Whenever you and I scroll through books, magazines or articles, inevitably there will be references to how one must cherish friendships or, in the words of the Lyin’ Dutchman “you must cherries and culture your relationships, son” (that is a direct quote from the bowels of insanity). Now, while we ALL pay lip service to the value of friendship, and we ALL have those relationships that stand the test of time, most of us can count on one hand the folks who’ve had a direct influence on who we are as adults. Parents? Sure. Grandparents? Why not. The amigo with whom we always went to Denny’s at 3am after a bender? Of course. And the list goes on: kind parents of a classmate, that evil Spanish teacher who threw very heavy dictionaries at your head while you tried to sleep in class (you know who you are), etc, etc.
But once in a while, we have someone in our life who defies conventional paradigms. The kind of person who challenges all your deeply held beliefs, challenges you to think for yourself, to not just regurgitate the party line. This person is dangerous, because he or she will be a radical departure from your upbringing, the kind of person your folks warned you about. Often times this guy or gal comes in the form of a college professor, a first boss, that dude down at the Food Co-Op who rails against fossil fuel consumption then roars off in his mandatory Volkswagen hippie-bus. For me, that person is Steve Watt.
Being from a small town, I knew Steve as a local builder and craftsman since I was a kid, but didn’t really get to know him well until my freshman year in college. This is a time in your life when you are genetically pre-disposed to pissing everyone off. You annoy your parents with your platitudes of wisdom, you irk your girlfriend with the constant humping of the leg, you enrage the neighbors with never-ending parties and 1am bonfires and you make an ass of yourself on a constant basis. The shame you bring on your family is palpable. Despite engaging in all of the aforementioned crappy behavior, Steve and his wife Joanie gave me the one thing that every single angst-ridden teen needs: affirmation that I was alright. Steve brought me into his group of aging guitar slingers and encouraged me artistically and philosophically to explore the world outside of my safe confines. He helped to ease the transition from short board wannabe surfer to a more mellow style of longboarding and fellowship with your friends in the ocean. His gift of melding artistic vision and wooden creations led to many hours of my watching and learning in his shop. And always, always, he and Joanie were there with a smile and a hug, fresh food, a cold beer and a willingness to listen. This in and of itself is amazing – I mean, who wants to listen to some punk ass kid who claims to have the patent on heartbreak? They did. In the process they gained my respect and admiration, and despite the years that have passed, they remain close to my heart.
I bring all of this up because I recently learned of Steve’s battle with prostate cancer. From what I’ve been told, the cancer was detected early and, thanks to the efforts of Joanie, their amazing daughters (one of whom is a pediatric ICU nurse – mad props Darcy!) and their support system of friends, things are looking as good as can be expected. We talked the other day, and it made me so happy to hear his voice again; I was suddenly eighteen, wanting to confess my devious deeds, seeking his counsel and approval. There he was, cheerful, upbeat, asking about life in the middle of the country while we conspiratorially whispered about the quirks of the hyper holy-rollers. And it dawned on me, only afterward, that maybe he gains as much from my friendship as I do his. I’ve looked up to Steve for almost 18 years now, never thought that maybe I brought him some semblance of friendship that gave him fulfillment as well. At best guess, I figured I just amused the guy. If there was anyone I’ve ever met who deserves a healing grace, who has the ability to whip this cancer while smiling all the while, it’s Steve.
I’m writing this now because I think that too often we wait until someone passes before we let them know just how important they’ve been. We heap praises on the dead, and it makes the family feel good, then we raise a glass to them down at the pub. But none of that benefits the person you intend to honor; for all I know they’re busy becoming worm food and have no time for such tribute. And there’s nothing like a good cancer scare to jar it all into perspective, if only a little. So Steve, I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for being a good friend to a mouthy, cocky kid who didn’t feel deserving of any respect. Thanks for pushing me to explore the music, both literally and figuratively. Thanks for showing me what it means to be a stand up guy, one who doesn’t back down from his beliefs, even when it’s raining bullshit. You’ve been a greater influence than you’ll ever realize, and I’m honored to call you my friend.