Having Lived Much of My Life

In the fall of 1932, my Grandfather Oakford wrote a touching letter to his three daughters. He had been ill often in his life. Apparently, he was going to the hospital because of his health issues and wanted to write to them just in case he didn't make it. I've had a copy of this letter all my life. My mother, Mary Elizabeth, would have been about twelve in 1932 and was the oldest of the three girls. The baby, Dorothy, would have been around six years old. This advice from my grandfather to his girls might also help you.

October 1932

My dear Mary Elizabeth, Catherine and Dorothy,

Daddy does not know how soon he will be called from you, so I am writing these lines with the hope that you will have them as you grow older.
Love and above all obey your mother for she is the best friend you will ever have.
Keep your body, mind and soul clean so that you will be truly happy, both on earth and in God's heaven.
Study hard, play hard, and above all take plenty of time for rest both for body and mind. Avoid the mistakes daddy made by taking on more things than he could successfully handle.
Think carefully before you go into a thing, in order that you will not make too many mistakes for mistakes are the things in life that worry and worry must surely be avoided.
Anger, envy, jealousy, fear, worry, fretting and ill-will are the emotions that finally bring on disease by causing poison to seep into the blood stream.
May god bless our three dear little girls and your dear mother and may you be kept safely together as long as life shall last.

Your Daddy

Fortunately for the family, he lived another dozen years. In fact, he died several years after I was born in 1943. However, I have only two very vague memories of being with him. I wish that he could have lived longer so that I could have remembered him, listen to him about life, and how he felt about all sorts of things.

Harry is on the right in this photo standing next to my mother and me. My great-grandfather is in the black derby hat.

My grandfather was a man that struggled to overcome various health problems and was committed to caring for his family...both his nuclear and extended family. His letter of 1932 was merely one of his expressions of concern for his immediate family.

Jack, I have written this short book of advice to you, because you are the second most important thing that has occurred to me in the past dozen years...your grandmother is the first.

1. While I have had a very healthy life, I have danced with death twice. I had a prostate cancer operation in 2008 without any problems. If you ever get sick, go to a teaching hospital like the University of Chicago. While the da Vinci robotic surgery was uneventful, it was treated as an outpatient procedure. However, the cancer had gotten a little bit outside the prostate. My PSA started to inch up after several years. So I went back to U of C, and I am finishing up 16-weeks of hormone therapy and 8-weeks of radiation. I expect and am confident that prostate cancer won't kill me. However, it was a learning experience to dance with that cancer. I realized that I was not medically perfect...that was sobering insight. Your papa is not Superman.

Then several months after the prostatectomy in 2008, I danced much closer to death after falling off a ladder while painting the deck of our home. I was in ICU for nearly a month and had a bagel-sized part of my skull removed to allow my brain to swell. Again, I was fortunate; I didn't die or worse become a human vegetable. I know better than many people my age about the reality of dancing with death. When you have to dance with death, don't let it lead around the dance floor of life. Trust me. Be in control.

My experience in the first half of 2008 only added to my awareness about death because of my mother and father's struggle with health issue. My mother had breast cancer and then lupus erythematosus. My father had heart disease. In both cases, their health conditions resulted in their premature deaths one at 51 and the other at 68. I have outlived my mother by nearly two decades.

Now, I could have copped an attitude and said that it wasn't fair either with my parents' deaths or my near misses. Nevertheless, that would have gotten me nowhere. My suggestion to you is not to cop an attitude either. Rather learn from the problem and go on with life. Wasting the brevity of life that we do have is a useless endeavor. Not only is it a waste of precious time, it won't get you anywhere.

2. Much of your health in life is the result of hereditary factors. Those factors are stored in your DNA conception. However, you can either modify your bad DNA and/or control much of your health during your life. I have outlived both my parents in both longevity and in quality of my life. I did what I could to do to exercise daily. Cardiovascular exercise will strengthen your heart and the rest of your body. I biked around my neighborhood when I was in school, ran cross country in high school and college. I have ridden a stationary bike for 30-minutes every day for decades. In that time, I have circumnavigated the world. In fact, your dad and mom have that bike now.

I have done RAGBRAI, which is a race across the state of Iowa. I did that when I was 58 years old. The distances went from around 50 to over 100 miles each day for nearly a week.

This is me at the edge of the Mississippi at the end of the race. I'm at the extreme lower right.

Since your birth, I have ridden nearly every day a 15.5 mile course around the lake in our subdivision. I can average about 13mph, which takes me a little bit over an hour. Your presence in the world has enlivened me really to concentrate in a cardiovascular exercise program. I want to enjoy your presence in my life for many years. Believe me.

This is me in Crown Point and below is me with Maddux in Indy.

Back when I was in my late 20s, cardiologists and fitness authorities wanted people to exercise at least 3x a week at 80% of your heart's capacity. It was called a target rate. You would take 220, subtract your age, and multiply by 80%. My target heart rate is 121 heartbeats per minute (bpm). On your birthday, your target heart rate is only slightly less that 176 bpm.

I had a stress test last year. While taking the test, the cardiologist wasn't so concerned about the target rate of 80%, he was insistent upon exercising everyday for an hour. Talk with your doctor when you get into your early teens and go by the doctor's advice. Whichever is the preferred amount of time or heart rate, follow the doctor's suggestion. It is one of the means by which you can control your health.

3. Pain is good. Now, don't seek out pain in life; plenty of pain will find you. However, there is a virtue to pain if you address the pain and not run from it. If you face the pain and respond to it positively, it will make you great. Trust me.

