Broken Promises

Years ago during my study abroad, I volunteered at an orphanage.  I can’t imagine something like this being legal or allowed today, but there was a ‘recess period’ or playtime in the afternoon on the weekends when volunteers were allowed to go in and play with the kids.  All you had to do was show up.  No background check, application, nothing.

The kids ranged in age from newborn to about 8, and volunteering there was one of the most affecting experiences of my life.  I still think about it all the time.

Recently I was digging through some journals and came across a letter I wrote to a kid there, and one distinct memory came flooding back to me.

She must have been 3 or 4 at the time, younger than my older daughter is now, and now I wonder – where is she?  What is she doing?  Is she safe?  On the streets?  Does she have a family?  Is she…exploited?

The first time I met her during that playtime, she was sitting in a play car and wanted to be pushed around by one of the adult figures in the room.  She liked that.

Over the next few weeks, she warmed to me.  I don’t know what caused her to open up, although I suspect the bar is lower for small children, and she asked to be picked up and held.  And she didn’t want to be let go.  When other kids came by and begged for their own turn, she kicked and lashed out at them.

One week when I arrived, she was staring out the window when I arrived.  She didn’t see me – or rather she was looking past me.  I entered and approached her, and she didn’t respond.  Her eyes were faraway, like she was imagining something.  Or waiting for someone.

And that day when I picked her up and let her down again, she in a very small voice tugged at me and said, ‘don’t go.’

She and I both knew the rules.  It was an orphanage.  It was a place where none of the kids had an adult.  Only a group of aunties that took care of them in the collective.  But something, whatever it was that causes people to trust each other, had caused her to break and imagine, maybe to be filled with hope for the first time in a really long time.

Leaving was always painful, but especially so on that day.  I quelled her with promises to come back next week.  I’ll be back, right?  Let’s play again then.

But for two weeks I was held up successively with first, a school event, and the second time, I’m ashamed to say, with a hangover.

When I returned, she was nowhere to be seen.  As I gave the other kids a ‘ride’ I caught her out of the corner of my eye.  She was standing there angrily, her entire body in a stricken pose.

That day the flood of kids was so great that I couldn’t get to her until a good 15 minutes later.  But when I did, she wouldn’t look at me.  She stared straight ahead, not responding to me even as I knelt down and called her name.

I didn’t know what to do.  Eventually I moved on to the other kids, noticing that she retreated to a corner, by herself.  I said bye to her, thinking I would try again the next week.

But that was the last time I saw her.  To where, I don’t know.

I knew on that day I had destroyed something for this child.  Once again, to her, I was just another adult: adults left and didn’t come back.  Adults held out promises and didn’t keep them.  To her, in the purview of a small child, she had held out hope and offered a boundless, pure trust.  Opened her warm little heart.

And I realized leaving on that day, what I had done.  I had completely broken that trust.  Disrespected it.  Yet again.  Maybe for the last time.

I understood her actions.  She was protecting herself, as she should have.  They were actions of a world she did not yet understand, and should not have already been exposed to – of lies, excuses, of broken promises, of ‘let’s-meet-again-but-not-really’, of words taken lightly and tossed out.

To me, school had seemed so important at the time.  In the schemes of things, it absolutely wasn’t.  Drinking?  Let’s not even get started with that.  How could I have not known what was important?  The most important, human, life thing by a million times?

Should I have picked her up anyway, even when she was wrapped up in that hurt and loneliness?  To reassure her that someone cared?  Or would that have just delayed the inevitable, the eventual parting?

Whatever it was, what I had done to this poor little kid was wretched and ugly.  You don’t break promises to little children.  They trust you completely.

I’m sorry, I said in my letter.  I’m so, so sorry.  But she’ll never read it and will never know.

Happy f***in’ holidays.

What I Should’ve Studied

Every year beginning around this time, I interview high school seniors applying to Penn.

The outcome of these interviews, and my evaluation of them, have almost zero correlation to whether the candidate is eventually admitted.  Out of the 5-7 ‘highest recommendations’ I’ve made during the course of 50+ interviews, 0 have gotten in.  Conversely, only the candidates who I felt were mediocre were admitted.

