A lonely mother gazing out of the window
Staring at a son that she just can’t touch
If at any time he’s in a jam she’ll be by his side
But he doesn’t realize he hurts her so much
“This is a great song,” Michael said, turning up the radio. It was the fall of 1995, and Waterfalls had been in the top 40 rotation for a few months. I’d somehow missed it, but when Michael cranked the volume I fell into its rhythm. We drove through the Boston suburbs, back from a foray to furnish our new grad school apartments, swaying to the beat.
Don’t go chasing waterfalls
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to
“Hey, do you know where we are?”
Michael confessed that he was as lost as I was: I’d made the mistake of thinking that just because I knew where I was, and knew where I was going, I’d be able to get there. It would take me months to accept that in Boston’s criss-cross of cowpaths-turned-roadways, I always needed to plan my route in advance.
I rolled down the window at a stoplight and asked the guy in the next car if he could tell us how to get back to Cambridge. “Follow me,” he suggested.
Ever the trusting Canadians, we gamely fell in behind his white hatchback. We followed him on a mystifying path for about fifteen minutes, until I suddenly recognized the intersection: we were just across the river from Harvard square.
Hatchback leaned out his window. “Do you know where you are now?” I nodded, and thanked him. The light turned green, and I started to move into the intersection.
“You know, that guy drove out of his way to get us here.” Michael pointed to the rearview mirror. “Look, he’s turning around.”
Sure enough, our rescuer was pulling a U-turn: wherever he was headed, it wasn’t toward Cambridge. We’d been the beneficiaries of an anonymous, selfless good work, and I had been completely oblivious to this affirmation of human kindness.
Michael noticed — just as he noticed the song on the radio, the exceptionally lovely New England home we passed, the best sofa in the furniture store, and the hottest girl among our fellow shoppers. What he noticed, he shared.
Michael Griesdorf died this week from a seizure, at age 39. He was alone in his New York apartment, an apartment full of lovely objects that he curated with the care you associate with a gallery or museum. From his vintage Mac classic to his handmade shoes to his lively and eclectic group of friends, Michael noticed, collected and appreciated what was interesting and beautiful, and created the space to appreciate that beauty.
I was lucky enough to become part of that collection. At first, it was accidental: as the two incoming Canadians in Harvard’s Political Science Ph.D. program, we paired off to survive our stats class and the isolation of life off-campus. But we soon discovered we had more in common than our shared hometown (Toronto). As students returning to school after time out in the real world, we embraced grad school not only as a process of intellectual discovery but also as a time to have some fun. We searched out the best bars, the best gyms, the best novels. We went to parties every weekend, worked out every day, watched Melrose or ER with a group of friends every week.
But Michael was much more than a good-time guy. When my heart was broken by the end of a long-term relationship, Michael helped nurse me through it, just as I’d seen him through a similar breakup the year before. When I decided to work on an Internet-related dissertation, Michael encouraged me to challenge departmental skepticism, and through his own research into the role of the internet in international relations, became a crucial sounding-board. And when I questioned my desire for an academic career, Michael urged me to pursue my writing and my geekery along a different path.
If Michael was a generous and thoughtful advisor during difficult times, it’s because he knew what it took to navigate life’s ups and downs. The world was not an easy place for him: while he knew how to have fun, he took people and experiences very seriously. Watching his intermittent struggles, I realized that the mechanics of social life, professional life and romance often hinge on not taking things seriously: on overlooking hypocrisy, accepting mediocrity, making nice or making do. Michael didn’t do any of that, and since his combination of intellect, creativity and emotional intensity often gave him a radically different perspective from the people around him, he challenged his colleagues, friends and lovers in ways that could be very uncomfortable. His willingness to challenge people made his own life much harder, but I never heard him complain: more than anyone I know, he recognized that life isn’t supposed to be easy, and found a way of living peacefully in constant struggle.
Michael’s ability to embrace that kind of core contradiction was what made him a completely fascinating, completely exasperating, and completely delightful person. And our relationship might seem to be its own kind of contradiction: there we were, two single straight friends of opposite sexes, and yet there was truly not a moment of sexual tension between us. I knew Michael’s type (super hot, super skinny), and he knew mine (super geeky), and happily neither of us was close to the other’s ideal. But we loved each other deeply, and it was through that love — as much as any romantic love I had experienced — that I learned to form trusting relationships with men.
That may have been the biggest lesson Michael taught me, but it was far from the only one. Michael was by nature a provocateur, so most of the other lessons I learned from him could only be conveyed by relaying stories that involve him saying or doing things that are too outrageous for me to recount. It’s enough to say that I will never look at a stairmaster, a book of IR theory, a pack of Marlboros, an agnes b store, or at many of our grad school classmates, without thinking of his commentary and exploits.
The rich intellect, keen observation and aesthetic delight that Michael shared with all his friends now leave a lot of hearts aching for more. Michael, I love you and miss you. I hope there’s some metaphysical world in which you are dressed to the nines, perched on a Mies van der Rohe chair, swaying to TLC.