Reading my life

Writing to friends recently about the course of my life and how to interpret it. It can be read as a litany of pain, loss and tragedy, or alternatively, as an account of great successes and recognitions. Both things are true.

Pain and loss. Highlights of the story:

From my life before Jacques, two notable afflictions.

— first, a lower-back problem that expanded over time to a sciatica so fabulously painful that I now can’t imagine how I didn’t just pass out from the pain of walking. Eventually my family doctor noticed that my left leg was withering away (from lack of enervation): a herniated spinal disc was cutting off the nerve. So, on to surgery to fuse two discs and to many months of slow recovery, and years of recurrent lower-back pain.

— second, a crisis in which an intestinal pouch, or diverticulum, burst though an intestinal wall, causing massive internal bleeding. Emergency treatments were mounted, including (at one point) shocking me back to life with the famous paddles. Annoyingly, by the time things had calmed down, the surgeons couldn’t find the bursting point. It hasn’t happened again.

As I say, all this was before Jacques. But very much with Ann, who suffered extraordinarily from the task of trying to care for me (and take over my teaching at the last minute); her hair actually did go white with anxiety for some time.

Caring for my partners. Then the main narrative:

— caring for Jacques through his near-death from radiation treatments (for a fast-growing brain tumor, medullar blastoma; the theory was to zap every single cancer cell, just (barely) short of killing him by radiation poisoning). Unbelievably barbaric; at the worst point, a poor skeletal J was stuck lying flat on his back on the living-room floor, not able to move on his own and barely able to take any kind of food.

— caring for Ann as she died from metastatic breast cancer.

— caring for Jacques again through 12 years of his descent to death from radiation-caused dementia — yes, that radiation.

My own disasters. Notably, nearly dying myself from necrotizing fasciitis — yes, the famous flesh-eating bacteria — which left me with a painful permanent disability in my right arm and hand. (But my surgeons did avoid amputating the arm.)

And a ton of other debilitating medical conditions that have pretty much confined me to life within a few blocks of my Palo Alto house.

Meanwhile, around the time of J’s death and my near-death (in the same year), what I saw as a distressing and rather suddent rejection of my current work in linguistics, which has caused me to shift what I focus on in my work several times, eventually largely withdrawing from academic linguistics. I have a career in posting on my blog, one I take very seriously, but my postings are, often, decidedly, umm, eccentric.

It would be easy to see this history as one of failure, rejection, and misfortune. On my career in life commitments, I hear an unpleasant echo of Lady Bracknell in my head: “To lose one spouse may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

A counter story. There is, of course, a counter story in my academic life, in which I achieve early success and an extremely rapid rise (I was promoted to full professor just before my 30th birthday), and also in my personal life: I have had great fortune in having the loving company of a number of men and a few women, not just Ann and Jacques.

The story of my academic career is almost absurdly complex, with strange, hard to explain twists. Partly I just turned up in the right place at the right time, and I gained advantages from being a nice guy, but to a large extent I had the enormous advantage of having senior linguists act to sponsor my career: Vicki Fromkin, who acted as an academic mother for a great many linguists; and, especially, Ilse Lehiste, who decided, on meeting me two years out of my (very early) Ph.D., that I was a major figure in the field and set out to smooth my way to success.

(This sort of sponsorship is not uncommon; I myself have acted behind the scenes on behalf of a number of younger colleagues of great talent when I feared that their abilities were in danger of being neglected. I see these actions as a kind of professional duty.)

I knew that Ilse engineered my early tenure, but most of the rest of it I figured out only long after the fact. It turns out that she had a hand in my becoming president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1992 (in my early 50s) and especially in my being elected a member of the American Academic of Arts and Sciences that same year — young for the LSA presidency, extraordinarily young for American Academy membership. (I never had the opportunity to thank her for these efforts, and that’s exactly the way she wanted it. No doubt she saw her efforts as a duty to the profession, not at all as a favor to me.)

(Now contemplating how to describe the twists in my career from 1965 (the Ph.D. and then teaching — and for one year, serving as department head — at Illinois) through 1969, when Ilse hired me at Ohio State.)




One Response to “Reading my life”

  1. Helen Aristar-Dry Says:

    A difficult but magnificent life, Arnold. I am one of the people that benefited from your sponsorship and I am enjoying your meditations on the life that helped so many people.

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