Either the kids are lying to me (I don’t see their application, resume, essays, etc.), I suck at conveying ideas in written form, or the college admissions game is so complex that those who are admitted, get in on the basis of luck: i.e., some weird interaction between certain of their traits and the traits the admissions office is looking for.

Anyway, that’s not the point of the post.  The point is that many of them ask me about my experience at the school, what I studied, what I would recommend, etc.

My view on this has really been influenced by the fact that over the last 15 years, much of what I learned has either been pushed aside as obsolete, or completely demolished during the financial crisis and its aftermath.  International and development economics, macroeconomics, marketing, management, etc., have not held up well – or at all – in the face of unprecedented worldwide central bank actions, a Chinese economy that defies all the principles we learned, social media, new tech businesses, remote workforces, etc.

Later on, I went to Haas to get my MBA, partially motivated by the desire to try to figure out what happened during the financial crisis.  The only thing I was able to conclude was that no one really knows anything.  And that my internship was at a company whose stock price is down 90% in the last few years, because its model – and model of the world it was operating on – was fundamentally flawed.

So what does that mean?

With the benefit of hindsight, which is of course an unfair advantage, I would have focused less on the Wharton “technical” courses purporting to teach us about the business world.  There’s no way to “learn business” except by working, or building a business.  What you can actually study in business school that’s maybe useful is:

  • The principles of finance – just a single 101 class might do.  All of finance is based on the concept of discounting and Net Present Value, that’s it.
  • An accounting class.  This is the language of business and besides NPV (above), the only concept of business that’s stood the test of time.
  • Taking some sort of class or seminar, if it exists, to tie the above together using Microsoft Excel.
  • Picking up some legal knowledge or framework for the jurisdiction you’ll end up working in, is useful.  I’m always astounded by how much interaction with the law we have, with so little understanding of it.

That’s all.

In retrospect, that’s what I would teach in business school because that’s all that’s stuck with me, even after going to business school twice.  Wharton in general is almost a vocational school for the banking and consulting industries, and while as a result the curriculum was very current (trendy?), there’s definitely a shelf life on “technical” stuff.

Instead, I would have spent the rest of my classes loading up on more liberal arts, instead of feeling guilty about it being a waste.  I should have taken more classes in philosophy, history, psychology, politics, anthropology, languages.

Topics that have existed for thousands of years, with thousands of years of documentation and history, and will last for thousands of years longer (see: Lindy effect, Taleb).  Understanding the patterns of history that rise over and over again, learning rhetorical and debate tactics (arts of persuasion), studying and refining communication skills in English and other languages (including computer-based ones), learning how humans think and behave, refining my own thought processes and rationality, studying great ideas to serve as a framework for my own thinking.  And sprinkling in random classes to be exposed to perspectives completely foreign and new – because adults, how often do we actually do this in life?

Maybe this is a middle-aged man speaking.  But to anyone who asks, that’s what I advise.

Interning at Samsung

I interned at Samsung America the summer after my freshman year.  It was my first experience with a real corporation, so I showed up dressed in college-kid slacks and tie,  excited about having this super important official job.

Now this super important official job was located in Samsung America’s headquarters in La Mirada, off the 5 freeway.  From the freeway, the building looked so tall!  It had to have been at least 10 to 15 stories.  It was with pride that I pulled into the parking lot.

Super excited about this super important official job I was there to do, I walked in and promptly discovered that the facade was literally that, an optical illusion.  The actual building was only two stories high, but achieved the look of verticality from glass panes that were stacked in ten rows atop each other, 3-5 panes per floor.

This was in the early 2000s, when Samsung’s primary products were televisions, printers, video players, CD-R’s, etc., before a single phone.  It was a prestigious company back then, but not at the level of the past 10 years.  And I became very intimately acquainted with all these primary products over my time there, not because I helped market them or do analysis on them, but because I spent most of my time there in the storage closet, which was a repository of old hardware.

