The headspace of my high school computer programming class was an oddly combative one. One might assume that a room full of 16-year-old nerds who had weekend LAN parties and imported Sega Dreamcast games from Japan would be accepting, but this was not the case: there was still a natural pecking order that permeated all of high school.
Somebody had to be at the bottom. And when I was picked on, it seemed like it was me.
Dan could’ve given two shits. A year ahead of me, Dan had that odd magnetism where 100% of the room liked him. Jocks liked him because he was a track star. Nerds resonated with him because he was at the top of his class. And girls loved him because he had dreamy blonde hair that Devon Sawa couldn’t keep up with.
When I didn’t understand how to create a loop or how to define a global variable, he was the first person I’d ask for help. Outside of class, we didn’t really engage: we went to college in opposite corners of the state.
We both ended up in Washington D.C. in 2007. By the time I found out Dan was local, he was on his way out the door to Boston. Dan was going to launch a startup under something I’d never heard at the time called Y Combinator: an incubator that infuses good ideas with cash and a rush of knowledge. To date, Y Combinator has funded a plethora of projects ranging from AirBNB to Reddit.
Shortly after Dan left D.C, I took a chance on Brooklyn. The beginnings were rough: I worked from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. as a reporter while living in an illegal Bushwick basement apartment with no windows beneath a part-time drug-dealer because it was the only place who would take me.
Sometimes Dan and I would e-mail. I’d ask him about the nuances of his startup. I admired that he was in charge. He’d ask me about music. We talked about Fischerspooner.
I’d always wonder how many chat windows he was keeping open at the same time, having jovial conversations with virtual strangers like me. But if there were ever a master of conversational multi-tasking, it was Dan, who always followed up on lingering thoughts.
“This is the last message I have in the thread,” he wrote on an e-mail dated three years ago where I had taken a week to reply. His nice, but stern way of saying he was waiting on me.
In December of 2008, the shit-covered boot of the economy dropped on my job and I was unemployed at the peak of the recession. I e-mailed Dan my resume. He looked at it and sent through helpful, honest suggestions. His feedback came in the form of endless chats of pure scrutiny that helped me rise up.
He went above and beyond: e-mailing colleagues about my situation and offering me a chance to blog about music for him on a pay-per-click basis. And really, I was nobody to Dan: just someone who shared a musty classroom with him for an hour and a half, two days a week, over the course of a school year. When I became re-employed five months later, Dan, not my mother, was the first person I told.
A year later, I was freelancing at a marketing job for people who didn’t like me very much. My desk was in the hallway. I could hear cacophonous laughter from the big office every day, and I felt like it was always about me. I worked hard, but I was mentally waiting for the marbles to scatter; like a game of KerPlunk.
I had just finished washing my hands in the bathroom when I took my iPhone out of my pocket to check on my news feed. The post that bubbled up to the top was a girl I’ve known since 7th Grade, but have spoken to fewer times than I have thumbs.
Back then, Facebook didn’t have a strong news feed algorithm that let you see the most important status updates in your news feed. But Facebook had no way of knowing how important this one was: her status nestled in my gut like a fantastical parasite out of a Ridley Scott concocted nightmare.
“RIP Dan! Oh nooooo!!!!!”
I immediately resented this person for characterizing death with gross grammatical liberties, which was retrospectively inappropriate in almost every possible way. I went to his Facebook page, and I saw an outpouring of messages that confirmed it: declarations of love, clusters of bewilderment and pockets of contradiction. I feel like I read everything about him six times that day.
I Googled him. Obituaries and articles flooded the search results. I started to sweat through my shirt. I felt like I didn’t deserved to be upset because 90% of the way Dan and I engaged happened on the internet. I couldn’t function. I looked at all the old e-mails and times where I was too lazy to respond to him and my mental destitution kept rising, peeling back new layers of atmosphere with each passing second.
It’s been three years to the week since Dan took his life.
Dan’s memory is like a little earworm; a catchy song that never leaves you. The idea of him always comes back during certain times of my life. Whenever I’m about to make a professional move or do something that scares me, I think about Dan, and wonder if I’d still be sprouting around Brooklyn with impunity as opposed to losing it all and running back to the Midwest to do something different.
His memory is an imposing one: in a world that perpetuates a cutthroat attitude, we should be gracious and helpful and insert ourselves into these contexts when we can afford to do so. At 17, the only thing Dan could offer was niceness. Years later, he could offer more, and as all us persevere, we can all offer so much more. Our culture of me needs to become a culture of we.
Whenever my emotional synapses aren’t dominating my mental driver’s seat, I ask myself if what I’m about to do is going to be helpful in any way, shape or form. Because if it isn’t, I’m burning something of value — and in a world where you can’t reliably account for the value of X that is your own time span, you’ll never how much value you’re losing by not being helpful.
If I could describe Dan in one word, if would’ve been just that: helpful.