Dating when the world is on fire (and so are you): Remembering Rebecca Munson
My friend Rebecca Munson passed away on Friday at the age of 37. You can read far better eulogies about her importance as a scholar, leader, and colleague from the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities, and on Twitter from the many, many others whom she touched. Although we were connected as colleagues through our shared work in digital humanities, we also cultivated a surprising friendship over the past year. This is my halting attempt to capture a fragment of that.
This is a very personal reflection, unlike any other post on this blog. I can only hope it wouldn’t be too personal or raw for Rebecca. She was uniquely eloquent in finding strength through vulnerability in her public writing, but she only touched obliquely on what I’ll talk about here.
Like so many academics of our generation, I think we probably first came to know each other over Twitter. It was at the 2018 ADHO conference in Mexico City where we finally got to meet in person. I suspect that, like myself, Rebecca had a limited amount of large group social energy, which was probably why we ended up alone at the hotel bar during the final night of the conference. Over a few pairs of overpriced G&Ts garnished with cucumber, we quickly passed from the usual shop talk into laughing and commiserating about the more personal minutiae of our lives. You’re a rare professional colleague, indeed, if I get in to that territory with you. Rebecca was clearly one such colleague.
Aside from the Twitter DH discourse, I don’t think we reconnected until January of 2019 when she shared her shocking diagnosis of advanced breast cancer. We who have never received such a diagnosis can’t imagine how it felt for her. But it’s probably all too easy for you to imagine what it felt like for me to learn that this remarkable woman, just 3 years older than me, and facing so many of the same “normal” uncertainties as I was - the professional challenges of an alt-academic career, the personal challenges of having recently moved to a new city - now facing a terrifying new reality.
After that, I think we both were more intentional about connecting, whether it was a raucous dive bar night in my new home city of Pittsburgh during ACH 2019, or making time for a one-on-one dinner when I visited Princeton to give a talk cosponsored by the CDH. Rebecca’s openness and vulnerability - which in retrospect had made our long Mexico City conversations so deep - was on its fullest display now. It showed in her irreverent wit that was one of her mainstays in living with the disease (“The girl with cancer gets to call shotgun!” she shouted, as half of the CDH staff piled into my comically compact Mazda to head out for post-conference drinks.) It showed in her radical generosity when I stopped myself short while recounting the trials of a frustrating inner ear disorder I had been dealing with since mid-2019, feeling ridiculous for complaining about it to a metastatic cancer patient. “Oh my god, don’t even,” Rebecca reassured me, “I’m the perfect person to talk to about chronic nausea, because duh, chemo. I have all the good antiemetic drugs now.”
2020 was when our regular Zoom happy hours started. Over gin- or whiskey-based cocktails, ensconced in our respective work-from-home quarantines, we would have the usual shop talk: what was going on at our institutions, how were our different projects doing, what shit could we dish about other people in our field, etc. But what began to dominate these conversations (usually by hour two) was this: how the hell do you go on a date during a pandemic?
Thinking back on it now, Rebecca was my only close, non-gay-male friend who was also single. Though most academics are familiar with the two-body problem, Rebecca and I were both having to deal with the slightly less-discussed single-body problem. Both of us had left serious relationships a few years prior, and were now both building new lives in new cities without the emotional/physical/financial support of a partner. As you can imagine, these conversations ricocheted between the deadly serious and the ludicrous. They were enhanced by the bemused fascination each of us had for the other’s experiences and expectations in the hetero vs. gay worlds of dating and hooking up. The subjects of our oft-hinted podcast could have been:
- the utter pain of moving when there’s only one set of hands to pack and unpack
- the time with the ceiling-fan-over-the-bed induced trip to the ER
- dealing with open relationships and the (maybe married?) men who did or didn’t really have them but hit on you nonetheless
- how thin is the line between flirting and going home with someone (very much NOT the same in our respective communities)
- fish in Tinder profiles vs. western PA Grindr profiles
- the unreasonable attraction (for one of us) vs. unreasonable visceral dislike (for the other) of guys with Aussie accents [apologies to Australian readers! I speak for one of us when I say it was solely the fault of one asshole guy.]
- the (harmless! but also gun-enthusiastic) guy with the AR-15 in the bedroom closet
- assessing the physical danger of visiting a guy’s place when you are a woman vs. a man
- knowing how to do the household repair, but wishing you had someone to offer emotional support for dealing with faulty electrical outlets before you’ve had your morning coffee
- the time you had to explain to a friend that this couple at a bar wasn’t just being friendly, but were actually swingers
- what to do when you think maybe you left The One on the other side of the continent and didn’t realize it until years later
2020 changed the calculus for us single folk. What are the mechanics of a safely-outdoors park date? When is a guy hot enough to risk deadly respiratory infection? How is the euphoria of going back out, post-vaccine, tempered by everyone’s rusty interpersonal skills, not to mention the fact that the pandemic is not over at all, no matter how many of our nightlife spots reopen?
For Rebecca, this was obviously compounded by far tougher questions: at just what point do you bring up the whole cancer thing with a new guy? What happens to your self-image, much less sex, after the radical bodily changes of chemotherapy and mastectomy? Does it make less sense, or, alternatively, even more sense, to try to move fast on a good relationship when the entire concept of “long term” is painfully uncertain? As Rebecca wrote, “a year in quarantine is a terrible prospect for us all, but a year is longer in my foreshortened life than it is in most of yours.”
There were, and are, no satisfying answers to the questions Rebecca and I returned to time and again in our talks. Joy, despair, and melancholy have been my companions when I think back over our late-night chats. For all the gifts of her openness and vulnerability, both of us were inclined to a sometimes-toxic over-analysis - a point we often had to remind each other of. It’s too simple to say that Rebecca’s memory will make me commit to living in the moment more, to banish “I wish we had” from my vocabulary. Such things are slogans. She struggled as much as anyone with pursuing those ideals in the face of a pitiless clinical reality.
And yet, I know I am a better human for having experienced the friendship I did with Rebecca. As we (as a society) fumble through the messy end of this pandemic, and pay ever closer attention to our existential climate crisis, Rebecca’s and my perennial subjects of what makes a worthwhile relationship stick in my mind. In our limited time, there is perhaps no more essential duty than to exert the constant effort needed to be open to each other, to the possibility of joy, hurt, and everything in between.