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Memories of a Great Friend

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Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today's events.
--Albert Einstein

Barry S. Sapolsky, 61, passed away on November 28, 2010 after a long and hard-fought battle with chronic illness and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
-- Tallahassee Democrat

Some of my memories of Barry Sapolsky remain as clear as if the events had taken place minutes ago. We met early in our freshman year at Bucknell University, a small school in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania best-known for its federal penitentiary. Before too long, and with a Leslie Nielsen (who also died last week) meets Steven Wright delivery, he launched into a deadpan description of the stunned reactions he'd get from strangers when, after smearing ketchup all over his body, he'd lay in the middle of the street pretending to be the victim of a car accident.

The first time I smoked pot, which was, I think, also Barry's maiden voyage into the stoned age, provides an equally vivid if somewhat less reliable memory. Expecting that our minds would be blown, we were bummed when, after an hour or so, our doors of perception remained unopened. It took the opening credits of Roger Vadim's 1968 sci-fi send-up Barbarella -- a naked Jane Fonda floating in space to the accompaniment of the oh-so-'60s theme song "Barbarella, psychedella /There's a kind of cockle shell about you" -- to convince us otherwise. I leaned over and said to Barry, "I don't have one iota of an idea of what's going on" and he signaled his agreement, and we became official members of the hippie generation.

On the serious side, what I've learned from Barry has been incalculable. I was ecstatically immersed in the era-defining Godhead rock 'n' roll of The Beatles, Dylan, The Stones, The Band, Buffalo Springfield, The Who, Traffic, The Kinks et al. But Barry introduced me to another kind of ecstasy when, no pun intended, he turned on, then turned me on to John Coltrane's spiritual masterpiece, A Love Supreme. Barry's late-night experimentations with jazz flute expanded my own musical explorations, which had been limited to playing, over and over again, the same three chords on my guitar. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Barry's genius for absurdist humor went beyond conversation when he and a couple of cohorts made a film called The Dick Richards Show, which parodied late-night TV with a hilarity that predated Stewart/Colbert by 35 years. It also gave me my one shot at the silver screen when I filled in at the end as an oleaginous Evangelical preacher signing off for the night.

Some Bucknellians ridiculed and even threatened Barry. His otherness -- the wild curly hair and the anti-war, anti-fraternity and anti-corporate opinions -- didn't accord with their ideas about how life should be lived. Barry's response was a profile in courage. He went about his life without seeming to care what these morons thought of him. Or maybe he was scared shitless and just didn't show it. Either way, he was an inspiration to me in the "try not to care too much what others think" department.

One beautiful fall Saturday afternoon during junior year, I tried psychedelics for the first time with Barry and a few other friends. The plan was to go over to the New Columbia River and become one with nature, but instead we merged with the TV station showing the 1961 Italian beefcake extravaganza, Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules. The mole men's eerie underground empire and the rippling muscles of Herc's kid melded into one of the weirdest, scariest -- in a good way -- afternoons of my 20-year-old life.

Here's where the unreliability really kicks in: I would swear that Mole Men lasted at least five hours and constituted virtually our whole trip. In fact, Google reveals, the movie lasts a scant 90 minutes. But since when did mere "facts" have anything to do with psychedelic experience? (I didn't do those kind of drugs much after that. The math -- a day of wonder followed hard by two days of misery -- just didn't add up.)

I saw Barry only a handful of times after college, though we kept in touch via phone and, more recently, email. He married a wonderful fellow Bucknellian named Joann, had a son and a daughter and, just before he left this mortal coil, got to see his newborn grandson. He earned a PhD and became a beloved professor and widely published scholar in the field of media studies from his Florida State University home base.

In the 2000 movie Memento, the protagonist Leonard Shelby, who has lost all but his immediate short term memory, says, "Memory's unreliable ... Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good." It's unutterably sad that Barry, a great human being, had to suffer so much for so long. For those who had the good fortune to know and love him, our memories are as indelible as they are meaningful.