Sunday, August 28, 2011

Remembering Marc Rains, March 5, 1963 – August 29, 2001

Ever play a game called Which One Am I? You take an ensemble of any kind and identify which character or member is most like you. You can also play it by matching characters with other people you know. I’ll do it now to give you a sense of who my friend Marc was:

• The Big Chill: William Hurt’s character
• Doonesbury: Zonker
• Crosby, Stills & Nash: David Crosby
• Dead Poet’s Society: the kid who changed his name to Nuwanda

I think you get the idea. Marc was a bit of a rebel, a free thinker. Uncomfortable with authority, he never wanted to have to answer to anyone. We all got high back in the day, but whereas it was a purely recreational activity for the rest of us, for Marc it was a Statement of who he was and what he believed in, which was, in a word: freedom. He dreamed of a world with no hassles, just hedonistic pursuits. He wanted to suck out all the marrow of life, one joint at a time.

He wasn’t all about drugs, of course. He was also very interested in creativity, especially music and writing. In fact, while I had known Marc since kindergarten, we didn’t become close until junior high school when I somehow found out he could play the organ and he somehow found out that I had been writing lyrics. We would get together at his house, steal some of his parents’ booze, and I would sing my lyrics while he wrote down the notes I was intending to sing.

Eventually he wanted to express himself through writing as well. He would start something, get stuck, and give it to me to finish. I encouraged him to keep working through the blocks. There was one piece of his that I liked a lot and he gave it to me as a present. Except for all the things he owned, like records, he wasn’t about ownership.

I know what you’re thinking, what a hypocrite. Yeah, well, it’s not easy living the life of a nonconformist iconoclast. For one, you need money to eat. So he took a job, but it was a job he could live with: at a record store. He never went to college with the rest of us; in fact, he never finished high school. All through elementary school, he always had the most extraordinary record of absences from school. Some of this was because of health problems that plagued him all of his short life. But by the time he got to high school, he just couldn’t be bothered with schedules, homework, and responsibilities.

He did, however, go to high school. He would show up in the morning and park himself in the cafeteria, where he would stay most of the day, striking up conversations with whomever happened by. Connecting, that’s what he really valued, more than sitting in one desk-chair in one classroom for 50 minutes, then sitting in another one in a different classroom for another 50 minutes, and so on.

Though we were very tight in junior high and most of high school, things started falling apart as college loomed closer. We were moving in different directions, meeting different people, having different experiences. The one thing that kept us connected was music. I remember in 1981, my freshman year in college, he bought the King Crimson album Discipline, which was the first album by the group since 1974. It featured a new lineup and we were curious what it would sound like. He called me up and we listened to the album for the first time together over the phone.

Eventually, his health problems became quite serious. He had a kidney transplant. Within a few years, he needed another one. In spite of his condition, he wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle and for some reason, he eventually took up cigarettes. He used to say that he didn’t want to live to age 40, but that was when we were stupid teenagers and we thought 40-year-olds were decrepit hags who shat themselves. Still, it seems he knew he was living on borrowed time and didn’t want to waste his remaining years going through the trouble of being healthy.

But he was also very useful. He took the experiences he had with dialysis to become a dialysis technician and more importantly, he would counsel and console kidney patients who were going through what he had gone through. He met a woman he loved and got married. He had two daughters. He was very happy. Though we both lived in Massachusetts, we were basically on different ends, me in the north, he in the south. We didn’t see each for long stretches, though we communicated by phone and email on a semi-regular basis.

At some point, there were issues with the second kidney surgery, and his pancreas was damaged. He had to have a gaping hole in his back for a long time. I visited him in the Intensive Care Unit. I was going to see David Crosby in concert and he asked for a shirt. When I went back to the hospital to give it to him, his room was empty. I was chilled, but it turned out that he was transferred to a regular room. I went there and he was sleeping. I left the shirt on his bed.

In 1997 or 1998, he had a stroke. He was only in his mid-30s. The next time I saw him, I didn’t recognize him. He had lost a lot of weight, had not much of an expression on his face, and moved slowly. It was at the shiva of a friend’s mother. I helped him get some food, and we talked about what was going on. He had been through so much, but he was optimistic. He loved his life. He loved his family. He had a lot of joy and a lot to live for.

