Wonder, Death, Teachers, Rush, and New Kids?
I’ve gotten a lot of messages from you all asking where I’ve been. Aw. I’m still here, reading all your posts, but my own writing has been derailed by a couple things: 1) work, work, and work (that’s three things); and 2) the obstacle posed by what I knew my next post was going to be about: death.
Maybe I’ll avoid the worst of that topic by meandering my way to it by the end of this post via more pleasant things. What better way to get things going than to review the concert highlight of my year (my life?): the infamous Rush show that finally happened on Sunday. “You look worried,” said my husband as I bundled up for the rain that night. Must have been the effect of my hood, because I’d never been less worried. I got to my row literally as the lights went down, and instead of searching for the right place, I stood in complete awe as the band came out and started playing. Seriously: most exciting night evar.
I’m actually not going to review the show here, except to say that I was (at least internally) the 12-year old version of myself, shrieking at the fact that I was in the same (albeit large) room as Geddy Lee. I was giddy for Geddy. And the other two, of course. I sat beside a bunch of losers who missed the first four songs, came in and bellowed “RUSH” while slapping each other on the back for a minute, then appeared to be bored (with the exception of “Spirit of Radio”), checking their iphones and glaring around the stadium for three hours. The guy on my other side seemed into it, but I guess his girlfriend made him leave at intermission because they never reappeared in the second half.
But me? I was freaking.out.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the day before, my parents emailed me a scanned copy of a love letter I wrote to Joe McIntyre of New Kids on the Block that my brothers found in a garage-cleaning spree. The letter was 22 years old but my concerns haven’t changed much. “Well,” I told Joe, “School’s okay, I guess. I’m not doing so well in math, and I’m a bit worried about my honour roll standing for next semester.” As though he had asked me all about it in a previous letter.
I went on to tell him how much I enjoyed his recent concert – and how I felt when the band emerged onstage – and then went into my philosophy of like versus love for a famous guy. “Some girls say they love you, Joe, but I won’t do that. I know that I really have to know you well to say I love you. For now (subtext: until you show up at the side door of my house to propose and we organize a cool wedding where all my stuffed animals are witnesses), I’ll just say I like you.” In other words, I’m not a psycho fan like all those girls who throw bras onstage. When you’re done with them, I’ll be here waiting.
(By the way: apologies to those of you who did not anticipate reading about NKOTB and Rush on the No Depression site.)
“Did the concert restore your faith in humanity?” my husband asked jokingly when we went to bed the night of the Rush concert. “Well,” I admitted, “they kind of restored my sense of wonder.” I expected him to laugh at this; he didn’t. “Really?” “Yeah,” I replied. This made him hug me. He doesn’t get it, but he also really does. In the week leading up to the concert, I listened to all of my Rush albums, replayed the moments that make my breath catch a little, watched videos of them in concert, re-watched Beyond the Lighted Stage, and envisioned the moment of seeing them live for the first time. I haven’t had that experience since, well, the NKOTB concert in 1990. And what did I do on the way home from the show? Listened to Rush.
It seems, more than ever, that I’m letting an occasional sense of wonder necessarily interrupt what has become a confusing and all-too-realistic period of my life. I am seeing the negative repercussions of decisions I have made. I am uncertain of my next steps. I feel guilty for the uninformed choices of my past and the relative lack of success in various facets of my life (all oblique ways of stating what I’m reluctant to say more explicitly in a public post).
In John Irving’s newest novel, In One Person, protagonist and author Billy sorts his way through his bewildering childhood and sexual identity through his novels. He expresses my sentiments better than I can at one point (quoting his own writing): “ ‘In increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us—not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.’”
Worse than my own problems are the confusing losses sustained by the academic community I am part of. At York University in Toronto, where I did my Ph.D., a professor of ethnomusicologypassed away a couple weeks ago after a long struggle with cancer. He was young, 46, and left three small children, a host of dedicated students, and a legacy of solid research and performance behind. I didn’t know him well, but his loss has been felt deeply by his colleagues and students.
More troubling to me is that my master’s supervisor, Adam Krims, died earlier this fall, much to the shock of those who knew and worked with him. He was also young (49) and an energetic pioneer in the field of music and geography (and hip hop). I had mostly lost touch with him due to a series of events that followed the end of my degree, but I kept up with his whereabouts and new research, and had reconnected with him at a conference in 2011. He was warm and supportive when I saw him. His death affected me far more than I might have anticipated, because beyond making me miss him, it made me try to catalogue his contributions to my work, my understanding of the field, and my teaching. I couldn’t do it. I know he made me view deadlines as a non-negotiable thing (that hasn’t always worked so well though…) and he was tough on my writing. More importantly, he taught me to be unafraid of asking for help or clarification when I don’t know something. He started every class with a suggestion to go over terms or ideas in the readings that were unclear. He carefully guided me through difficult concepts and the terrifying process of writing a paper more than 20 pages long. His willingness to work patiently with me was something I hope I have carried into my own teaching.
It is perhaps less of a coincidence that I’ve had this song on repeat for the last few days, an unlikely pop-oriented Rush hit from the 80s, but the sentiment seems awfully relevant:
What was most upsetting about Adam’s death was that I hadn’t thought to tell him how grateful I was for what he taught me, not only because I didn’t anticipate him dying anytime soon, but also because we tend to take our teachers for granted. They’re doing their job, we tell ourselves, much like a Starbucks barista or bank teller. They get paid. And they get awesome hours and vacations (a total fallacy if you’ve ever been in the vicinity of a teacher or professor). What more do we need to say?
I defer again to Irving: “You can learn a lot from good teachers.” Everyone has a teacher that is special, that changed his or her life; conversely, every teacher is special to someone. In all the fuss about “lazy teachers”, most recently brought up again by the Chicago strike and the Ontario public sector wage freeze issues, people forget that their lives would be a little bit emptier without a teacher who cared and tried really hard, somewhere along the line. It is often only when those teachers are taken away from us suddenly or permanently that we think to recognize their contributions.
I was going to title this post “Hug Your Teachers” but I don’t want to get cited in some future legal action because hugging a teacher is not always an acceptable demonstration of gratitude or affection these days. How about “Go Tell Your Teachers How Grateful You Are For What They Did For You”? I have too many teachers who fall into that category to discuss at length in a blog post, but it’s worth mentioning Karen Mollerson, Lori Snoxell, and Doreen Haydu from my childhood; Victor Coelho, Pat Jewel, Adam, Michael Frishkopf, and Regula Qureshi from my university years.
The ones who I regularly see myself directly emulating are from more recent history. Bob Witmer and Louise Wrazen continue to be leaders in their field despite having retiredin Bob’s case, and an overwhelming set of administrative duties in Louise’s case. Moreover, their respectful treatment of colleagues and students is a model for anyone hoping to be half the decent people they are. And my dear Ph.D. supervisor, Rob Bowman, remains an inspiration to me in so many ways: his unfailing commitment to his research and the well-being of his students; his enthusiasm for discovering new music; the energy he finds to go to concerts, events, conferences, festivals; and his enduring positivity in the face of adversity. He did far more for me than he’ll ever realize.
I have nothing to gain from what might appear to be blatant sucking up. I wanted to say it before I got distracted and didn’t, yet again.
Go thank your teachers. I’ll write something more cheerful next time.