Thoughts on Turning 40: Two Stories of Survival

Internet friends, I'm turning 40. 

I decided not to confine myself today to the brief announcement and smiling picture combo that's kind of the thing to do these days. Part of what's so annoying about social media is how shallow it can be; the need to always project a positive image means we are sometimes just being false.

Today I want to share two stories about two difficult moments I have faced in the past decade. One is my experience with cancer in 2007. The other is the challenge I faced in my bid for academic tenure in 2006-2008. There are morals in both stories that I will give away up-front.

What I took from my experience with cancer is simply this: don’t take your life for granted, it could change radically at any moment. Love the life you have and, as much as you can, the people who are in it.

What I took from my tenure experience was also pretty simple: you can’t go it alone. Your career is definitely your own, and you have to sit down and do real work to succeed (in academia, this is work you often have to do by yourself). But there may be times when you need to ask for help – and depend upon what might turn out to be pretty extraordinary generosity of professional friends, colleagues, and maybe even a few anonymous strangers. That is what I had to learn to accept about academic life: you need to do the work, but you need other people to read it, appreciate it, and vouch for you. To paraphrase the Beatles: you get by with a little help from your friends, colleagues, and advice from the Dean.

Both stories have happy endings. I have been cancer-free for six and a half years, which means I am as close to “cured” as it gets. I received tenure at Lehigh, and continue to enjoy contributing to a department and humanities culture at the university that only seems to get better every year. However, it hasn't always been so sunny on my end of things -- as we'll see.

Story 1: Google says you have cancer, but your G.P. is more concerned that you’re a little overweight…

In June of 2007 I started to have a mystery flu that lasted for a little longer than the flu is supposed to. I was having fevers that would last for a few hours and then subside, and then come back again. Some of the fevers were pretty intense, and involve me getting a form of the chills I had never had before in any experience with the flu. On the encouragement of my wife, I decided to see a local general practitioner in the second week of the mystery fevers.

I even told the GP one alarming detail -- I had lost 11 pounds since the fevers had started two weeks earlier. Even with those lost pounds I was of course still somewhat overweight. So this doctor listened politely as I tried to recount all of my symptoms for him. He then paused, looked at his chart, and counseled me to think about losing a few more pounds (Diet and Exercise, Diet and Exercise…) and call him again if the fevers persisted for two more weeks. He did not suggest a blood test, and never mentioned possibilities other than the flu.

Meanwhile, my parents in Maryland were freaking out. They wanted me to come to Maryland and do some blood work immediately. My father, a cardiologist, thought I might have a rare heart issue, and he wanted to do an ECG. We were also supposed to spend a couple of weeks in India with Samian’s parents around this time. Painfully, I had to tell Samian to take Puran (then not even a year old) and go without me; I didn’t think I could handle the trip, but I didn't want her limited vacation time to be ruined because of my weird illness. I dropped them off at Newark airport and then came home and sweated through several further days of increasingly intense fevers before finally agreeing to go to Maryland to do the tests my parents wanted.

This was before the era of Facebook and Twitter, but we were well into the era of Google. I had been looking up my symptoms online. Several of the results I was getting from these searches were indeed the flu. But ominously, the number one result when I searched for "persistent fever, chills, weight loss" seemed to make no sense: Lymphoma.

I came out negative for the heart issue. But after a CAT scan, it was immediately clear that Dr. Google was right: I did indeed have a whole lotta Lymphoma massed in my upper chest. A biopsy would be needed to confirm that it was Hodgkin’s specifically. But it was pretty clearly well-developed: Stage 3, and possibly Stage 4 (a PET scan showed traces of cancer had spread to my lungs).

For the next three weeks, I stayed in Maryland. For several days I was in and out of hospitals and doctors' offices. Appointments with oncologists, radiation oncologists, second opinions. Pet scans. A deeply unpleasant bone marrow biopsy. A biopsy surgery in the chest region under full anesthesia. Finally, the go-ahead to begin chemotherapy.

From the hospital, I had to call Samian to tell her the news and ask her to come back early from India. She came. My son, when he saw me for the first time after a couple of weeks of this horror-show, gave me that big beaming smile of pure love and happiness that only a baby can give to a parent. That smile alone sustained me through some of the worst of those days.

