James Kolasa, one of my best friends from my years in Lexington, died this morning. I can’t say it was out of a clear blue sky — he had been in failing health for some time, in fact longer than I knew. A clouded sky, perhaps, but it was nonetheless both sudden and unexpected. He is predeceased by his wife, Amy, and survived by his mother and by his son and daughter, one of whom is in college and the other in high school.
I met James during the first of my two years at Transy. He and his roommate, Will, were a year ahead of me; both were Computer Science majors (as was I in those early days), and were both heavily involved with the college radio station, so it was pretty natural that we’d connect. While I was a year younger, I seemed to take on the role of relatively harmless bad influence and iconoclast during our time together — it has historically been a role that suits me. I can remember James saying at least once that he had almost never dropped f-bombs before he started hanging around with me. Likewise, when my parents came to visit one weekend (staying in a guest suite in one of the dorms), my dad bought a couple of sixes of beer (Killian’s Red, if I remember correctly), which he shared with any of my interested friends and me (although we may all have been underage.) A couple of years ago, when James’s daughter began college, he told me that ever since then, he had hoped to be the “cool dad” and do the same thing when his kids were in school. “And it turns out her school is a dry campus!”
The three of us hung together quite a lot in the way that college kids do (or did) — hanging around over meals, during bull sessions in the computer lab and radio station, watching MTV in the student center, playing arcade games, and talking about music (mainly), old movies, and whatever else happened to be going on at the time. I’m reasonably sure that he bought my share of the occasional pizza — I was usually broke during those two years, as my folks were trying to dig their way out of financial trouble. James and I crushed on some of the same girls, including one I’ve written about before, but it didn’t usually get in the way. In the meantime, I turned him on to some of my tastes, most notably the poems of Archibald MacLeish and the music of Yes, but also Eraserhead and the original Dawn of the Dead And when my life went pear-shaped during my second year and I was sliding into depression, James was someone who put up with it more than he had to, and more than he likely should have.
After I got bounced from Transy, I kept somewhat in touch with Will and James (Will lived in the next town from mine, and we’d hang when he was home on weekends or breaks), but James and I didn’t really reconnect until I came back to Lexington to do my M.A., having decided to play to my main strength in English and such. He was at UK as well, doing a Masters in CompSci and living in a small house down the street from where my band rehearsed. Unlike my cinder-block grad housing apartment, James’s place had effective air conditioning and he had a stereo with a CD player and a computer on which we could play games. We would stay up until stupid o’clock enjoying both. We also used his computer to design and print flyers for my band, and I could generally count on him to be at our gigs.
Even then, he was someone with wide-ranging interests. He started brewing his own beer (Kolasabrau, with a picture of his ancestral Poland on the dot-matrix-printed label) in grad school, and would become a master gardener and a beekeeper in his later years, lecturing on both around his eventual day job as a computer science prof at Lexington’s local community college. He also spent some time working at a tobacconist’s shop in the Rupp Arena complex and accumulated a number of pipes, indulging in the habit on an occasional basis. Influenced by Yes’s Chris Squire (and my baleful encouragement), he bought a cheap bass and amp from a local music store, and would plunk on it from time to time before eventually selling it to another of our mutual friends. He was also fond of historical wargames, of the Avalon Hill variety — a particular favorite of his was Kingmaker, which I played with him a couple of times, always winding up with peals of laughter and my early elimination. (I may read about the stuff, but I lack the temperament for medieval politics.) At any given point, the evidence of his multifarious fancies would be strewn about his home, both before and after he met up with Amy and I met Mrs. M. We also would hang out at the same campus bar and grille locations, him drinking beers while I usually drank cokes, occasionally indulging myself. (The two times in my life at which I’ve been inebriated were both with James, leaving me smiling and wondering who was the bad influence on whom.)
The years did what they do, and along the way, as I mentioned, James married Amy (I was a groomsman and caught the garter at their wedding) and I found Mrs. M. Geography intervened again. James and Amy remained in central Kentucky, while Deb and I went to the Cincinnati area, then Muncie and Mondoville. Will had done his grad work at the U of Illinois, and became a professor at a college about 15 miles from Lexington, and every once in a while, we’d get together for a Kentucky football game. James and Amy created a homestead on the rural outskirts of Lexington, where they raised small crops, small critters, and their two children.
After my folks were killed, Mrs. M and I had frequent occasion to travel between Mondoville and Northern KY, and when we could, we would occasionally meet up with the Kolasas at our favorite local restaurant, just the four of us, and down the line, with their kids.
Along the way, it became abundantly clear that he and Amy had been a spectacular couple, to the point that I couldn’t really think of James without her, and without her combination of joy, exasperation, and the ability to make and do things. James spun in many directions, but Amy was (to borrow John Donne’s expression) the point that made his circle just.
We stayed in touch via social media, as one does these days, and that was how I learned first of Amy’s final illness, and then of James’s own declines and his struggle to serve as a single parent. That both are gone and that the kids are now orphaned is one of life’s cruelties that will trouble me until a day when I am allowed to see answers currently beyond my understanding.
When I teach, the discussions frequently turn to theodicy and the questions about bad things happening to good people. James and Amy were both good people to whom terrible things happened. I’ll miss them both, but I knew James better. He was smart, kind, funny, and fascinated by almost everything he encountered in life. He was a good guy, and a man in full, and one of the best natured people I’ve had the privilege to know.
A sudden, superstitious thought: Who will tell his bees?
As I mentioned above, I introduced James to the band Yes, and in particular to the work the band’s charismatic bassist, Chris Squire. For years after that, Yes provided the soundtrack for our hangouts. I thought it would be fitting to listen to the band this afternoon, so I turned on Spotify, with the Yes playlist set to random. Of course, the first track to play was the track often thought to be Squire’s definitive statement.
James, I’m pretty sure you picked that one for me — but I wish you hadn’t left so soon.