With some people, you only talk about specific topics.
It can be sports or politics or family or weather or personal history.
Venturing beyond those boundaries can lead to discomfort or silence or both.
Then there are the friends with whom the conversation is ultimately about one subject: life.
Everything flows from and into that central, ongoing, shared, recapped and reassessed discussion.
Dear friend Danny Postel is one of those people.
We met through my brother Jon 14 years ago in May, and instantly started riffing on books and justice and basketball and women.
We’ve been talking ever since.
In a lot of ways, and for a long time, Danny was an experience as much as a friend.
Alternately erudite and bawdy, contemplative and insatiably gregarious, brash and sensitive, he was easily one of the five largest personalities I had ever met.
Middle age, fatherhood and life’s inevitable bumps, bruises and setbacks have tempered and toned him down somewhat, and his core remains quite firmly intact.
Regular readers of this space have read about Danny’s inimitable capacity to bring people together – a skill and commitment that is so developed that I’ve extended the category of “connector” from Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point, to “uber-connector” to attempt to accurately depict Danny’s behavior in this area.
He is constantly sharing articles and ideas and people and events and movements with those who come into his orbit.
It’s not done in a scattershot or random way, either.
Danny has certain people with whom he links me for discussions about fatherhood, a different set for South Africa, a third group for things Latino, and so on.
And I’m just one of his many, many friends.
Although one of his most pronounced talents, Danny’s capacity for connection is just one of the many distinctive aspects of his personality and life commitments.
He’s an impressive, accomplished and exuberant athlete whose long-range shooting in basketball, powerful serve in tennis and outbursts of trash and self-talk are the stuff of legend.
He’s a dedicated father who spends enormous amounts of time with his sons Elijah and Theo.
Danny’s also a prolific, versatile and disciplined writer as well as a meticulous editor.
After stints as the host of Free Associations Radio and at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Danny has written one book, Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, and co-edited with Nader Hashemi, a second work, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future.
Both are testaments to different elements of his intellectual curiosity, his love of thoughtful argument, and his unusual capacity to assign, and then carry out, substantial projects that bring together his passions for philosophy, cultural diversity and social justice.
The first book grew out of an essay he wrote that explored the question of why the American Left, which had been so outraged during the 1980s about governmental mistreatment in El Salvador and other Central American nations, was almost completely silent about similar levels of abuse visited on Iranians.
His answer was that Iran did not fit into the same paradigm of being on the receiving end of American imperialism as the Central American with whom so many on the American left had expressed such fervent solidarity.
That initial essay led to his securing a contract from the University of Chicago press’ Prickly Paradigm series to write a short book that included, among other things, an exploration of the rapturous reception Jurgen Habermas received in Iran compared with the comparatively total indifference in the United States and an extended interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo.
Again, Danny’s propensity to bring together people with shared ideals and different cultural backgrounds and life experiences shines through the work. The book contains a series of essays of varying lengths from contributors as varied as Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to former regular McNeil/Lehrer Hour guest Gary Sick.
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
“Generally brief, these interviews, essays, reflections, letters and thought pieces cover nearly every conceivable angle of the revolution’s source, repression and state a year later. While the Ahmadinejad government did seem to succeed in putting down the uprising in the short term, the message of eventual victory is a consistent theme that resonates throughout the work.
In keeping with what I know of Danny, the book also delves into the complexities of the revolution, including a number of pieces about the role of women, the connection to the larger geopolitical scene in the Middle East, and the role Green Leader Mir Hossein Mousavi played in the murder of many Iranian citizens during the 80s. (To be fair, Mousavi gets pretty light and sympathetic treatment on this front.)”
Danny’s collaboration with Nader on The People Reloaded will now have a promising afterlife: Danny is moving from Chicago to Denver to become the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.
Nader is directing the new research center.
The other evening Danny and I got together at one of his favorite restaurants, Garden of Eden, right near the corner of California and Touhy.
In typical fashion, he greeted the owners and workers in Spanish, English and Assyrian, depending on their first language. (He speaks the first two fluently and has a smattering of words in the latter. He also has functional proficiency in Italian.)
We gathered to celebrate, to mark the end of this stage, and the beginning of his new adventure.
In some ways, it’s hard to overstate how odd it will be not to have Danny in Chicago.
He’s been here full time ever since he moved back from living in Washington, DC while working for the Chronicle, and has been enormously encouraging and inclusive of me as a journalist, father and friend.
When we started playing tennis together on a regular basis, Danny bought me a racket.
He invited me to Sunday night basketball games at the Robert Crown Center in Evanston.
He’s sent me countless books and articles, and, in one of his most profoundly generous acts, commissioned me to write an extensive profile of MacArthur Award-winning psychologist, professor and author Robert Coles.
This was a tremendous vote of confidence and a true life gift.
I had read Coles’ work for years, but certainly would not have created the opportunity to meet him had Danny not called me with the assignment.
I opened the piece by showing the reader what I had seen in Coles’ Concord home:
“To understand Robert Coles’s two latest books, it helps to have seen his writing chair.
Comfortable and unassuming, it sits with a blanket draped over it in the study of the three-story house in Concord, Massachusetts, where he and his late wife, Jane, raised their three boys.
The wall opposite the chair features a gallery of framed black-and-white photographs of his personal heroes, many of whom appear in his books—here is William Carlos Williams; there is Walker Percy; and there, in the bottom row, is a smiling Bruce Springsteen, his arm around Coles’s shoulder, like a brother. The chair is where Coles has sat and written, on long sheets of yellow lined paper, dozens of books, including volumes of poetry, a novel, and books for children and adults, as well as thousands of scholarly articles and reviews.
It was in that chair that Coles wrote the books that made him a major public intellectual in the 1960s and 1970s, before the term was in use. Children of Crisis, a five-volume series, remains perhaps his most famous work. The series examines the moral and spiritual lives of children across the country with a poignancy that struck a deep chord in the culture (in 1973 Coles received the Pulitzer Prize for volumes two and three).
During those years Coles also worked as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, crafting the senator’s final speech before his assassination in 1968. But he by no means operated exclusively behind the scenes: his writings appeared in the pages of Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic Monthly; he could be seen on The Dick Cavett Show; and his name and reputation were familiar to a wide swath of Americans.”
The fourth paragraph in particular bears Danny’s imprint and insistence that I explain why the reader who did not already know Coles should care about him.
We had talked about, but not gotten together, to celebrate the March publication of the essay, so tonight’s meal had several layers to it.
As always, the conversation flowed smoothly and effortlessly.
We jumped from fatherhood to the CTU strike to our new video project to teachers unions to the year in men’s tennis to physical ailments to his new job, talking and listening to each other with equal gusto, patience and excitement.
After a couple of hours, we were ready to walk along the wet sidewalks with his bike.
We strolled along the couple of blocks to his beloved Indian Boundary Park– the park in which he has raised his sons, and where we played tennis for the first time — sharing intimate stories of gratitude for all that we have received in our lives. Our appreciation is more, not less, heightened by the struggles we’ve confronted and endured.
Eventually, it was time for us to end the latest installment of our ongoing life conversation and head to our respective homes. Danny had a tennis tournament in the morning, while I have a Dart Society board meeting.
Before we left, we hugged and thanked each other for our shared friendship.
I got in our car to drive home, while Danny biked toward his place.
I don’t know when Danny and I will see each other again.
But I do know what will happen when we do.
We’ll jump up and down and exchange high fives and hugs.
We’ll sit down.
And then we’ll talk.