A couple days ago my wee small town lost one of its most colorful, interesting, and widely inquisitive and experienced citizens, John Wires, who was 91. My good friend and fellow writer Bryan Pfeiffer, who soaked up John’s company and wisdoms far more thoroughly than I did, has a wonderful remembrance:
John Wires spent a lifetime at the fertile intersection of mind and nature. A reader, writer, philosopher, and field naturalist, John never gave up trying to understand himself, his place in the world, and how to make the world a better place. Many of us will now write and recite fitting tributes to John, to a life well-lived, perhaps even to the mistakes he made and accepted over the course of that varied and bumpy life – mistakes that occupied John’s verdant mind until the end. But here, instead, I’ll write of John’s legacy and some of the wisdom he leaves me and those who never knew him.
The first is a lesson in slowing down. Lunch with John was a three-hour affair – an hour walking, an hour eating, and another hour walking. It wasn’t only that walking with a 91-year-old man is intrinsically an exercise in slowing down. Walking with John forced me out of my rush and into a slower pace – a challenge of body and mind. Persisting in my brain is the nagging list of what’s next – my unfinished book, the goddam inbox, my blog, the nature yet undiscovered. On a walk with John, however, we would dwell with a lonely aster still flowering near cold pavement in November or discuss Hannah Arendt’s writings on the Holocaust or waste time talking about sports. We often discussed women. Being with John was about being present with John – a practice we all might expand for ourselves now that John is gone.John and Brett Engstrom at breakfast.
Another of John’s lessons is the beauty and force of thought. For John it came from his own family, from a family of friends, and from a family of great minds. Particularly late in his life, John thought a lot about his parents and siblings and how they shaped him as a person. He thought about his marriage to Ruth and about their children. Some of the painful moments he shared during our walks always lead to discussion and introspection. Into that cauldron of thought always came books. John read everything, and if you mentioned one he hadn’t, John would often say, “No, I haven’t read it, but I’d like to.”
John always seemed to be searching for some way to weave together his parents and childhood, his post-traumatic stress from World War II, his mistakes, the philosophers he read, and a life close to nature into some sort of unified field theory for his place in the world. He never discovered that theory. But it kept his mind busy and lively. One one walk some years ago, with John lecturing me about Rudolf Steiner he really liked Steiner, I stopped us cold on the trail and said, “John, I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about.” He laughed and thanked me for not humoring him about Steiner.
Which brings me to three more lessons: humor, honesty, and humility. A few weeks ago, I drove John walking would have taken the entire day to an appointment with a new doctor. John asked me to join him during the exam to take notes. They discussed John’s medical history, which included nothing serious except for the shrapnel he took in the war, as John put it, “while fighting for you.” Then the doctor asked, “So, any other medical problems?”
“Yeah –– doctors,” John replied.
The three of us lost it. And what you must know is that in uttering this line John’s timing was perfect. After saying, “Yeah,” his pause was effortless and of exactly the right duration for maximum comedic impact. Johnny Carson couldn’t have nailed it any better.
Then I chimed in with a question: “So how long have you had all the nasal congestion? Do you think it might be an allergy?”
John shot me a look and replied, “He’s the doctor. Let him ask the questions.”
Without missing a beat, the doctor said: “So how long have you had all the nasal congestion? Do you think it might be an allergy?”
John Wires 1922-2013 | Bryan Pfeiffer
There’s much more at Bryan’s fine, moving post. To his I added only this comment of my own: