I was just over 5 years old at the time, and so I wasn’t starting kindergarten until the fall of that year. My younger brother and sister and I had been spending our days, probably since the time of my parents’ divorce, at a babysitter’s house, the Adwells. The woman of the house—her name escapes me at the moment—was the type of woman I viewed as being unconscionably mean, as she required us to lay down for afternoon naps when I wanted to keep watching TV. She had remarked one afternoon, as I lay on the floor peaking at the TV screen through one narrowly slit eyelid, that I was either a good napper or a good actor.
I hadn’t yet discovered my fascination for NASA, space travel, and the cosmos in general that would lead me to, when I had learned to write, send letters on an almost weekly basis to various NASA headquarters around the country requesting pictures (they would typically send me a handful of glossy 8×10 PR photos—shuttles, flight crews, etc.), of which I amassed a sizeable collection in the second grade. Because I hadn’t discovered that interest, I was disappointed that they aired a shuttle launch rather than whichever cartoon I had hoped to watch through one slit eyelid that afternoon. And I was even more upset when, after the initial explosion, they began replaying the footage of the explosion, talking about it incessantly. I think my babysitter even changed channels, and there it was on the other stations, too. Okay, okay—it blew up! Can we move on to the cartoons now?
The memories of the time we spent at that particular babysitter’s house are rather fleeting. I didn’t like her cooking, I hated the naps, and I thought she was mean. But that afternoon sticks out clearly in my mind. Later that evening my older brother and sister talked about how the students at Clara Pete Elementary had been gathered in the gymnasium to watch the launch on TV together, and then were talked to by the principal afterward who tried to explain it as best he could. For many in my generation, the Challenger explosion was the first major national catastrophe we experienced. In some sense, it seems like the crises that have followed haven’t been a function of striving to reach great heights so much as they’ve been examples of the depths of what humanity is capable of. I’m hopeful that our nation can strive for better in the years to come.
I composed the following text to read at my friend’s memorial service on Saturday the 22nd of January. Standing at the podium, I made the spot decision to pass over the second paragraph and the latter portion of the third paragraph, as I was sure I wouldn’t be able to hold it together. It was a beautiful memorial service, and I was humbled to be a part of it, and to have known Matt.
I first met Matt Becnel in April 2006, when I flew out from Central Illinois to take part in a service conference being held in Woodland Hills. I met Matt through Tony and Colin, and Matt offered to take me into Hollywood that Friday night to hang out, get something to eat, and go to a meeting. I’m not sure, now, whether he bothered to mention that he didn’t drive at the time. Friday evening, he and Jamie showed up at the hotel where I was staying, and the three of us rode together to Zankou Chicken, where Matt insisted on buying my dinner. These acts of kindness were the first of countless occasions during the time I knew Matt that I saw him leap on any opportunity to act on his abundant generosity of spirit by doing something nice for someone else. As a matter of fact, he did it again before I even left LA that spring.
I had planned to stay over an extra day after the conference ended, but I didn’t know where I was going to stay on that last night. When I told Matt, he told me I should come stay on his couch in Long Beach, if I wanted. “As long as you don’t mind taking public transportation,” he warned me. That was when I started to figure out why they all called him “Mattro.” So that Sunday afternoon, we went to Impact and watched a Lakers game, sat through a service committee meeting, and then headed back down to Hollywood for the young people’s meeting. We went to the Starbucks at Prospect and Vermont with Joe Summers, Portia, Colin, and others, and we told stories and laughed until the coffee stopped working. Portia volunteered to drive us to Mattro’s apartment in Long Beach, but Matt made sure we stopped by the seedy late-night taco place where you stand on the sidewalk and place your order through a window in the brick wall, all en espanol. He and Portia and I ate our tacos at a park on the top of Signal Hill, and he got a good laugh when I accidentally took a bite of his cabeza taco. The next morning he walked me the twelve or so blocks from his apartment so I could see the Pacific Ocean for my first time. We had breakfast together before I got on a plane back to the Midwest, not yet knowing I’d be moving to Southern California just a few short months later. What I did know was that I’d found a good friend in the week I’d spent here.
In the time since I moved to LA in late 2006, I’ve always known without a doubt that every day I had a chance to see Mattro would be a day with at least a few moments of genuine joy. I have yet to meet even one person who didn’t find Matt’s company to be a positive addition to whatever was happening – whether that was tacos at La Estrella or fine dining at Conrads, a UFC fight at Jay Ray’s or a late-night movie premier after the Platt meeting – Mattro was enough to make you wanna go along even if you didn’t wanna go along.
In spite of all the good-will Matt generated with everyone whose path he crossed, there were also some disappointments. Like so many other people who loved him, I was incredibly hopeful and proud for Matt when he left to go to school in Santa Barbara. Matt was an incredibly smart man, and I believed he deserved an opportunity to see where that could take him. Unfortunately, addiction got in the way. After a few bad scares, he ended up in a sober living house a block away from me in North Hollywood. I was happy, at least, that I’d be able to spend more time with him again. That feeling wasn’t just a sense of obligation to help a newcomer find his way again, or even a desire to repay all of the kindness and generosity Matt had dished out over the years. It was all about the joy in being able to hang out and laugh with him again, the ability to put my arm around him in the meeting and feel perfectly comfortable that way, and the chances to stop by Fatburger on the way home to eat like kings until it hurt.
We have lost a great friend in Mattro. There won’t be any more waiting for him to show up hours into the poker game, energy drink in hand, ready to shake things up and go after the chip leader. There won’t be any more catching rides with a shoe-less minivan driver or getting the low-down on all the good Mexican spots in whatever neighborhood you might happen to be passing through. There won’t be any more insistence on coming down to Long Beach for football Sunday even though I’m still not sure what the difference is between the NFC and the NFL. There won’t be any more hoping Matt gets this thing, because we just love him and we just want him to be okay. There won’t be any more wishing he could see himself like we see him.
We may no longer be able to hold on to the hopes and dreams we had for what the future might hold for Matt, but that doesn’t mean we have to let go of our memories. I will continue to cherish all of those joyful moments, and be forever grateful that I had a chance to know Mattro. You were loved, Mattro, and that love will live with me always.
I got an email from CSUN yesterday, and apparently my diploma is on its way. Yay!
The unfortunate news is that the teaching position I heard about less than a week after finishing my degree has vanished. Apparently they have decided not to offer the composition course for the term that starts next week, which is both a disappointment and a relief. After all, I’ve only just finished my degree, so the prospect of turning around and immediately jumping into a new endeavor had felt a little overwhelming. But then, my excitement about learning to be a teacher had really begun to eclipse my sense of being overwhelmed. Ah, well; perhaps I’ll have another opportunity later.
In the meantime, I think I’ll just try to channel my energy into: writing new material that I can share with my awesome writing group; continuing to gradually improve my diet; and trying to be more active, including possibly getting to work via a bicycle/mass transit combo a couple times a week. Kinda sounds like a bunch of New Year’s resolutions… blech.
That’s “happy New Year,” po Russkie. A friend recently sent me a link to another Russian animated short:
I had a nice time back in the Midwest for the holidays, enjoying the ~20° weather most days and spending lots of quality time with family and friends. Now we’re well into another new year, and I’m still sorting out how best to prioritize my non-resolutions. I’m also looking into the possibility of teaching a college-level composition course, which would surely be a wonderfully enriching experience. Aside from that, all is well… and I’m thinking about writing some new stuff to share with my writing group, which would be a nice way to keep my creative juices flowing.