Considerate of little Rob Harder to continue my earlier theme. I did not know I was beginning a theme. These journal notes are supposed to be about art and design and typography and writing and culture and technology and maybe some psychology.
Not about death.
I do not use the term “little” here in a derogatory sense. Once one starts flipping the dichotomies upside down, then turning them sideways, and maybe reflecting them too, observing what philosopher Jacques Derrida describes as the tain of the mirror, adjectives can get back to their business of description and away from the hierarchy of values. I link the term “little” with Rob Harder, because that is how I came to think of him, as something of the little brother I often wanted, never had, something of how I imagine my little brother might have been, had I a little brother: Intelligent, maybe something of a pest at times, full of potential.
I guess “little” here means “younger.”
He chose a good day for dying.
Early May, when Seattle’s climate turns to blue and spun gold days, but don’t tell anyone. The view from his hospital room an almost mirror reflection from my own hill. “The seven hills of Seattle, like the seven hills of Rome,” someone said to me shortly after I moved here. Good day for living, walking along the pier that runs alongside Elliott Bay, blue water, white caps, the blue Olympics in the distance, frosted white still in early May, an upside-down blue bowl of sky overhead, ringed with perfect scoops of ice cream all around, a flotilla of boats in the bay that threatens at any moment to lay siege to landlubbers like me. Good day for dying too; is there a good day for dying?
One’s former students are not supposed to die before one.
Is there a good way to die? I used to imagine going out in a rolling ball of flame, speeding my 1969 Volkswagen Beetle along the Las Vegas freeways, and am these days a little bit surprised to find myself still here on this blue and white dot in the universe. I use “little” here to qualify “bit” but I could equally well replace both terms with “largely.”
Except Rob was never my student, as far as I can remember, though he would frequently drop into my studio classes, and welcome, provoking more discussion at crit from students sometimes reluctant to voice their opinions in the slow process of evolving through education, or coming around to encourage individual students when they were stuck on a drawing. Drawing from life, we call it. Life drawing. Sometimes I would kid him about more talking about drawing than drawing going on, and send him on his way.
I try to remember the first time I met Rob, and cannot. He was always just there, a fixture on the Idaho campus; if you were in art or design you knew Rob.
I turn to Rilke’s Requiem for Paula Modersohn-Becker, a painter who died around the turn of the last century, and I hope it is not offending any copyright laws if I recite a few lines from the Stephen Mitchell translation, as I do in my analogue journals. My copy I picked up used somewhere in my travels, likely Sam Weller’s, annotated for me in a feminine hand, likely that hand is dead now too. I used to have the entire poem memorized, but all but the opening lines have faded for me now: “I have my dead, and I have let them go, / and was amazed to see them so contented, / so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful / so unlike their reputation…”
Except cheerful is exactly Rob’s reputation. Perhaps what most impressed me about Rob was his almost relentless cheerfulness and kindness, his ability to listen to and befriend people from diverse beliefs and backgrounds, as well as his enthusiasm for learning. That engagement with ideas and willingness to try new things made him stand out on a campus better known for its parties than its academics, in a part of the country better recognized for its insularity and its conservatism than for its openness to new ideas.
I try to remember if Rob was a peer, a student with me in any lecture classes, and I do not remember that either, although it was partially to his influence that I added my first and only post-secondary history course to my schedule. Sean Quinlan’s “like, super-quick World War I.” helped me appreciate modern art and literature possibly more than any of my art history courses from college and grad school combined, placing them in the context of their era with the power to shut out the noise of our contemporary wars and art and culture and silence a room.
Granted, it was a small room, only a handful of students attended the summer course on a campus mostly deserted in summer, but I suspect the effect would have been all the more powerful in a packed auditorium on a much larger campus. One of the advantages of taking classes in a remote college town is being able to meet off campus, in coffee shops or cafés, and learning through informal discussion, and I do remember Rob dropping in on some of those discussions. Not because he was enrolled in the course or had to be there, but because he was as drawn to learning as I am.
I remember dropping by the painting mezzanine to see Rob’s painting in progress one semester, indicative of his willingness to explore media beyond his beloved photography, and I wonder now if Rob gravitated toward photography for its speed, in some sort of mute knowing that he did not have much time to make images. I remember a truly awful painting of a squid or a giant shrimp, some cephalopod or crustacean – a seafaring creature, at any rate – up close enough that he felt compelled to explain to this viewer the subject of his painting. I remember as someone who has made a significant number of truly awful paintings of her own. Do not ask me why Rob felt compelled to paint a giant seafaring creature, as I could not tell you.
Well, actually, I could make some conjecture, based on my readings in psychoanalytic theory, but what I learned from Rob, deeper than his painting’s subject, I learned from his enthusiasm, his radiance, his expression of pure joy, evidence to support more theory, what is called the jouissance, of painting.
Another time, I remember kidding him about what a “tough” job he had, attending sorority parties as their official photographer, but actually that was another thing that impressed me about Rob, as someone not impressed by that whole myopic view of class and gender and social contract that, in my view, detracts from education at an institution of higher learning. I think Rob was, even then, pursuing higher things. If I might borrow the phrase he uses on his blog, “steeling myself for the ‘real’ world.”
The real is precisely what Rob found.
Some of us postpone the real for many more decades after graduation.
I cannot remember the first time I saw Rob, but I do remember the last, at a theatre in downtown Moscow. It was cold, so it must have been winter. The movie was a French film with English subtitles about a dysfunctional family getting together for the holidays, so this might have been December 2008, a full year before he was diagnosed, or maybe later, Moscow being, well, later than the rest of the world in many ways. Rob was taking tickets and we chatted for a few minutes in the lobby after the film too.
I remember asking how he was doing, and he said he was fine, but I remember later thinking how he looked not well, too thin, maybe, or his hairline too far receded for such a young man, or his cheekbones a little too pronounced, as if his skin was stretched a little too tautly over them. But then, I notice facial structure.
Life drawing, remember? Drawing from life.
Should I have said something more? We all know how that conversation goes. How are you doing? I’m fine, and you? You look like death, are you sure you’re okay? If I had said something more, would it have made a difference? Because I have some sort of narcissistic power to choose who lives and dies and how and when?
I like to think of Rob’s adventure very much continuing. To quote a phrase used by an expert on death and dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, when she died, I like to think of Rob going on to “dance in all the galaxies” wearing a white tie, topcoat, and tails.
Fulfilling his potential.
Is there a good day for dying?
A good time for dying. A good time for living. Good, good, goodness all around.