This is probably the hardest blog post I’ve written.
It’s a fact of life that sometimes bad shit happens that reminds us of how downright awesome our lives are.
This is gonna get a little dark. But there’s beauty to be found here as well. And I promise, this post comes straight from my heart.
In 2002 I was working at a craft store called Tall Mouse, making minimum wage.
During my lunch hour I’d study for my personal training certification in the break room. While I buried my nose in my textbooks, my coworkers—mostly little old ladies—would eat their sack lunches and talk about their husbands, grandchildren, and what happened on American Idol last night.
The staff was made up of a bunch of cute-as-a-button grandmothers, teenagers who worked there after school, and dudes in their 30s and 40s whose dreams had died.
Christina Smith was 19, artistic, cute, and shy. She had an innocent little crush on me that she made known in the way bashful girls do.
However, I was more into bad girls at the time, and even though she was 19, an age I had nothing against going after, to me she was still just a kid.
I also knew that if I ever even as much as flirted with her, Denise, her mom—who also worked at the store—would have my head on a stake and probably put it on one of the endcaps as a warning to the other 30- and 40-year-old dudes who worked there.
When I wasn’t busy with customers—helping 75-year-old women locate the bead aisle, schoolkids find art supplies, and families find frames for the pictures in their homes—Christina would come and strike up conversations with me while I mopped floors, stocked shelves, and re-arranged the endcaps.
We had some great talks about life and I tried to pass on what limited knowledge I had at the time about goal-setting, going after your dreams, walking your own path, and not caring what anybody thinks.
But there was really only so much wisdom I could pass on, since at the time I was a 32-year-old man who lived with his mother, made minimum wage, and spent my free time running around with strippers and various other confused females with low self-esteem, breast implants, and daddy issues.
As soon as I got certified I set off to start my own training business, and was happy to be moving on from Tall Mouse.
On my last day of work Christina came up to me with a look in her eyes that seemed to be one of both sadness and embarrassment, and handed me a sketch of a horse which she had drawn for me as a goodbye present. It was one of the sweetest things anyone’s ever done for me.
I hugged and thanked her, and told her I’d miss her and our little talks.
To build up my training business I trained a bunch of clients for free, typically in groups of 5 or 6 people at a time. And along with a few other employees of Tall Mouse, Christina became one of these free clients.
She gave it her all, and one time during a workout she even passed out. Looking back, I realize that I was training her—and everyone else—too hard. I had something to prove when I first started, and thought that driving my clients into the ground was how I’d make my bones in the industry.
How naive I was.
When Christina passed out, that was the last time I trained her. The gym was about 30 minutes from her home and it was hard to fit the workouts into her schedule. At least that’s what she said—but more likely she didn’t want be forced into a nauseous state of unconsciousness just to get toned up. She was already lean and fit-looking anyways.
Three years passed and I paid a visit to Tall Mouse to trot around the girl who would become my future trophy ex-wife.
I asked the little old ladies who worked in the fabrics department how Christina was doing, and their faces dropped.
They told me how her neighbor, a 19-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrom, in a totally random act of violence, had thrown on a dark cape and paintball helmet, walked into Christina’s house with a shotgun, and killed her and her father
Next he blasted away at the house across the street and tried to kill another neighbor, but fortunately the shotgun jammed. He then walked home and shot himself.
Apparently he had posted his plans to do this in a forum for people with Asperger’s Syndrome in the days leading up to the event.
I was heartbroken.
Now, I promise you, there IS a positive message coming. But we’re gonna have to go on a little ride together to get there…it’s gonna get bumpy, but it’ll be worth it…
12 years before this happened—on May 22nd of 1993—about a mile from where Christina lived in the same upscale community of Aliso Viejo, I lay sleeping after a long night of throwing drunks out of the bar I bounced at.
Right across the street from me, one of my best friends in the entire world, Shannon Stevens, was cooking up some hard-boiled eggs so he could get some protein into those growing muscles of his.
There was a knock at the door and Shannon answered it. I wish he hadn’t.
He was tied up, beaten, dragged to his safe, forced to empty it, and shot dead right there on his bedroom floor.
It was a planned home invasion robbery over marijuana money, territory, and vengeance. Shannon was just 22 years old.
I’ll always remember the trip he and I took to Europe 5 months earlier so we could smuggle some European steroids back into the states.
Bill Phillips—before his book ‘Body for Life,’ back when he was a steroid guru—said Europe had better stuff than what we were smuggling in from Mexico. And unlike nowadays, most of the black market stuff was totally bogus. So Europe it was.
When Shannon’s roommate got home, he saw money laying all over the floor of the house like confetti and—since the water had evaporated from the pot the hard-boiled eggs were in—the eggs were just burning in the pan, filling the apartment with smoke and the smell of burnt egg shells.
That’s when he found the body.
After Shannon’s murder, I married his sister Cindy who I’d met at the wake.