My immediate supervisor was a short, bespectacled senior manager whose eyes were blurry behind his frames, and whose own ambivalence about his role in the company caused my summer to be a pretty unproductive, although amusing one.

Let’s just call him Mr. Lee, because I have a 20% chance of being right anyway.  Mr. Lee was well-meaning and honest, but maybe too honest.

After a two-day period of being introduced to people around the office, and being feted with lunches, I asked for work to do, to which he responded that there was nothing to do.

Dumbfounded, I asked what he meant.  I’m here on an internship, I said.

So, he said.  We have people to do everything already, he replied, casting a hand around the office.  You’re here to learn.

And what I discovered the learning was, was life lessons imparted in 3-hour lecture form, in Korean, by this man on an overseas posting.  They usually took place after lunch, in the storage closet.  More on the significance of this storage closet later.

I came into work three days a week.  In the mornings I was unsupervised and free.  One day I walked into another intern’s office (a guy from Harvard), and discovered him watching footage of a Korean pop star’s sex tape scandal with his own immediate supervisor, a man likely in his 30s.  His supervisor excitedly asked him to make a copy for him.

Sometimes I tried to do work.  This consisted of organizing files, and going out to get coffee.  When I asked for real work, I was waved off by everyone in the office, as if instructed by an invisible set of orders on high.

They can do it better than you, Mr. Lee said to me.

His lectures to me usually started right after lunch and sometimes lasted until 3 or 4pm.  And I’m embarrassed to admit, I remember almost nothing about them.  My Korean wasn’t as good as it is now, so even at the time, I understood maybe ~30%.  Add the effect of heavy lunch-induced food comas, so that the most distinct thing I remember is repeatedly dozing off right in front of Mr. Lee’s face and feeling bad about it, but as I blinked my eyes wide open with superhuman effort, him not even pausing, missing a beat, or commenting on my slumber, and instead continuing in his rapid, undulating, quite dramatic exhortations about working hard and being an immigrant and being loyal.

At home, I looked up ways to stay awake through food comas, and came across such tactics as biting your tongue and pinching yourself hard.  Neither worked for me.  I was too tired to summon the effort.

Mr. Lee himself had been sent by HQ on this overseas posting, and while he wasn’t the head of the office, he was a powerful #2.  Not so powerful that he could do anything he wanted, but still – three hour storage closet breaks can only be administered by someone with some clout.

The #1, boss of bosses, was an even older gentleman who was also bespectacled, and who Mr. Lee tried to avoid at all costs using various tactics and techniques.  If, in the parking lot, Mr. Lee spotted the Boss, he would instruct me and other underlings to duck inside the car so that we were not visible.  He himself would recline the seat back all the way so as to avoid detection.  More than once as we made our way up to the executive floor (the second floor of the 2-story building), he instructed me to crouch under the cubicles and commando-style, move towards the back while keeping out of the Boss’ line of sight.  This was way easier for him, because he didn’t have much crouching to do.  Our destination during these crawls was the storage closet, where the Boss never seemed to think to check.

The other staff in the office saw us and knew exactly what we were doing, but never said anything.  After all, Mr. Lee was the #2.

During our lectures, Mr. Lee became more animated and passionate than I ever saw him.  It’s like he could finally be the person he wanted to be, through his words.  By the way, I am not exaggerating about the duration of his lectures.  Directly after lunch, I knew I would be tied up until it was time to leave.

It was almost as if Mr. Lee didn’t want me to work.  A lot of it was defined by the fact that he resented the corporate hierarchy and his place in it, but looking back on it now, I wonder if in some way he was looking out for me.

It’s your job to learn, he had said.  To be a student.  Not to engage in the mindless drudgery that his staff was buried in.  The subtext: not so fast.

And you can’t give 3 hour lectures imparting the entirety of your life experience to someone you don’t like.  Probably the opposite.

I realize in retrospect that in many ways, without explicitly meaning to be, he was quite kind.

