Some good things we “keep for ourselves”. Little memories of place and time and the experience of something extremely personal. A bookmark of sorts that gets tucked in safely between pages that may be joyful or sorrowful, sometimes it’s just a happening in between the mundane and boring filler of life. Sometimes we keep our interactions with other people private, even the slightest interactions like a glance on the bus, a smile exchanged, or a simple act of kindness. In my case it may be a form of superstition; that if I were to share one of these moments that it would lose it’s luster, that somehow it would not be as special. I think that may be a bit selfish since the story of a kind act can often lead to the inspiration of a new kind act? It certainly could not hurt.
When John Perry Barlow died there was the initial rush of condolences and stories that are inevitable when a man who lived as full of a life as he shakes off the mortal coil. The internet – a very big part of his life – buzzed about his passing and although tempted to share a little story about my interaction with this interesting fellow, I opted to keep it to myself. Until now I have only told a handful of people about a late night conversation I had with him.
First, I’ll quickly explain how a dialogue was struck up with him in the first place. Back in 1996 I bought my first PC and dove into the internet head first. One of the most interesting things I came across in those early days was his piece, “A Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace” and his thoughts on the sudden death of Dr. Cynthia Horner – his friend and lover who had planned to marry. Of course, Barlow had been on my radar for many years prior given that he penned Grateful Dead songs and was an integral part of GD lore, but when I came across his piece on the worldwide web and saw that he had publicly posted his contact info I decided to write to him. He responded within a day or so and thus began a sort of modern-day pen pal relationship. Grateful Dead music had maybe been mentioned once early on but maybe I thought it an incredible waste of an opportunity or maybe I feared it would be a bit tired a conversation for him. Either way, our exchanges were often lighthearted and humorous but from time to time the subject matter was heavy, and Barlow was real good at “heavy”, real good at it.
Forward to the year 2000. No, planes didn’t fall out of the sky, world markets didn’t crash, and every other ridiculous speculation about what would happen when we crossed a make-believe threshold went up in smoke. Another thing that had begun to go up in smoke was my personal well-being. A decade of fast living was laid out behind me and at probably the most inopportune time I was on the verge of becoming a father. When the mother of the child was just on the verge of passing the three-month mark she created an elaborate plan and left town to have an abortion. It should be mentioned that we later made peace and parted ways permanently on a far more amicable level. But at the time it was not so amicable, I was extremely angry, yes, but the anger was merely a byproduct of the hurt.
I had went on a bender that lasted a couple of weeks and when my body was as tired as my mind I had looked at an email that John Perry had sent with a his contact info under his electronic signature along with the following quote from Louie Armstrong “With a trombone you can say anything, but with words you must be careful.”
Well, I didn’t give much thought to the fact that it was 3am in the midwest and 4am on the east coast where John had been snoozing. When he answered the phone he was not the least bit irritated, in fact, he asked if I could allow him a minute. I heard him climb to his feet and make his way to what sounded like a sink where water ran for a moment and then the sound of what was probably coffee being brewed.
The details of what had been troubling me were run down rather quickly and the conversation did not hover around the fractured, now destroyed romantic relationship, but more around the question of how I could be grieving so hard.
“A member of your family has died Robert, your reaction is not surprising. What you need to try to do is heal and forgive.”
We talked about God and how he “believed”, if I remember correctly he said that he had two choices, one was to believe that the world ( the universe ) was random, chaotic, and vicious to its core or he could believe that there was purpose – greater purpose – tied to all this loss and pain. The only weapon against any of it was “love”. Now if anyone has ever read anything written by Barlow or had ever heard him speak you will know that I am not doing the man justice. He was eloquent, but most notably, he was kind. Kind to a “stranger” in the middle of the night, a stranger that was not going to find solace in his friends or his family.
About a week later, in an email, I expressed my embarrassment and apologized. He responded quickly and said that there was absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. He then told a story about a Wild Turkey fueled adventure of his, “Now that was embarrassing.” he said.
So there you have it. My JPB story in a nutshell, most of it I still am choosing to keep for myself but I think the most important aspect of the story has been shared. From what I understand this sort of thing was par for the course when it came to Barlow. Hundreds, if not thousands of stories like this flooded the internet when news of his passing broke.
One of the things I have tried to do as I have gotten older is make myself available to others when they need to talk. That’s not an easy task for a fellow like myself as I am admittedly growing more self-centered and am stingy with my time as the years roll by, but I do make a sincere effort. At the end of it all what will matter most? What I think love is, what I say love is, or how I practice it? I believe that the words won’t mean squat, what I perceive love to be won’t matter much either – the world doesn’t really need another blowhard pontificating about what love is – but the world wouldn’t be worse a place if we all – if even only once in our lives – made ourselves available to a stranger who may only need to speak to someone.
So there you have it, a short expression of gratitude and what I view as being an example of what’s at the core of true friendship and compassion; the willingness to be that person who answers the phone in the middle of the night to offer up some consolation to a fellow traveler.
Thanks for reading!
JPB’s 25 Principles for Adult Behavior
1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Admit your errors freely and soon.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Remember that love forgives everything.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
Read John Perry’s Obituary.