Now, shortly before his death in late ’92, I was making a video about steroids for sociology class. It was a no-holds barred, behind-the-scenes documentary I made exposing the taboo underworld of performance-enhancing drugs.
I felt like I was Chris Hansen or something.
In the film I interviewed a bunch of my friends in the bodybuilding subculture, all wearing masks to protect their identity. I tried to get Shannon to be in it but he backed out at the last minute due to the implications it could have on his career. He was moving over 1000 pounds of weed per month, so I completely understood.
There were 5 guys in the video. Dave, Bill, Steve, Randy, and Jonah.
Dave died of a heart condition in his sleep about 12 years later. A friend told me he thought it was from a bad batch of growth hormone Dave had just gotten in from India
And Randy, AKA Kravinit—who was one the most social and genuinely likable people I’ve known in my life—died of a brain tumor in 2010.
Randy used to call my mom “mom,” even though he was a black dude. (Wait a minute…there used to be a black mailman in my neighborhood when I was a little kid…mmm, I’m gonna have to ask my mom about that.)
Randy was actually the first person I ever knew who made his living as a personal trainer. He taught me some of the ropes 10 years before I ever became a trainer. I even used to help train a few of his clients.
He later went on to become a well-known and accomplished photographer.
Randy wrote a letter before he died…
“I was fortunate enough to know that I would be leaving soon. Two months ago I was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I kept it to myself because I didn’t want everyone feeling sorry for me, or people acting different around me.
If you are reading this, it is because I am already gone. I didn’t want to deal with all the tears and the goodbyes and all the bad stuff..I wanted people to remember me as always smiling, always taking pictures, always having a great time!
I’ll be at the BIG party upstairs with my camera waiting for you guys to come up, and if I have to make a special trip down for you, I will hahahha! I LOVE YOU ALL!!”
The rest of the letter is posted here.
Randy left behind a teenage son.
Back around 1985, when I was 15, me and my buddy Bryan were body-boarding at Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point California, which is where I currently live.
At the beach we ran into our friend Graham and set up a meet to get some hits of LSD from him later on.
My mom picked me and Bryan up from the beach and was driving us home in my family’s burgundy station wagon when we saw a car smashed against the center divider out in front of what would soon become our local Target store.
There was a body lying in the street that looked like it had flown though the window of the crashed car. We saw a limo driver get out of his limo and run over to the body.
The next day at summer school we learned it was Graham who we had seen lying there dead in the street.
One night about 20 years later and 80 or 90 yards from where Graham died, a buddy of mine named Bill Nastasiak —who I’d known since high school and was undoubtedly the funniest friend I’ve ever had—parked his truck in the parking lot of that Target because the lot of the apartment complex in he lived in right across the street was full like it normally was.
(Right before I worked at Tall Mouse, Bill and I had worked together for the same printing company. There were many times I was having a shitty day and Bill would just walk up and make me laugh, pulling me out of my tormented head and putting a big ol’ smile on my face.)
That night, after parking his truck, Bill jumped on a BMX bike which he kept in the back of his truck, went tearing across the street, bunny-hopped the curb, was thrown from his bike, and landed on the bike’s handlebars, crushing his right lung and ribs and killing him.
Bill’s teenage son James, who I’ve known ever since he was a young boy, came walking up the street with his girlfriend, and saw a group of people and paramedics all huddling around and went up to see what was happening. He saw his father dying in the street.
Bill left behind a wife and three sons.
When I was 5 years old my family used to go to the neighbors’ house and watch old movies using this projector set-up they had. I remember my brother and myself crashing out in their waterbed while my parents stayed up with them, drank, ate, and laughed into the night.
We moved away, and shortly after that, on June 12th, 1976, that neighbor was killed by mass murderer Edward Charles Allaway with 6 other innocent victims in the Fullerton State College Massacre.
I remember being real young and my mom trying to explain it to me. I don’t think I understood. I still don’t.
Back in the late 70s, when I was 8 or 9, the first kid I ever knew who lifted weights was my friend Jim Sikee. He was also the kid who got me into racing BMX. Jim was killed in his early 20s when John—the driver of the car he was in—ran a red light. I was friends with John as well.
When I was 15 my friend Becky was run over by a lowered mini truck while leaving Knott’s Berry Farm. I remember the song “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd being played at her wake. Whenever I hear that song I think of Becky.
About 2 years ago, my friend, bodybuilder and personal trainer, Imran Khawar, died in his sleep while getting ready for a bodybuilding competition. 7-figure Sam and I had lunch with Imran in Laguna Beach shortly before his death. Imran left behind a young son. I blogged about his death here.
About 5 years ago, my friend Courtney, who actually became my first paying personal training client (after I offered to train her for free but she insisted on paying me), overdosed on painkillers.