The last email I have from him was sent to me on January 1, 2001. Typically optimistic, it reads:

Happy new year,
Well, I made it thru every thing they did again! My right side feels a little alien but its getting better every day. I have to go 6 weeks infection free and then they'll start looking at putting a permanent access back in my body right now I have a catheter sticking out of my neck which drives me a bit crazy, but they still get to dialyze me with relative ease, and I still have a right arm so all in all things are OK I guess.
How is all by you? A nice holiday? I hope!
can't keep arm in this position for typing for to long talk to you soon!
Love to all!

Next thing I heard was that he had died. He was being prepped for open-heart surgery and went into cardiac arrest. It was August 29, 2001. He was 38 years old. He’d fulfilled his prophecy. Less than two weeks later, 9/11 happened. It seemed that everything was falling apart.

Marc’s final request was to be cremated and have his ashes spread over the golf course we used to sneak onto and party at in high school. He told his wife to contact me and have me plan it. It was sufficiently moving for me that it inspired me to write an essay and a one-act play about the experience. With his unusual request, he had managed to bring together a number of friends who had become estranged over the years.

A few years later, his wife called me and asked me to take his records. Going through them was like watching a documentary of our lives. I remembered where and when he had purchased those albums and gotten those autographs. I remember listening to them with him. I remember how much they meant to him.

Two years ago, I got a message from his oldest daughter who found a letter I had written to her mother after the funeral. I had promised her I would help with the girls. But I had one of my own and a rough marriage, and I never kept my promise. I’m now Facebook friends with both of his girls; I’ve helped them restore and retain memories of their father and they’ve helped keep his spirit alive for me. Marc always was all about connections – and second chances.

I’m thinking of you, buddy. Damn, but you would have loved Facebook. And seeing how your girls have grown. And me? I’d love to write one more song with you. One with a chorus that keeps on repeating and never fades away.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Late thinking on early adopting

Recently, I was out with a friend and I received a call on my cell phone. Shucking my clamshell-styled telecommunications device, I took the call. After I hung up (in truth I was hung up on but that's another story), my friend marveled that I still have a flip phone. Everybody else, it seems, has some kind of Star Trek gizmo that they poke and stroke every few minutes to get information they don't really need except that it's fun to poke and stroke a device.

The fact is, I was the last person I knew to get a flip phone in the first place. I used to have a basic little flat thing that if I held the ear part to my ear, the mouth part rested at the top of my jowl. Considering that a number of my friends think of me as being somewhat of a mumbler, that phone never was all that practical for me.

What I find interesting is that I've become such a late adopter. I used to be just the opposite. I had one of those Cellular One bag phones in the '90s and I distinctly recall calling people from my car and saying, "Guess where I'm calling from? MY CAR! Isn't that so cool?" Back then it was. But that was probably the last time I was cool.

CD players became available between my junior and senior years of college, and when I moved into my senior-year apartment, I was rocking one of those beasts. I was, in fact, the first of my friends to own one. It was big, expensive, and had none of the features my friends' CD players had when they got theirs several months later. But I was proud to have one first. Only trouble was that music stores had maybe 40 CDs to choose from. Before long that all changed, of course. And by the time I got my second CD player (only a year or two later), the landscape was forever altered, and I was just another one of the masses who were making vinyl obsolete (for a little while anyway).

Another great technology I adopted early was a CB radio. Mine was about the size of a small radio station. I knew about five or six people who also had CB radios, and after school we would get on the air and talk funny to each other until we got bored. In retrospect, there was no good reason for me to have a CB radio. There were no smokeys I was evading in my Newton, Massachusetts, neighborhood. But it was cool to say "10-4, good buddy" and if you knew that 10-100 meant you needed to take a leak, you were pretty happening.

But of course, CB radios went the way of 8-tracks (had one of those, too) and I guess after all this time I've come to realize that there's no great advantage to being an early adopter of anything. Things always get thinner, faster, cheaper, and more powerful in their second generations than their first. Over the last several years, it was mainly my financial situation that kept me jumping on anything new; now it's more a case of replacement fatigue. I'm tired of upgrading.

Case in point: I took my daughter to the phone store the other day. Her phone and mine are on the same account and i had received a message saying that one of our phones was due for an upgrade. We went in and learned that it was my phone. My daughter, whose phone slides and glides and glows, was crestfallen. So I let her have my upgrade, and now hers is more like the Star Trek ones. I still have my flip phone. I can use her upgrade in November, at which point phones will probably be in our shoes a la Maxwell Smart. Keeping up with the Joneses is impossible enough for me; I'm not even going to try to keep up with society's joneses.