Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Life of Brian

Tending bar at the Boka Bear Den
Brian would have been 34 today.  I have no question about what we'd be doing for his birthday if he were still alive -- getting together with friends for the Bears/Packers game.  He was the biggest Chicago Bears fan you'd ever meet.  The only question is whether he'd want to go out to a sports bar or have people over to watch in our living room and the "Boka Bear Den"  Bears bar we had in the basement.  Probably the latter, so we could share victory boots of keg beer from the Bears keg-o-rater, and possibly make up some kind of blue or orange shots.   

Shots, anyone?  (Mexico, 2008)
That was Brian.  He was the life of any party, and particularly enjoyed getting quiet people out of their shells.  He was big, loud, funny and smart.  He had a soft side, though, and would cuddle our kitties and speak baby-talk to them.  I'll never forget the day he was petting Ellie on his lap and said, "Oh, you're Daddy's little purr factory."  By the same token, there was a time he referred to someone (not to their face) as a "monkey sack of shit."  He had a knack for stringing together obscenities and insults into hilarious and oft-repeated catch phrases.  He was very smart and had a large vocabulary.  More than anything, his intelligence came in the form of common sense.  He could look at any problem or situation and analyze it quickly, and simply, in a way that would make you think, "Wow, it really is that simple."  He would tell you what he thought whether you liked it or not, and whether it was what you wanted to hear or not.

Life was always more fun with Brian around
At a fundraising gala

Brian was honest, sometimes almost to a fault.  He didn't pull any punches when it came to speaking his mind, and one of his less endearing traits was that he didn't care who he offended with what he said; he valued honesty over feelings.  Still, he had a great way to use his strengths to bring out the best in people and situations.  He fared quite well in business and quickly moved into positions of leadership and authority.  He was a wonderful manager -- he had the ability to improve an organization at its lower levels by bringing out the most in his employees, while he also had a talent for thinking big-picture and improving a company by making sure departments worked together and sharing ideas for change and development in planning meetings with higher-ups.  He took great pride in helping poor performers on his team turn things around, in mentoring team members to prepare them for promotions and career growth, and in being a leader at the office. 

The college days
He was a rock star at ING, where he took on more special projects than any other manager and managed to excel at each one.  He had been identified as a top talent there, becoming a part of a very small group (consisting of 1-3% of employees) who were being groomed for higher management and who would be sent to training and leadership camps around the country.  I would have loved to have seen what he could have done for that company and for himself.  He was savvy enough to convert his bosses' praises into compensation, and always fared well at review time.  He was, simply, a business genius.  He wasn't afraid to ask why things were or weren't done a certain way, wasn't afraid to suggest new things, wasn't afraid to address any elephant in any room, and wasn't afraid to negotiate for the biggest raises and bonuses possible.  After he died, people who had worked for him at other places, many years ago, came to pay tribute and so many people said wonderful things about him.  In a world where many people dislike their bosses, he had raving fans in his employees.

My best friend
Brian had a unique voice.  He didn't like it, but I loved it.  I miss hearing it, though it's in my memories clear as day.  He did some radio work in college, where he was a communications major.  He had a radio show for a semester or two on the campus radio station, and he and his freshman year roommate (who went on to spend a few years in radio for a career) did play-by-play announcing of basketball games for the Simpson Storm.  He also did an internship at the Muscatine radio station, impressing everyone he worked with there.  He loved sports and also did an internship with a sports newspaper in central Iowa.  This came easily to him, as he had written for the Simpsonian, the college newspaper of our liberal arts school.

Brian loved friends, family, food, fun, and life.  Yet he was picky, and had funny tastes.  He disliked fruit in general, and despised berries.  I remember a big fight we had once when he wouldn't take even one bite of a strawberry-rhubarb cake I'd made (that was a labor-intensive dessert, I might add).  He was stubborn; what can I say?  He hated topiaries, barn quilts, and doilies.  He never shied away from telling me if he didn't like an article of clothing or accessory I picked out, either.  He liked my hair best when it was long and I didn't have bangs.

With Picaboo Whiskers Boka, our firstborn :)
Brian loved animals.  He doted on Princess, the dog his family had when I met him, and cried when she died.  Then, he doted on Murphy, the dog his parents never planned to have but couldn't resist when he showed up one day.  He was a wonderful "pet parent" to Picaboo and Ellie, and loved having a kitty on his lap.  He was on the board of directors of a no-kill animal shelter and enjoyed volunteering there as well, with events (dog washing and silent auction fundraisers, for example) and with animal socialization, such as when he worked with a puppy to get him through obedience classes to make him more adoptable.

