My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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A Tool Kit for Surviving Surgery—and learning a whole lot in the process

I’m alive!  But, Yowzers.  That was one painful surgical experience. As I wrote about recently, I had surgery on February 2 to make my Achalasia manageable.  I am early into the recovery process, but on my way.  As I move on to the next step toward recovery, I thought it might be helpful to present this nifty guide for anyone who is facing a hospital visit.  While you might not be able to use all these tools, I hope there is at least something you’ll find helpful.

  1. If you are having laparoscopic surgery to your abdomen area and the pre-surgical directions tell you to “wear loose clothing,” take this seriously.  I thought “loose clothing” meant I should wear something that I could change out of easily.    You have to wear loose clothing because you are most likely going to pumped up with gas and will resemble the Michelin Tire Man.  As I mentioned in my previous post on my condition, a benefit to having Achalasia (albeit a painful one) is that you’ll most likely lose weight.  So if you need to shed a few pounds, at least this is one good thing that happens.  By the time I headed to the hospital, everything I owned was loose. Even my underwear.  When I left the hospital about 32 hours later, I could barely fit into my underwear, let alone the loose pants I had worn in.  This “pumping up” phenomena is fascinating (especially if you are observing from afar) but painful.  I was pumped up with CO2 so the surgeon could move my organs around easily.  You know, I was all about climate change and the evils of too much carbon dioxide in the air before my surgery.  I’m even more committed to ridding the world of excess gas now.  But, I need to concentrate on keeping it local and trying to get rid of my own personal greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Don’t panic when you meet your first nurse. There are a whole lot of people who will be taking care of you.  Everyone has a role and they know what they’re doing.  It’s a good thing, too, because my first nurse was, uh, well, not quite feeble, but heading in that direction. I found myself wanting to hear her perspective on WWII.  I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, there is no way I can let this sweet and lovely woman put a needle into my hand.”  Before I had to figure out a plan, an athletic, energetic, and completely confident woman (with steady hands, no less) bounded into the room to get me ready.  Deep breaths.
  3. Try to pay attention while you’re in the recovery area. It’s fascinating what you might observe.  I was there for several hours before I got moved to my room, so I was able to observe quite a bit (of course, this was all through an anesthetic fog).  One of the most interesting events was watching the patient in the next bay hitting on the recovery nurse who was taking care of both of us.  Hitting on a woman anytime is just downright inappropriate, but doing it after you’ve had surgery, while your target has your health in her hands is just plain stupid.  How she rose above all that and gave him fantastic care is a testament to the professionalism of nurses everywhere!
  4. Make sure you do your homework about your surgery so you can speak with knowledge and authority during your recovery. The surgeon ordered shots of heparin to help prevent blood clots.  The first shot came several hours after surgery.  The nurse said something along the lines of “Okay to put this in your belly?”  Now, think about this.  I had incisions all over my torso.  I considered all sorts of wisecracks each time a nurse came in to give this shot.  “Seriously.  Take a look.  What do you think?” was effective, but a little snarkier than I wanted.  I finally settled on “No thanks.  I’ll take the shot in my thigh.  You’ll find lots of unused space there.” Worked like a charm.
  5. When you’re home and in the thick of your recovery, do not, under any circumstances, watch The Money Pit. Especially if you haven’t seen it since it originally came out in 1986. And, I especially mean this if you and your spouse do home renovation projects.  There is a scene when Tom Hanks starts to fall off some scaffolding creating a domino effect that made me laugh so hard I had to think about taking an extra dose of hydrocodone.  I don’t care what anyone says, this was not worth it.  I’d recommend a movie that you’ve seen multiple times so you can prepare yourself to get through the funny parts without splitting your sides laughing.  Guffawing is to be avoided at all costs after having surgery that impacts your core muscles.  I think Office Space might work, but only if you’ve seen it at least three times and can stay in control when Amir smashes the printer.
  6. If you’re getting pumped with CO2 gas, make sure you ask your surgeon all sorts of questions so he understands that you understand what’s going on. Be intelligent and he’ll give you all the specifics.  This was especially helpful for me; otherwise, I may have totally freaked out after taking a sip of soup and feeling debilitating pain in my shoulders.  Say what? Turns out, this is called “referred pain.”  What happens is that the gas allows the surgeon to move the organs around, but all sorts of nerves get bumped around a bit in the process.  Your whole body is now confused (and rightly so, I might add).  Everything hurts—including your nerves, which send out messages like “Help me!”  The group of particular nerves near where a lot of my surgery took place have a direct path to the shoulders.  Understanding why I hurt helps.  Not with the pain, unfortunately, but at least to know I don’t have to panic.  The pain in my face cheeks is a little harder to explain, but who cares?  I find that I have a limited amount of areas that I am able to process as “Yikes, that hurts like crazy.”  For now, the cheeks are going to just have to take a back seat.
  7. Remember why you’re having the procedure in the first place. I have a fairly high pain tolerance, but I hurt all over.  I mean ALL OVER.  I’ve shed a few tears over the pain (listening to sad music at the same time is probably sub-optimal, but, honestly, it hurts too much to change the channel), and I’ve had a couple of whiny moments where I have lamented the six-week recovery.  I thought I might be able to eat like a normal person sooner than that.  Turns out, it will be awhile.  Right now, I’m on an even more restrictive diet than I was before the surgery.  My husband has had to strain my beloved tomato soup because it’s not smooth enough for me right now.  But in the middle of all this self-pity, he asked me how I was swallowing.  Wait a minute!  I realized that while I’m only eating a bit of tomato soup at a time, it is travelling directly from my esophagus to my stomach. The surgery worked.  It’s a miracle.  My surgeon is a genius. My husband is a saint.  My colleagues and graduate students are concerned and supportive. My rowing friends and church friends are praying for me or sending good thoughts my way. My new blogging buddies are reading this post.