I spent the next six months at home, dealing with chemotherapy. I spent more than a few hours playing video games online (if there had been Candy Crush back then I’m sure I would have finished the damn thing…). I read a whole bunch of entertaining novels I had been meaning to read (nearly the entire collected works of Graham Greene…). I did some blog posts on Sepia Mutiny on the days when I was feeling good. But I also suffered through all of the side effects of chemotherapy: I lost quite a bit of my hair, including the large mass of hair that, as a Sikh, I had never cut in my life. I had weird skin issues, digestive issues... I'll spare you. And despite the powerful anti-emetic drugs they have now to offset the nausea, I had a few instances of pretty epic vomiting near the end of the round of chemotherapy.

And along with everything else, I was cranky and depressed. I said mean things to my mom when she tried to get me to eat after chemotherapy (my mom was heroic); I said melodramatic and not-so-nice things to my wife (Samian was heroic); I found spending time with my young son to be a chore (I won't say he was heroic, but he was pretty cute).

But I learned some things too. To avoid boring you with everything I thought about that fall, let me boil all of that thinking down to one simple lesson: no one lives forever. I had been worried about not having the kinds of friends in my life I wanted; I had been worried about the limitations of the neighborhood we lived in and the house we were living in; I had been worried about my career.

Suddenly, in front of me was a pretty real chance that the course of my life might be very different than I had ever imagined it would be. Now I had to grapple with the reality that I would never write the Great Indian-American Novel, or become an academic superstar, or… maybe even live long enough to see my son learn to ride a bike? 

What is your legacy really going to be? What do you want people to remember about you when you’re gone? Hint: don’t say it’s the book you hope to one day write. You might never get to write it. If you spend all your time worrying about the things in your life that aren’t perfect, you miss the very real chances to recognize the access to beauty and love you have around you right now. While I was sick and in treatment I couldn’t act on this awareness the way I would have liked. I have tried to do better in the years since then... I am still far from perfect. But in truth I think about this lesson nearly every day. When I am down about things or frustrated, this knowledge continues to sustain me.

Another bit of food for thought: until the 1960s, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was considered untreatable. Virtually everyone who got it died from it. And yet here I am, worrying about whether my TIAA/CREF retirement fund is doing ok and planning to buy my kid his first real bike. 

So the next time you hear people complaining about “western medicine,” think about that. You know at least one guy who would be dead right now without it. Me.

Story 2: It’s takes a village… to get an assistant professor tenure

This is more of an academic career-type story, and I’m not sure how to make it more broadly or generally interesting. Bear with me, non-academic friends; I might have something for you at the end of this.

As a story about getting tenure, it's obviously less serious than getting cancer – even if I had been denied tenure and either moved to a different institution or left academia all together, I would have survived. I was already a father and a husband. I was an active blogger with thousands of readers at Sepia Mutiny (not to brag... well ok, I'm bragging, but it was true! ... for a bit.). I might have had an interesting alternative career… Who knows?

Of course, if you had told me then I might have an “interesting alternative career” I likely would have not have been too happy to hear it. Throughout my graduate career and my early years as an assistant professor I was intensely committed to academic work and to my identity as a literary critic/theorist. Back then I didn’t see myself having a satisfyingly middling career as a professor: quite honestly, what I really wanted at the start of my academic career was to write "brilliant," theoretical sounding essays in fancy journals like Diacritics or Representations, fly around the world to give keynote addresses at posh conferences, trade up from Lehigh to a fancy job at Yale, and just generally be considered a “star.” It was na├»ve and looks awfully vain several years down the road. But that was who I was and what I wanted then.

So when my Dean sat me down in January 2007 and told me that she would not be recommending me for tenure that year, I was utterly unprepared to hear it. I felt bewildered, angry, confused. The university that I had been secretly thinking might not be good enough for someone like me – that same university was going to deny me tenure? I wanted to say melodramatic things, angry things, storm out of the meeting. I restrained myself somehow and got through the meeting.

The Dean saw that I was flustered and upset but continued her spiel. I had the option (under an only recently instituted policy) to request an extension of my tenure clock by a year on account of having had a child recently. Technically the deadline was past for that request, but the college would likely approve it if I withdrew my tenure application and made the request in writing for the extension immediately. I should spend the year working on adding to my portfolio of peer-reviewed publications and then apply for tenure again. There was strong support for me in my department, and no secret agenda against me. The message I got was just this: you just need to publish more than you have.

Over the next few weeks and months, I learned some lessons about academia, my department, and myself. 