Like Courtney and me, my long-time friend Jeff Clark also struggled with painkiller addiction. Jeff died of liver problems related to his drug use around the same time Courtney died. (And actually, Randy, who passed from a brain tumor, is the guy who introduced me to Jeff.)
And then there was Greg. Greg was a lawyer I knew who used to love to ride his Harley. On a road trip to Northern California with his longtime mistress—who I also knew—Greg crashed his motorcycle, killing both of them. I think that may have been when Greg’s wife and family first found out about his mistress.
In ’92 or ’93, my friend Brian, who I used to ride dirt bikes with, bought a bag of weed from me for a motocross trip he was taking down to Mexico with his best friend.
About a month later, I called his house to see what he was up to. This is back before everyone had cell phones. We all had beepers and landlines. Brian’s step-mom answered the phone and told me he’d fallen asleep at the wheel, crashing his truck in the middle of the night down in Mexico, and had died.
About a year later his best friend—who had survived the accident—jumped in front of a train a few miles from my home. Some people think he was actually the one who was driving the truck in Mexico and never got over the guilt.
I felt guilty about Brian’s death too. I always wondered if the the weed I sold him played a role in the accident that night.
And then there’s Chris Payne—my best friend from 3rd grade through high school. For the last 6 or 7 years I’d been trying to track Chris down online. I hadn’t seen him since I was about 15 or 16 years old and wanted to catch up. Last I’d heard he’d moved back to Australia where he was originally from.
Well, recently I found his mom on Facebook and sent her a message. She told me that even though Chris had a ton of great things going for him, he took his own life in 2005.
These are all people who went way before their time—they might have went in God’s time, but they each had a ton of life left ahead of them; most went in their teens, twenties, or thirties.
And these aren’t the only ones, they’re just the ones I remember the most. There are so many more.
I’m sure you’ve lost a lot of people as well.
One day they’re here, and the next they’re gone. And somehow Keith Richards lives on.
Now, I’ve also known a lot of people who’ve taken the lives of others—on purpose.
I knew the guy, Jason, who murdered my friend Shannon. We didn’t know it was Jason until years after the murder. At Shannon’s wake Jason actually came up, hugged me, and asked me if I knew who’d done it.
He’s now doing to 26 years to life in prison for Shannon’s murder.
There was a guy I used to talk to in AA named Ethan—I didn’t know him well, but I knew him. I think he may have had schizophrenia or something.
Well, one day I was reading the local news and saw Ethan’s picture on the front page—for killing his mother, wrapping her body in a bed sheet, going to Starbucks and buying a coffee on her credit card, and then calling the paramedics.
Ethan is now in prison.
When I was locked up in the mid-90s for trafficking marijuana, I knew at least 20 guys who were in there for murder. These are guys I ate lunch with, played handball with, and talked to on a daily basis.
They had killed moms, girlfriends, wives, gang rivals, and innocent people they didn’t even know.
And, just like my friends, their victims never knew their time was gonna end so prematurely.
As we get older, we lose more people. I imagine if we make it to our 80s or 90s, we’ll have known a heck of a lot more people who are dead than are alive.
Now, I didn’t write this post to spread any kind of doom and gloom or put bad thoughts into your mind. It’s not about that.
I wrote this for two reasons…
I miss my friends. Some more than others. But I miss them all. Each one touched me in a different way and I’ll never forget ’em.
Life is awesome, man.
But it’s so easy to forget just how awesome it is.
We get to live, breathe, and love today. We have friends, family, children, and pet dogs.
Just the simple fact that we exist is far beyond a miracle. There’s really no way to describe it. Words can’t do it justice. Nor can the mind totally understand it.
Here we are on this amazing journey, and we don’t really know how we got here or where we’re going.
Yet here we are. We’re alive.
But don’t forget, life is short. We can go at any time. Literally.
It’s just kind of built into the deal. Everyone and everything that’s born dies. Now it’s my own personal belief that the most important part of us—what we call our soul—lives on and is eternal. At least this feels like the truth deep down inside of me.
But our bodies and our egos are temporary. Here one day, gone the next.
Today is all we get. It’s all there is. When tomorrow comes, it will be today, and it’ll still be all we get.
I hope this blog post serves as a reminder for you to…
Focus on what’s important. Let your family know you love them. Go on awesome adventures. Cherish what you have. And live in today with everything you’ve fucking got.
I gotta be honest here; this blog post was tough for me to write. I sat down to do a short post on Christina, and 3000 words just kinda spilled outta me.
After writing this, part of me wants to crawl into a dark closet and cry. But I did most of that long ago.
There’s another part of me that can’t believe how good my life is, and is far beyond just grateful for everything I have. That part of me wants to cry too—tears of gratitude.
I’m also grateful for the time I got to spend with the friends I wrote about in this post who’ve moved on.
I am grateful for my life.
If you lost anyone too young and miss them, feel free to tell me about it down below. Or if you love your life and are grateful for what you have, I’d love to hear about that too.