Archive for February, 2023

Death of the Mentor

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

Well, now I get it. I thought I did before, but I didn’t. Since 1977, maybe before, watching Obi-Wan Kenobi get cut down in front of Luke Skywalker, like everyone else I was thinking: Gosh Luke, that’s a real gut punch even if you only got to know the old guy for a few hours or days. And it is. A popular trope has been built up around the mentor getting killed as part of the Hero’s Journey.

It occurs to me that until Gerard Van der Leun left us, I never really had reason to truly identify with this thing — after the loss of companionship, knowing I’ll never see a good friend again on this plane of existence, the confusion. Or I should say disorientation. Never had a mentor, at least not a real solid one, a mentor quite like him.

I said a few words at his service a few weeks ago, at Mrs. Freeberg’s urging. The officiator invited people to come up and share their stories, and such was the friend-making power of the deceased that this opened floodgates. One person would finish, and another hand would shoot up, and another and another. I wanted to let them all go first. This wasn’t about me, and all these people were from his church which he joined just a couple years ago. Over and over again I heard the wish expressed: Wish I knew him longer. Well, this is why I was taking these nudges from the person to my left. I’d known him longer than the two years, something like seventeen, eighteen or so, and I knew better than they did that this wish was a wise one.

But I’m not a church going guy. I’m a blogger guy. Different worlds. It’s a fitting send-off for our world-straddling giant of a friend, that each of these worlds should speak its piece. After waiting a respectful interval and waiting for the proper turn.

I did not mention the wisdom of wishing for more time with Gerard. It wasn’t necessary. I think everyone present got it. I did mention that we met when one of Gerard’s pieces made a nationally syndicated radio show, to which I was listening to a recording, and I had to drop what I was doing and mutter silently to myself “What’s that?” And “Where’s the rewind button?” I didn’t mention the radio show was Rush Limbaugh’s, nor did I delve too much into the subject of Gerard’s piece, because, again: World straddling. People who’s politics didn’t align with my own, or with Gerard’s, who nevertheless thought of him as a friend, were entitled to think the most positive of the available thoughts on this day.

I didn’t go into the routine that developed after I became gainfully employed again. I’d rise at three or so, read the headlines to figure out what was cheesing me off that day, or perhaps I’d fixated on what got to me the previous day. And I’d blog something. Then I’d get dressed and go to work, and at lunch I’d try to catch up on my personal e-mails. Every now and then, I would see: From VANDERLEUN. Subject: Psssssssssst… And I’d say to myself: Aw, shit. Misspelled this. Or that. Forgot to close a tag.

Nobody is infallible. Paying it back was fun and rewarding. But I knew I wasn’t infallible either, and if I paid one of those back, it was bound to come back my way full force when the time was right.

Having not gone into that, I didn’t get into the “Bubkes” debacle. That’s a real shame. I don’t know what Gerard anecdote is most amusing to others, but this one stands out to me. In my laziness and in my ignorance, I sidestepped the simpler expression — you should always use the simpler one, you know — when what I wanted to say was “nothing.” Couldn’t resist the temptation to spice it up, so I stepped outside the perimeter of my understanding and used “butkus.” Eight hours later, here it comes…Psssssssssst…

This time I pushed back. Butkus? Perfectly cromulent word. What’s your boggle?

I got back a dissertation about bubkes being right and butkus being wrong. This time, I thought, I had the master dead to rights. Urban Dictionary said so.


From VANDERLEUN. Subject: “Urban… schmurban”. You know how in poker a royal flush beats three-of-a-kind? It was like that. My “reference” link met up with two far more comprehensive definitions, out of dictionaries in the native Yiddish…definitions neatly overlapping with my original intent, “emphatically nothing”…etymologies…some cursory research into alternative spellings, and how & why those came to be…yet another definition straight out of Urban Dictionary substantiating his version and not mine. And, more. The words of 15 Jewish ex-in-laws of his who would back him up, and if all that failed to convince, an invitation to “just get two broadswords and settle this like men!”

Had to go back and edit this to add that; it’s vintage Gerard. Yes, the immovable object did yield to the irresistible force.

I didn’t mention how thankful I was that he found the church in the last two years of his life. I probably should have. I know it meant a lot to him.

I did include just a few highlights from our friendship. I tried not to make it about me. That’s a little bit of a fuzzy line and I hope I didn’t overstep it. I might have said something about my background, as a software weenie, a computer engineer. I could have made that relevant by explaining a bit more, but I chose not to: We are accustomed to a technical world, in which for the job to be done at any satisfactory level, you have to define everything. Stepping into the world of writing for humans, this has been a tough habit to shake. If you explain everything to humans, you create a situation in which there’s nothing more to be said. The human mind, naturally economizing, moves on to the next subject. And in the meantime, you’ve probably bored them with your bloviating.

Contrary to the impressions people pick up from my writing, I’m aware of the problem. What to do about it, is what eludes. What to cut? I haven’t got a clue.

To Gerard, it was second nature and I can prove it. You go to his impressive accumulation and pick one piece out of the thousands available to you. Pick any at random. He leaves out stuff that you don’t need, and he knows you don’t need it. It’s as if he knows you personally. As if he’s sitting right next to you. That’s how good writers write. It’s not how I write, although, not for lack of trying.

After I’ve coped with the loss of a friend, I have to cope with that. That’s the light that I’ve just seen extinguished. Some might say I’ve learned a bit here and there. They might say there’s been improvement over the last eighteen years, the benefits of shutting up and listening to him when I’d done wrong, reading his chicken-scratching over my manuscript. The constant drumbeat of mild criticism, the occasional harsher variety, up to and including “You should be shot for using this word.” And the praise which came at the end of an interval so long, that by the time there was any I’d all-but decided there wasn’t going to be any. I remember in particular, one long meandering piece I wrote when one of my older cars had finally blown its head gasket, which I thought was just stupid sentimental gibberish. His words are there now: “That’s good, Morgan. Very good.” I remember thinking: What? Why? But others agreed and I was decidedly outvoted.

Such is my conundrum. My high watermark is “I did good? Me no understand…well if you all say so…” A writer has to relate to his audience. And I do…here and there, now and then, by coincidence like the busted clock twice daily. It’s not good enough. Not for the big leagues, anyway.

Well you know — if the Lord grants me some more years and decades, I’ll keep working at it. Such is life. I’ll try and get better and better, hopefully succeeding on occasion. I can only hope to approach those who really know what they’re doing, never replace them. But cursing the darkness does us no good. The best we can do is what we can, when we can, and in the aftermath after such a great light has gone out, to show our gratitude for having had it by striving to do things we wouldn’t be able to do if we’d never had it.

And thanks to my friendship with him, that part, at least, is easy.