First of all, I should say something about the main screw-up that led to this situation. After receiving a slew of pro forma rejections from major university publishers, I sent the manuscript of my “revised-dissertation book” to a small British press with an editor who seemed interested. He sent back a contract that I shared with some of my colleagues; it looked ok. But the press in question did not do something quite important: the editor did not send the manuscript out to be reviewed, and a few months later printed it exactly as I had sent it to him. No peer review. What I was now learning was that for the purposes of my tenure file this large body of work I had been doing would not count as part of my research file.

All of this happened in part because, despite what was then a decade of experience in academia (counting grad school) I actually did not know something crucial about how academic publishing is supposed to work. Presses do not simply get a brilliant manuscript and print it as is if it is -- “perfect.” For tenure, the publication of a book is actually less important in some ways than the way it is reviewed. How did I get to the stage of applying for tenure at a research university and not know this? Perhaps my senior colleagues had some responsibility to make sure I knew how things were supposed to work, but maybe they just presumed it would be obvious to a junior colleague (me) who always seemed to pride himself on knowing what’s what – and who never asked for that kind of help. Looking back, I hold myself responsible for not stopping to ask and confirm with senior colleagues before moving ahead with the press in question. In general, throughout these years I tended to operate on the “do what you think is right, and everyone will appreciate how brilliant you are” principle rather than the “find people you can talk to about your work who will help you figure out how to find the right path to publication” principle.

But the business about the screw-up with my book was less important than what I came to realize as I went back to the drawing board and prepared over the next few months to apply for tenure again.

Within my department I learned that there were people who had been batting for me, both in department discussions and in the letters that they produced in support. I of course did not get to read these letters, but I heard hints about them from people who wanted me to understand how things stood. (The Dean also commented, perhaps jokingly, that these were the longest letters she had ever had to read.) People also reached out to me and gave me advice – all along the same lines: too bad about the book, but you will get tenure if you get a few more peer-reviewed articles under your belt. A few of my colleagues went the extra mile and worked with me on particular articles that needed just a little help before I could send them out. I got great advice and encouragement from my department chair (Barry Kroll), David Hawkes, Seth Moglen, Dawn Keetley, Beth Dolan, and Jan Fergus.

I also learned that of the anonymous outside readers who had written letters about me, there was one person who had said some quite negative and dismissive things about my work. I thought back to the list of suggested outside readers I had sent in earlier in the process. Did I really think carefully enough about that list of names? Is it possible I had put down some names of academic “stars” without thinking carefully about whether those people would really be good readers for my work? (Later, some people who wrote more positive letters for me would come out to me when I met them in professional settings: thank you. You know who you are, even if I don’t know who all of you are!)

What I came to realize is that as an academic, you don’t just “get tenure” by yourself. You get tenure because 1) you do the work you need to do and make a persuasive case for it, 2) a dozen or more of the colleagues in your department read your work and write letters in support; 3) editors at journals and university presses ask people to read your works and they agree to do this, often for free; 4) five people you may or may not know read your work and write letters in support; and 5) a Dean and a tenure and promotions committee at your university (again, with people whose names you may not know) read your work and write letters as well.

If you add that up, it’s a lot of people doing an awful lot of work on your behalf: dozens of people take hours of their time to carefully appraise everything you’ve done in your five or six years at an institution and make a decision about whether it reaches the “bar.”

I got tenure on the second go-round, with three new peer-reviewed articles on my CV accepted for publication at good journals and a fourth that hadn't been reviewed, but was accepted at a prestigious journal (Minnesota Review, pre-Janell Watson). It was enough.

And this is the takeaway: if you are going up for tenure you are not really on your own. More likely than not, there are people around who are ready to bat for you, to help you, to write letters for you. They don’t expect you to return the favor – in fact, they already have tenure, so they don’t need it. But you might have to know that you can and should ask them for help if things aren't going as smoothly as everyone hopes they will.

In some ways this is a particularly academic story; people in other lines of work have to collaborate much more regularly than we humanities academics do, lost as we often are in solitary work in the bowels of the university library, or the mounds of papers on our desks and the PDFs on our laptops. And maybe it is a situation that a certain kind of hot-blooded male academic (me, at that time) is more likely to get into than some others. But perhaps there’s still a generally applicable moral to the story somewhere in there: sometimes in order to succeed you have to give other people the chance to tell you you’re doing it wrong. Which doesn’t mean you’re a charlatan or a failure – it just means there might be a way of going about things differently than you have been.