Monday, September 18, 2006

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

I just learned that a man I once worked with died a few weeks ago. It had been many years since I had seen him or spoken to him, but I am diminished nonetheless by his loss. Why does it seem there is so much loss of late in my life? I suppose this is one more unasked-for consequence of the aging process.

Many would and did describe John as a difficult man, and other adjectives in a similar vein, but often quite a bit saltier. He was terse, and he could be rude. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and if he thought you foolish, he let you know in no uncertain terms. I liked him a lot though. He had a keen intellect and a sharp wit.

What makes someone like someone is a topic I have been thinking about, a kind of offshoot of last night’s post. There seems to be a lot of alchemy or, at least, chemistry in it all.

Why else would there be people that you hit it off with immediately (knowing little or nothing in depth about them), while there are others you are sure you will most heartily dislike (and your feeling is usually right) when they have done nothing to you? Others may make almost no impression at first or we are indifferent to them, but gradually they grow on us until we count them among our most trusted allies.

I have found, as I stumble through life, that I usually cannot separate some traits of people for admiration, while finding other traits despicable and shrugging my shoulders. (This is where this post intersects with last night’s on the nature of genius). No, somehow, my internal rating system, mostly without my conscious direction, puts them in the “I like and admire this person” pile or the “Not my cup of tea” pile.

On the whole, I like people so there are only a few characteristics that really rule someone out for me. In co-workers, I have found that no matter how attractive or amusing someone is, I can’t respect them if I don’t respect their work and their contributions to our mutual endeavor. Overtly or regularly hurting people deliberately is something I find intolerable. Great ego raises an imp in me determined to burst the bubble of self-importance as often as possible (a trait of mine I consider not very admirable).

On the plus side, being smart will get you points, and wit and a sense of humor will cover a multitude of sins. And ever since David in junior high, a young man who, as my mother would say, was “homely as a mud fence,” and who had a D average (he was flunking everything academic, but had As in Choir, Band and Jazz Band), a gorgeous tenor will get you just about everywhere. (C’mon people, it was 7th grade—not that kind of everywhere.)

John, the man who died, could be very cutting, but it was always done with wit. I don’t think he was deliberately hurtful to people, he just didn’t hide his contempt for weak argument or stupidity. He smoked so many cigarettes, his clothes and breath stank and his fingers were nicotine-stained. Now, this needs to be understood in the context of the times when a lot more people smoked and everyone smoked in the office—no place was smoke-free. Non-smokers who protested second-hand smoke were regarded as “nuts,” essentially. I, who have never smoked, (Not by dint of virtue—I just never liked it.) was so inured to smoke, I dated smokers, ate lunch with them (what non-smoking section?), rode in cars in which people smoked, all with no problem. But, John, well, even smokers noticed. His attire always seemed dapper to me. He was fond of tweedy sports coats, and he wore a Ulysses S Grant beard, when being hirsute was not that common in the echelons of upper management (Corporate America of the 80s). He rose to a senior editorial position in a major national publishing company with only a high school education, but more than held his own, even among the j-school boys. In his middle life, he had sustained some serious injuries that resulted in his having to cope with chronic pain in an era when doctors were still pretty puritanical on the topic of pain relief. Through it all, he still retained his sense of humor, and he always had a kind word for me or a sincere inquiry about how I was, even when we were just passing in the hallway.

Like all of us human beings, he was complex and unique. Johnny, you are too soon gone, but not forgotten. I am so glad you were a part of my life.

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