Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Doctor Is In, and She Is 30


She has already popped the secret over on her own blog, but in a characteristically circumspect way, so I don't have any qualms about blaring the truth over here, too: Dr. S, mystery proprietress of the Cabinet of Distractions, today begins her fourth decade as one of the best people on Earth. I met Dr. S in the Spring of 2000, when we were both enrolled in a graduate seminar about narratology in 19th-century British literature. It was a good class, but not great, and invitations for student involvement were rarely if ever extended by our cheerful and smart but somewhat hapless professor. And yet, and yet, with the easy grace of a gliding bird, Dr. S managed to share her voice and guide all of us toward these pristine, enthusiastic observations about these beautiful, complicated books. I have never actually sat in a classroom where Dr. S was teaching, but I have absolutely no question about the kind of world she surely creates for her students: boundless with questions, curiosities, and wonderments; exuberant, even about esoterica; finding and emphasizing the fun in intellectual refinement and discipline; eloquent and serious, but never self-seriousness. Learning alongside her is so stimulating and joyful, it quickly turns into learning from her, and then into learning to be like her.

Dr. S is a legendary baker, a funky-fresh bass player, and a font of hilarity. I love, love, love her bookish side: she reads all the Booker Prize nominees every year and is never ever satiated of new ways to enjoy language, to observe a story. Her apartment in Ithaca was a botany bay of books, magazines—you felt like books might actually thrive under her care. Her eye for detail is fabulous, and her memory constantly astonishes. She describes her family in such intimate, loving detail that I have a much fuller sense of them, despite their being virtual strangers, than I have of many people whom I have met many times. She adores witty irreverence as well as scrupulous, serious preparedness: so many of us teeter way too far in one direction or the other, but she fuses them—for example, she'll plan a road-trip with such thorough, perfect foresight that there's plenty of time for eye-catching detours and gourmet lazes.

Places I have been with Dr. S, feeling so glad I know her: open-air weddings, fusty conferences, lakesides, airports, floating docks, hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities and tiny towns, double-features of depressing movies, group screenings of uproarious ones. Innerspaces I have traveled with Dr. S, and how: gamboling around Thomas Hardy, gadding about with W.G. Sebald, whirligigging through Jonathan Franzen, musing with Virginia Woolf, both chuckling and bristling at Anthony Lane, smarting from the subtle stings of Persuasion-era Jane Austen.

I really and truly love her blog; it's delicious fun to feel like a privileged spectator among bigger and bigger audiences, relishing her voice and—through her terrific photographs—seeing the world as she does. She knows the makes of cars, the names of flowers, the full history of the building and department where you both work, and which you yourself take rather drably for granted. She is stunningly generous: who folds 1,000 paper cranes to decorate a reception hall? Who drives to the airport to retrieve the tiny, unpredictably precious object that post-9/11 security guards don't want you carrying on? (A longer and more bizarre story than I can articulate in full...) Who spends six years in a humanities Ph.D. program and manages to be liked by every single person?

Dr. S has all of these qualities and more, and in fact, she's so lavishly gifted that even people accustomed to taking pride in their abilities are humbled and moved by hers, regularly. Quite unwittingly, this must involve a lot of pressure: as with most people who do extraordinary things with what looks like effortlessness, she pours heroic amounts of effort into almost everything. One of those people who loves giving gifts and sharing encouragements or advice, she feels needlessly sorry when she has none to offer; her intelligence and empathy and decency are so fundamental, I imagine that giving them so freely and regularly means giving huge parts of herself, daily. So I hope, publicly, that her birthday is an occasion for her to give lots and lots and lots to herself, to delectate in as many simple pleasures as a campus in April allows, and to hear from as many people as possible that we love not just everything she does but everything she is.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Dr. S said...

I tell my students that things I read don't make me cry, but I am a rank liar. Thank you, thank you, sweetest, is all I can say here, but you know I'll say more (when do I ever not say more) soon.

6:33 AM, April 13, 2006  
Anonymous Sarah's mother said...

Her father and I have been so richly blessed with Sarah and her brother. She, in turn, is richly blessed by wonderful friends like you. How well you have captured so many of her most endearing qualities! Thank you, Nick!

3:08 PM, April 13, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Dear Sarah's Mom: You are more than welcome. In fact, all of Sarah's friends are so much in your debt that a hundred of these posts would only start to repay you! I'm so glad you enjoyed what you read... to say nothing of that lovely public tribute you received from Sarah herself.

I'm really looking forward to meeting you one day!

3:52 PM, April 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sarah gave great presentations on The Professor's House and The Maltese Falcoln in Jennifer Ashton's Modern Novel class in the fall of 1999 at Cornell. She was a fantastic TA, one of the best I encountered in my undergraduate career, and a fair grader. She even tipped us off to a free screening of American Beauty at Cornell Cinema in Uris Auditirium. Good times; great person.

8:14 PM, July 18, 2006  

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