On July 13, 2012, Alex Okrent died from a heart attack. I didn’t know him personally, but we both worked on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and I was in the office the day he collapsed. He was only 29.
Many readers of this blog don’t know about this part of my life yet. After starting a second company, I wasn’t getting enough traction in a few things I had been experimenting with. In the middle of starting a new project, a friend of mine, Harper Reed, CTO of Obama for America, asked if I could put things on pause briefly and help with the campaign. There were a bunch of reasons to consider it. But even selfishly, I realized it was probably a good idea for me and my fledgling business to meet some new folks to collaborate with as well as see some more real world problems organizations and people are having that I could solve after the campaign. I’ve been in a pretty small bubble for awhile working on Inkling.
So I took an unpaid leave of absence from my company of one and joined the Tech team at Obama for America.
There’s a great many things I’ll remember from working on the campaign.
Most having nothing to do with politics.
Or the moment when he signed his name right above mine on the Technology group’s sign that hung above our desks:
But the most poignant memory, the most indelible experience, was when Alex passed away.
A couple years ago I got a new iPhone. It was a pleasant upgrade. The phone was gorgeous as usual. Two panes of glass held together by a ribbon of metal. But because of all this glass on it, I realized it was pretty slippery.
There were a few weeks of near screen fracturing accidents where the phone would slide right out of a sweaty hand when I pulled it from my pocket. Or someone would send me a ton of text messages causing the phone to vibrate itself right off a table.
So I finally bought one of those cases that fit snugly around the phone to give it some more protection and additional friction.
It worked great. Then, one day this summer, a corner of the case got bent backwards and cracked off. I still continued to use my phone with its broken case for awhile. But the corner kept snagging my pants and became too much trouble. So I took off the case and tried to use my naked iPhone again.
What I started to notice was how much care I started to take with my phone.
I’ll delicately remove it from my pocket so I don’t accidentally throw it across the room now. I’ll make sure to place it in locations where it won’t slide itself off a table on its lonesome again. I’ll make sure not to put it in the same pocket as my keys so nothing gets scratched.
It is after all something like $500 to replace. Right?
It’s the most valuable thing I carry around with me. I don’t wear $500 of clothes and shoes including all the other stuff in my pockets.
But what’s crazy is, as I look at all this care and attention I spend on this phone, I can’t help find myself now asking:
Do I spend this kind of time and attention caring for myself or the people in my life that I obviously love infinitely more than this electronic device?
Am I taking enough care of my body?
Am I taking care of my knees? As my mother in law with two recent knee transplants would attest, those are some pretty valuable tools to walking that can grossly deteriorate later in life, but I take for granted today.
Am I taking care of my brain? Am I sleeping enough? Am I drinking alcohol too often?
Am I taking care of my heart? Am I eating well? Am I working out enough?
Am I working on things a future me will be proud of or am I wasting time and missing opportunities I’ll regret because I spent too much time waiting for something.
Am I living with too much stress? Too much pessimism?
Am I spending enough time with the people I care about?
Am I taking care of life better than I’m taking care of this fucking iPhone?
And so Alex has me trying to answer these questions more often with better answers.
I’ve become a walking superfood. I eat my weight in spinach and broccoli every week. At least one giant salad of superfoods for breakfast and another for lunch. I try and drink a half liter of green tea each day. More fish.
I exercise almost every single day.
I signed up for a class to learn CPR and how to use a defibrillator, a word I still can barely pronounce. I refuse to be powerless if a tragedy likes this strikes again and I’m there to try and help.
I’ve started writing down 3 things each day that were awesome. Life can be insanely difficult and confusing. But forcing myself to find some things to be grateful for is constantly eye opening to how blessed I am and encourages me to be more optimistic.
I know I can’t fully control my health and what fate has in store for me, but I can be damn sure I’ve tried my hardest to stay healthy and given myself as long of a chance as I can to spend time with and help others.
I cringe at sharing these words. I’ve rewritten this post on paper and in my head a dozen times. Nothing seems to be able to fully process and articulate what happened and Alex’s impact on this world. But I wanted to try to open a tiny window on how he’s affected me in case it inspires someone else.
Alex Okrent lived an extremely full life working on things he believed in a great deal. He’s been working on Barack Obama’s campaigns for a decade. He has helped and inspired more people in 29 years than most folks will do their entire lives. From stories that have been shared, he was an awesome friend, a great brother, a son his parents were very proud of.
I didn’t get to know Alex personally. But he’s had a profound impact on my life. I got a dose of how short life really is and I hope I can use this to keep me pointed in the right direction.
I’ll never forget him.
You should get to know a bit more about Alex. You can start at a site dedicated to raising a grant in his name that will support students at Alex’s alma mater who are working as Alex did. To make this world more awesome.
Also, Dustin Curtis (whose blog network you are reading this on) has a friend, also in his twenties, suffer from a heart attack recently.
I highly recommend Dustin’s recent words:
The Fight, The Waiting Place, Do