With our neices, Lily and Lauren
I wonder if we would have had children...if so, I wouldn't be surprised if they had names that harkened back to the Bears -- he always wanted a cat named Walter, but we ended up only having girls.  He was great with kids, a gentle giant, though a bit unsure with babies.  He was afraid of "breaking" them and felt awkward being such a big guy holding someone so tiny.  He didn't know much about babies, either.  When our first niece, Lily, was born, we went to see her in the hospital the day after she was born.  He was holding her and commented, "Look - she already has fingernails!"  I guess he thought those sometimes grew in later, like hair or teeth.  I laughed until I cried....something Brian did a lot.  Once they were kids, he did much better and could relate to them in a special way.  I always was amazed at how well he could connect to my sister and cousins -- he did that with kids and adults, with ease.

Brian could read people like a book.  He had an uncanny gut feeling about people that would prove, time and time again, to be spot on.  If he warned me that someone was sleazy, they usually proved to be just that.  He also had an ability to talk to anyone, to get people to open up, and to get people to leave their comfort zones and grow.

He was never afraid to jump in and sing along...
Brian was passionate about music.  He was not a great musician, though he played trombone in the high school band and started playing guitar in college.  I loved when he would play guitar and sing, even if he wasn't the most advanced player or the best singer out there.  If he was looking at music online, I'd sit on the floor of the home office while he played.  Sometimes, he'd sit on the corner of the bed while I laid there and listened.  He had a three-ring binder and dozens of pages of loose music in his guitar case.  Sometimes, he'd take his guitar and a bottle of red wine to the basement to relax.  Other times, it was a book and a bottle, and he'd play his records down there.

With his good friends at a Reckless Kelly show (Kansas City)
Brian had a great collection of vinyl.  It all started when my boss offered me a stereo system that he was going to get rid of -- we needed a sound system for the basement bar, so I took him up on it.  One of the components of the 1990 Onkyo setup was a record player that had never even been out of the box.  I declined that, but took the rest home.  Once home, Brian and I were unloaded components and getting the system set up when I told him of the LP player that also went with the setup.  He said, "Why didn't you take that?!"  I said, "Because we don't own any records."  ...."So?"  I had to call my boss that night to make sure he didn't throw away the record player, and thus began a record collection.  It was mostly old rock and folk style music that he liked -- Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Alabama, CSNY, etc.  I thank him for introducing me to the likes of James Taylor, Bob Schneider, Jakob Dylan, and the Avett Brothers.  But he hated Anne Murray.  He loved watching music DVDs, just hanging out with friends and acting like there was a concert in our living room.  He spent hundreds of hours with his best friend, Mike Hart, doing this.  They would watch Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, The Band, and Crash Test Dummies.  He could tell you all about what the songs meant, why they were written, and how the musicians got their starts.  He dug deep into music, too -- he knew the real talents and had found the real gems produced by one-hit pop bands like the Dummies or Marcy Playground.  When he loved a song or an artist, he would play a CD or just one song on repeat over and over again.  I didn't mind that when he discovered Mason Jennings, but I never really liked Warron Zevon.  Funny how I don't mind Zevon now...

With his brother, in Jamaica
Brian loved to travel, and always picked beach locations.  He loved snorkeling and was a good swimmer, having spent many years as a lifeguard (and eventually manager) at the Weed Park pool in Muscatine.  I spent one summer baby-sitting while he was a guard and I'd bring the kids to the pool as often as possible.  When it was his break time, he'd jump in and swim and play with me and the kids, teaching the little boys wrestling moves (I remember especially the "European upper-cut").  He loved MMA fighting, and I loved being his guinea pig while he learned and practiced moves -- he could really get me with a figure-four leglock if I didn't pull off a triangle choke first (usually he'd have to sort of let me have that).  Another summer, when he was managing the pool and I was working at Applebee's, I would bring him Taco Bell after my shift was over.  I'd eat Long John Silver's myself.

