As the father of my best friend, Scott was my second dad growing up. He spent countless hours driving me to and from practices, batting cages and working on drills with me as a coach in baseball and basketball. He introduced me to video games, Nerf gun and flour bag wars, and taught me the importance of fully exiting a snow cave before using the bathroom in the middle of the night during a cold winter scout camp.
Scott made me feel good about myself, even when it was sometimes difficult during the awkward years of growing up. He made me feel like a comedian (even when my jokes weren't funny), like an artist (even when my drawings were never as good as his – he was a graphic designer by trade), and like an athlete (even though I probably had no business competing with and against kids who were much more athletic and lots less scrawny).
Scott extended so much kindness to me and made me feel like an important part of his family, which included two sons who were my best friends growing up. I basically invited myself over to Scott’s home every day after school and every weekend for years on end and Scott and his family showed me nothing but kindness and acceptance.
Even when his sons and I got caught lighting his backyard on fire with a makeshift bomb, jumping off his garage onto a trampoline, taping X-Acto knives to a fan and turning said fan on (giving new meaning to the term fan blade), paint balling cars in the adjacent parking lot or digging holes in his property, Scott (and his wife deserves a lot of credit here) extended mercy, forgiveness and pretended like nothing had happened the next day when I showed up at his door and literally just walked into his house uninvited.
The way Scott lived and the person he had become at the time of his death reminded me of a commencement address written by Neal Postman, a New York University professor. In his remarks entitled “My Graduation Speech,” Postman addresses the subject of our ancestors. Metaphorically speaking, he suggests that we descend from one of two possible lines of spiritual ancestors: we are either Athenians or Visigoths.
Athenians lived about 2,500 years ago in Athens. “They were … the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist,” Postman said.
“They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology,” he added.
According to Postman’s speech, the Athenians eventually declined, but their “imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that, today, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago.”
Postman contrasts the Athenians, their lifestyle and accomplishments, with those of a different group called the Visigoths. Postman said Visigoths were “marauders—ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.” Before the Visigoths disappeared, Postman said, they ushered in the Dark Ages. “It took Europe almost a thousand years to recover from the Visigoths,” he added.
Postman’s central message was that each of us, through our actions, extends the legacy of either the Athenians or the Visigoths. We either live our lives focused on the pursuit of knowledge and betterment of self and community or we live to gain power and control over others. Postman suggests we must be on one side or the other and, even though there are many more Visigoths in our modern world, it is much more difficult to choose to be an Athenian.
“You must learn how to be one,” he said, “you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths.”
I pay tribute to my friend Scott, a true Athenian in every sense of Postman’s metaphor. Not only was he a gifted artist – his works brought joy to many hearts, provoked thinking in their minds and added beauty to the world – he lived his life with purpose and a song in his heart.
To quote his obituary, Scott “lived life with wry wit.” For better or worse, Scott shaped my own sense of humor, perhaps more than any other person I know. As a kid wanting attention (an admittedly Visigothic way of thinking) I tried desperately, and with little success, to copy his impeccable impersonation of Ed Sullivan, which he performed before hundreds of people as the host of our church road show performances. Scott’s art, comedy, music (he was a gifted guitarist) was all done to bless others’ lives – to put a smile on their faces, to make them forget about their worries, and to make the world a brighter place.
In honor of Scott, I have renewed a pledge to live my life more as an Athenian and less as a Visigoth and I extend the same invitation to you.
It is indeed as Postman suggests the more difficult path through life. We are outnumbered and our voices are softer and sometimes less recognizable. Yet as we collectively strive for excellence and do the little things (like showing kindness and forgiveness to that skinny neighborhood kid who just set fire to your backyard), our ideals – our imagination, art, politics, literature, and language – will live on, just as the Athenians and so many good people before us.