A blast from the past (other than Star Wars)

I realize I've said in the past that this blog is not meant to be primarily about me or my personal life (although I have on occasion gotten somewhat more personal than my usual broadsides against irrationality). However, with the confluence of one blast from the past opening in theaters everywhere today and another blast from the past that hit me a couple of days ago, I'm in a mood to change course for one post. What the heck? I could use the change of pace to refresh my skeptical bullshit detector in preparation for (hopefully) reaching new heights in medicine, science, and skepticism blogging. A little wafer to cleanse the palate, so to speak, and perhaps to reveal my geekiness for all to see--an appropriate topic for the day when a new Star Wars movie is released.

A couple of nights ago, I was perusing my e-mail, as I often do in the evenings, when I came across a Subject header that almost looked like it might be spam:
Hiya Orac
(OK, it didn't say exactly that, but you get the idea.)

I was almost going to delete the message. At first glance, I thought it was some sort of spam that had somehow managed to evade Apple Mail's Bayesian spam filter and the rather extensive set of additional custom filters that I had developed and fine-tuned over many years of being forced to dodge offers for "low, low interest rate mortgages"; supplements or herbs guaranteed to "make her want me again and again" (I hope it's my wife they're referring to); "herbal Viagra"; various devices and herbal "extracts" that promise to enlarge my penis to the point of turning me into a freak of nature that women won't be able to resist; miscellaneous pyramid scams (sorry, I mean "multilevel marketing opportunities"); online "pharmacies" offering Viagra, Cialis, and Vicodin, all without the pesky need for a doctor's prescription; cable "decoder" boxes; offers for VISA and MasterCards, no matter how bad my credit rating may be; remedies that promise to reverse baldness (something I don't need; if anything I have too thick a head of hair); and, of course, the usual assortment of porno spams promising "barely legal" girls who will "do anything," "hardcore action," and college girls promising to "get wild" for me in front of their "very first" webcam. And, of course, there are the profoundly insulting "phishing" e-mails designed to try to fool me into giving up credit card numbers and other personal information.

Then I looked at the From: header and saw the name. It was familiar--and unexpected. It was an old friend, whom I'll simply refer to as Paul. I hadn't seen him in at least six years and had only had sporadic contact with him since then. Two or three years ago, all contact ceased. I had e-mailed him, but it bounced. I had toyed with the idea of trying to call him. (I should have, but I never did.) Even more unexpected were the contents. The e-mail told of his recent divorce and how he had found someone else whom he had wanted to marry. It sounded as though his divorce was pretty ugly, which saddened me because I knew there were children involved. The e-mail said that he wanted to get in touch again, concluding:
I don't think either of us has changed that drastically, even in twenty years.
Is that really true? I wondered.

Flashback to 1979. (If this were a movie, you'd hear something off of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Damn the Torpedoes, Cheap Trick's Dream Police or At Budokan, The Cars' Candy-O, or maybe Supertramp's Breakfast in America, none of which you could possibly escape in Detroit in 1979. Then you'd see the scene dissolve to a high school in Anywhere, U.S.A, with a lot of bad hair in evidence.)

Paul and I had been pretty good friends in high school. He and I were part of a group of five buddies who used to hang out at school and get together at each other's houses fairly frequently to play Dungeons & Dragons. This was back in the late 1970's, before role-playing games had become more accepted, and back then those of us who played them and enjoyed them were viewed as profoundly weird. (No snarky comments about how Orac is still profoundly weird, even 25 years later. Orac realizes that he is, but at least his weirdness is now mostly channeled into blogging. Indeed, if he weren't profoundly weird, do you think he would have taken the 'nym of a cranky computer from a 20 year old British SF show?) This was right about the time of the famous case of a 16-year-old child prodigy named James Dallas Egbert III, who in August 1979 disappeared from his dormitory at Michigan State University. The investigation turned up that he was a D&D player, and the media focused on his disappearance as the result of a "live action Dungeons & Dragons game" in the steam tunnels of MSU having gone horribly wrong. In actuality, Egbert was just a messed-up kid under a lot of parental pressure to succeed who had also become confused about his sexuality and gotten into drugs. It turns out he had run away to commit suicide in the tunnels with sleeping pills, but only slept a day. He ended up staying with friends for nearly a month. Ultimately he was found, but he committed suicide a year later. Unfortunately his story inspired a really bad made-for-TV movie and hilariously over-the-top tracts by the fundamentalist and rabidly anti-Catholic cartoonist Jack Chick. These formed the view most people had of D&D 25 years ago and, to some extent, even today.

In the light of that sort of recent story and the anti-D&D hysteria it engendered, you would think that the priests at my Catholic high school would have stopped us when we played D&D at lunch breaks, but, oddly enough, they never did. I still sometimes wonder if my parents thought secretly that this game was a sure path to Satanism and hell (particularly given that my characters included a high level cleric who worshiped Heimdall, as well as thieves, and warriors), but they said little. In any case, although we had been acquaintances and friends before we discovered D&D, after we started playing, our little crew formed a pretty strong bond, particularly in our senior year. After graduation, some of us went to the University of Michigan. Others stayed with parents and went to a local university. Paul also stayed behind but went to community college, hoping to get into a university to study art later. He was a very talented artist. His drawings used to blow me away. He also had a great imagination and was the best and most diligent dungeon master of any of us. When I (or anyone else, for that matter) tried to be dungeon master, somehow the results just never came out as entertaining. We kept getting together after high school, to hang out, to play D&D, and occasionally to go to concerts. The non-U. of M. part of our group liked to come up to the dorms because there were frequently parties going on and there were usually lots of girls. We'd often play D&D until late in the night and then go out for a while. Sometimes, the game would peter out early, and we'd just sit around the dorm room or one of the lounges, drinking beers and shooting the bull (as hard as it probably is for present-day college students raised in an era of zero tolerance, to believe, back then universities were pretty lax about enforcement against alcohol on premises, or even drinking it in public, in the dorms was pretty lax--our RA would sometimes even join us).

