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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Walker Day

The following is an essay that I wrote not too long ago about my best friend, Greg Walker. Some of you may have seen it posted elsewhere. I'm sharing it again because today, February 23rd, is Greg's birthday. I hope that you will take the time to read it.
"Greg's Friend, The Genius"

I used to take myself pretty seriously in high school. I studied hard. I stressed over grades. I was an A student, but it was not without struggle. Being a top student, I also had the added pressure of everyone I knew having their own plan for my life. My dad wanted me to be a doctor. My mom wanted me to be a teacher. My science teacher wanted me to be a physicist. My math teacher wanted me to be an engineer. My civics teacher felt that I should go into politics. The list goes on. Only two things seemed to serve as much of a release. One was performing on-stage in school or community theatre, and the other was hanging out with my friend Greg Walker, who continuously reminded me: "Screw it, dude. Life is short."
This sentiment could sometimes be frustrating from Greg, because he, too, was an A student, but with half the effort. In fact, most things came to Greg without effort. He was good at sports. Girls were crazy about him. He was the most popular guy in school, and despite the ease with which he maintained his 4.0 GPA, he always managed to play it off, describing me to people as his "friend, the genius."
Nobody bothered Greg too much about what he was going to become. When they asked, he would smile and say, "Probably a marine biologist. After I travel."
I didn't know what I wanted to do. Actually, that's not true. I wanted to go into the performing arts, but I didn't dare tell anyone that. They would say I was wasting my potential. I was going to have to settle for my second choice, but I had no idea what that would be.
Greg knew what I really wanted to do. He was my only friend who came to see me in the shows that I performed in the next town over.
Greg and I were the co-valedictorians of our class. My valedictory speech was thoughtful, inspiring, and weighty. His was just funny. At this point, I still didn't know what I wanted to do, or, rather, what I wanted to do second-most.
Somewhere about mid-summer, I decided on Broadcast Journalism. It was kind of like performing. Greg was working as a prep cook at one of the better restaurants in the next town, a job he loved. He was saving up for his trip to Europe.
I didn't hear too much from Greg while I was in school. I got a postcard now and then from him asking, "How's school?" School was awful. I hated my major. Broadcast Journalism wasn't like performing. It was manipulating facts to earn ratings. It made me stick to my stomach. In my third year, I left school. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. While I tried to figure it out, I worked in a toy store, I built fences, I dug ditches, I ruined my credit rating in a multi-level marketing venture, and I basically dashed all the hopes and dreams that my parents, teachers, and friends had once had for me.
Every now and then I would hear from Greg, and I ran into him a couple of the times that I returned home with my tail between my legs. He was basically living in a cycle where he worked at one or two restaurants around town until he saved enough money to return to Europe, living in hostels until he only had enough money to get home. He would then fly back to the states and start saving again. He had an interesting life. What I found most interesting, though, was that Greg was happy – something that still eluded me. When I told him how I felt that my life was a mess, and I didn't know what to do with myself, he would smile, put his arm around me, and say, "Screw it, dude. Life is short."
At one of my lower points, I was working near a ski resort in a shoe store with people I despised. I hated my life. I feared that I had jumped the tracks for good, and that my life was as good as it was going to get.
I got a phone call from Greg.
"Hey, brother, I'm getting married! I met this amazing girl!"
He then told me that he was saving up for a hiking trip in Mexico in a few months, and when he got back he was going to get married, move to Oregon, and start going to school for marine biology. As happy as he had always seemed before, he sounded like he was absolutely over the moon now.
"How are you, man?" he asked me. I'm sure I tried to sound like everything was great on my end, but Greg could hear through it.
"Isn't there any theatre around you there? You were really good at that, man. I was always so jealous of you when you were on stage."
We said our good-byes, and I got ready to head in to work. I opened the paper to look at the want-ads, hoping to find a job selling anything other than shoes. Instead, I saw a small announcement:
"The Backstage Theatre is holding auditions for its season of shows. All types needed."
I went to the local bookstore on my way to work and bought a book of monologues. I spent my lunch breaks for the next three days memorizing a monologue for the audition.
On the day of the auditions, I walked into the little theatre, and very nearly walked right back out. Then I remembered Greg's words:
"You were really good at that, man."
I auditioned, and the next day I got the call. I had a lead role in one of the shows that would open in a few months! I couldn't wait for rehearsals to start!
Rehearsing the show made me feel like I was alive again. I smiled a lot more. I could tell that I was annoying my co-workers at the shoe store, because I was no longer as miserable as they were. It was a joyous time.
The show opened to great success, and I overheard audience members and other actors saying, "Wow, who's that new guy?"
I was! I was the new guy – Greg Walker's genius friend!
I wanted to call Greg when I got home, but instead I got a call at the theatre. It was my mom.
"Greg disappeared from his hiking party in Mexico three days ago. His family is going down to help look for him."
I wanted to go, too, but I couldn't leave the show. I had no understudy. Besides, I couldn't afford to make the trip.
A week or so later, I got another call. The search had been called off. It was unlikely that Greg had survived at that altitude in those conditions. A smaller party would continue to look for the body. Greg was presumed dead. I went to the show that night. I walked into the dressing room in a fog. Greg, my greatest supporter, would never get to see me perform again.
One of the veteran actors asked me what was wrong. I told him. He said, "This was the guy who got you to audition for this show?"
"Yeah, sort of," I answered.
He called the other actors together and told them the story. He said, "Tonight we do the show for Brady's friend."
Yes. Tonight I would give my best performance! Tonight I would use my talent to celebrate the memory of my friend! I was on fire that night on stage! I saw audience members fall out of their chairs with laughter! Lines with which I had previously struggled now flowed with ease.
I got so caught up in my performance that at one point I almost walked out on stage without one of my props. I remembered at the last possible second, reached blindly behind me, and, luckily, put my hand right on the item I needed. I walked on stage and performed my scene flawlessly.
That night, we received a standing ovation. It was to be the first of many for that play, one of the most successful shows the theatre had ever produced.
When I got backstage, I found something curious. The prop table was located about ten feet away from where I had been standing when I reached back and found my prop in my hand. No one else had been backstage at that moment, and there was nothing but air that my prop could have been resting on and still been within my reach.
I smiled.
"Thanks, Greg," I said softly. He had been there after all.
That night I decided to pursue the one thing that I had always wanted – a life in the arts. It has been a bumpy road at times, and I haven't made my fortune yet, but, you know what? I'm happy. There are still probably plenty of people out there who feel that I may have wasted my potential, but when I think of them, I only hear one thing:
"Screw it, dude. Life is short."
Today, I try to do something that I'm a little bit intimidated or even scared to do. It doesn't have to be big. Just scary. I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet, but I hope it will make Greg proud.
And, since Greg was just about the biggest Beatles fan I ever met:

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