I don’t know if Huntley ever ingested magic mushrooms, but from what I’ve read about psilocybin, he might as well have. According to a recent New Yorker article, people who’ve taken the drug “transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states … and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance. … Great secrets of the universe often become clear during the journey, such as ‘We are all one’ or ‘Love is all that matters.’”
I think Huntley viewed life from just such a cosmic vantage point. Don’t you? Even as a very young man. When my friend Arthur first introduced me to the tall, affable Canadian with the bad haircut who was working on his doctorate at MIT, Huntley had already studied abroad, lived in three or four countries, and become fluent in several languages. He knew every period of history, and much of prehistory, later becoming something of a scholar on the Byzantine Empire. He had been a community organizer and a political activist. And he had friends of every stripe—not just fellow economists and fellow tennis players, but also writers, linguists, musicians, computer scientists, archeologists. He would quiz them about their specialties and absorb as much of their knowledge as was humanly possible.
That was the Huntley I first knew. From then on, he only became more omniscient. He saw more of the world: lived in eastern Europe, skied in the Alps, visited Manchuria, Macao, and countless other places. He sent me a postcard of himself riding a camel, God knows where. Or was it a yak? He read and conversed so widely that he could explain any point of view—liberal or conservative, extreme or moderate, rational or wacko—regardless of whether he agreed with it. Nothing disturbed him. Nothing shocked him. He lived that famous line from Terence, the Roman playwright: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
Knowing how interested he was in people and what makes them tick, I wasn’t surprised when Huntley began to gravitate toward behavioural economics. The deeper he got into the field, the more his mind seemed to crackle with new connections. One time, in the midst of writing four or five papers simultaneously, he told me, “Ideas are squirting out of my head like toothpaste from a leaky tube.” What an image.
Many of our conversations took place over brunch during Huntley’s frequent business trips to Boston. If you’ve ever eaten in a restaurant with Huntley, you know these were no ordinary meals. They would begin with an inquisition about which dishes contained onions, as Huntley was allergic. “Are you sure there’s no onion in it at all?” he would ask the server. “Would you mind checking with the chef, just in case?” Then the meal would unfold over the next two or three hours—no simple pairing of appetizer and entrée, but a stately, symphonic pageant, with side dishes and substitutions, encores of favorite appetizers, and fantastic dollops of whipped cream, ordered with apologies for the strangeness of the request and then plopped onto the main course, even if it was fish.
Any other patron making such demands would have driven the server crazy. But Huntley was always so polite, so grateful, so inquisitive about the server’s life in Cape Verde and the server’s hopes for a career on the stage and all the plays the server had acted in, that he was generally treated like a king.
And the conversation would flow like mead in an ancient banquet hall, urged effortlessly on by this or that book that Huntley was reading and the solicitous way he asked after your loved ones and his efforts to solve your personal problems, perhaps relating an experience he’d once had that was exactly like what you were going through and he’d come out of it just fine.
Then would come the flossing course, which would kind of break the spell. But only for a moment! Huntley’s radiant outlook was catching. Sometimes I’d start out in a funk, complaining about some petty problem with a girl or a job. By the end of the conversation, I’d be thinking, “The world is so huge. My problems are so small. I can see clearly now.”
You know what I think? I think maybe Huntley was the magic mushroom. Maybe he was here to enlarge us. To show us how to live. His journey was briefer than any of us would have liked—though undoubtedly longer and richer for the superhuman care he received from Lahouaria, the love of his life. But he lived long enough to teach his friends what’s important. And what’s important is to savour every moment, to learn as much about the world as you can, to have adventures, to realize that everything is finite, to know how fortunate you are, to love.
This was Huntley’s gift to all of us: the gift of perspective.