Sunday, August 13, 2006

Immortal in my Book


I was deeply honored that Bill and Varese came up to Portland for my wedding last year on July 30th, 2005, exactly one year prior to Bill’s fateful run in the San Francisco Marathon.

Although we kept in touch and saw each other sporadically over the years (he visited me a few times in Germany, where I’ve lived the past 20 years, and I came to SF), most of my memories of Bill go back some 25 years when we were both 18-19 years old. I lived next door to Bill in a freshman dorm at Georgetown University. The first thing he said to me when we met was, "Would you like to engage in some stimulating interlocution?" “Say whuh?!” He was a gifted student who seemed to defy entropy and convert 100% of expended energy into results. He was also just a really fun guy to hang out with.

Early that year he "raided" my room one night by banging on the door and yelling, "Open up, vice squad!" It became a funny ritual: to bang on the other guy’s door, burst in, pantomime and yell out another creative variation on the "vice squad" theme: Dice squad, mice squad, rice squad...I think we ran out of rhymes after I flung open his door and began furiously scratching my scalp: Bill grinned, "Right…lice squad…".

It sounds kind of nerdy now, but that same year I swaggered into Bill’s room and boasted that my "Merriam-Webster" was far superior to his "New Heritage". He immediately picked up the gauntlet and we staged Dictionary Wars where one of us would try to find a word definition in our own dictionary that we believed there was no way the other dictionary could possibly match, much less, surpass it. It was a testament to the fact that words were to Bill as eighth-notes were to Mozart, and Bill had a competitive spirit in all things.

Although some exchanges with Bill were mundane, he would begin many a conversation by listening thoughtfully to your standard "PK4" opening, then develop a koan-like imponderable that would end with an "I gotcha!" raised eyebrow and tilt of the head, or if you were on the phone with him, a slight inflection in his voice, to let you know that he would be highly impressed if you 'got it' but not disappointed or condescending if you didn't.

I visited Bill four weeks before the 1989 earthquake, when he was living just above Chinatown. We went to the Embarko and had a great time. Bill was one of the few people who could comprehend the humor and humanity of a strange 3:00 a.m. encounter I'd had that weekend in an all-night donut shop with an A's fan who carried with him an old gym bag containing 25 years of hits, runs and errors on a thick stack of tattered and yellowed continuous paper print-outs. I told Bill the guy had an endearing, yet somewhat annoying, habit of repeating your name like a small child: “Hey John!..Hey John! Joooohhhn! Hey John!” Bill immediately added that character to his 999 other Mel Blanc voices. The perfect copy editor, Bill took the original and made it even funnier. I used to get abdominal cramps every time Bill launched into that voice.

Bill's memory, of course, approached total recall. I once told him the same "funny thing that happened to me" twice within the space of two months. He listened politely until I was finished, then his face erupted into a Harpo Marx grimace. I said, "Oh, that's right, that's old news, isn't it...." He jutted his jaw and responded in a faux Dirty Harry voice: "Yes...why don't you live a NEW life...I'm TIRED of hearing about the OLD one...."

I spiritually believe, but of course cannot verify, that Bill is now in Heaven. It is appealing imagery to see Bill dining on “ambrosia” and making the universe roar with laughter at his wit, humor and verbal acrostics. Others may very well subscribe to some form of materialism whereby a few hundred gigabytes from among the terabytes of brilliant “memes” that thrived in his mind managed to survive the brutal eviction and now live in diaspora on paper and as memories in all of us, and that’s as immortal as it gets. I guess the latter alternative would be a bleak and despairing way to go out for those who never ‘made their mark’ during their brief lifetime. (Could that be the materialist equivalent of “not going to Heaven”? It’s a crying shame I can’t ask Bill, as I’m sure he’d be able to comment on that. ) But Bill had such a lasting impact on so many people’s lives, I’m very certain he’s having it both ways with the cosmos: he is "up there" in a soulful, spiritual sense and yet still very much "down here", very tangible and real in our hearts and minds. I find that very comforting amid my deep sadness over his passing.

John Stilwell, Munich, Germany

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