What Gary Taught Me

I never thought I was going to write a second post with Gary in it.  But he was killed two weeks ago in a tragic boat accident, aged 64.  When I went to his funeral yesterday, I saw that the latest entry in the guest book was, ‘so young!’  Overwhelmed, I didn’t know what to write after that, so I didn’t.

I also didn’t stay for the celebration of life part, where everyone gets together and talks about the recently deceased.  I just didn’t know what to say.  But now I think I do.

I met Gary during what was probably the roughest time during the last 20 years of his life.  He was going through an acrimonious divorce and everyone who worked with him, the 9 of us, stuffed in that two bedroom apartment off Manhattan Beach Blvd, knew it.

Sometimes his soon-to-be-ex-wife would drive up, shower us with abuses, and drive off.  One time we had a counterintelligence expert show up and do a thorough sweep of the apartment for bugs.  For whatever reason, this ‘expert’ thought I was working with the enemy, and kept turning away from me when I tried to listen.

They tried to sabotage each other, they maligned each other, they were each lawyered up to the gills, and part of my unofficial job description was to sort through his bank statements and files from the last decade in an effort to make the lawyers’ lives easier, because they were high-priced idiots who couldn’t see the outlines of the case.  I just remember the attorneys sitting there in the conference room, clearly exposing their ignorance about basic details, as the paralegals chimed in with what the paid-by-the-hour idiots should have known.  I don’t remember the firm’s name, but they were based out of Torrance.

Anyway.  Throughout this, Gary worked like a fiend.  I joined in 2010; in 2008 and 2009 he saw his net worth get destroyed by half, and the combination of this and the divorce made him feel like he was up against a wall.

Every morning he did 5 am yoga.  Then at noon he went out again for a spin class.  Then sometimes he did another yoga session in the evening, calling all the rest of us lazy wusses[not this exactly but something similar] for not being able – or unwilling – to keep up with him, who was twice our age.

He was working with a manic, crazy energy.  You could sometimes see his eyes go vapid from the exhaustion and anxiety.  Files were strewn all over his room as if TNT had exploded in it, but he knew where every single thing was.  Sometimes while he was talking, he would drift off, his mind wanting to be somewhere else.

Gary was my single ‘professional’ mentor.  Actually, he was more of a life mentor.  During that time, Gary was going through a period of intense reflection.  Mixed in with a simmering bitterness about the divorce, and intense anxiety about…everything, he rambled on about events in his life, thinking out loud about what had happened, and the majority of it revolved around the theme of Not Trusting the System.

He railed against everything – his ex-wife, against bankers, against people who spent too much on their cars and houses, against all the people in Manhattan Beach trying to be big fish in small ponds, against county assessors, against dishonorable clients who didn’t pay, against people who had full time jobs they didn’t enjoy.  The IRS.  The federal government.  Lawyers.  Accountants (he was formerly one).  Mostly against people who he thought spent too much on anything, and people who ‘bought’ into the system, the (former) American Dream, who tried to be like other people.  Son of a mailman, a boy from Hawthorne, Gary had a huge chip on his shoulder even while from the outside, you would see him as a millionaire and as part of the establishment.

Of course, a lot of it went too far.  Walking into hotel lobbies to enjoy their free continental breakfasts.  Withholding our checks while trying to convince us it was better for tax purposes.  Driving thirty minutes out of the way because gas was cheaper somewhere else.  Not wanting to go to lunch anywhere unless it had a lunch special that was at least a double-digit percentage cheaper than regular price.  Taking his son to LA Kings games but arriving purposely late, and then ‘teaching’ him about the bargaining advantage against scalpers when one arrives after the game has started.  Spending more time trying to rack up miles than on the details of his divorce (which we had to handle).

And the combination of his own personality and his circumstances made him bitter.  He did spend a lot of time badmouthing his ex-wife.  This spilled over into a judgmental attitude about other people too.  His neighbors who tried to keep up appearances.  County assessors and their work ethic.  And his relationship with his brother was not the greatest either.

But despite it all, he walked the walk.  He was frugal to a fault, even though he had become a millionaire many times over.  He said what he thought.  And I absorbed it all.  Because in most ways, he was right.  And for that, I was always grateful.