Post-tequila-shot picture!
Brian loved having parties, and our house in Iowa was perfect for that.  It had a big kitchen overlooking the living room.  There was a formal dining room that was most often used for board game nights and Wine Club gatherings.  Downstairs from the living room was the sports bar, complete with a keg and shelf upon shelf of liquor.  There was a bar and stools, as well as a high-top bar table that converted to a poker table.  We had a tv mounted in the corner and the walls were covered in Bears memorabilia -- banners, flags, signed photographs, mounted cards (the Walter Payton rookie card being the prize among them), and posters.  We had a nicely sized fenced-in yard, perfect for bags and bocce.  We never did get the hot tub running though -- something that I predicted when we took it (one of those "free" but broken situations).  All we did was spend a few hundred dollars for a new cover, and never did get the broken parts replaced.  Sometimes home projects slipped to the bottom of the list, behind a 50-60 workweek and at least twice-weekly socializing.  We had a great social life -- parties and nights out all the time.  Even our wedding was planned around one idea -- it had to be the biggest party reception we could arrange, with late-night snacks to stem the tide of alcohol, and a DJ that played til 2:00 am (including some last-minute "Chug-A-Lug" karaoke performed by the groom himself...and no, the DJ did not even have a karaoke machine; Brian just asked him for the mic).  We loved hosting the "Boka and Friends" fantasy football draft at our dining room table every year.  He was commissioner of the league, which has been going strong for 10 years now, always with a waiting list of guys wanting to join.  
The League
I'm proud to say this one-time Vanna-esque sticker girl/beer bitch is now the champion of the league and that the Brian Boka trophy is on my mantel.  A fantasy championship in this league is something he never attained, though he would usually have more points than anyone else -- it's just that every week, his opponent would pull off a miracle win by having players with career and season-high stats against Brian.  He loved the frustration of it, though, and all the trash-talk among the league.  I try to keep that tradition alive as well, even though this year I crashed and burned fantastically (thanks, Cam Newton).

With his best friend Mike
It's no surprise that people stayed in his fantasy football league -- if you were a friend of Brian Boka, you would stay that.  He was fiercly loyal to his friends, and that sentiment went both ways.  When he made a friend, it stuck.  He had the same best friend for 25 years -- he and Hart became buds in first grade, and I have no doubt they would have been best friends for 50 years if fate had allowed it.  They were more like brothers.  He was also very close with other childhood and high school friends, as well as college and work friends.  He had many close friends from every phase of his life.  Many people would name him as their best friend, and it was not uncommon for him to be a sort of big brother and friend to anyone who needed an ear to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to have a beer with.  As fun-loving as he was, he was there for the serious stuff too, and was often the one people would turn to in times of crisis or struggle.  I miss his advice, his insights, his wisdom.
Hart's 30th birthday -- sometimes they'd kind of dress alike unwittingly
Words that describe Brian are funny, loud, big, lovable, honest, fun-loving, stubborn, smart, intuitive, tender, perverted, extroverted, indulgent, insecure, crass, leader, pragmatic, inspirational, goofy, and true to himself.  He was someone who would push boundaries and was boisterous and provocative enough to almost get in trouble, but instead would always get away with it.  He was a rambunctious little boy, always getting into fights with his brother (that continued into high school, when he worked for his brother for a while) and finding ways to avoid trouble while doing things that should have gotten him some with his friends.

I can't sum up a person and his entire life with one blog entry, and I'm sure I'm leaving out hundreds of words and anecdotes that would more fully paint the picture of Brian Boka.  He was true to himself and sought to bring out the best in everyone around him.  He forever changed me, made me a better person, and shaped me into the football-loving, music-appreciating, dirty-joke-telling woman I am today.

I miss you, Brian Steven Boka.  I love you.  Thank you for sharing your life with me.

Our wedding day -- 06.19.04

Our 5 year anniversary party at our home in Iowa




  1. You may have liked monkey sack of shit, but I was always partial to kamikazee butt pirate. And I must admit I pull that one out from time to time. You also forgot to mention one of his hates, or should I say phobias...... Midgets! I always likened it to an elephant being scared of a mouse. Happy birthday old friend.


  2. May his memory be eternal! happy to read about your brian- feels like I knew him from meeting you that ONE TIME and reading this :) Keep truckin'

  3. Hi,
    I just happened to come across your blog. I lost my fiance in June, we were to be married in September and we were together for 6 years.
    I am also a young lawyer and I really wanted to reach out to you because I had some questions. I was wondering if you had an email you could be reached at?

    1. Anon -- you can reach me at wboka at hotmail dot com (spelled out to avoid spammers catching it). I hope to hear from you, and wish you well.