Thursday, May 7, 2009

Leif's Memorial Service at St. Petersburg Unitarian Universalist Church - April 29, 2008 - "Who Was My Brother? (First Half of video & entire text)

Peter Anthony did a lot of research about his brother, Leif, on the internet, from posts that Leif made on the ZAON forums to posts about him both during his life and after he died, to comments on this blog and on Leif's MySpace and Faceabook pages. He tried to formulate a picture of Leif as others saw him and integrate it with his own. Peter Anthony was six years older than Leif and left home to go the the Air Force Academy when Leif was still a twelve-year-old junior high school student. From that day on, he only saw Leif during his visits home, as he never lived under the same roof again. Leif went through his teen and adult years from from his older brother. Though they were family, though they were a part of each other's identity, and though they had been close as children, they had too little contact after Peter Anthony left home to keep the relationship close. In the year before Leif died, it seemed to me that they were contacting each other a bit more, that maybe there would be a closer relationship developing as they headed into middle age, but it was not to be. It was prematurely ended with Leif's death.

We found Peter Anthony's detailed analysis fair and penetrating, interesting and challenging, revealing and thought-provoking, touching and well-delivered, and we were very glad and grateful that he was willing to share it with us and with those at the memorial service.

The first half of the video of his speech is in this post. The second half will be posted tomorrow. The entire text is below.

Who Was My Brother? by Peter A. Garretson, April 2008

Who was my brother?
People describe my brother as brash, unabashed, unappologetic, uncompromising, inconsiderate, incautious, arrogant, selfish, lazy (unless a project caught his interest), creative, talented, tolerant, accepting, enthusiastic, crass, deeply caring, forgiving, committed to his friends, practical.

He went by many names: Leif, Ashley, Lance, Alexander, first moving away from his given names (when unusual names weren’t cool) and then moving back to his given names.

He was a patriot, a man who loved and served his country, endured hardships for, and put his life on the line for his country, and he cared deeply about its future.

I think he would have been surprised at the breadth and depth of the lives he touched, and the positive effect he had on them. He had a kind of charisma, rawness and authenticity, inclusiveness, tolerance, and welcomingness that made people instantly like him. He was not the kind of guy who was going to get offended by anything you were likely to say or do (unless you were repealing constitutional liberties or mis-spending the lives of citizen soldiers).

A friend captured him perfectly, saying “He challenged us, provoked us, and never ever held back his opinion. This forum will never again be the same to me without him.” Another said: “He challenged me to be better and to think. He will be missed.”
Enthusiastic about the things that mattered to him, passionate about his chosen endeavors, unapologetic about his opinions and desires, Leif called people to look at the bigger picture and take life with a sense of humor.

Those who knew him said things like “He was an incredible man. A bright spot. The most interesting person in the store to talk to and work with. A rambunctious person... full of ideas and interesting facts, philosophies. He was an overwhelming presence that was almost bigger than the tiny alcove the store was tucked into. Words truly can not describe him. So full of infinite knowledge, a compassionate heart, and internal drive that will live on in the hearts of those he touched. Seemingly brash, once you got to know him you quickly realized just how caring and good a person he really was…He was definitely a good guy inside.”

On any subject, whether life itself, psychology, philosophy, politics, religion, or the latest videogames, Leif was never without some valuable perspective to contribute to the rest of us. And from my perspective, he was just now getting more sublime and interesting.

His associates saw him as a support, a champion of their cause, a loyal and committed teammate and ally, as someone who gave good advice, was encouraging, who helped them to see the big picture, and who challenged, pushed and encouraged them to be better and to think more deeply. Through that encouragement, those he touched grew, and tried things that otherwise they never would have. His friendship was transformative.

Leif was not one to hide his opinion, and so I will honor him, and a favorite book of his, “Speaker for the Dead” by telling the truth about my brother as best I knew him.

None of us knows or probably can ever know whether Leif departed us through design or accident, but if he thought he was not needed by his friends and family, he was deeply mistaken. While no explanation is satisfying to have lost one so young, full of potential, and such a contribution to our lives, it is my hope that his final moments were not of concealed quiet desparation and despair, but rather incautious enjoyment, and so I am personally happy that his last few hours were spent in joy with friends.

I loved my brother, and had always wanted the best for him. Leif very much needed a partner, a complement. I had hoped he would get marreid, have kids, find his calling, moderate his excesses with age. But it was not to be. He had hard luck, both in love and work. He had many, many breaks, but not the ones that matter to a man’s soul.

As a kid, he wanted to be a fighter pilot, and would have been an excellent one (particularly in the era of Boyd and Yaeger when pushing a machine to its limit was a virtue), had poor eyesight not closed that door to him. Denied his first calling, never found another. Denied his first love, he never found his way to a safe harbor. He had great affection for children, and would forever be a child at heart, but never had his own.