And that’s what I thought I knew about Gary.  Based on his cynicism and sometimes-pettiness, I didn’t expect to see the entire hall-full of people come to pay their respects.  I saw how much he was loved by his children.  I even saw his ex-wife sitting in the first row, and who read a poem about forgiveness, which had layers upon layers of meaning on it, since the boat accident was another’s fault.

One of his friends gave a moving speech full of fondness and affection.  More than once I heard him described as fun-loving, generous, big-hearted, friendly.

And then it got me thinking, as I stood there in the back of the room.  I thought I had known Gary.  But it seemed like actually, there was another side to him that I had never known.

Perhaps, just maybe, who I had seen was a man at his worst.

And that man at his worst, had still never raised his voice, was ready to greet us with a smile, and lived every day through that dark period with desperate, almost superhuman energy.  And come to think of it, I hadn’t made much of it at the time, but I do remember he had talked incessantly about his kids – about their nature, about their accomplishments, even when I hadn’t thought they were so great – with exceeding pride and love.  That man at his worst, was still better than many people at their best.

Rest in peace Gary.

8th Wonder of the World

Once I hit my mid-thirties, I started losing track of my age.  Sometimes I have to pause and think, and calculate the number of my rotations around the sun.  Time passes by deceptively quickly.  The months and days blend in with each other, and sporadically I have these startling realizations where I feel like I’ve been asleep and just woken up.

Like when, after spending 4 years abroad, I start reading the news and every article’s headline looks like it could be from the Onion.  I swear to you, my Feedly at some point started looking like April Fools’ Day, every day.

Or when you start not being able to comprehend pop culture or music.  And when the music you grew up listening to, becomes ‘old school’.  Sigh.

Or like when I go to the gym, and everyone is younger than me.  And I end up wrestling with high school kids.

Or when people who I think are not that younger than me, keep calling me sir.  That happens, by the way, when you’re in your mid-to-late twenties.  When it first happened, I was pleasantly surprised.  Now I’m more disgruntled.

Or when you lose touch with some friends for a few years, and that new job or project they were working on whose name no one knew, ends up being on the headlines of major newspapers.  And they become startup founders with huge exits, fund managers with billions under management, managing directors, directors, and start becoming the grizzled old guard.  This is astounding and inspiring at the same time.

Einstein called the power of compounding the 8th wonder of the world, and it truly is.  When you’re in school, everyone is kind of equal.  You have standouts and geniuses, but you drink together, study together, sleep together.  Shortly after graduating, you start seeing peoples’ paths diverge.  Ten to fifteen years out, and you see people on opposite ends of the spectrum.

People who haven’t taken care of themselves end up with serious health problems.  Some end up in jail.  Others make fortunes.  Others have almost fully grown kids.  Still others completely turn their lives around from drug addicts or violent juveniles to successful businesspeople.  It takes time, but the tiniest bit of compounding plays out.

I don’t know if it’s universal, but in my twenties I couldn’t even imagine being thirty.  Now I’m in my late thirties but I definitely can imagine 40, 50.  I wish when I was younger, I had fully appreciated this power of compounding.  And believed in it.  I would have made plans in 5- to 10-year increments.  Because although they might have taken nearly a decade, the things that my friends and colleagues said they would become, they truly became.

What’s your next 5 to 10 years look like?  It goes by in a flash.

What I Learned From: My Grandfather

I don’t remember much about him, but what I do remember: a booming voice that carried across a room, an unafraid voice, a voice from a generation unaccustomed to the idea of phones.  Whenever he picked one up, he yelled into it, unsure if the other person could hear him.  He spoke Korean with a northern, Pyongyang-tinged dialect, a lilting one, rendered harsh by Siberian winters.

He was an expansive man, moving in abundance and generosity.  Some of my favorite memories of him were when he came to visit, asked us if we “needed” anything from Toys R Us, and proceeded to order my father to drive us there.