And, I’ve learned a lot. For an academic, that counts.  That counts a bunch. In the meantime, I’m watching the Food Network and dreaming (okay, maybe hallucinating) about all kinds of food. So that’s how Bobby Flay roasts tomatillos. Sunchokes? Interesting. Ancho chili pepper in chocolate frosting?  Why not? Gruyere in French toast? I’m ready!


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And, now, for the weirdest medical diagnosis ever.

In September 2016, I was diagnosed with achalasia—a condition I had never heard of.  Only one person out of between 100,000 and 200,000 people has achalasia.  With a US population of about 325,000,000, you do the math.  Seriously, do the math (I keep getting confused about what to divide or multiply).  Chances are, I will be the only person you will ever know who has this weird condition.

I am more fortunate than most who suffer from achalasia in that my gastroenterologist zeroed in on my troubles right away (after I finally made an appointment to see him).  Apparently some people suffer for up to a decade before they get an appropriate diagnosis, which given what I have experienced, I find not only bizarre, but utterly horrifying.

So what is achalasia, anyway?  It’s a swallowing disorder (or if you want to get all medical, a “motility” disease).  There are lots of swallowing disorders out there, but this one may be the craziest.  In order to be diagnosed, you have to go through four tests.  First up, the typical endoscopy.  If you haven’t had an endoscopy in a while, I highly recommend one.  For mine, I was given the drug that Michael Jackson took a little too often.  And it was awesome! (I totally see why he got addicted.)  I had the best 20-minute sleep in my life and woke up completely refreshed.  You have to have an endoscopy to “get the lay of the land” and to rule out a bunch of other esophageal problems.

Next up, you have one more test to rule out “pseudo achalasia” (code word for tumors and cancer):  a CT scan with a lovely dye injected throughout your system.  I would have called this an uncomfortable test, but then I had Test #3, which made all other tests there are in the world seem like a warm tropical island vacation.

