Just over thirteen years ago, a professor I hadn't met yet posted a course description that sounded wonderful to me. It was for a course in late-eighteenth-century literature, with particular attention to travel. I was just learning Elizabeth Bishop's poems "The Map" and "Questions of Travel," and I remember clearly the evening I sat down at a vax terminal and wrote an e-mail message requesting permission to join her course. I know that I talked about having read Bishop; I may even have quoted a line or two--"Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? / Where should we be today?" Fortunately, she e-mailed right back and welcomed me to take the course. It was a second semester course, about which I was writing to her in April, a good nine months before it was due to begin. And that e-mail exchange launched a friendship that is one of the longest and most consistent in my life.
You know this professor as my excellent friend, the person who feeds me excellent Indian food on Friday nights and then only teases me a little bit when I fall asleep on her couch (which I haven't done in quite awhile, I might add). I know her as the person who helped me learn to like dogs, because of her ferocious attachment to her furry boys. I know her as the person who always has a completely hip book or music or clothing recommendation; I have tried so hard, sometimes without even knowing it, to become as cool as she is, and yet she still almost always has the coolest new things first--not least because she kindles such affection and loyalty in her students that they scavenge for coolness and bring it to her, and I'll admit that they're generally more cutting-edge than I am, these days. In some ways, anyhow.
My excellent friend let me sleep in her guest room whenever I needed it while I was slogging through grad school and my dissertation. In fact, she helped me figure out where I was going to go to grad school; the place I ultimately ended up going was her idea, back when we were discussing where I should apply. She has weathered all kinds of crap with me. She is consistently level-headed and generous and honest with me--and with everyone who's lucky enough to come into her orbit. And we are in her orbit: she anchors more people than any of us knows, I think, because she is so stalwart and strong and self-sacrificing in ways that she may not even realize.
The year we all lived in England, while she directed my college's study-abroad program, she used to take us on trips in the little Ford Fiesta she and her husband bought. It had a rusty bottom; just before one trip, it tried to refuse to start. She called AA and got it up and running, and we puttered off into the countryside. She drove us to Wales; she drove us to the south coast in search of an image we'd seen in a book; she drove us to a wonderful inn unreachable without a car. Last week, my mother was remembering another favor she did for me that year: telling me, when I teetered on the brink of massive whinging about being fatigued and worried about work, "Go buy yourself a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar and get back to work. You can rest next week." It was that simple. She can see her way to the core of things like that, and she knows how to tell people--especially touchy smart young people--to stop making simple things more complicated than they need to be. And thus she's the professor students make mix CDs for, hoping that she'll ratify the ways they hope they're cool. She's the professor students end up coming back to town to visit, year after year.
My excellent friend has just finished having a birthday today, and I hope she did something that made her happy. (For my part, I have acquired Props that we will use to celebrate when I return to Gambier.) I hope this because she deserves to be happy. She has helped so many people grow up healthy and strange and creative and productive and able to investigate and reshape their lives as necessary.
And none of this gives you a sense of how much fun she is, especially when dancing in her kitchen, especially when growling at her dog, especially when shopping for shoes and capes, especially when playing ping pong. And none of this gives you a sense of how much I love and value her. She is truly excellent.