He was born in 1923, at the height of Japan’s colonization of Korea.  He was fluent in Japanese, studied at Keio University, then returned to Pyongyang to work with his family of industrialists, capitalists, and landowners.

Also, they were Christians, which basically meant that there were at least four reasons the Communists wanted them dead.

Kim Il Sung’s goons came for him once, but he hid himself in the wardrobe – my grandmother standing at the door, chills running up her spine, her voice shaking as she remembered identifying the dead bodies of her cousins at the police station.  He wasn’t home, she said.

She sold it well – they went away.

Things got worse, and the war broke out.  He carried my oldest aunt, 7 at the time, on his back the whole way from Pyongyang to Busan.  They rode trains, took boats across rivers, and mostly walked.  The flood of refugees was so chaotic and compressed that sometimes babies were mistaken for luggage and thrown off the tops of trains.

They bundled all the money they had around themselves, but after carrying it thousands of miles, discovered that everything besides the gold was worthless paper.

In Busan, they became food stall peddlers.  Then they sold leather, coming home every night reeking of hides and dye.

Some of my most vivid memories are of my grandparents counting money.  They would take a wad of bills, fold it in half, lick their thumb, and rapidly flick the wad like human money counters.  They were in their golden years so I always associated it with prosperity, but I realize now that it was probably from their days as merchants.

They moved frequently.  A few years after the war, looking for startup capital, he wandered the city for a week.  My grandmother said the only time she saw him cry was when he was turned down by some people for loans.  These were “friends” who owed him the money to begin with.

I always try to measure myself against him.

When he was 30, the Korean War was on the verge of ending.  Having lost everything, he was just scraping by.

And then – for two decades, he just worked.  At one point, he saved enough to sublet space in a shoe factory near Daejeon.

This was his big break.  Before the war, his family were a clan of manufacturers.  And though they had to abandon all their property, including factories, my grandfather did have one thing left: knowledge of the precise method to make rubber.  In the desolate post-war landscape, not many other people had the knowledge.

And being sublet in the shoe factory had its advantages, because they had a ready customer for rubber soles.

By the 1970s, when my grandfather would have been 50 or so, he had completely reestablished his family’s business, with a factory churning out rubber soles for all sorts of uses.  He was on a council of a hundred businessmen personally advising Park Chung-Hee, the strongarm dictator of the decade.

They were prosperous enough that they were able to hire drivers, with a Ford Mustang and Jeep in the stable.  This was to the enormous chagrin of my father and younger aunt, who begged to be dropped off a block away from school.

And from his 50s until he passed away, just before the age of 70, my grandfather became the picture of a prosperous businessman.

Those are the outlines of his life, and that is all I know.  He died when I was 10, before I had a chance to ask him anything about life or business.  I’ve wanted to ask him so many questions.  What was the war like?  How did you go from having nothing to a KOSPI-listed company?  What did you tell himself, day after day, while struggling for decades?  What advice would you give?  What guidance?

I wish I knew more, but over the years, I’ve come to accept that maybe, he’s taught me what I need to know.

He was generous with his wealth, boisterous, loud.  He was playful, always shadowboxing with me, a big fan of “pro” wrestling, and outspoken and outgoing to a fault.  I remember him going up to complete strangers at Six Flags or Disneyland, striking up conversations in barking English monosyllables and gestures, and asking random people – usually blondes – to take pictures with him.

He came from a world where business was mostly conducted in person, and on the back of envelopes.  He carried around a little black address book, and lots of pens.  Decisive and quick, but sometimes wrong.

This made him not so good in other areas, such as principles of managerial succession, and those of finance.  With lots of debt, and no competent middle- or even senior managers at the company, it was made quick work of during the Asian financial crisis.  At some point, it was delisted.  And a few years after the AFC, it was completely liquidated.

He wasn’t alive at the time it happened.

My last memory of him was in 1992, when I held his warm, dying hand and looked into his eyes before they pulled the cord on his life support.  Only 10 at the time, I didn’t know what was happening.  I didn’t realize he was dying.  Surely after a few treatments, he would get better.  Because that’s how medical care works, right?

