Things Change and They Don’t

I am less than a week away from teaching the general astronomy course in our 4-week compressed January term for the first time and I am not prepared. Despite using my role as Director of Faculty Development to advise faculty, repeatedly, against taking a course designed for a 14-week term and cramming it unchanged into what is 18 instructional days, I am about to do something of the sort. There simply hasn’t been time to rebuild a January-friendly course. We recognized that having a general science course with a lab would benefit a number of students so I added this old friend to our offerings late. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog, well first I commend you for being a hardy lot since I haven’t written here in a while after taking a hiatus to write a few posts for Discover magazine and then focus on other aspects of my ever-evolving work as associate dean. But you loyal readers also will have learned that teaching this general astronomy course is one of the great joys of my life. So it didn’t take much arm-twisting for me to add it to our course offerings, despite a January term not being ideally designed for a lab course that meets extra time relative to other courses. This will be the 15th time I have taught this course.

When I arrived at Luther in the fall of 1997 I hadn’t given much thought to what finite number of times I might have this experience of sharing the joy of discovering the universe with students who are majoring in art or religion or music or management or anything else, but that number wasn’t likely to be more than 30 or 35 or so.  I just knew that it felt like I was perpetrating some sort of scam, getting paid to talk about the universe. I still feel that way, maybe more than ever, but eventually one starts to recognize how few and precious those opportunities are. I have had the chance to make that recognition more sharply, given that this will be my first time through the course since being diagnosed with high risk prostate cancer this past fall. One day the world is its normal old self and the next you know you have a PSA of 65 ng/ml. For those of you keeping track of things an 8 or 10 or 12 would typically get one’s attention in a big way. A 65 at age 52, that really gets your attention. We can add to the long list of great blessings in my life the fact that I have health care provided through the Mayo Clinic and the Rochester campus is right next door.

I believe our current treatment approach is to follow an aggressive plan of androgen deprivation therapy, followed by removal of the prostate, followed by radiation therapy. We are about halfway through the initial androgen deprivation therapy and things are going well. Of course, things could go wrong at any time but really that has always been the case for all of us. The path ahead seems certain to impact my ability to take data every clear night this year, as I have for the past 15. If so, I will miss sitting on the steps outside the observatory watching the darkness grow after the telescope is aligned and focused. It’s in those moments that I feel most connected to everyone and everything that has ever been and ever will be. I can almost feel the carbon atoms in me that have been shared by everyone else, so many of whom have also shared this oncological journey. But that is down the road. For now, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to figure out how to capture all the beauty of the 13.8 billion-year history of the universe in 18 class days. I like a good challenge.