Eulogy for John Christianson Print E-mail

John Christianson

Eulogy for John Christianson April 2018

John and I were good friends, close friends. I knew him through the best and worst times of his life. For a time, when I was churning out article after article for the San Diego Reader, where I’ve written cover stories the past twenty years, he seemed to read every-thing I wrote, often commenting, “Great piece, Tom,” after which he’d want to discuss some quote or idea from the work. Writing is a lonely profession; when what you write is examined, even critically, you feel a great inner satisfaction, having been heard.

John enjoyed going toe-to-toe on religion and hypocrisy. Unlike most people who look askance when I say, “I have never had a religious thought or feeling in my life,” John laughed that big, barrel-chested laugh of his, somewhere between lusty adolescence and existential darkness. However, I had no idea that he grew up a Christian. The doctrine tortured him with guilt about his sins. I said why don’t you just let that neurosis go. He said he’d always wanted to but he never could. It was just too deeply ingrained.

I remember John, sickened by the abject selfishness of the 1%, quoting John Kenneth Galbraith: “America: private wealth and public squalor.” How often I stole this line from him, peppering my usage with his disdain for privilege and exploitation.

He told me a couple months ago that he had read Trump’s new tax law: not all 1000 pages, mind you. Much of it was boilerplate regulations retooled with more Paul Ryan-blessed loopholes. Instead, he studied the most egregious additions. He was ap-palled. Gone were tax breaks for green energy, replaced by tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. His sigh of disgust could topple a redwood.

His reading and retention were phenomenal. How many books we read together, for fun and in book groups, or on my own after John had taken a good ten minutes over our Friday morning breakfasts (every week for fifteen years) to highlight an argument by Frans de Waal on bonobos, Brian Greene on string theory, Steven Pinker on the language instinct.

He was most enamored by neuroscience and its celebrants—the core idea that the mind-brain complex determines how we see ourselves, our decision-making (moral and irrational), our unassailable biases and tribal loyalties, even our wiring for empathy. John was convinced—and he convinced me—that our evolutionary adaptation, whether via the individual or the culture, which leapt like lightning through the multi-computational complexity of the brain, is a tension-fraught battle between our love for others and our propensity for self-deception.

John and I loved to ruminate on Robert Sapolsky’s statement that we human be-ings (quote) “are living in bodies and thinking with brains that were designed to solve problems none of us has today.” In short, our contemporary species cannot escape the emotionally based beliefs in divine intervention and fears of annihilation that have occu-pied us like a virus for 1,300 generations.

So much of what we shared deepened on a trip John and I took to Peru in 2000. John was at his healthiest then, although when we arrived in Cusco, his altitude headache nearly took his head off. We taxied down 2000 feet, and he recovered. At Machu Picchu, we walked and talked our way around its ancient terror-filled heights. Often on the phone then, John integrated the thrill of travel with the equal thrill of business deals back home. He was consumed by the chance to make clever investments and a burgeoning livelihood. For a time, he did just that—to my astonishment.

John had a finely tuned bullshit detector: He was always ready to pounce on weak intellectual prey—dimwitted conservatives, moronic faith leaders, astrologers, the superstitious, the pious, and supply-side economists, the last, the worst of the lot into whom he shot his arrows of rebuke. But later in life he turned that detector off. As many of us did, I saw John at what must have been the worst decade of his life, his last.

I was disheartened that he spent so much time in financial hell, which ruined friendships and destabilized his family, and only then, as a twisted reward, to be overrun by an onslaught of illnesses (bone cancer, failing kidneys, busted hips, skin sores, unhealed bruises, nightly bleeding, plus Kaiser as his “provider”)—a tornado of bodily abuse and an all-out assault on what dignity he had left.
Marc Lampe and I had every-other-month lunch-dates with John. The final one remains vivid. John drove himself. Getting out of the car, he was excited to see us. But he was beat, fatigued to the bone. Every ten steps, he stopped. He bent over. He caught his breath. And he seemed to will away the ache. I could almost hear his spirit launch a self-girding prayer: Get me through the next hour. Pure desire over dizzying exhaustion. I would slow my step beside him and ask if he could make it. He grunted in the affirmative. At such moments, I wished I could take on some of his burden, some of what was sapping him of the cellular facility to keep going. It feels now, as I miss him, that I also wonder who exactly this mercurial man was.

What I treasure about John is the wholeness of his being alive. He got more than his three score and ten years in the muck of human time, though the addition, in the last couple years, was hardly gravy. It was more like a test of character. I don’t know if it’s a good thing to keep your suffering to yourself, keep hidden your sense of what will remain about your fame and folly after you’re gone. But John did keep much to himself. Too much. Almost as if enough stubbornness means the distress isn’t happening. We all do this: We don’t want to inflict others with the squirming anxiety of our particular woe. We drop it down the manhole in hopes that spirited conversation on anything but our illness will redeem us, return everything to how it was, if only to keep the darkness at bay.
When the man was on, I and everyone felt the force of Big John. He held the floor and no one dared butt in because, if you found an opening, John’s voice got louder like a trumpet fanfare, announcing “I’m not done.” He had that shape-shifting duality of the seasoned basketball player—he was just as aggressive on defense as offense. For me that skill was companioned by the spontaneous probing of his intellect. For his wife, Sharon, as she told me not long ago, his finest trait was his surrounding her and the kids with protection, a kind of redoubt of responsibility, especially during the crucial and golden years of their boys’ adolescence in La Jolla in the 2000s.

Maintaining that protection came undone with the Recession of 2008 and 2009, and a kind of desperation to survive as a businessman took over. “Magical thinking” was the phrase John used to describe this foible in himself. I’ve given up trying to understand how and why his businesses failed. But I do know that many of us got caught up, per-haps not as severely, in what he called our “casino economy”—a game he himself admit-ted to betting on and losing, a game that chewed him up, despite his acumen as an economist.

I am sad John is gone.

But I can’t be sad for long when I think of his better days, how much I valued the curiosity and goodwill with which my friend touched me.

I’m a writer, in general, and a memoirist, in particular. Integrating the past and the present is one of my callings. We writers try to make sense of our lives and then, boom! a friend dies and, once again, we are reminded of the inscrutability of mortality, be it ours or another’s. It’s what the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, I think, is getting at in his little poem: “What have you done / with the garden / that was given to you?”

How short our time, how soon we’re gone, how quick the child enters the nursing home, how short, in turn, memory of us may be if someone, if anyone remembers.

I can’t imagine our lives having any meaning absent the joy and pain of remembering the joys and pains of our friends’ lives and of our own. If there’s a heaven, we, for them, are it.