The Manometry Study.  To explain this test, it’s helpful if you’ve seen The Matrix.  Remember those mechanical worm things that set out to destroy Neo and his crew?  Well, for the Manometry Study, the technician takes one of those and sticks it in your nose and down your throat, through your esophagus, into your stomach.  Without sedation.  How I let them do this to me, I’ll never know because I have a gag reflex that is, shall we say, sensitive.  Once the tube is in place (and the technician confirms that the patient is still alive), for about an hour, you swallow little sips of water every few minutes.  This test measures the muscle pressure of your esophagus as well as the pressure at the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES).  If you have achalasia, over time, your esophagus loses its ability to squeeze food down past the LES into the stomach.  The loss of this muscle squeezing is called peristalsis.  My reading was at zero, which meant my esophagus muscle was shot (bummer).  The test also shows the pressure at the LES, which is the little trap door that opens and closes. The idea is that the LES opens when food works its way down the esophagus and closes after the food passes through.  If you have GERD (severe acid reflux), there’s a good chance that the LES doesn’t close quickly enough after the food passes through, which allows the acid from the stomach to work its way back up the esophagus.  But if you have achalasia, the LES doesn’t open in the first place so the food stays in the esophagus.  In the Manometry Study, high pressure at the LES indicates the LES stays shut.  Yep, that was me.

After all of that, I still had to go through one more test.  Just to be sure.  The Barium Swallow.  I might have been concerned with this test (I had heard plenty of horror stories), but, I tell you, after the Manometry Study, having a Barium Swallow was like going to a cocktail party with your best girlfriends.  Even the barium drink seemed pretty festive. The radiologist conducting the test seemed concerned.  After shooting the first slides and then exclaiming rather loudly “Oh, wow.  Just wow!” and then quickly apologizing for the outburst, I told him I was fine and that I would also like to see these amazing slides of which he was so enamored.  You could say the radiologist and I bonded:  He, because he was finally seeing a live version of a condition he had only read about and me, I suppose, because I was the live specimen.  What he and I saw was a stretched out esophagus, a tight-shut LES, and the barium sitting in my esophagus.    That clinched it.  All doctors involved agreed.

I have achalasia.

All also agreed that there was only one solution:  surgery (scheduled for February 2).  If the condition is not weird enough for you, then how’s this?  Surgery involves making small slices in the outer wall of the esophagus, forcing the LES to stay open.  This is called the Heller Myotomy Procedure.  Then, in order to keep the food from just shooting back out my esophagus, the surgeon performs a Nissen Fundoplication (who comes up with these names, anyway?), a procedure that wraps my stomach in some weird position around part of my esophagus to help keep the food down to give it time to digest.

It’s not a cure.  Apparently, I’ll never get the pressure back in my esophagus and I’ll always have to be careful about eating.  But, I should be able to eat relatively normally after I recover from surgery.

So what have I learned from all of this craziness?

First, those of you who know me, you know how much I love food.  I love to cook food, I love to look at beautiful food, I love to read cookbooks, I love to try new foods, I love the texture of food, I love to write about food, I love to talk to other foodies about food.  And most of all, I love to eat food.  But for the past year (at least), eating has become difficult.  I do best when I stick to hot, soft foods like soup.  I love soup, so it’s not like I am deprived.  But, I’ll admit, even I am getting tired of soup.

strawberry-salad

I can’t eat this now, but soon!

Because of achalasia, I have to think before I eat.  I have to eat slowly.  I have to pay attention to my food.  I have to be mindful about what goes into my mouth.  And, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not a single thing wrong with eating that way.  So I’m thankful that achalasia has brought me to that point even though it would have been nice to get there in a slightly less painful way.

Second, I’m reminded of what a privileged life I live.  I have a fantastic GI doc who suspected I had something other than acid reflux when I first met with him.  In just a matter of months because of his insight, I had a definitive diagnosis and a plan for the future. As the doctor told me, this is “serious, but not life threatening.”  It seems like almost every month I hear about someone who is young and healthy yet gets a cancer diagnosis.  I may no longer be young, but I am certainly healthy and have remained so, even while struggling with this condition.

