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Some Words on Life and Death and Friendship and Loss from Just Another Person on the Internet

May 26, 2020

I've probably written and deleted this a dozen times or more, and even now, I'm fighting tears as I type this.

When an old friend dies, especially one whose friendship was irrevocably broken in the past, the floodgates of pain burst without warning, a dam suddenly buckling under the pressure of years of regret and second-guesses, wondering if somehow there was something you could've said or done that might've changed fate so your friend could be alive again.

Obviously, this is impossible, and maybe a teensy bit (nah, a lot) self-centered. And yet, this was what I found myself feeling upon hearing about the sudden, untimely death of Zac Bertschy. And yeah, I'm sure he'd be the *last* person to expect me to be crying over him. But that's the truth.

He wasn't just some guy on the internet. He wasn't just Answerman, or the guy on the ANNcast.

He was a fellow Arizona anime fan from back when, a real-life in-person friend whose bluntness and abrasiveness I took as meanness, whose humor lashed me like a whip, because he had the unfortunate timing to engage in repartee as I was adrift following a less-than-amicable divorce.

After a particularly mean-spirited IM conversation that counts as one of the downright worst things I ever regret doing (and yes, he called me out on it and rightfully so), we were done. For years, just the mention of Zac Bertschy was met with *hands-up* "Don't wanna talk about it." and "Why can't he ever turn off the critic switch!?"

Even so, I would still see him, in the Facebook feeds of mutual friends, long after I had detonated the bridge between us. And through the years, I was forced to soften my stance.

You see, Zac Bertschy was not a troll, or a fundamentally bad person. He was a human being ... a particularly erudite one, with a deep understanding of the nuances of film that I will never truly approach, and also one capable of deep love, and equally deep insight.

As the years rolled on, I eventually messaged tentative peace offerings, but never got a reply. After a while, I stopped. There was a distance that could never be bridged, and it was my fault. I had to respect that boundary, and that was fair.

I also saw how our paths, while parallel, were uncommonly mirrored. His political and spiritual leanings turned out to be a close match to my own philosophical evolution. When I saw the pictures from his wedding, I was overjoyed for him; I myself had come out as non-binary not long before, and I am grateful for the support of the numerous friends and family, a support network I hoped he had too.

And then he was gone, leaving so many, fans, friends, and family alike to mourn. I never thought that the time he came to visit Phoenix for Vietnamese food over a decade ago would be the last time I'd shake his hand or hear his voice in this world.

So there are lessons to be learned from all this. That's of course never the *reason* for any of this. Straining to find reason in the unreasonable is just delusional: at the end of the day, Zac Bertschy is gone, though we can find shadows of him in the copious, intelligent, witty, perceptive writings that he left behind. (The article he wrote on Luke Skywalker in the newest films feels particularly haunting now.) Zac leaves a legacy of being a true champion for Japanese animation in the Anglophone world, and this is something that I feel a great debt of gratitude for; he was also a champion of many of the same philosophical missions I hold nearest and dearest to my heart.

But here are a few things my experiences with Zac Bertschy have taught me:

-Be patient with people who are blunt. When they compliment you or agree with the points you make, you know they aren't just trying to get on your good side.

-Sometimes, even bluntness hides nuance.

-Anime fans do not exist in a vacuum. We are all deeper than just fandom. (Unless they prove repeatedly not to be, but that's way rarer than you think.)

-Be a better friend and really listen, not just to the verbiage or the tone, but what's in between the words you hear.

-No matter the difference of opinion, treat that other person like a human being, with feelings and experiences that are valid; you might find you have more in common than you thought.

- Do your best not to project your own pain and struggle into meanness to others; you never ever know what they are going through and how doing so can wreak harm unto them.

- You never, ever know how you affect the lives of others until you're gone.

- Choose your words carefully when you write. Nuance adds deeper meaning. Also, watch out for things that are really synonyms, 'cause "thinking about musing" just means "thinking about thinking".

- Most of all: never, ever stop caring about the things and, more importantly, the people you love.

So. In this time of social isolation, where the specter of illness, physical and psychological, hangs over so many in the world, I urge all of you to connect to something or someone. Watch a great series. Play a great game. Then share that experience with someone you care about. Or even make a new friend.

Be kind to yourself and those around you (and yes, that also means online).

Wash your hands.

If I could say anything to him now, I'd say this:

I'm so sorry, Zac. I wish I had been a better friend to you. Wherever you are, may it be a place with no pain, no flame wars, and no bad anime to waste your time. You deserve peace and love, and I hope somehow you have found it at last.

"I know sometimes it hurts more to hope and it hurts more to care. But you have to promise me that you won’t stop caring."
- Katara in Avatar: The Last Airbender

- Carlos/Giancarla Ross

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