A year of loss.
Many metaphors have been used to describe 2016. Train wreck, nightmare, etc. My favorite? Dumpster fire.
Contributing to that perception was the parade of celebrities who died. Statistical analyses revealed that the number was not actually higher, but the notoriety of each high-profile individual made it feel like more people were dying. But it was just their time, just as it was for millions of non-celebrities who passed on unknown to the general public but deeply mourned by friends and families.
Here at Brown we were not unscathed by death’s touch, losing some high-profile figures of our own. One of them was Mike McKeown, whom I first met early in my tenure as a staff writer for this magazine. I had been assigned a story about his research, which involved studying the sexual behaviors of Drosophila melanogaster. It was my first interview with a researcher for a magazine article. It was certainly my first time hearing about the mating rituals of fruit flies. I arrived at J. Walter Wilson for our meeting already flustered. I’d stubbed my toe that morning and couldn’t wear shoes. It was probably broken, but that was something I’d have to deal with after my Very Important Interview. I stopped at the Brown Bookstore and bought a pair of shower shoes, hoping Dr. McKeown wouldn’t notice my footwear. No luck. As I stood in his doorway, he looked upfrom his desk and said, “Flip flops?”
In animated detail, Dr. McKeown told me about his flies, how altering their genetic material results in females exhibiting male behavior and males exhibiting female behaviors. He walked me through the lab, showing me the tiny flies hopping around in test tubes. The sweet mash they fed the flies smelled terrible, and I thought that you’d really have to love this work to be in that fetid room all day.
When I got back to my office to write up the story, I realized I’d made a terrible rookie mistake. The batteries in my tape recorder had died midway through the interview and I hadn’t noticed. Paying rapt attention to Dr. McKeown, I hadn’t taken many notes. I panicked.
I wrote the story to the best of my recollection and sent it to Dr. McKeown, confessing my error and apologizing profusely. Would he mind terribly talking with me again to fill in the blanks? I received his email response and read it through half-closed eyes, braced for a screed about wasting his time. But instead, he said, “It’s OK.” He’d read the draft and corrected the errors. He was kind and understanding, like a good teacher would be. I was sad to learn Dr. McKeown died just before Christmas. For me it was a coda on a disastrous year. Maybe he wasn’t as well known as Prince or Carrie Fisher, but he left an impression on his corner of the universe nonetheless.