Goodbye, and here’s why

Aug. 22, 2018

Many years ago, when I was a graduate student in English and American literature at the University of Chicago, I sometimes gave talks at a senior activity center in the neighborhood. I have vivid memories of one such presentation: the subject was one of my favorite twentieth-century writers, Christopher Isherwood. (Have you ever seen the play or movie Cabaret? It is based on one of his novels.) Preparing and delivering the lecture was a labor of love, and it was well-received by the 25 or so seniors who attended it.

The reaction from one of them made such an impression on me that I remember it well to this day, and I choke up a little when I think about it, even now.

A very elderly woman—she probably was 90 or even a bit older—using a walker, came up to me after my talk and said something like this: “Thank you so much, that was just wonderful. So interesting! It reminds me of when I was a student at Northwestern University, 70 years ago, isn’t that amazing! Well, you’re never too old to learn new things…And when my daughter calls me tonight and asks what’s new, I’ll have something to tell her for once… . Thank you for that.”

Isn’t that moving? Think about how pleased the lady must have been when she told her daughter, “Oh, today I attended a wonderful lecture at the senior center, by a student from the university….” And think about how happy the daughter must have been. She must have thought, well, despite her age and physical limitations, my mother still has her mind, she still engages with the world, she still enjoys intellectual stimulation at the senior center, she is still involved, she still has a quality of life….”

What does this good memory have to do with anything, you may be wondering. Well, indirectly it is why, after almost exactly seven years, I have resigned as editor of MLO and am planning to embark on a new chapter of my life. Let me explain.

I like the natural sciences, especially the biological sciences, and I am married to a pharmacist who used to be a laboratorian. (We watch the ads for prescription drugs on TV and talk about their mechanisms of action, and the relevant companion diagnostics.) But I am fundamentally a humanities guy. I have spent most of a lifetime reading and loving serious English and American fiction and poetry, and I cannot imagine myself without that grounding in my life. I want to spend more time now living in that world, either avocationally or perhaps vocationally. I want to learn and teach and study in whatever capacity I can. That’s the life I want to lead—not spending many hours each month editing long lists of references into something remotely resembling AMA style. (Said with a smile: The contributors to MLO whom I have worked with have been uniformly wonderful—even if their reference styles have sometimes needed an editor’s help.)

I think that for most people, the humanities can increase their capacity for empathy. And I need more of that, we all need more of that. So I am putting aside molecular diagnostics and immunoassays for Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare. I think it will be good for me and for the people in my life. I think it is also a good response to these tough times—a solace and an answer.

I will always cherish the time I spent with MLO, and I leave with enormous respect for you and your vital and noble profession.