Brett Ortler



One of the most common phrases I said as a kid was I died. The causes varied: Goombas in Super Mario Brothers. Octorocks in the Legend of Zelda. Pretty much everyone after Von Kaiser in Punch-Out!!

Entire afternoons were predicated upon the orderly succession of deaths and the logistics of staying alive. The four-year-old kid, begging to play Duck Hunt, was instead assigned to play level 1-1 of Super Mario, with extensive coaching from the older bystanders on where to stop for extra lives or fire flowers, until the controller was wrenched out of his hands to avoid an enemy at the last second. After the level was cleared, the older kids followed, with the owner of the equipment inevitably taking more than their share of turns before we all inevitably—warp zones and Nintendo Power or not—died and had to start over.

This, in itself, is nothing remarkable, until the people we played those games with die. After that, when you revisit Mario, Sonic, or Link, some things are the same: you can continue the games they started and even see their initials in the records, but if you want to bring them back, a Game Genie or cheat codes won’t help. And when you try a favorite game, it might lock up, the power button of the NES flashing on and off, and with it, the old unmuted CRT TV lapsing between a gray screen and the sharp shout of static and the serene nothing of TV snow.


There are people we meet, outside of family, who have an outsized influence on our lives, despite the fact that we only really spend time with them for a few months, maybe a couple of years.

Sometimes, you come back to those relationships, and they become something more, but more often than not, they remain, islands of the past, defining the sights and sounds of great swathes of your life, sometimes the heart of what you remember from an entire time and place. In your life, at least, their influence proves incommensurate, whether in music or movies or books, or even the mannerisms and turns of phrase that you ape at first, and which eventually become part of your personality.

I’m 35; I can count just over a dozen people who really fit: two childhood friends with whom I alternated between endless sessions of backyard baseball or Super Nintendo; a couple of wannabe hackers who introduced me to T-1 connections, 2600, Quake, and my first real crew of friends; a trio of writer friends in grad school who gave me snark, sniggers and smarts; a sweet, good, bright gal whom I should have treated better but whose influence prevails; a chance meeting at a literature conference when I was fresh-faced, earnest, and soon lost with love; and a bespectacled redhead I met in high school who openly adored me but froze in photos, so embarrassed she could have been mistaken for a melted Dali clock.

And then there was Chris.


For the first few years of school, we lived in the same dorm on campus, just three rooms down from one another. He had befriended practically the whole floor before I’d even unpacked.

In one of the first conversations with him that I remember, he mentioned his Norwegian heritage. His name was spelled Christoffer, in the Scandinavian style, and his last name, Haugen, was familiar in Fargo-Moorhead, which boasts a bustling Sons of Norway club, not to mention the Hjemkomst, a full-size replica of a Viking ship, which was built by a middle school janitor, eventually sailed to Norway and back and is now a museum.

But Chris was most proud of being Canadian. He regaled almost everyone with tales of his hometown, The Pas, Manitoba, some 600 miles northwest of our campus in Moorhead, Minnesota, but even if you didn’t know that, you couldn’t miss the subtler clues: how he’d say “Grade Two” instead of the “Second Grade” when telling a story, or, despite how outgoing he was, that his exuberance was always edged in modesty.

Chris definitely wasn’t reserved, but he was less forward or foolish than someone like me. I was all wannabe wit and edge and bravado, so Chris always found himself full-up with friends, and unlike yours truly, he never looked like a total fool.


I remember Chris most through music. He was obsessed with the Sex Pistols, especially Sid Vicious, and he was constantly referring to bands none of us had ever heard of. Many of them were Canadian artists, but just as often he’d alert us to American artists that wouldn’t become popular until the following summer. Whenever music was playing, he served as a personal Canadian DJ of sorts, dropping in tidbits about Nelly Furtado’s heritage (born in British Columbia) or letting us know that Sum 41 was not only Canadian, but that they’d won a Juno Award, essentially the Canadian version of the Grammys.

And when he mentioned music, it was not in the insufferable superiority of what we’d call a hipster today, but with the earnestness and sheer glee of a true fan. He had none of the disdain or snark of the music snob—and lacked the common fault found in all snobs—unhappiness. On the contrary, I remember him at his happiest when he was talking about music or sharing it. Rather than a hipster, I’d describe him more as a super-fan. And there was no artist he loved more than the Matthew Good Band, and its namesake, Matthew Good.


Matthew Good’s musical career didn’t start out in rock. He first served as a writer for the Rochester Kings, a folk-rock outfit, and then became their vocalist. Eventually, he founded the eponymous Matthew Good band, which achieved some success in 1993 before the group splintered, eventually reforming with new members, but under the same name, in 1995.  That iteration of the group soon became incredibly popular, releasing four full-length albums and four EPs from 1995 to 2001, topping the Canadian Billboard charts in 1999 and making the top 10 several times. After that, Good embarked on a solo career, and to date he’s released eight full-length albums, as well as a live album and a best-of compilation.

Chris essentially proselytized Good’s work, and he wasn’t wrong. Whether with his band or on his own, Matthew Good is a whole hell of a lot better than a lot of what topped the charts in the U.S. for the same period. Good’s Beautiful Midnight was re-released by Atlantic Records in the U.S. in 2001, the year I entered college. The album, for better or worse, was my introduction to the band—and it was a whole hell of a lot different, and better, than the songs atop the U.S. Billboard Alternative Chart at the time, which are today frankly mostly an embarrassment. Aside from Fuel’s “Hemorrhage in my Hands,” an absolutely lovely song, a large portion of the 2001 list consists of such forgettable acts as Lifehouse, Crazy Town, Incubus, and Staind—whom I loathe for that goddamn spelling as a point of principle (looking at you too, Puddle of Mudd).

Clearly, the work north of the border was at least as good, and often better, and Chris knew it.


The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1986 in the U.S., and in 1987 in Canada. Chris and I were both born in 1983. In that year, 3,461,829 kids were born in the U.S.; I arrived in February, three months before my actual due date of May; Chris was one of 374,533 Canadians born that year. All of us arrived several years after Atari, arcade games, and the first personal computers landed in basements and studies everywhere. The video game industry as a whole flamed out when we still had pacifiers, but by virtue of our birth year, we were born at nearly precisely the right time for its rebound, and to become video game devotees.

By virtue of our age, we were usually the hangers-on, begging to play on systems we didn’t own. I remember trudging through oak leaves to my best friend’s house, kitty-corner from my own, in the hope that he and the older kids would stop playing Super Mario Bros. long enough to deign for a round of Duck Hunt.

That didn’t stop us from embracing and internalizing the culture and characters—as weird as they were. Case in point: When tasked with producing a DARE anti-drug poster in a competition in my first-grade classroom, I made mine Mario-themed. It resembled, as much as my limited artistic ability could convey, level 1-1 of Mario Brothers, and above it was scrawled the ever-so-convincing slogan of “If you use drugs, you’re a goombah.” I did not win a prize.


According to his family, Chris had many of the early consoles and was a devotee of the NES. In college, I played games with him on the old Nintendo 64 I brought along from home, but Chris was usually off in his dorm finding new music via our college’s high-speed connection or coming up with playlists for the college radio station where he DJed.

I spent a lot of my time studying, but for fun, I regularly played video games with Chris’s girlfriend—also named Kris—who lived down the hall from us, in the women’s section of Grantham Hall.

Built in 1965, Grantham Hall was your standard dorm; it had white cinderblock walls, built-in closets and desks, hot-water radiators that clanked and pinged through the winter. In the public areas, the décor was a dilapidated version of Mad Men. There were square, modernist chairs, carpeting thin enough you could miss it, and great, out-of-place fishbowl lounges, with huge glass windows, two on each floor.


Kris and I usually played one game: Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball on the Nintendo 64. We were, and are, both fanatics of the Minnesota Twins, despite the fact that from the 1993 season until we both started college in 2001, the Twins lost a whopping 509 out of 905 possible contests.