Third, while I would not recommend this method to anyone, because of achalasia, I have lost excess weight.  But it’s weird.  Even though I have an extremely healthy self-esteem, I’ve learned that I do have some body image issues.  I’ve always felt like I needed to lose weight (even in 7th grade when I was growing about a quarter inch a week and could not eat enough to keep up).  My BMI is way within the normal range now and when I fill out those highly (un)scientific online polls, they all say things like “it would not benefit you to lose more weight.”  Still, I think I could lose a few more pounds before surgery.  I have nightmares that I’ll gain weight about 30 seconds after surgery (how many pizzas would it be possible to eat in my first week of recovery, I wonder?).  All told, I have more empathy now for those who need to lose weight, those who don’t need to lose weight but think they do, and those who can eat everything in sight without a care in the world.

me-as-a-kid

I was a bit chubby as a kid, but that’s okay!

Finally, I’m learning that life continues to be one interesting journey.  And the longer we travel, the more interesting it becomes.  While Easy Street might seem like a worthy goal, it’s really not.  So whatever you’ve been handed, make the most of it.  Trust me, it’s better than curling up into a ball or sticking your head in the sand.   Victor Hugo once wrote, “Many great actions are committed in small struggles.”  To be sure, compared to others, my struggles are small.  But the good news is I can take my own small struggles and work toward better actions.  That’s what I hope to do in 2017.  And, at least occasionally, I hope to contemplate these actions while mindfully eating a luscious, crunchy crusted, piping hot pizza.


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Christmas. The Most Saddest Time of the Year.

Okay, so I love Christmas just as much as the other happy “Hey, let’s make this the merriest one ever” jolly spend-til-we-drop Memory Makers.  I have lovely memories of Christmas morning with our twins, Grace and Graham, and their look of awe as they surveyed the mountains of presents under the tree.  I inherited this “find the perfect gift” mentality from my parents who spared no expense to buy my sister and me every conceivable thing we ever wanted (and things we hadn’t even dreamed that we wanted) on Christmas morning.  Christmas was the day that we tucked in, marveling at our good fortune for having such a perfect family.  Presents, stolen (without the yucky dried fruit), hot chocolate with too many marshmallows.  Just us.  Just lovely.  Just peaceful.

Except, that’s not real life.

Real life is heart wrenching.  At Christmas time, the wounds burst open and if you spend even a second thinking about the world, you’ll have to fight the urge to crawl into a fetal position, praying for a New and Better Year.

I noticed my attitude toward Christmas starting to change once our kids were adults, long out of the house, and we had become Anglicans.  Anglicans are flat out weird about Christmas.  First, the holiday doesn’t even really start until Christmas Day.  And then you have to go on and on until Epiphany.  Finally, the season ends and you ride the train to Easter.

There are decorations in the church, but they are sparse.  We have a lovely gigantic fir near the front of the sanctuary.  As of today, it only has white lights on it.  It makes me want to cry every time I walk by it as the Altos head down that side of the aisle during the processional hymn.

During this time of Advent, I’ve heard sermons about the Baby Jesus—but always in the context of the Crucifixion.  (Is there anything more brutal than that?)  And I’ve practiced and practiced our choir songs for this season.  Some of the songs are glorious and upbeat.  (Think Handel’s “And the Glory of the Lord,” which we are singing tomorrow for the Third Sunday in Advent.)

But tonight, for Lessons and Carols, we are singing some doozies.  I just finished practicing “Come, Renew Us” and I can’t stop the tears.  Here are the words:

Come, Lord, come to us, enter our darkness with your light.

Fill our emptiness with your presence.

Come, refresh, restore, renew us.

In our sadness, come as joy.

In our troubles, come as peace.

In our fearfulness, come as hope.

In our darkness, come as light. 

In our frailty, come as strength.

In our loneliness, come as love.

My sister in law is a new widow, getting ready to navigate her first Christmas without her husband.  My daughter’s sister in law is getting ready to face the holiday as both a new widow and a heartbroken mother who has lost two children because of a horrific small plane crash this week in Alaska.

Life forever shattered.

How do humans work through that?  Honestly, I don’t know how those suffering handle the pain.  But the only thing I do know is that in our darkness, Jesus comes as hope.

