Swan song

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scottswanson.jpg I can't believe it's been two years already.

My friend Scott Swanson passed away on January 11, 2010. He had battled a severe heart defect his entire life, and in fact his poor circulation made it so that he could never walk very fast in the time that I knew him. Complications from those heart problems eventually took his life. He was 36.

I first met Scott in 1998, when I joined the online department at the Children's Television Workshop in New York City. (Our group were the ones who built the Sesame Street website.) I was one of the programmers, while Scott was essentially our IT department. He scared me at first. His tolerance for stupidity was low, and his tongue was as scathing as his wit, and I admit I bore the brunt of both as I learned the ropes at CTW. But before long we discovered a large set of geeky mutual interests, and that in turn led to a genuine friendship.

Scott was pained and bitter in a lot of ways, especially when it came to matters of the figurative heart, an area in which he never got particularly good treatment. (By contrast, his medical treatment was probably the best anyone could have received.) But underneath the gruffness, it was not hard to to see that he was one of the most caring people around, who took more responsibility for the people around him than certainly his job required.

We quickly discovered that we shared an affinity for good food and good scotch, which left both our pockets poorer. I don't know how many times we popped downstairs for decadant lunches at one of the obscenely overpriced restaurants around Lincoln Center. We were also, like the rest of the tech crew, obsessed with celebrity sightings (as Andrew Lienhard has documented in his remembrance of Scott). I remember once going out for a cup of coffee, alone, when Scott was having a particularly bad day at work. On the way back I saw, across from the back entrance to our building on West 64th, something that made me call him from my cell phone and tell him he had to meet me downstairs stat. When he joined me on the sidewalk a few minutes later, I pointed across the street to where Kevin Spacey was eating, alone, at a table outside a fancy Irish pub we often frequented. Scott's mood instantly brightened.

ctw-pics.jpgThe online tech crew at Childrens Television Workshop, circa 1999. Standing (l. to r.): Scott Bernstein, Bill Shunn. Seated: Scott Swanson, Dasha Snyder, Leland Woodbury, Vineel Shah, Chuck Fletcher. Not pictured: Andrew Lienhard, Rob Molchon. Photo by Andrew Lienhard.
Scott loved New York City. He lived way out in Queens with a fiancée until their engagement broke up. It perhaps wasn't the soundest financial decision, but that event prompted him to move to Manhattan and rent a high-rise apartment a couple of blocks from our office. As long as he was living in New York, he said, he wanted to live in the very heart of it where it was easier for him to take advantage of everything it offered. (Punning off his last name, one of his many online handles was swansong. He never expected to live a long life, so he tended to treat each new aspect of it as if it would be his swan song.) Many times I joined him and other friends in that tiny studio apartment to drink scotch and watch sci-fi movies on his giant screen television. His stereo system kicked major ass.

Eventually, though, Sesame Workshop (as it by then was known) laid most of us off, one by one. Scott had always envied the spirit of romantic adventure he saw in the way I'd abandoned everything to move from Utah to New York City in 1995, so, for better or worse, I somewhat unwillingly helped encourage him to abandon everything and move to Arizona, where he jumped into an ill-fated marriage. (Later a small crew of his school chums would drive to Arizona and physically extricate him from that situation.)

Scott ended up back in Chicago, where he was originally from, living with his mother and stepfather. He took a full-time job at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora, which is where he'd gone to high school. I think he was probably as happy there as he'd ever been, and that's where he ended up doing some of his most important work. Unfortunately, he and I had fallen out of touch by then. One of the bonds we'd shared had been our vehement atheism, but during his time out west he had acquired a new set of spiritual beliefs and practices that I found difficult to understand, so much so that it was hard for me to be around him, even though those beliefs clearly brought him some measure of peace.

This was entirely to my own detriment, and it's my one big regret about our friendship. Laura and I had lived in Chicago for two years before I finally got over myself enough to drop by his family's apartment and pay him a visit. As soon as I walked through the door, I wished I'd done it two years sooner. Scott's physical condition had deteriorated so much since the previous time I'd seen him that I barely recognized him. He was gaunt, skeletal even. He was working remotely by then, no longer able to make the commute to IMSA. We started getting back on track that day. In a painful irony, he told me that I was one of the only people he trusted to talk about his spiritual beliefs with.

Sadly, the next time I saw him was in the hospital. It was also the last time I saw him. He was surrounded by a seemingly unending flow of his friends, coworkers, and schoolmates from IMSA, which was the place that provided him with the majority of the close relationships of his life. For the week or more he was there in that bed, I don't think he was ever without the companionship of his mother and at least a few IMSA friends. He is, in fact, now memorialized at IMSA with the Scott Swanson Fund for Transformative Student Learning and Innovation. I know that technology transformed Scott's life and opened up a world of possibilities he might not otherwise have had.

I meant to write this remembrance of Scott two years ago, but it was too hard. I've never forgotten that I needed to, though, and I got an added push a couple of months ago when I ran into his mother at a Mexican restaurant near our place, where I was picking up a takeout order. It was very strange seeing Gail in a context where the connective tissue that was the only reason we knew each other no longer existed. I promised myself that I wouldn't let another anniversary of Scott's passing pass without making note of some of my memories of him.

Scott was a good man, as you can tell if you scan some of the links in this post. Despite the hand his body dealt him, he had a good heart. He was a good friend to me, and I miss him.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on January 11, 2012 8:34 AM.

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