How to Live an Interesting Life, The Freeman Dyson Story

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Freeman Dyson

I first met George Dyson face-to-face just over 20 years ago when he showed up at my front door for a dinner party. I’m not sure how that happened. It was probably because we have another friend in common who is also a writer, but aside from that, the details are vague. The occasion was notable for another reason. It was proof of one of my husband’s many Laws Concerning Dinner Parties: The guest you have never met before is always the one who shows up first.

It doesn’t matter, because we hit it off immediately and became good friends. We met his father, the physicist Freeman Dyson (who passed away last week at the age of 96), soon after that when we traveled to Bellingham—where George has lived ever since he moved out of the tree in Belcarra Park, BC that he had been living in for three years—to attend a talk Freeman was giving at Western Washington University.

There was some kind of mix-up with the tickets and we were one short. The event was sold out, so there was no way to get another ticket. George offered to skip the talk and meet us later, but my husband, who is an accomplished gatecrasher, insisted that he could get in without a ticket. Since he also has a supernatural knack for finding parking spaces, he dropped the rest of us off near campus and drove away, telling us he would park the car and meet us inside. George was concerned. I was not. We walked the few blocks to the lecture hall and when we got there, Charlie was waiting inside, holding four seats for us in a choice spot three rows from the stage.

Later, when George told him that Charlie had gatecrashed his talk, Freeman was delighted and immediately curious about how it was done. Charlie explained, “It’s easy. You just walk in backwards and people think you’re leaving.”

Freeman’s eyes lit up, he smiled broadly and said, “Ah! A fellow physicist.”

I like to read cookbooks. It relaxes me. When I can’t get my hands on a cookbook, a cooking magazine will do. About twelve or fifteen years ago, I read a story in Saveur about how the French chef Guy Savoy cooked a traditional Thanksgiving turkey for group of his expat American friends in Paris. His idea of a traditional Thanksgiving turkey was one stuffed with foie gras. At that point in my life, the total amount of foie gras I had consumed wouldn’t fill a ping-pong ball. Enough, in other words, to know that I liked it and also to know that I couldn’t afford to eat it. Except maybe once a year.

The stuffing recipe is not all foie gras, of course. It’s a frothy forcemeat of pureed chicken breast, egg whites and cream into which you fold cubes of foie gras before spooning it into the turkey cavity and roasting it while you pop some statin. But you do need to buy an entire lobe of foie gras in order to make it. We’ve made it every year since because, well, it’s only once a year and it’s insanely delicious.

Every time I drive home from the Seattle Caviar Company with one of their  elegant black zippered insulated carriers—they give you every time you purchase a lobe of foie gras—sitting on the seat next to me, I feel like a slightly more consequential and sophisticated person than I really am. I discovered, a few years later, that those sleek little lagniappes have a similar effect on other people.

Here’s the most important thing I learned about Freeman Dyson in the time that I knew him. Although he obviously spent a good deal of time inside his remarkable mind, he was also profoundly interested in the world around him. Nothing seemed too small or insignificant to spark his sense of wonder and amusement and empathy. He loved making connections between himself and the rest of the world. Or the universe, to be more accurate.

He was also charming, quietly funny and very generous. A few years ago, my husband and I made plans to attend a conference at the Institute for Advanced Studies. The organizers had over-booked it and nearby accommodations became impossible to find. Although we were by far the least eminent of the attendees, when Freeman found out that we were considering canceling our trip, he invited us to stay as guests at his house.  

Last year, I read his memoir, Maker of Patterns, which is described on the cover as “An Autobiography Through Letters.” It is exactly that and it is wonderful. As he tells it in the book, rather than take time from his other pastimes to keep a journal, he decided to write regular letters to his family, chronicling his adventures, his work, and the people he met along the way. The letters begin in 1941 and continue through 1978 and they are beautifully written and filled with science, speculation, gossip, compassion and humor. They reflect the same delight in and curiosity about everything around him that I observed whenever I was lucky enough to spend time in his company.  

The last time I saw Freeman in person was a couple of years ago, after one of his talks in Seattle. George brought him to our house to have some dinner before his flight back to Princeton. As he usually does for any of our guests who are headed to the airport, Charlie packed him some leftovers and an extra slice of lemon tart to take with him in case he got a little peckish on the plane. Freeman was very pleased, especially about the extra dessert.  

“But, “he protested ,“just put it in a paper bag. Don’t give me your lunch box!”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “They give us one of those every time we shop at that place.”

Freeman held the bag up, examined at the Seattle Caviar Company logo on it and said, “I understand that you lead an interesting life but I never suspected you were the kind of people who buy a lot of caviar.”

“We’re not,” I said. “But that’s a long story. And you’re late.”

He thanked us and started to leave. Just before he walked out the door, he turned around and said, “You know, I’m afraid that when the other passengers see this bag, they may mistake me for someone of great consequence.”

“I’ll bet you’ve learned how to deal with that problem by now,” I said. He smiled.

Good night, Freeman. Safe journey.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I saw George yesterday at his Bellingham shop and we talked about some of the recent pieces written about his father… Yours was the one that he suggested I read knowing that I would love it almost as much as he did. Wonderful and thanks!

  2. Kathy: welcome to the Post Alley party. Next time, bring some foie gras, please! You set a dangerously high bar for your future articles, but I hope there are many more.

  3. Wonderful way to discover whom you’ll never meet or know. Letters for an autobiography seem prudent, and paper saving. Thank you. Dennis Flannigan

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