The Canary

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Beloved local musician and storyteller Jack Pearson died yesterday at the too-young age of 63. I first met Jack in 1998  through his son, Peter Pearson, my friend and fellow Great Con student at St. Olaf College. In the summer of 1999 I went to an outdoor Bob Dylan and Paul Simon concert with Pete, Jack, and Kari, Pete’s sister. It was a great concert (Paul and Bob played “The Sound of Silence” together!) but one of my favorite memories from it was Jack pointing out after the show that, from a technical perspective, Dylan was a crappy harmonica player. It was an eye-opening revelation about the importance of craft to me, no matter how famous you were, and also the only unkind thing I ever heard Jack, who was like a Twin Cities musical version of Mr. Rogers, say about anyone in all the time I knew him.

A lot of people loved Jack, who recorded many albums and traveled around to schools and other locales and entertained children, bringing the joy of live music to their lives with a rare mixture of skilled craft and happy exuberance, but what always struck me most about him was the philosophy of kindness and acceptance he embodied. I’ve long surrounded myself with a thick shield of dark humor and sarcasm, most likely hardened and significantly enhanced during my mother’s long battle with cancer during my teenage years, but Jack didn’t need any of that. He was naturally earnest. He was open to all the currents. We’d discuss philosophy, me playing the nihilistic devil’s advocate, and he’d consider everything I said carefully, even though I was a hotheaded college student. He was a strong Christian who didn’t necessarily believe, or need to believe, everything in the Bible was literally true. The idea of practicing kindness was all the truth he needed.

Kindness is a hard truth to truly learn and practice-being kind to both myself and others is something I struggle with on a daily basis. It’s something our country, and the world, is struggling with to a seemingly greater extent than ever. It’s hard, on this cold January day, to not think of Jack’s sudden passing as the embodiment of the old “canary in a coal mine” (old-timey miners would take a canary with them down to the deep underground mines they worked in-if the canary stopped singing and died it would alert them to the presence of poison gas in the mine). On the eve of a Trump presidency, with the prospect of so much hate and toxicity before us, Jack has stepped out and left the room (he coincidentally passed away in the same cancer ward as my mother). It’s up to the rest of us, even the damaged snarky fuckers, to step up our game and keep the torch of kindness and generosity burning.

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