This Christmas season, I’m singing about emptiness, fearfulness, sadness, frailty.  This is how I’m celebrating.  Come, Lord, come to us, enter our darkness.


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For the first time in my life, I spent Thanksgiving by myself.

For the first time in my life, I spent Thanksgiving by myself.

And it was surprisingly okay.  Those who know me know I am absolutely obsessive about Thanksgiving.  I always make the food myself because I simply can’t trust another human being to make everything in the true New England manner into which I was indoctrinated (for Thanksgiving, anyway).  That means absolutely no giblets in the gravy, stuffing outside the bird (and please don’t even think about putting raisons or oysters in the stuffing!), and a minimum of four pies with all-butter crusts.  There are always traditional apple, pecan and pumpkin pies.  Then there is the Roving Pie.  And sometimes there is the Decoy Pie.  About a week before Thanksgiving, people around the country start asking me what the Roving Pie for the year will be.

But this year they were met with silence.  No Roving Pie—or any pie for that matter. Heartbreakingly, my sister-in-law’s husband, Kevin, passed away a few days before Thanksgiving, so my husband, of course, had to rush to Wisconsin to be with his sister, his mother, and all the many, many people who knew and loved Kevin.

We quickly contacted our dinner guests to say we would have to cancel the long-anticipated meal and that was that.  So these days that I have been alone at the beach, I have had plenty of time to think about life and the joys and pains that come along with the basic fact of living.  What did I conclude?

First, Gary and I have had a rough 2016. My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January and died August 30.  About that same time, I was diagnosed with achalasia, a bizarre and very rare swallowing disorder (more about this in a future post).  About the same time as that (seriously, these all happened in the course of four days), Gary’s mom fell and broke her hip and had to have emergency surgery.  Then, in early October, our beach island was slammed with Hurricane Matthew.  Our car was totaled as was our golf cart.  Gary’s beloved workshop and tools were heavily damaged or destroyed.  And, now, Kevin’s passing.

But here is what I thought about these last several days.  I have so much to be thankful for, it’s hard to feel blue just because I’m alone for Thanksgiving.  Even when I’m sad, thinking about the heartbreak of losing people we love, I am still thankful.  Here’s just a snippet of my many blessings:

Even though both of my mom and dad are gone, their lives continue to influence mine.  They were wonderful parents and during the holidays, all I have are sweet memories of the great times we shared.  From the time my mom dropped the turkey and it slid across the kitchen floor while everyone was waiting in the dining room (“I’m carving the turkey now” she called out as she picked up the smooshed bird and we both could hardly breathe for laughing so hard) to the time my dad bought my sister and me skis and everything that went with them even though none of us knew how to ski, Christmas and Thanksgiving provide anchors of memories that will last for a lifetime.  My parents travelled the world and ingrained that curiosity for life into me.

As soon as anyone found out I was going to be alone for Thanksgiving, they invited me to their home to share their meal.  Even though I declined all invitations, it was wonderful to be reminded that I have many friends who care and lots and lots of people around me who I can call on if I have need.

Even though achalasia makes swallowing a challenge, for some reason I have no difficultly singing in the choir.  In fact, I tend to have about a two-hour window after singing when I can eat almost normally (if you call eating soft foods normal).

While we suffered some loss with the hurricane, it is nothing compared to what so many others experienced.  And while Matthew was devastating to property, no one in South Carolina died from the storm.

And, finally, while it’s sad that my brother-in-law is gone, he impacted untold lives during his 59 years.  He leaves behind a great wife (my sister-in-law, Barbara), three terrific adult kids (Zach, Peter and Andrew), their beautiful wives, and their quiver full of children.  Around 300 people came to the funeral during a holiday weekend to express their thankfulness for Kevin’s life.

No one ever said life would be easy.  I used to tell my daughter, Grace, “Be careful what you whine about because life can always get worse.”  And even when it does, it’s still good.

But just in case you were wondering, this is why I didn’t make pies.


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Well done, Dad. But, I’m Sure Going to Miss You.

