Over lunch with an accomplished engineering professor, I listened with rapt attention as he told me stories about green polar bears and the origins of the word “nitrogen.” He conveyed the scientific details with a folksy eloquence, and I felt as if I were being entertained and educated all at once.
These stories were no lectures, no intrusions on easy lunchtime conversation. They were gems, and I welcomed their discovery. Yet when he concluded, he did so with a far-away look of helplessness as he confessed the true point of telling me these things in the first place: That he had tried for years and through many drafts to write these stories, but they simply fell flat. His palpable disappointment dampened the mood of the moment. “Maybe someday when I’m retired,” he mused, “I’ll suddenly figure out how to do it.”
In the meantime, he was just an engineer with fascinating stories that he could tell but not write. Then he looked at me and said, “Ah, but I bet you could write them.” Maybe. But only after much research—most of it being interviews of him—and then I’d somehow have to capture the charm of his sincerity.
He didn’t ask me to write them, though, and so the stories exist only as shells of themselves in his piles of drafts, and as the spoken words that float in the interstice between his world and mine. I wonder if that’s where they will remain.