Monday, 12 September 2016

Words for a Thousand Lunchtimes

A friend died a couple of weeks ago. I am vainly attempting to write a eulogy to deliver at his funeral. I sit looking at my pen, at my keyboard, at the quarrelling sparrows on the lawn and my mind is immobile. It refuses to elicit the first words with which to describe this man. Not because there is nothing to say, because there is an abundance; But because of a sincere desire to do the memory of the man due justice. My fingers hover hesitantly over the keys, paralysed by the multitude of suddenly facile and cliched phrases that suggest themselves in such cases. So, I come here, in order to tangentially, obliquely, begin the task by proxy. Perhaps if I fling enough words onto this white rectangle, something will emerge, like a speck of gold in the vast pile of rubble from a mine in promising ground.

I was surprised to be asked by him to speak just a few days before his predicted but untimely death. He wasn't someone I saw often but he was someone with whom I formed an unlikely connection. You come across people in your travels through life and have no idea mostly what their facades hide. A bland affable exterior might elicit profound wisdom regarding the relevance of millennia-old ideas to your life, a curmudgeonly misanthrope could throw your perspective of them completely off balance by letting slip about their weekends volunteering with autistic children. We often do not wear our identities on our faces or demeanours it seems.

So, a chance observation, after a decade of knowing this previously distant man, sparked an unexpected connection that was to last a decade or more of lunchtime conversations. An observation of an article he was reading in New Scientist, which I had read the previous day, opened up a world of discussion and exchange of ideas which I am told he looked forward to immensely and with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
Our conversations ranged from the seemingly magical behaviour of radio waves within metal computer enclosures (his specialist field and one in which he would have unjustly have declined to describe himself as an expert), through religion and the more popular forms of irrationality to the neural basis of consciousness, as revealed by my own, and others' experiences of cognition with respect to the machine that creates it. A contentious conclusion but one I feel is an unavoidable inevitability. I think this may have been the topic of our very last conversation, in fact.
Ours was a particularly materialist universe, the evidence for this having been carefully and systematically examined, for this is the rigour that characterised his thinking.

So, the grumpy old bugger that refused to suffer fools gladly and would bluntly point out inconsistencies in a particular position, softened and became a man of immense curiosity when given the opportunity discuss his ideas without judgement. People really can surprise you if you give them the chance. No longer scratchy and irritated by imprecise opinions, he became wistful and enthusiastic in his examination of them. Many a lunch hour was taken up this way.

Perhaps, this is a lesson I take from this (and as you know, I always like to extrapolate from the individual experience to the general principle when observation suggests I can): Perhaps the grumpy, the spiky, the vague and the seemingly dull, hide deeper treasures which need careful uncovering. Ok, some are just what they at first glance seem and many a time I have suddenly remembered imaginary appointments to escape tedious expounding of irrelevant facts or a stream of poorly constructed opinions. But maybe it is worth persevering.  Maybe some people hide, for reasons of their own. a world of fascination, imagination or experience.

I would suggest it is worth persevering just in case.

I am still no closer to an opening, but I do feel I have freed up the hinges on the gates of my thought somewhat.


Jenny Woolf said...

I think you have a possible opening along the lines of : "I knew X for years but not very well. Then, around ...(year), a chance observation, after a decade of knowing him rather distantly, sparked an unexpected connection that was to last a decade or more of [very interesting] lunchtime conversations...." I say this because I think many people listening at a funeral are interested in figuring out the dead person's life and relationships with other people. It is comforting to have some illumination into aspects of the dead persons life that might be unfamiliar, to find something new, get some new insights. You clearly related to him well through the medium of ideas and met him when he was an adult, and this would be in total contrast with the experience of close relatives or school friends, as they might not have tended to discuss things with him in that way.

It struck me that you used a few words here and there that sounded slightly pejorative, although I am sure they were not meant to be. But I might try to turn the phrasing around a bit to avoid e.g. saying he was "distant," and say instead that I'd never really had much opportunity to chat with him before.

Good luck with the task, which of course is a nearly impossible one!

Jenny Woolf said...

... and therefore, instead of "a chance observation, after a decade of knowing him rather distantly" might be even better phrased as "knowing him but not very well,"

Sorry should really read through comments before I click "send"!

Librarian said...

It must be one of the most difficult tasks, to write about a friend/acquaintance/relative who has died, especially if that is to be read out at the deceased person's funeral. When my husband died, his cousin Rob decided to speak at the service, and he did so in the most touching manner; completely freehand, and in a way only someone who had known Steve very well could have done.

Rob, by the way, is one of those people who can really surprise you if you give them a chance - he may appear a bit of an up-to-not-much-good (read: lout) at first glance, but inside his prickly interior there is a highly sensitive artist. You'd be forgiven to think he's just a typical beer-loving work-shy guy, but listen to the lyrics he writes to his own music (he has a band) and talk to him - really TALK - and he reveals a different character altogether.

Perl Numquist said...

Thanks for your comments. I forget to come back here sometimes and respond to such comments as appear. I rather got our of the habit in the melee that has been the last two years. Thank you for your thoughts. I do appreciate them
The pejorative terms were intentional :-) They were intended to highlight a side of Chris that was well known and it would seem my own process of getting to know him was not unique as they elicited wry smiles of recognition.
it went ok. As well as such a thing can. I am accustomed to speaking to large groups of people and can do it with no nerves or stage fright as my job required it for over 20 eyers. But this was hard. I faltered and groped for words on occasion because, well, nothing I had ever had to say really mattered to anyone this much before.