(If this were a movie, we'd now cue to some early 1980's new wave music or something from Michael Jackson's Thriller, some scenes of college life and hanging out at the dorm, and some shorter hair and baggier pants.)

During that time, Paul decided to move to Florida briefly, where he met his wife. I never really thought their marriage would worke out (I didn't like his wife much), but as far as I can tell they seemed to be happy, and the marriage lasted quite a while. During his Florida sojourn, we actually kept in touch by old-fashioned letter (this being the early 1980's, with long distance too expensive to use that often and e-mail available only to serious tech-heads at universities). Paul ended up giving up on his dreams to study art. He ultimately moved back to Michigan and took a job in the family business doing heating and cooling work. He made a good living at it and had some children. When I went to medical school, I found a couple of other medical students who were into D&D, introduced them to Paul and one of my old crew, and another bunch of buddies formed, two of the original bunch having lost interest (or "matured," as some might put it).

(Movie cue: Some good mid-1980's music, such as The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, R.E.M., The Cult, or The Cure, perhaps with shots of us looking older, me having to dress in a tie--thin, of course, this being the mid-1980's--and earnest-looking medical students staring in rapt attention at an instructor fading to brutalized, haggard interns stumbling through their days.)

We had a grand old time throughout medical school. We'd get together on the occasional weekend when we could, play D&D, drink beer, and sometimes play some low stakes poker. Over time, though, as the demands of family life became greater and my medical school rotations ate up more and more of my time, these sessions grew less and less frequent. Finally, I graduated and had to move to Cleveland to do my residency. Amazingly, even in the face of a surgery residency in a city that was a three hour drive away, we got together a few times over the next year. But all good things must come to an end, and my medical school all buddies graduated and scattered to do their residencies in other states. The "fellowship" (such as it was) was broken.

But I still kept in touch with Paul and a couple of other of my old buddies from high school and college. It wasn't so hard; he still lived in Detroit, and I liked to get back to visit my parents and other family whenever I could. Sometimes I'd manage to see him. We also called each other from time to time. Then I got married, and trips home became more complicated, with two sets of relatives separated by 90 miles to make the rounds on. As the 1990's progressed and my wife and I moved to Chicago for me to do my fellowship, we still exchanged e-mails fairly regularly and phoned each other on rare occasions, although, almost imperceptibly, the phone calls and e-mails became progressively less frequent. This continued right up until two or three years ago, although the last time I saw him was at least six years ago. Then I moved to the East Coast. Suddenly, I was making it back to Detroit only twice a year on average, and there was rarely time to visit any but family and the closest friends on these trips.

And then, two or three years ago, silence.

I haven't responded right away. It's not because I don't want to but rather because I'm not sure what to say. (Yes, even the blogorrheic Orac can sometimes be at a loss for words, hard as readers of this blog may find that to believe.) In fact, writing this piece sort of gave me some ideas of what to write. But foremost in my mind right now is the question all middle-aged men wonder about sometimes, the one that Paul answered for himself:
Have I changed that drastically in 20 years?
How could I not have? I've been through medical school, graduate school, and residency. I've dealt with life and death. I've seen people in tragic circumstances that I could never have imagined myself dealing with when I was 20. I now run a lab and have four people working for me. I've even had a couple of really bad things happen to me that have changed me forever.

Of course I've changed. And no doubt so has Paul. It can't be otherwise. But is the core the same? I don't know. Maybe, though, for all the changes we've undergone in 20 years, we can be friends again.

There's only one way to find out.


  1. No, your parents didn't think you were on your way to satanism. They were bummed that they weren't invited to play.

  2. He's trying to claw his way back to a time when things were good, and using you as a signpost. It probably won't work, don't get too involved.

  3. I have often found it sweet and lovely to spend time with old friends, people who were once close, but time and distance had drawn apart. Sometimes old friends just want a familiar face and a shared history on which to project their new dreams and hopes. Part of Paul's silence and distance may be explained by a marriage that was ending in divorce. Those times don't make the very best springboards for chatty emails. Sounds like an old friend has gone through his own private hell and has emerged, emotionally intact enough to want to reconnect. Doesn't sound so bad to me.

  4. Good luck with the renewal (possible renewal) of your friendship. I had a long post but after reading it, I realized it was merely a cathartic release about my own disappointments regarding the failure of my old friends and myself to reconnect after a long time apart – mainly because of now different belief systems, ideas, morals, etc…...

    Thanks - I think?

  5. "...there were frequently parties going on and there were usually lots of girls."


    Orac, D&D, and "lots of girls."


  6. Wild, DnD. I'm probably following the same sort of trajectory as you are, in a way. 6 years of (math) grad school in Ann Arbor, hanging out and gaming DnD and other systems with friends, among them otterdoc who has commented here once in a while. Now I'm 500 miles away and it's not so easy to keep in as much touch as I'd like.

    Anyway, we've done a series of studies, and DnD is a lot more fun with homebrew.

    - a mean kangaroo

  7. I didn't say that I ever really got to enjoy the presence of "lots of girls." I was painfully shy back then. It was mainly the other guys who wanted to try to mingle...


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