To make things worse, for much of that span—much of my childhood—I had Minnesota Twins wallpaper in my bedroom. So after my father would inevitably turn off the Twins game on the radio in disgust, I’d have to go to sleep in what was effectively a shrine to failure.

Overlooking it all was a Nike poster of Kirby Puckett robbing a home run, but in the dark, it seemed like even he knew just how bad the Twins were. Each night, one of the last things I’d see was Kirby, floating in the air like some sad demigod surveying what was left of his pinstripe realm.


Kris and I played entire seasons’ worth of games during the two years or so that we all lived in the dorm. I didn’t realize it at the time, but aside from Chris, she was my closest friend, and I think I finally understand why. Aside from the damn fun of gaming, it is, like everything else, a social exercise. But it’s best suited for those who, like me, are otherwise lacking in social skills, or at the least, just awkward and eccentric enough that cementing long-term friendships is next to impossible.

I’ve always had trouble making friends. I am awkward and anxious and just plain strange. I’m funny, but I time my jokes wrong unless I write them down, and I don’t always understand the mechanics of when to speak up, especially amid the serve-and-volley of a lively conversation. Most of what I say is either missed entirely or is just off enough to go unnoticed or seem off.


When you’re crowded around a television with your friends, peering at cathode-ray TV quartered into four tiny boxes, there’s not a lot of time to read facial expressions, measure the gaps in conversation to get a word in, or second-guess what you just said or what you’ll say next, all of which are precursors, in regular life, to making friends.

Consider Kris: A sprightly redhead, she was quirk personified. A moon landing hoax aficionado (at least at the time), a baseball nut, and packing a dry, strange sense of humor, she was my best friend’s girlfriend. So of course I had a mild crush on her, and I had no idea how to talk to her, or anyone else, in a regular setting. So we played video games.

When you play someone in a game—whether it’s Super Mario Bros., chess or baseball—over a long period of time, you get to know some things you wouldn’t pick up in simple conversation: Everything from how aggressive and competitive or impatient they are to whether they are methodical, vindictive, forgiving, generous, or quirky. Games expose our personality, and often, our faults. Some friends play to win and then gloat about it. Others play in a collaborative fashion, and then there are the gaming Dadaists, who find the strangest ways to play: attacking in Goldeneye with only karate chops against grenade launchers, driving around backwards in Mario Kart just to play spoiler or to spite Lakitu, creating a game within a game, and in a way the designers didn’t anticipate.


Kris played for the fun of it, and Chris had more of a madcap, freewheeling style. He was always quick with a joke, often an esoteric reference to the The Kids in the Hall, a show that had stopped airing seven years before we entered college. We were both massive fans of stand-up and comedy, but Chris was a true aficionado; he knew all of the best bits by heart and would drag you to his dorm room to play clips on his computer. He introduced me to some of my favorite all-time sketches and bits, from Mr. Show to “An Inexperienced Cannibal.”

He was funny, too. We both did standup a bit in school, and we both got laughs, but he was a natural. I wrote bits ahead of time and practiced—a robot with jokes. Chris went up and talked, and he got the best and biggest laughs of the night. I remember thinking he could make a career out of it.


A few years after graduation, I’d generally lost contact with most of my college friends. Most of us had moved—including me—so we chatted once in a while via email or via Myspace, and then on Facebook, once it allowed everyone to join. It was on Facebook that I first remember learning that he was sick. He’d stayed in Fargo after graduation—I moved out west for grad school—and I was surprised to learn he was back in Canada. He said he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This surprised me, but from what he told me, I didn’t have any reason to worry. I knew a little about MS from family friends who had it, and I knew that while serious, it’s usually not fatal.


That was one of the last times I talked to him. This is what I didn’t know: He had a very aggressive form of multiple sclerosis (in the field, they call it “progressive.”) Because of this, he’d had a host of serious problems. He suffered a major seizure and a serious fall that had led to a traumatic brain injury and a coma for two days, and when he woke up, his short-term memory was essentially fried. His memory recovered somewhat, but his symptoms worsened, and he was eventually placed in a nursing home, surrounded by people 30 or 40 years older than he was.


Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system, and the nervous systems covers nearly every aspect of being alive. Regulation of breathing, your metabolism and body temperature? You can thank your nervous system. Automatic reflexes? Nervous system. The sheer unadulterated joy of eating an oversized ice cream sandwich on a hot August day? Nervous system. By comparison, the digestive, cardiovascular, and other systems in the body amount, more or less, to elaborate varieties of power generation or plumbing. But the nervous system is what makes you you.

As you might expect, the nervous system is complicated. There are voluntary and involuntary portions of it, and a variety of subsystems—but the basic machinery of the nervous system—the neuron—isn’t hard to understand in general terms. A neuron has three parts: a dendrite, a cell body, and an axon. Dendrites are information receivers (they’re often described as antennae). The cell body contains the nucleus and genetic material, and it is the workshop that produces the chemicals and machinery that make a neuron function. The axon is something like a wire, and it transmits information via tiny pulses of electricity. At the end of the axon, there’s a gap between the neuron and the adjacent one. This is called a synapse.

When the message reaches the end of the axon, the neuron emits special chemicals—neurotransmitters—which are then picked up by the dendrites of the next neuron. This chemical-electrical conga line happens faster than you’d think, because when one neuron in a chain fires, the next one does automatically, traversing the body quickly.


Like traditional electrical wires, axons are surrounded by myelin, which is a type of insulation. Whether you’re talking the wire plugged into your tablet’s charger or an axon connected to your brainstem, an uninsulated (bare) wire is nothing but problems. Bare wires bleed current—as it’s free to escape to other areas that conduct electricity. And when a wire is uninsulated, message transmission slows down too. According to the textbook Neuroscience, uninsulated (myelinated) axons transmitted information at 10 meters a second (at best), good for about 22 mph. Myelinated axons can top 335 mph. When MS gets bad, the messages just don’t get through.


In people with MS, the body’s immune system attacks myelin, causing inflammation and damage. Usually, this process progresses somewhat slowly, causing problems such as double-vision or arm or leg weakness. But in very progressive cases, MS can turn fatal, sometimes quickly. Chris was diagnosed in late 2009 or early 2010; he passed away in December 2013.


Christoffer Andrew Haugen was born on October 27, 1983 and died on December 16, 2013.

When I found out that he’d died, I dug through my Facebook messages with him and even pried open my long-defunct Myspace account, like some digital Howard Carter, to see if there was something that I missed. Appropriately enough, those messages, like all of my emails from those years, have vanished, swallowed up by site redesigns or accounts suddenly erased.

But after sleuthing a bit online, and with some help from some friends, I found something else: first, the music he’d shared those years ago, and eventually, an extensive digital history of his life online.


At times, Chris essentially lived online. For years, he was a regular on The Bored, a message board for the most devoted fans of Matthew Good. From 2004 to 2013, he posted 4,941 times there, good for 549 times a year, or more than once a day, discussing TV, pop culture, girls, and of course, always music.

In isolation, that might seem excessive, but before you cast judgment, consider just how many times you’ve posted on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter today, or worse yet, just uselessly scrolled through your feed. Recently, Facebook launched a feature informing their users how many times their posts have been liked. When mine showed up, it said my posts had been liked 88,000 times. That didn’t make me feel much of anything.


All of Chris’s posts on The Bored are still there, and I’ve read nearly all of them. Only a handful pertain to his illness and subsequent injuries. He first mentions double-vision (often the first symptom of MS) in July of 2009, just a few years after he graduated; this is followed up with sporadic updates on his symptoms, and the testing regime he was undergoing, which included multiple MRIs, and finally, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which led him to relocate to Winnipeg. There, he suffered a major seizure and a fall, which led to severe memory loss and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). While his memory later recovered, the effects lingered; his later posts are replete with mentions of attending a TBI group, as well as additional falls.


With the rise of Facebook and MySpace, the Bored’s membership, like message boards everywhere, diminished. His earliest posts are peppered with comments and banter from friends (much like Facebook posts today), but as activity diminished, he kept posting there as often as ever. If anything, his posts even accelerated. The site clearly became one of the main ways he connected to the world. His page eventually became a de facto journal; after a while, the only responses were puzzled or antagonistic responses—get a blog and the like.

