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In the slaughterhouse with Sartre


Thanks, I appreciate it. I will send several more chapters in January. I know that is probably not a good time for you, but some important things have come up that have distracted me from my work.

This is, of course, is not your problem. But when I worked as a book editor, I liked when writers told me how they were doing so I could guage if they were still serious about their work, if they could deliver the work, and when and how to schedule parts of my process. You and I are, of course, just in the reading and commenting stage. I wanted to be much farther along.

It’s the end of the semester. Normally, I would have time—three weeks to a month—to make chapters spotless and get them to you. But they still need a good scouring before I can get that far. I had planned to spend a few hours a day on both book and dissertation—a good mix for my wandering mind. But it wound up being only a few hours a week, not nearly enough to produce results that I’d be happy with.

The human beings this past semester were needy, to say the very least: unprepared, underprepared, and sometimes downright unenthusiastic and combative. Since I am the kind of teacher who has to go to bed at night knowing I did everything I could, I invest a lot in making sure sparks are encouraged to fire and dim bulbs to shine a little brighter.

A further complication also arose in late October. My good friend, Jonas, developed a virulent form of brain cancer. He’s closer and probably more important to me than my own brother. When I heard about his situation, I was stricken. Since I am close to his parents, as well, who are in their 80s, I realized that I may never see any of them again.

I met Jonas in 1985 at his parents’ house when I was first in Germany. (He now lives in Berlin and his parents are still near Trier, close to the German border with Luxemburg.) We developed a very close relationship, perhaps, because we are kin from different families. The man is only four months older than me.

Virginia and I didn’t think twice about me going to Germany for him and for me. He found he had cancer and, within ten days, was under the knife. After surgery, he developed an infection that produced a swelling that cut off his ability to read, write, and speak. It seemed that by the time I could make it to Germany that I might be visiting graves.

Fortunately, the doctors at the best cancer center in Germany—luck, really; I mean…Berlin!—were able to get things under control. He is now undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, as well as physical therapy to regain the ability to walk, read, and write. He is mentally about 95 percent there, and when we talk, I can tell he searches for words from time to time.

We are a lot alike. Assholes sometimes. Generous and big-hearted all the time. Emotional. Angry. Suffering occasionally from ill-confidence and self-loathing—he much less than me. He’s a lot sunnier than I am. He finds it curious and funny that he can think, know what to say, and how to do his job, but the faculties of reading and writing escape him.

And he’s coming to terms with all this better than me. Better, probably, than most of the people around him. People who get this kind of cancer recover completely only about 10 percent of the time. While we all hope that he is able to get past this, it is most likely that this is a terminal event.

Jonas says he’s gone through the existential crisis associated with such realities and since has had a Zen-like moment when it was clear that life is temporary and that’s just all right. Sure, he still has moments of anger at the powerlessness he feels. But most of the time, he feels the sun, sees a snowflake, and breathes air as if he has never done or seen these things before.

I cried every time I thought of him in the first weeks after his wife told me. It was only taking one thing at a time that I was able to cope with this sudden blow. Get the passport renewed. Determine when the best time to go would be. Buy the plane tickets. Buy the Eurailpass because I will be traveling to see his parents and make brief visits with a couple of friends. Etc. Fortunately for me, Virginia works as a certified oncology nurse. I was able to work through many things because she could answer my questions.

I leave for Germany on January 3 and return on the 17th, just a day before I start classes. My schedule is easier next semester. I will spend the next week or so getting my classes together, as I will be changing a few things to see if I can engage a couple more students. I have been at the writing table in a serious way, just not for as many hours as I want and need.

Regardless my teaching responsibilities, I also have a responsibility to my CV. That next book is important to me, as is my dissertation.

So, please forgive me. I beg your patience on this. Writers, I’m sure, make a lot of excuses for not producing—they did when I was editing books. But I’m serious about my work and am determined to have you more to consider in the coming weeks.


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