Nov 16 2013


A couple dozen people showed for the service. There was a table with crackers and cheese, cookies and brownies. They had little bottles of water and coffee. Next to the sign-in book was a stack of Hello My Name Is tags. I wrote “Tom” and stuck it on my sport coat. The crowd was divided into colleagues, some of whom had known the deceased for forty or fifty years, and a handful of graduate students. Plus his adult son and ex-wife. People talked about the recent heavy rains and about their retirements and where they were living now.

This is what it comes down to. Small talk and cheese plates. Brie and chit chat.

The now-deceased was a philosophy professor. I got to know him in graduate school. I was working on an MFA and signed up for some philosophy courses because I didn’t really know what philosophy was and thought it might be useful. I was interested in answering the big questions. I wanted some tips on how I might live my life.

I didn’t get any of that. Instead the two classes I took from the now-deceased philosophy professor were about problems like the Identity of Indiscernibles — that is, how you tell two things apart that appear to be the same. This is more difficult than you might think and gets at questions about the nature of identity, whether an object is a collection of its properties or something more. A lot has been written about this topic. None of what’s been written interests me at all.

Such lack of interest didn’t bother the now-deceased philosophy professor. He said such questions either intrigue you or they do not. It took me two courses to realize they did not.

But I liked the now-deceased philosophy professor. He knew that I wanted to be a writer and he had at one point hoped to be a writer too. I think he wished he had been a writer. Instead he had gotten sidetracked by philosophy for a half-century or so.

We bonded over Ford Madox Ford and D.H. Lawrence and Nathanael West. We talked about writing. I once said to him that writing couldn’t be taught, an opinion I hadn’t given much thought.

Why not? he asked.

I didn’t have a good answer.

He had a lot of ideas about writing. One was that you pick a term and you stick with it. Don’t throw in a bunch of synonyms just to show that you know them. If you refer to the “now-deceased philosophy professor” then continue to use that phrase. Nothing wrong with some repetition. Worry about clarity not elegant variation.

Years after I left school he sent me an email about an article I had written. I emailed him back and we agreed to have lunch, the first of several. He had been an imposing presence and he still was. Large and deep voiced. It felt weird that he would be speaking to only me. Where was the rest of the class?

What matters most at a memorial service is what’s not said. No one said the now-deceased philosophy professor was kind. No one mentioned a time he helped someone out. No one talked about his selflessness. No one accused him of having a tender heart. No one cried.

The most heartfelt tribute mentioned that he could be reductive and cruel. That he was quick to judge, to dismiss. That he was critical of everything all the time.

You could argue that his exactitude was his way of caring. Someone who didn’t care wouldn’t take the time to point out flaws.

Sitting in the back row I tried to remember what I liked about the now-deceased philosophy professor. I liked that he cared about writing. I liked that he liked conversation. I liked that he engaged fully with the world. I liked the force of his personality. It was exciting to be in his presence. He was big and he seemed bigger.

A longtime colleague recalled how he heard the now-deceased philosophy professor say the following: “I may be a bastard but at least I’m not boring.”

He was and he wasn’t.

(the end)