Monday 10 November 2014

Seeing Stephen

A few weeks back, I went for a day out in Cambridge.  After sitting down to eat in two different pubs which we had to evacuate due to their smell of damp hair / shin-pads, we settled on the reliable stench of pseudo-french-cuisine at the familiar Côte franchise.  Whilst waiting for a table i scoured the vicinity, brashly feasting on other peoples plates with my hungry eyes, and generally making people around me feel uncomfortable with my presence.  As i surveyed the area, my eyes drifted over steak tartare and an accompanying side salad and a few spaces across the table, there to my utter disbelief, was Stephen Hawking.  Now my eyes feasted on one of the greatest minds humanity has to offer, and he was now completely upstaging the steak tartare, which to be honest, was looking a bit undercooked anyway.

 I felt anxious that he saw me looking at him. Not only is it rude to stare, but I also rediscovered a dormant anxiety about staring at physically disabled people which harked back innocently to my childhood, before i knew any better.  It was very frustrating.  It's not like bumping into someone famous, saying a few words and maybe getting an autograph.  I couldn't look due to the reasons i had just mentioned, but also because it's just plain rude to look while someone is eating anyway.

 I couldn't even fathom making small talk; I'd be intimidated by such a powerful mind and also I'd be nervous about interacting with someone with a computer based communication system for the first time.  So i did what anyone would do. I walked past and glanced at him as i ambled through the restaurant to reach the toilets, which i didn't actually need to use.  It was an action that was inquisitive, but mostly cowardly and quite literally anally retentive.  I washed my hands in order to add a greater sense of validity to the trip to the toilet - or as the french say, toilette.

 I allowed myself to reflect on the scene i had just encountered when i had tactically, and maybe shamefully, walked past the professor.  He was being spoon fed his dinner, and naturally, the process appeared quite messy.  I obviously knew he was physically disabled but it wasn't until I saw this scene for myself that i came to terms with the severity of his disease and the stark comparison between my physical state of affairs and his.

 I felt very sorry for him - which wasn't what i expected at all.  I expected to feel solely empowered and in awe of his intellect and achievements, but my resounding thought was a sad one -  that he has been stripped of his independence and the chance of a wholesome life. For better or for worse, he couldn't just amble to the toilets on his own to get a glimpse of a celebrity if the opportunity was to ever arise.

I don't think there is a more poignant and stark juxtaposition between mind and body than Professor Stephen Hawking.  It is empowering to know that he has achieved so much in his field, even despite the disease that has been periodically demobilizing his body.  Actually seeing him for myself was probably the most star-struck I've ever been. But this story which quite simply started with evading a duo of fetid pubs has re-affirmed to me that pure thought alone is no replacement for just plain doing stuff.  Even if the stuff that I do is flawed, stupid, cowardly or generally involves toilet related subterfuge, I've learned that the air of spontaneity and freedom involved is what life is all about and i can leave quantum physics to Stephen. 

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