It’s not often that I am struck by the passing of a celebrity. I don’t often feel I need to weigh in. I certainly don’t feel like I had any special connection to that person. Certainly when celebrities that are in the common consciousness who are my age pass, I feel the shiver of mortality, but that’s usually it.
But the news today that Leonard Nimoy had passed had an impact.
I wasn’t a devoted trekker, or trekkie, or what have you. But Spock was one of the first times I saw a living example of a pro-science, pro-rational point of view in a character on a screen who wasn’t the evil scientist.
It was the first time in my life I’d seen a protagonist, a hero, be like that. Spock had a huge impact on my nascent scientific world view, giving me permission to explore a scientific worldview. It took a long time for me to go all in on that, but he was the first that made if feel it was safe.
I’m probably not alone in geek-dom there.
But where Spock really hit me in the feels was when I encountered more about him in occasional re-runs and some of the books.
Spock was half human and half Vulcan. Humans took one look at him and ‘saw’ Vulcan, and coded as such. And Vulcans ‘knew’ he wasn’t really Vulcan because of his invisible human-ness.
Spock was bi-racial. But he didn’t look like a half-human half Vulcan. He coded as Vulcan.
For someone who looked white, but was bi-racial, that had a huge impact on me. Spock was the closest thing I had ever seen in my life, even to this day, to a role model. As a kid, it blew my mind. There was Spock and that was it as far as ‘light not white’ me.
Spock struggling with trying to be accepted by Vulcans and humans, both sides of which kind of pushed him away a bit. That hit me in all the feels. Spock finding his own path, being just awesome as himself. Crewing with a bunch of people who all looked different than him and being down with it. Putting up with being teased for being too rational with calm and equanimity.
Yeah it was all fiction. Cardboard props and bullshit.
But telling a story about a possible path helps.
When I was a kid I was smart enough to be clever. And as John Scalzi famously noted, the failure mode of clever is ‘asshole.’ I fell into some of that. Wanting to be the Dr. House mode of smart, dismissive of stupidity and willing to push through solutions because of your own smarts. And I apologize to all those I hurt while trying to be clever.
As I got older, I realized I wanted to be more like Spock. Smart, but hard-working smart and with genuine warmth. Yes, he’s cold rational. But he’s not rational in the ‘toss you out the airlock’ way. He’s rational in the ‘dies to save the crew even though they’re not as smart as him’ way. He used his intelligence as a tool to try and create a universe that they could all be in. He made friends out of a diverse crew on the bridge. He was even close friends with the womanizing asshole of a captain that ran the ship and who had to often bail out of trouble, because even Kirk had good qualities and challenged Spock to broaden his experiences and grow as thinking creature, to see other modes and solutions, adding to his abilities.
He chose not to reject either side of his identity, but embrace them and synthesize something new out of them (yeah, I know not all the media were perfect about handling this aspect, but seeing it exist at all, when people like myself were/still are invisible, was water in the desert for me).
So, thank you Leonard Nimoy for playing Spock. And for bringing that person to life. Thank you for a great life lived, and continuing to engaged with all the people that loved this thing.
I will do my best to live long and prosper, and to try and always be a friend. There are worse things to try and live up to.
Addendum: I was pointed out this amazing article where Mr. Nimoy writes a letter to a dispirited bi-racial woman in the 1960s who was struggling, and found common ground with Spock.
Now I have double the feels knowing that he was aware of this and wrote letters like this.