As a kid, no one tells you anything, especially in Korean families.  So I thought I was just there to say hi, and when my uncle told me later that he had passed away, my first reaction was disbelief and denial.

What I saw in his eyes?  They recognized me.  His grasp was light but warm.  His eyes were still very much alive.

It is a matter of family legend that his company had faced a credit crunch right before I was born.  It was an issue, again, of a loan.  After I was born, whatever the issue was, it resolved itself, and so it was the reason my grandfather prized me so much, his only grandson, because I was a good omen.  Or so it goes.

But I like to think it’s more than that.  Maybe it’s because he recognized something in me.  Maybe he wanted to pass something down to me.  Or, maybe it’s that I recognize something in him.  Maybe something he wanted me to have.

I saw a picture of my grandfather as a young man once.  He must have been in his late 20s, early 30s.  It must have been taken shortly before or after the Korean War.  It was his whole clan, his five brothers and a sister.  He was the fifth brother, and he stood at far right, the shortest one, a gaunt, almost hollow face above a wiry frame, in complete contrast to the thick, booming man that I had known.

It was a revelation about what those years between 30 and 50 must have been like.

Because his face was intense and his eyes were burning with hunger.

What I Learned From: Daniel

Daniel was a straight D student.  His parents were liquor store owners, his older sister was a gangster.  He was the class clown, unafraid to tell us about his family’s problems, unafraid to be vulnerable, unafraid to stand up for himself, sometimes too revealing about his masturbatory habits, and quick on his feet for being five and a half feet and almost three hundred pounds.  Once, he pulled over at the side of a road to fight a neo-Nazi that kept honking at him.  I got my ass kicked, he said.  But at least he fought.

It was a dark and gloomy March in Philadelphia during my sophomore year.  I reached for the phone – we still had landlines back then – and decided not to call him.

This decision not to call is still vivid to me.  I remember justifying it to myself; we had just talked a week earlier and there was nothing to say.  I “knew” what we were going to talk about – he would tell me to hurry and come back home, he would maybe tell me about a new workout routine.

A few hours later, I woke up in a muffled state after an insanely real dream of riding a bicycle through a snow-white field, smashing into something, getting pitched over the handlebars, and landing in cottony-white, soft snow with an audible grunt as something hit my chest.  In that dream Daniel was in it, riding next to me.

The dream put me in a weird mood, and just a few minutes after waking up I got a call from Sandy.  Daniel’s car had slammed into a light pole, swerved around it, and landed squarely under it.

They had to extract him with pliers and airlift him to the hospital.  His reported cause of death was internal damage.

He was in my dream again last night.  We were meeting at a restaurant.  I rounded some seats, all the while seeing some familiar faces, until I saw him again, assessing me wryly through his glasses, under his spiked hair.  He looked exactly the same.

We were 19 when he died.  Now I’m almost double that age, and he remains the same to me.

When I was traveling the world in my 20s, I used to marvel at the places I found myself in and the people I met, and imagine telling Daniel about them.  I would always think, what would Daniel think of this?  What would I say?  He thought he would die tragically as an LAPD cop.  I thought I would never see 30.  I always imagined saying something like, Daniel, we made it.  Look where we are now.

He was my most honest friend.  And that, I now realize, is one of the only definitions of a friend.

He single-handedly cured me of my habit of saying stupid things as filler, just to fill the silence.  One time he looked me in the eye after one particularly inane comment, ‘Won, you’re smart, you’re good looking, you know why you don’t have a girlfriend?  Because you say stupid shit like that.’  I burst out laughing because it was completely true.

And because he was honest, you knew exactly who he was and where he stood.  That’s why I can see him in dreams and know that he would be the same person now as he was then, except with a few more white hairs.

And it’s kept me honest too.  They say that death grounds you.  When I read that a long time ago, I always wondered what it meant.  Now, I’ve come closer to understanding what it means.  At least for me.

Because Daniel – during this second lifetime I’ve lived without you in it, I’ve never wanted to become someone that you didn’t recognize.

And you were fearless.  So should I be.