On the same day we received this update – the day of the long chemo that kept me in the Orange Chair well into the early evening – I had to miss the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication end of the year celebration. However, when I checked my messages later that night I found out – much to my surprise – that I had won one of two teaching awards voted by on by the graduate students! Hurrah! The other faculty winner was Kathy Miller, a dear friend and talented colleague who I’ve always admired as a teacher as well as a researcher. Good company, huh? No, GREAT company! Big smile on Bud’s face, I can tell you!
When such good news follows such bad news – and the spread of any cancer is never anything but bad news – you choose which news to focus on. I chose the good news. Why wouldn’t I? Not even cancer can take away the joy of being recognized for something I love to do.
This is my life’s work. This is part of my life story.
I am a teacher. I have worked hard to become the best teacher I could become. But good teaching is always a collaboration between the instructor and the class, between the stories and the theories, an among a curious and often surprising blend – sometimes a balancing act – of information and intimacy, of narrative and dialogue, where both parties must feel safe enough, secure enough, to take risks with ideas and selves, and ultimately to become in the truest sense of dialogic understanding, profoundly open to learning, to questioning, and to personal change. For this reason, any award for good teaching is also an award for the students who shared in the collaboration.
To accomplish that communal goal and to know that in so doing you and the students have positively influenced each other’s lives, well, as a teacher and as a student it doesn’t get any better. It’s an experience, a sacred experience, good enough to help beat anything that ails you. Or me. At least for awhile. A blessed while.
The next morning I had another welcome surprise. A visit from an old friend can do wonderful things for your spirit, particularly when the two of you can pick up on unfinished conversations and, in some cases, complete them and in other cases leave them deliciously simmering for the next time.
Our visitor was Carl Lovitt. I’ve known Carl since 1991, back when we were teaching at Clemson University, swapping life stories over scotches on pool night at the corner tavern or over slap slots on the tennis courts. We have children about the same ages and our wives became friends, so our time together in Tiger Town was rich with good memories and lots of stories. One story in particular stands out and Carl and I revisit it again during his visit.
Our day jobs at Clemson included a “risky” collaboration on a new Masters degree in Professional Communication that relied on ties to the international business community growing up around BMW North America, a partnership with IBM, and the audacious idea that combining technical and language skills with organizational cultures approaches to worklife would best prepare students for creative and potentially lucrative careers in the emerging high tech marketplace. Under Carl’s leadership and with the work of talented faculty (Art Young, Pete Kellett, Dixie Goswami), the once “risky” venture became the top ranked program in the country and was featured in The Princeton Review, Newsweek, and several business-oriented magazines. It was a busy time, a heady time, a good time with professional accomplishments and friendships that have lasted ever since.
Carl is now serving as Provost at Central Connecticut State University, where once again he is working on what he loves: improved undergraduate teaching, applied programs that appeal to the local community, and finding new and better ways of making the college experience more open to innovation and a more valuable investment for students and their parents. We need more leaders like Carl. We need more conversations like that.
We need more stories like that.
Carl also wanted to see the Room of Orange Chairs, so he accompanied San and I to the Four Winds Cancer Clinic. It was Friday, a slow Friday for the staff, and I was only in for fluids, steroids, and the removal of the fanny pack/chemo pump. Monica was running the shop and once again her positive and caring nature made the time pass quickly. Doctor Robin also stopped in for a friendly chat (and to see if my new pain meds were working), and Ashley and Sue came in to visit. Sue is leaving the clinic to return to care for her 95-year old dad in Chicago, so seeing her and knowing this would be the last time was a bit of a teary moment.
Carl follows my blog and knew the prose version of this special community but I think he came away from the clinic experience not only affirmed by how I have represented the people and place, but also happy for us – if a close friend gets this damned disease, this is the place you want him (or her, or the family and friends) to be cared for and treated. I’m sure there must be other places such as Four Winds elsewhere but I know we count our blessings each time we come away from here. My pancreatic cancer cannot be cured but our experience of living with it and the support of these professionals and our community of patients couldn’t be any better.
We also need more stories like this one.
After the treatment and the usual round of hugs and best wishes, we headed back home. I enjoyed a shower (can’t bathe properly when wearing an electrical chemo pump) and San (with an assist from Carl) prepared us a great Mexican feast – slow-roasted carnitas, fresh flour tortillas, homemade guacamole, salsas, chips, chipotle pinto beans, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes … ah, it was a real treat!
Carl and I were both enjoying a near-comatose half-sleep conversation about the very cool Intellectual Entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas, or at least I think we were. Whatever we were talking about faded gently into a mutual recognition that for today, we were done. That recognition brought the evening to an early close, but just as well – Carl, an avid golfer, had an early tee-time and I needed my beauty sleep.
Hey, you don’t think people keep telling I look good without a little beauty sleep, do you? No way. At night the nine beauty fairies from the planet Venus wait for my eyes to close and then cover me in a magic glowing golden dust.
What, you didn’t know that?
This morning I was struck by two posts on Facebook; the first one from Barbara Avila Marvin, via Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss:
"In a wonderful essay called 'On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,' Schopenhauer points out that, one you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental and incidental turn out to have been central to the composition...
The second one taken from Ernest Hemingway:
"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self."
Together these two observations sum my week. It is true that my life has had a plot and that events in it have been central to its composition. It is also true that the life story I would want to compose, or would like to have been the subject of, or wish for others including my students would be one that featured the ‘true nobility [of] being superior to your former self.”
For what is life if not a quest for transformation? For self-improvement that brings with it service to others? For overcoming the temptations of ego and discovering a purpose greater than the gratification of the self?
When I pray for others I pray for their healing, for their peace, and for the positive spirit of hope gotten from God, the universe, and each other that may help them navigate new challenges. When I pray for myself, I pray that my life story fulfills its transformative quest.
This week I have been rewarded in ways that make me believe that my life story may yet achieve that desired end. Despite some troubling news, it has been a very good week indeed.
More stories like these, please …