David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Staring Down The Monsters

June 22, 2019

Recently, SMC's Information Technology department requested that we clean up files and emails because of storage limitations.  Guiltily, I looked at my 10,000 emails just sitting in my email box (not counting unknown numbers sitting in more than a hundred folders) and realized I had my work cut out for me.

Dealing with files, email or other, is the easy response.  Generally, a file that has had nothing new placed in it for 3 or 4 years can be deleted in whole.  The mails in the in-box, all read, but never labelled or move, would take much longer. This collection of emails was already a shadowy monster I wasn't sure I could face.

To make things easier, I did what I did several years ago when I last tried to clean up my in-box. I went to the oldest emails and made decisions about what to label and file, as well as what to outright delete.  It was time-consuming (I started this task about two weeks ago with a goal of dedicating about 2 hours a week to clean up) but it did feel good. Occasionally it allowed me to relive the joy of a fun email exchange or a note of appreciation from any number of people.  Sometimes if even reminded me of people who pop into our professional lives for a few months, then disappear.

And then yesterday, on a Friday, I started getting a pit in my stomach. I had hit late May 2017 and all of a sudden I realized I was reading emails that were dangerously close to my July 1 cardiac arrest. (As an aside, the fact that this moment of email clean up is a Friday is not insignificant, as I had spent that Friday before my heart attack doing a massive clean up of my office; so much so that when I returned in September, I didn't recognize the place.) The first connection I made came from an email where I was encouraging my fellow academic officers to set up our summer meeting (a group existing mostly to support and inform each other, we have a loose schedule in terms of meeting).  All of a sudden there was a rush of emails, a doodle poll that I set up, and the painful process of finding a final date (eventually the first week of July); I could delete all of these just from seeing the subject heading.

However, the painful images of how people had to deal during my three months of medical leave, especially that first week when no one knew if I would survive, flashed through my head.  I knew my fellow academic officers initially joked that "Fleming, who begged for this meeting, isn't even here," only to be horrified by the appearance, with explanation, of one of my deans.

The second jolt, as I scrowled through these late May 2017 emails, came in form of the monster I have had trouble conjuring up: what was I doing in those days leading up to the Sunday cardiac arrest? Participating in a video being done by an art faculty member and her students, me unbelievably, while in full racquetball gear, lip-synching to Katy Perry (completed video sent to me in an email two days after the heart attack); participating in a series of interviews to hire our second Environmental Science full-time faculty member (approval email from the president sent very late the Friday night before the heart attack; had I even seen it before I collapsed in my bathroom?); a celebratory dinner for 50 or so faculty and staff who participated in key committee work addressing issues related to declining enrollment (I could have sworn the dinner was that Saturday night before my "event," but my calendar actually shows it a couple of Saturdays earlier).

Then there is that monster's twin, the events I missed: a dedication for the ground-breaking of our new nursing building; a beer, wine and food fundraiser for the local hospital (a truly sad loss); a dissertation defense of a fine colleague (I was on her committee); a golf outing (another truly sad loss); participation in county fairs, partnership meetings, and freshman orientation planning. Beyond the sadness of what I missed is the gratitude towards those who stepped in my absence.

These are all monsters that I have grappled with for two years, the emails merely providing shape and form to what has been spectrally haunting me.  These monsters are nothing compared to the ones that speak to events that had farther-reaches into the soul of SMC: a series of emails about a problem that was developing and that I had to address almost immediately three months later when I returned; a series of emails about an environment that showed clearly no problems were on the horizon, and yet would be as soon as I returned.  These monsters are all the more painful because they seemed to have come out of the black hole that was my absence, as if my gravitational pull, once removed, was the only thing keeping the fusions at the core from exploding.

I feel like I should just mass delete all of these emails between late May and early September 2017, when I returned to work. But, maybe, just maybe, they might be useful someday for historians who want to piece together what really occurred with (or without) me that summer.