It’s tough to lose a parent.  But, it’s a part of life.  And I’m fortunate that my dad lived a long and fulfilling life.  As my sister and I prepare for his memorial service on Monday, we’ve been talking a lot about what great childhoods we’ve had.  Thanks, Dad, for a life well lived.  (Here’s his obituary that will run in tomorrow’s paper.)

Robert Allan Richter, 90, of Carolina Village, Hendersonville, NC, died August 30, 2016, after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. Bob was born in New Britain, CT, on July 11, 1926, to Paul and Helen Richter. He attended New Britain High School, graduating at 16 in 1943. His teenage years were spent on Bassett Street where he was a member of the Bassett Street Bone Crushers, a vagabond group of kids who regularly played a rough and tumble version of street hockey. After graduating from high school, Bob worked as a Pepsi truck driver where he earned the nickname “Pepsi Pete.” Hearing the call of duty, Bob joined the Army, and became a staff sergeant of the military police, mostly in the Chicago area. He often spent his off-duty hours at the legendary Aragon ballroom, jitterbugging the night away to the Big Bands. His 6’7” lanky uniformed frame drew many dance partners.

Dad loved driving his Pepsi truck.

Dad loved driving his Pepsi truck.

After the war, Bob attended the University of Maine at Orono where he graduated fourth in his engineering class in 1950. He was a member of the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society. He also was president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, a fraternity that provided many life-long friends. To earn extra money in college, Bob became the campus photographer, which gained him access to all sorts of events on campus. Toward the end of his college career, Bob met Nancy Richter, a nursing student, on a blind date. In short time, the two were engaged and married on July 7, 1950, in Fort Kent, ME, Nancy’s hometown. After a short stint at a small engineering firm, Bob joined General Electric as a civil engineer, where he worked until his retirement in 1988. Bob’s career at GE took him and Nancy all over the world. Wherever they moved, they made a home for their family. When Bob retired, he asked Nancy where she wanted to live and without hesitation, she said “Hendersonville, NC,” a place they had visited and loved. Settling into an active retirement life, Bob and his golfing buddies played courses all over North Carolina. After 52 years of marriage, Nancy lost her heroic battle with cancer, on June 8, 2004.

Bob is survived by his second wife, Elna, whom he married in 2005.  Elna’s five children, multiple grandchildren and great grandchildren all welcomed Bob into their family.  Also surviving are Bob’s children Helen (Stephen) Gammon of Coventry, RI, Carol (Gary) Pardun of Columbia, SC, grandchildren Carl Gammon of Brainerd, MN, Amy (Joey) Hatcher of Wasilla, AK, Jonathan (Jackie) Gammon of Savannah, TX, and twins Grace (Jim) Alworth and Graham (Sonia) Pardun, both of Minneapolis, MN.  Bob also is survived by four great-grandsons:  Levi and Luca Hatcher, Jack Pardun, and Archer Gammon.  He is predeceased by his first wife, Nancy, and his brother Donald of Manchester, CT.

A memorial service celebrating the life of Bob Richter and the comforting joy of the Lord Jesus Christ will be held on Monday, September 5, 10:00 a.m. in the Village Hall at Carolina Village. The Reverend Dr. Stephen G. Gammon, Bob’s son-in-law, will lead the service. Shuler Funeral Home, Hendersonville, is assisting with the arrangements. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that gifts be made to Four Seasons Hospice, Hendersonville, NC. Bob’s ashes will be spread in the memorial garden at Hendersonville Presbyterian Church, a courtyard of quiet remembrance where members and friends of the church are able to reflect on those who have already joined the great heavenly chorus.


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Vote How You Want. But Let’s Be Nicer About It.

I am a Christian.  I will not be voting for Trump.  Even though I am “unaffiliated” to any particular party, I also will not be voting third party.  Nor will I be staying home on election day.  I am voting for Hillary Clinton.

