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My Friend Namara

May 25, 2021

I missed the first part of eighth grade. When I came back, all my friends told me excitedly about the new kid Namara—someone whom I would just obviously want to know. They were right.

In high school, our social circle promptly found its place: the nerds. We were never at the center of the social scene, but never really marginalized either, just left to contentedly do our own thing. We took all our classes together, often jokingly competing on tests—high achievers all, but none more so than the brilliant and idiosyncratic Namara. We ate lunch together, off in a corner where we could argue and laugh uninterrupted. We had sleepovers, playing epic games of Risk and taking midnight hikes into the deep, beautiful woods around Namara’s house. In the summers, we went on bike trips down the Oregon coast and sailing trips around the San Juan islands.

We were intellectual omnivores, interested in literature and physics and math and chemistry, uninterested in specializing just yet. As we went off to college, most of us began to specialize to some degree, but Namara never really did—not in the sense of ceasing to study everything else. At Macalester, he focused on sociology, geography, and religious studies, but he remained fascinated by the whole broad project of knowledge. On long car rides, he didn’t want to discuss gossip or news—he wanted to discuss ideas, and ideally debate them. A voracious reader, he came into every conversation fresh off of encountering something provocative that he just couldn’t wait to share. Most people leave their marks on places, on people, on moments—associations that forever bring them to mind. Namara did plenty of that, but he also left his mark on concepts. Quantum mechanics, deep time, the multiverse: I’ll never be able to think of these ideas without thinking of him.

He wasn’t just interested in science; he was passionate about it. I remember arguing with him about some metaphysical idea or other, and pointing out how unintuitive his claim was. Immediately, he responded that the work of science is to nudge us away from our fallible intuitions, and that being intuitive isn’t just bad evidence for a claim—it may be viewed as evidence against it, because what are the odds that something that is true should just happen to be intuitive? This wasn’t just a profound and interesting point; it was an idea that meant something to him, filled him with real fervor. I got the same energy from him as he expounded on the amount of processing that takes place between light entering the eyes and sight being experienced in the brain: look how unreliable our interfaces to the world are, he seemed to be saying, and yet we can still pursue truth and progress! I got it again during medical school, in his delighted account of how doctors and nurses would rely on dirty jokes and limericks as a mental shorthand for recalling details about treatments and conditions: look at this edifice of plywood and duct tape that is everyday cognition, and yet if we’re disciplined we can use it to accomplish real things!

He was, I think, the most intelligent person I’ve ever known, in the holistic sense that encompasses raw processing power, knowledge, and creativity. He was easily one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, with a keen sense of the absurd —I still think of his preposterous, irreverent one-liners when I need to make myself grin for a photo. He was unabashedly, unerringly himself: he purchased, cooked, and ate a conch out of curiosity, then carried around the shell; he got pretty into (what else?) playing bagpipes; to fill long hours driving, he listened to the whole Bible and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire; he loved flight, from model airplanes to paragliders; he gave home-dried fruit, hand-knit wool goods, and “DIY sous vide kits” as wedding presents.

Throughout high school, we were all extremely close; in college, naturally, we began to grow in different directions. We would see each other a couple times a year, almost always (at least) around Christmastime. There was something lovely about reuniting year after year, each of us with new adventures and experiences, to resume this cadence of friendship, suspended in time as everything else changed. These were probably some of the most representative experiences we had of Namara: intense, hilarious, limited. Limited in that, after the holidays ended and we went our separate ways, we saw so little of the rest of his life—a life so broad you can only really understand it through multiple accounts. Everyone is multifaceted, but Namara was singularly so. We were just one facet in his life, and—though whenever we were with him, it felt like the laser beam of his personality was directed at us unblinkingly—he was an equally vivid presence for so many people all around the world. He packed a far longer lifetime’s worth of experiences into his 33 years: childhood cancer survivor, Pacific Northwest outdoorsman, world traveler (Ecuador, Mongolia, China), social scientist, passionate rationalist, paraglider, gardener, trucker, novelist, medical student, addict.

I miss you, old friend. Wish you were here.