Closer to his death, Chris posted often, sometimes almost daily, and about everything: from his seemingly daily walks and notes about girls to brief updates on his MS and trips to his doctors.

Over time, his writing style and diction changed, presumably due to the impact of the disease and possibly because of the traumatic brain injury. MS, especially when progressive, can cause a host of cognitive changes. Chris seemed to suspect this himself in a post from January of 2009:

the doctor told me I have MS. (not cool, but it explains a lot)
this is why I am dumber than I used to be…..going back to reading my threads from a couple years ago. I don’t even understand.

Reading through the posts, from start to finish, you can tell writing became harder for him—most of his life probably did—and his posts became laconic and sometimes cryptic.

But his sense of humor—dry and random as it was—was still there, and his subject matter and personal style didn’t change much. A whole hell of a lot was likely going on, physically and mentally for him, but he was still Chris.


Appropriately enough, most of the music he recommended was elegiac. There’s “Underground” by Moist, a music video which features literal ghosts, or Mercury Rev’s haunting cover of “Cortez the Killer,” or the eerie slide guitar of Hayden’s “Home By Saturday.” (Hayden, by the way, is arguably the most depressing, but talented, artist ever to live; he was one of Chris’s favorites.)

The song that stuck with me the most, though, was “Apparitions” from Matthew Good himself. I think the refrain—and Good’s wonderful singing—is what does it:

We’re stuck
Inside our own machine

Between his singing, and the lyrics, it reminded me of my favorite line of poetry, from Yeats:

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?


In the past, Yeats was right. Our anonymous bones persisted, perhaps, sailing along in the Earth with the tectonic plates, but one had to be exceedingly lucky for their name—or their grave—to be remembered for decades, let alone centuries. Even cemeteries have a lifespan.

Today we have something of the opposite problem: we’re drowning in personal data; Facebook feeds are a minute-by-minute look at what we’re reading and thinking and feeling. Twitter is a glimpse at world events and our reactions to them as they happened.

At least for now, not all of us vanishes. Our digital lives persist, and what are we to do with the digital potsherds we leave behind? In Chris’s case, there’s still a lot to be found. I recently found one of his playlists online. It’s from years after we were close, but before MS, and there they are, three-minute increments of his life preserved. I recognized some of the songs, some of which were pure cheese (Celine Dion), but I couldn’t help think of it in larger terms. Chris is gone, but it’s still possible to piece back together a semblance of his life.


Despite all that data, we’re at a strange moment. The present is always privileged, but perhaps more so today than ever before. We are creating data far faster than we preserve it, and in a medium especially prone to inadvertent loss—digital memory. Clay tablets, however crude they are, persist. But erasing old data from an anonymous server or a hard drive is effortless and permanent. Like every other generation, we’re always losing the past, but we’re losing it faster.


The best example is what happened after Chris died. On the Bored, Chris is last listed as active December 12, 2013, 10:38 PM. He died December 16, 2013.

After he went AWOL on the Bored, someone tracked down his obituary. Eventually, Matthew Good himself posted condolences on his blog. It was a damn fine thing for Good to do, and I’m telling you, Chris wouldn’t have believed it. I can almost see him laughing and shaking his head about it now.

Good’s post was shared widely on Facebook and also back on the Bored. In both, many of Chris’s friends and former Bored interlocuters lamented his passing and remembered his quirk, vim, and his kindness.


Today, that memorial, from March 29, 2014, is mostly missing. Even with the Internet Archive, only the first paragraph or so is still around:

My deepest sympathies to the Haugen family who lost their son Christoffer in December of last year. Chris was a regular on the Near Fantastica fan message board. When he suddenly stopped posting, site administrator Anton Samson thought it odd, as he was very active on the website. Anton emailed me t…

In Chris’s case, that, at least, makes some sort of sense. For a kid who embraced the chaos of Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols, you can’t do much better than to have your hero’s memorial to you end in midsentence.