While I don’t like to post political messages, I am compelled to state who I am voting for.  Not because I am a huge fan of Clinton’s (although I think she is absolutely ready to become president)—or even because I think Trump is the least qualified candidate the country has ever seen.  Rather, I am compelled to clearly state who I am voting for as a plea to my friends and colleagues who do not know Jesus to understand that not every Christian supports Trump.

As a Christian, I am uncomfortable with many planks of Clinton’s platform.  I struggle with same-sex marriage.  I hate the concept of abortion.  But I absolutely believe that all Americans should enjoy equal civil rights.  I believe that rather than argue over whether life begins at conception, we should create a society where no one feels compelled to have an abortion. I believe we should treat refugees with respect and compassion.  I believe that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with owning assault weapons.  And, I believe in science.

To my fellow Christians, I beg you to stop the vitriol against Obama and Clinton.  If you don’t want to vote for Hillary, that’s your prerogative.  But, she is not the Devil.  Spewing hatred like I’ve seen on Facebook hurts my heart.  And if you are not a Christian, please, I beg you not to judge the entire Evangelical community by the support so many have pledged to Trump.  Believe me, I am as flummoxed as you are.

It’s a long time until November.  Let’s agree to disagree.  Or if we can’t, let’s at least treat each other with civility.  As the wise sage Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”


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What Do the Monkees and Politics Have in Common?

Well, the sabbatical is officially over. The new academic year has begun. As I’ve written about recently, I’m excited about the future, but also nostalgic (a bit, anyway) about the past. So it’s fitting that today I finished reading my last “sabbatical book”—David Axelrod’s Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. (In case your head has been buried in the sand over the last several years, Axelrod is a political extraordinaire who was the chief campaign strategist for President Obama’s election and reelection bids.)

Reading Believer, it was easy to sense that this guy likes to be smack dab in the middle of the hubbub. I get that. But what I loved best about this book was the way Axelrod, by writing his autobiography, explained the significance of politics, the difficulty of doing the right thing, the necessity of making compromises and the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture. He writes this with a kindness and appreciation for those around him that I found downright inspirational.

I don’t really think of myself as all that interested in politics. I’m not registered as a Democrat or Republican and rarely vote a straight party ticket. To my liberal friends, I seem quaint and sorely conservative. To my conservative friends, I am liberal—or at least, misinformed.

Even though I might not consider myself political, I’ll admit I’ve binged-watched West Wing twice on Netflix and cried both times when President Bartlett (my president) says good-bye to his loyal staff. I am intrigued with Tea Leoni’s Madam Secretary, and I was one of the few devotees to Geena Davis as president on the short-lived Commander in Chief. These TV shows, all smartly written, give an inside view to politics in Washington.

But Believer does something more. It quietly shows the dedication and sacrifice demanded from our public servants. Say what you might about President Obama, this book demonstrates in no uncertain terms that our president has worked hard for the country. Axelrod doesn’t put the president on a pedestal; instead, he gives a careful, honest, and meticulous accounting of the president’s achievements as well as his shortcomings. Axelrod assembled a large fact-checking team to work through the nearly 500-page manuscript. It pays off. There are well over 300 reviews on Amazon and most reviewers give the book five stars. Just a handful (fewer than 20) criticize it; a few die-hard partisans even call the book “fiction.” Give me a break.

While the majority of the book relates to Axelrod’s work with Obama, there is also keen look into Chicago politics as well as the author’s early years as a journalist.   Through it all, Axelrod carefully points out that making a lasting difference is hard—but worth it.

Though my impact on journalism education may be miniscule compared to Axelrod’s impact on politics, his reflections resonated. Maybe it’s because we’re the same age, have been married to our first mates for the same amount of time and even have a grandbaby the same age (although mine is cuter). Or maybe it’s because what he depicts in his book is really about life, albeit seen through the eyes of a consummate politician.

And now, I head back into my own little political world: the academic life. But rather than distain the obvious (honestly, how it is possible to have a two-hour faculty meeting and make no important decisions?), I’m going to be a believer. In the immortal words of my favorite band from childhood (the Monkees, of course!) “Not a trace of doubt in my mind…I’m a believer.” Thanks, Axe.