I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part 4: An Atheist Memorial

I was invited to speak at Greg's memorial service yesterday. I had originally written about five hundred words to read, avoiding the subject of Greg's atheism. I knew his mother was deeply religious, and didn't want to appear confrontational. But, some of the speakers before me framed Greg's life in religious terms, and I realized that it wouldn't really be Greg's funeral without an argument breaking out. So, I got up and gave a eulogy emphasising Greg's atheist values. Since it was mostly improvised, below is my attempt at recreating what I had to say:

Greg and I didn't agree on much during the years we were friends, but there was one issue on which we were in complete agreement: We were both atheists, loud and proud. Greg lived a life in which he was kind, considerate, and genuinely caring of others. No one who knew him would say he wasn't a good man, and he was good without God. He didn't show kindness to strangers because he was afraid of some afterlife punishment, or in pursuit of some afterlife reward. He was good because it was simply in his nature.

Still, the question that any atheist must face is, does life have any meaning? If there's nothing beyond this life, do our actions now really matter?

I think the answer is yes, and here's why Greg's life mattered to me:

When I met Greg in college, he didn't immediately stand out as the one friend who would stay part of my day-to-day life for the next twenty-five years. I think that a casual observer of our first few conversations might have thought that maybe we'd one day be enemies. We argued about pretty much everything. I was for nuclear power; he was against it. I thought that capitalism was fundamentally fair, he thought it was tilted to reward the greediest and most cold-hearted among us. We drew our battle lines early.

For the next two and a half decades, we kept arguing. We'd get together to play rummy, and squabble about politics as we racked up scores into the thousands. We'd get together in restaurants and debate over dinner, keep arguing until they closed for the evening, then stand in the parking lot and continue verbally sparring until two or three in the morning.

But, underneath the surface of all this fighting, there are three important things I learned about Greg, and about life.

First, Greg was a passionate defender of ideas he believed in. He'd keep fighting for them even as his political heroes proved to have feet of clay, or as the country tilted to the right. He didn't care if his beliefs were popular, or moderate his positions so that they would appeal to more people. He staked out his ground, and would defend it until the end.

Second, Greg's beliefs were underpinned by a powerful intelligence. In an age when American culture seems to grow ever dumber, Greg was unashamed to be a geek, capable of tearing down any computer and putting it back together better than ever. For a man who didn't even own a computer before he was thirty, he plunged into the world of bytes and bits with unabashed enthusiasm, devouring books about the origins of the PC, and reading biographies of the men who helped make our world digital. There was a time when he would hang motherboards and deconstructed hard drives on his wall like works of art. He never once thought he was too old to keep learning new things or tackle new challenges. In our last conversation in the Intensive Care Unit, he was already talking about his next educational goal, as he stared at all the medical equipment around him with eyes determined to tear them apart and discover what made them tick. I honestly think if he'd had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, he would have had a difficult time resisting taking apart his heart monitor to see what made it tick. (No pun intended.)

Finally, this smart, passionate man probably couldn't have been my friend if not for one thing: He had the wisdom to know that a person who disagrees with him doesn't have to be an enemy. While he could be quite ferocious in attacking political figures, one on one he would debate ideas without slipping into personal attacks. For Greg, the fact that he was talking to someone who disagreed with him was no reason to end a conversation. If anything, it was an invitation to keep the conversation going and the dialogue flowing. He could form firm friendships with people who didn't agree with him on a single thing.

In the end, we can honor Greg's memory by honoring these virtues: The passion to speak your mind, the courage to keep learning at any age, and the wisdom to engage others without malice.


Charles Cranfill said...

Your comments - ALL of your comments - were welcomed and appreciated. We(the relatives) talked about it afterwards and unanimously agreed the service struck the perfect balance between secular and theistic. Your comment regarding Greg doing the right thing with no eventual reward in mind was particularly accurate and poignant.

We also felt like Greg would have deeply appreciated the dark(?) humor in having Lennon's song play immediately after the pastor's words. We didn't realize the timing would play out that way, but I know Greg would have found that utterly hilarious.

Thanks again, James. I hope we keep in touch.

James Maxey said...

Thanks Charles. I'd love to keep in touch. Drop me a email at nobodynovelwriter (at) yahoo.com so I'll your email, would you?

A lot of people were amused by the juxtaposition of "Imagine" coming when it did. You're right: I can see Greg laughing hard over that one.

Mary Cranfill said...

James, Sandi & I agreed the service went very much as Greg would've expected with just the right amount of dark humor and irony. Although I'm still having difficulty with the idea of ringing in a new year without Greg, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your friendship to him and your words at the memorial. Flora was talking to me about your visits with Greg today with great fondness.

James Maxey said...

Thank you, Mary. Greg and I always had fun when we were together, but the true heart of Greg's life was his family. He may have had fun arguing politics, but the thing that made life worth getting out of bed in the morning was spending time with the people that he loved. Never underestimate the value he placed on all of you.

James G. Joyce said...

James, I just learned of Greg's passing today. I deeply appreciate your posts concerning his living and his dying, and the unapologetic way you described both. They are a compliment to him ... and to you. I pride myself in having known Greg, and knowing that I was one employer he did NOT walk out on.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, James.

Curiously, even with Greg gone, I'm continuing to have conversations with him, albeit a bit more one sided. But, it's impossible not to read political news without instantly catagorizing it as news that would either enrage Greg or delight him. Every time I play Bob Dylan or the Beatles I get a sense of him feeling triumphant after he championed them so agressively in his college years. And, any time I go out to a restaurant, I spot some foods and think, "this is what Greg would order." I suspect I'll be hanging out with Greg's ghost for a long time.

Also, while it's a little late, I'm finally dedicating a book to Greg, Greatshadow, which comes out next year. The narrator, Stagger, has a tough of Greg in the template of his character.