While his rational morality understood Earthly virtues and had a place for wisdom, fortitude, justice, truth (and to a lesser extent temperance), he never had access to faith, hope, and charity which see so many through despairing times, and might have aided him as well. Leif cared deeply about truth and morality, but never found God, never found a faith in which he could trust, and so was denied the nurturing discipline, community, and security which it provides. He never found that higher purpose, and without it rejected protective constraints on his liberty.

When no path will get us to where we need to go, we tend to be more haphazard about our next steps since none of them matter to the goal. Perhaps that explains why, for one of the smartest people I knew, his life seemed to me an almost unbroken string of poor decisions and poor judgment.

Starved of higher purpose, he was a fountain of unchanneled energies, forever driving him to excess, whether it be drinking, guns, gadgets, cars, alchohol, and a lifestyle far beyond his means.

In one sense he knew how to enjoy himself, and drank more fully of life than most of us do. But in another sense he was unfortunate, for having drunk so deeply, he was still unsatisfied, and ever thirsty.

He seemed afflicted with that pathology that afflicts males with no children: No one to whom to devote resources but on one's self. No compelling reason NOT to take chances. A constant dissipation of frustrated libido, and a fascination with this thing called violence, not yet understanding what it is for.

My first memories of my brother go back to dramatic goofing around on the back terrace of a wonderful house on a hill in Germany, and later to our time in Japan watching Japanese robot anime, Ultra-man, and Kamen Rider, and endless hours of watching, and re-watching the first generation of real sci-fi movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, the Black Hole.

Later, I remember coming home and finding my little brother transformed. He had gone from a mop-haired, cute little kid, to this incredibly tall, long-haired guitar hero dude with his own fashion sense, with a room decorated with a gigantic stereo (when that was cool), a shrine to Cyndi Crawford, guitars, and having transformed my parents old station wagon into something that was not quite boring, but not quite cool yet either…but on its way. My brother, was a “cool dude.”

His death came at an unfortunate time in our relationship, when we were talking and connecting more. I was re-discovering a love of anime and video games, having just seen Final Fantasy, Macross Zero and Appleseed, and when he was developing not just his Bacchan side but had just taken philosophy, and I was looking forward to exploring his Apollonian side. I was looking forward to getting together this summer.

In the oddest and most perverse way, I can’t help but think he would have had interesting insights and observations on his own death and our reactions and its meaning to us. I find that more than anyone else, I’d like to get his take, his detached perspective on things. I’m greatly annoyed that he isn’t around to represent himself. No doubt he would have had a good bit of dark humor about his own death, and he certainly would council us to take nothing as sacred, and enjoy this opportunity to get together. He would certainly not encourage us to follow his last example.

In one of his favorite games, when things clearly aren’t going your way, when you know you aren’t going to win, you can just blow yourself up and re-spawn to try again. Perhaps, if the Hindus and Buddhists are right about reincarnation, that is exactly what he did.

He was fond of saying that there is no problem that a proper application of explosives cannot solve. And perhaps it solved the problem for him…but not for us. Leif jealously guarded of the liberty of human decisions, and had it been one of us, he would likely have rejected any notion of impaired decisionmaking, and would likey have been both accepting and disparaging if it had been our choice. If he were here, he’d probably say something shocking and callous, pretending to great selfishness like: “Why are you so upset over me? I woundn’t be so upset over you.” But I wonder how well he knew himself or how much he cared for others.

My brother had a deep reservoir of talent, creativity, and virtue. I suspect he was like many of the world’s greatest citizens that were ne'r-do-wells until fate placed them in places of responsibility in a time of need. I say this because those who were touched by him found him to be full of wisdom, insight, encouragement, and his pride had a meaningful effect. They looked to him as a confidant, mentor, teacher. They felt improved, enobled, an uplifted by their association with him.

As far as I could tell, his highest values were liberty, coolness, and loyalty to friends.

My brother valued coolness very highly. He sought it in all things, and wished to surround, accessorize himself, and project it. Whether it was computers, phones, guns, guitars, he seemed to have done a tremendous amount of research, knew exactly what the best and worst features were (and would gladly tell you), and of course, whether he could afford it or not, he most likely had the best and latest gadget. But he was not a materialist. He did not acquire them because he valued the things themselves, but rather the experiences they conveyed.

And the experiences he sought were not the quiet experiences of the soul. He was not one to sequester himself at a mediation retreat, or the solitude of a Walden Pond. Rather, he sought loud, stimulating experiences that would challenge his “coolness” and turn him on—and he had a much higher excitement threshold than most. He loved games, and spent tremendous amounts of time on games like Cyberpunk, Planetside, Mass Effect, and pouring his creative juices into ZAON, and he organized his social life around them.

He enjoyed many a pleasure to excess, took full advantage of the pleasures of this world, and was willing to risk life and limb to experience them. Nothing was muted.

And among the coolest and most compelling experiences for my brother was speed. He valued this very highly and was willing to take tremendous risks to experience it. I remember him taking me on a ride in his RX-7, and being utterly scared for my life. Never, in all my life had I been in a vehicle where the wheels did not turn at the same speed as the road, or where the experience was closer to a roller coaster than to a car ride. And he claimed that no car could compare to a motorcycle. He had numerous accidents, and continued to feed his thirst for speed. He seemed to me to be always cheating death, riding without a helmet, taking turns at the edge of performance, and living on borrowed time, and like some of you, I thought he would most likely die on a motorcycle, chasing the experience he valued so highly. Like one of his online friends, I too thought: “Never would have I thought something like this would ever happen to him. Perhaps out in a blaze of glory at mach 10 with his ass on fire on one of his toys, but not like this.“

As I said, he jealously valued human liberty, and rejected all claims of others to moderate his joys for their own benefit, safety or security. He took life lightly with a wry and often dark sense of humor, and he was quick with penetrating, humorous, and darkly humorous insights.

His “coolness” even permeated his person. He seemd to cultivate a Zen-like inperturbability, and gravitas. That gravity of personality seemed to attract, and he seemed to welcome, people who were much more volatile, emotive, and expressive and needed that kind of gravity to stabilize and hold the space for them.

And as far as I could tell, despite his outer coolness and brashness, he seems to have been a caring, reliable, forgiving individual who always sought the best for those close to him. Even through rocky circumstances and separations, I’m not sure anyone, once entering Leif’s circle, was ever outside it.

Certainly I had relied upon him to be there for my family should I be in trouble, or should something happen to me. I had relied upon him to be close to my parents and take care of them. And I had relied upon him to hold a certain position in life as a measuring stick for my own decisions and accomplishments. That rug has been pulled out from beneath me. His passing has made each meal simultaneously more flavorful and tasteless. In every bite, in every experience, I taste my own mortality, for we were made of the same basic cloth--both thrilled that I am still alive, and saddened that he is not.

Brothers are also competitive and run a good race to bring home to each other and their parents the fruits of their labors. Now I find every successful accomplishment is bittersweet, sweet because death causes us to appreciate life, and bitter because his passing deprives me of a meaningful victory because it is like winning not by virtue but by forfeit. In this life, at least, he should have stayed in the race. With his talents, frankly, he should have won it.

Had things worked out just slightly differently for Leif, he might have become a pilot and married that high school sweetheart, and perhaps he’d have a couple of lovely daughters. Doing something he loved and was good at, he might have been promoted below the zone, perhaps he’d even been selected as initial cadre on the F-22 Raptor and applying for this year’s astronaut class. I’d like to think that he’d have been motivated to continue his Judo, to stay in shape, and might be playing guitar or bass in a band. I’d like to think he’d have reason to come through DC where I’d take him to train with my local jujitsu group and amidst a likely argument about Col. John Boyd’s philosophy of winning and losing, I’d try to talk him into requesting an assignment to Air Force Future concepts where he could put his wargamer design skills to use for his country. Later, perhaps we’d be getting together, letting our kids play and our spouses talk as we enjoyed a good bottle of wine and and made plans for a family trip to Palau where we could dive and ride, two things we both enjoyed.

As one of his friends wrote, “I wanted so much for him to find the love and happiness, he deserved it more than anyone I knew.” Regrettably, the bright future or past we would author of Leif is not to come in this incarnation, and I hope Leif’s best guess about our Creator was not on target, and his spirit will persist, and he will get a second chance to realize the destiny he was meant for.

I would like to end with a something that one of his online creative collaborators, Rush Wingate wrote about Leif that both captures him and his dreams, and our best intentions for him:

"Leif was a free spirit in life. He loved speed, he loved adventure. Like us, he held on tightly to the child's dream and fantasy of rocketing among the stars. Well, through tragedy, Leif will the first among us realize that dream. In the summers to come, I will lie along rivers and beaches, or in fine pastures on my many camping trips, and I shall look at the stars. In winters I will continue to haul myself out into frosty fields with my thermos of coffee and many telescopes to gaze at the cosmos. When I do, I shall think of that "brawlin' SOB". I'll think of how that spirit is now free to roam and explore those very stars we all fantasized about. I know that our resident Speed Demon will have strapped himself to a blazing comet, rocketing in the cosmos, a permanent smile on his face."

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