited him once after he’d moved there and crashed with him for a few days.  When I arrived, I got on the Denver-Boulder bus stop, texted him I was on my way and began listening to a seminar talk on my iPod, a habit I'd been developing, this one about finding passion and purpose in your life, social dynamics, business advice, being inspired and all that kind of good stuff.


Being around TJ had really pushed me to step up in my own life and try to become someone I thought, by my own standards, was super fucking excellent.  I don’t know if he was naturally always the embodiment of all that is cool and attractive (charismatic, thoughtful, childishly mischevious but wise like an old man, plays guitar, speaks Spanish, unstifled, great style, funny, worldly… do I have to go on?) or if he because that way consciously and intentionally at one point…

Regardless, I wasn’t like that naturally and the only way I knew how to do that for myself was to try to try really hard and just model people I thought were cool in their behaviors and actions and listen to how they viewed the world and hope it seeped in eventually.

When TJ rolled up to get me, probably much to his dismay, no one had stolen his Brown Pinto yet.

We went out for burritos and beer, talked about life, girls we were dating, finances, what we’d been up to and what kind of things were exciting to us currently… 

When we were headed to the car to meet some of his friends, we were talking and he said to me, “You can take this as good or bad, but you remind me so much of myself when I was your age.”  I gave it a nonchalant chuckle, but, honestly, I was just playing cool.  I admired him a ton, so I took it as a massive complement, especially since he was only five years (to the day) older than I was.

Afterwards, we went to his new favorite pub, The Hungry Toad, to hang out with some of his buddies and share Guinesses and Mudslides before retiring. 


In the morning, we crawled into his Pinto to go get these Asiago bagels from Panera he said were amazing.  What kind of music is playing in his car on he ride there, you ask?  His new musical obsession was old, folksy Country music. 

“This guy…” I shook my head, laughing.  Always keeping things interesting and unexpected.

Of course, the bagels and eggs he cheffed up were amazing.  This was TJ, after all.  


Very sensitive about his food, he was.  A day or so later, he even cautioned me, I kid you not, about “bruising the wine” when I was carrying the Cabernet Sauvignon we were bringing to a friend’s party.

That was the last time I was with him in person, though we still stayed in regular contact via cell phone.  We talked this year when he called me on February 23rd, our mutual birthdays, and we talked for a good 20-30 minutes.  I was telling him how I was planning on moving to Europe in 2013 to intern in probably Paris or London, and he was saying how with his job, he was going to be getting the opportunity to work in South America a lot and was thrilled about it.  After that, the last time we heard from each other was him being the first to comment on my last blog post in May…


So many of my memories with him involved food and drink.  I don’t want to try to speak for him, but I do think it would be safe to say, he enjoyed delighting all five of his senses.  Just look at this picture he took, reveling in the sublime beauty he noticed at the "ordinary" sight of melting butter:


When I was flying to his memorial service on Thursday, I really tried to take in all I could when I was having my meal on the plane. 

And regarding that flight, the last time I was in Atlanta, I was with TJ on the way to Spain and got bumped up to First Class.  Well, same thing happened again!  Not only did I get on ONLY because four people no-showed the damn flight, the gate agent pulled some strings and put me in First. 

So my only times flying out of ATL where both with him, in person and in spirit, and both times, I get prime seats.  How fitting…  After mentioning it in my talk at his service in CO, his mom said when she heard that, she looked up and gave him a thanks. 


As I was saying though, on this flight, I really tried to delight all five of my senses too and experience as much as I could from my lunch of a roast beef sandwich with carmelized onions, potato chips, pineapple and grapes, brownie and the three, full glasses of red wine.  Besides the tastes, of which I discovered how savory pineapple and brownie dabbed in salt can be, I did things like immediately hiding the packaging the brownie and chips came in because I thought they were ugly and distracting, listening to the crunch of the chips in my mouth, inhaling the wine deeply before I drank it, and feeling my molars snaps and burst the grapes in the back of my mouth… really trying to appreciate being able to enjoy it. 

In hearing the stories about TJ at his memorial and at The Hungry Toad afterwards, it was cool to see that many people shared a lot of the same experiences with him.  His friend, Lee Troop, who welcomed me into his home to stay at for the memorial, said it showed TJ was the same guy with everyone, was real and didn’t act differently with different people.  He was a rock-solid friend.


Paradoxically, I learned many of his friend’s first impressions were negative...  “Why is this guy trying so hard?”, “Who does he think he is?” and, the best, “I’m definitely not gonna be friends with that guy,” said by his buddy, John.

The thing was, John did end up being great friends with him.  He told me when he met TJ, he had an Accounting degree but really wanted to coach running, as that's where he was gifted and it's what excited him.  He actually got offered a position once but declined it because his Accounting mind was telling him it wasn’t a good ROI.  Enter TJ, who then became the grain of sand in John's eye that told him he should still do it and pushed him to basically “follow the pulse of the wind,” TJ's motto.  Now John coaches Division II in a state known for the high caliber of their runners.


TJ had the same affect on me, his spirit being an irritant in my life to live with the amount of soul he did and pursue my own dream.  Our Sitwell's conversation about me "understanding when I was older" his move to Boulder, came true...  A few years later, I packed up my own life to move to New York City to begin my path towards a career that excited the living daylights out of me.  I believe one of the most precious things about TJ was that he challenged people to contemplate what they valued in life and what their ideals were, while simultaneously encouraging them to live in alignment with them.

I’ve heard so many inspirational quotes in my life…  But seeing a demonstration of the ideas is a hundred times more impactful and likely to have an tangible effect on someone, to actually affect his or her future actions and not just the private thoughts and perspectives bouncing around between their ears. 

There are so many clichéd sayings and attitudes like “live with passion,” “your life is your message,” “be in the moment,” “just be yourself” or “love life,” they almost can become platitudes.  How incredible it was though to have had someone who was an example show me how it’s done...  When we see something done that many people only dream about, it changes our thoughts on what can can be accomplished.  Just look at Roger Bannister running a sub-4 minute mile.  The amazing thing about that, besides the insane level of strength and endurance needed to run a mile that fast, was that a bunch of people did the same thing soon after, in response to Bannister’s performance.

Within a year, 20 other people had run sub-four minute miles!


Of course, TJ wasn’t perfect.  He dealt with ups and down, moments of apathy and confusion, boredom and had weaknesses and vices that he struggled with his whole life, like any real person.  But he was only 32, after all...  It's still tearing me up how young he was, how much more he could have developed and how many other lives he could have touched and inspired.

Regardless, in my world of friends, he was by far the best example of a great guy that I had.  I'd be thrilled beyond belief if, in five years, I have anywhere near the same level of curiosity, charisma, and zeal for living life he did when he passed.  I knew of no one else like him.

For me personally, TJ has been a Roger Bannister-type guy for living an awesome life.  It makes me very happy to know that a lot of other people shared so many similar experiences with him.  I hope he already has or will be playing a similar role for the others that knew him, as he has for me.