I have taught art history for years...even while I was still in college. This is a fact; believe me. There is no such thing as a great artist without great pain. Pain motivates artists; it is the thing that causes them to but meaning into their lives. What is true for the art world is true also for the regular world. Your greatness will be determined not by luck but by your facing pain head-on and dealing with it. Running away from it or ignoring pain is an absolute dead-end that will get you nowhere other than wallowing in self-pity.

4. Here is a major pain that I had in life. I went from an average school system in my 5th grade as a bright student in Pennsauken, NJ and moved to the 19th best system in the States-a place called Mt. Lebanon, PA. Talk about a kick in the teeth. I concluded that something was wrong, and it must have been me. While in my first five years of school, I did quite well grade wise. However, adjusting to this superiorly gifted system in Mt. Lebanon was painful. I just never seemed to catch up with my friends. Why couldn't I do well in Mt. Lebanon as I did back in Pennsauken?

It took me a long time to figure out what was wrong. Realizing that doing slightly better than average in a super school didn't mean I was dumb. I didn't realize that it meant that I was well-above average. However, I addressed my mistake, which allowed me to turn my life around. It also allowed me to love teaching and being dedicated to waking up other students. Pain motivated me to think. I wanted success in my professional life. Once I realized the problem and addressed it, I have enjoyed the years of teaching. I'll never retire from teaching. Trust me. I mean that. I also mean that it won't be long before you will be learning about Michelangelo, van Goth, and Chagall from your papa. That will be a hoot for both of us. After the history of art, we will explore history in general. Then we will get into philosophy and ethics. I'm working on the art history part already. I will have the rudimentary teaching methodology by this time next year when you turn two.

5. Along with the pain of thinking that I was incapable of learning at any real level, I have dreamed for over a dozen years of teaching in a small college like the one from which I graduated. I have either taught solely online or a combination of online and onsite of what are often called commuter colleges where students generally live at home or by themselves and not on campus. These commuter colleges don't have on campus housing.

When the University of St. Francis had an opening, I applied for the teaching position and got it. The search committee recommended me to the president of the school, and once that formality was accomplished, I'd be on campus for the fall session in late August of 2008. However, within a week of the offer, I fell and cracked my head. I was in ICU for the last half of May and the first half of June.

The University of St. Francis decided to offer the position to the next candidate thinking that I would not recover from my fall and/or not be able to teach starting in the fall of 2008. They didn't think to ask me, granny, or better yet the neurologist or surgeon both of which could have given them their informed medical insights. However, when I got home from the hospital, I was called by a committee member and told that the committee couldn't make a decision at that time.

I figured that they wanted to see how well I functioned teaching again before hiring me. I was already scheduled to teach a class in August-the same August that I would have taught fulltime if I hadn't fallen. I went about teaching the same way all that school year without having any neurological or teaching problems. Sometime, in the late spring of 2009, I called to ask about the job. They told me that they filled it already. I couldn't figure out what had happened.

Then it dawned on me that the school hadn't made a medically informed decision based upon facts but based on their feelings. They didn't feel that I could teach and gave the job to the next candidate. That was an emotional loss to me. I wanted that position badly even though I would have made less money than I had been making already. I could believe a secular school would have operated in that manner, but it was unimaginable that a religious school with the name St. Francis would have done so.

What did I do about it? I licked my wounds and went back to teaching for them even with that loss. How they fumbled the academic and ethical ball wasn't going to change me. I love teaching regardless of their ethical incompetency.

Several semesters came and went like they had for the decade prior that I had taught for them. One semester a student had not followed directions, etc. and got an F for the course grade. The student was upset and emailed me questioning the F. The F was given because the student hadn't done the semester's work correctly. I have had a couple students each year during that decade at St. Francis that did the same thing or plagiarized, and it cost them a passing grade. I have never treated one student unfairly.

However, the student that I had taught didn't like my explanation for the student's F and called the student's advisor stating that I had not been fair. The advisor, who I had known for almost the entire decade of working at St. Francis, called me to inquire why the student had failed. I gave the advisor all the data like I had over the years in similar situations. I thought that the advisor believed me without question. No one during those twelve years in the dean's office ever questioned my decision especially after I explained the situation.

Apparently, the advisor didn't believe me and said that some of the other people in the dean's office thought that I had unfairly graded the student, because I hadn't gotten the job for which I had been hired.

There were several things about the advisor's statement about which I had problems. First, the advisor not only disbelieved me but had talked to others in the dean's office sharing that disbelief...without first contacting me. While I had not acted incorrectly, the advisor surely had. Second, this accusation occurred several semesters after the search committee bypassed their decision to hire me. If I were upset with the committee and wanted to take it out on a student, I would have done so long before this incident occurred. Why would I have waited a year or more to show my displeasure with the committee? That doesn't make any sense logically and besides that is not my modus operandi.

It should be noted that during the dozen years of teaching there, I was awarded an outstanding teaching award in 2004 that is given out only on rare occasions to gifted teachers. In addition, St. Francis allowed me to write my own course, plan an itinerary for an overseas class to Tibet and China. I wrote the syllabus for that class that covered religion, philosophy, and history and determined the places where my students would visit while on their three week plus trip. I created for that class a very large and informative PowerPoint Presentation as a teaching tool that I used for teaching.

Now, I hope that the world in which you grow-up and in which you live never messes up like they did. However, sadly, methinks that you will experience something similar to this in life. You can't control the incompetency of others. The temptation is to get mad, etc. However, if someone screws up, that is a problem, but don't make it worse. If their conduct is flawed, don't replicate it by acting like they had treated you. Be above that. Don't allow someone else's actions metastasize into your conduct in the world.

Ironically, not getting that job was beneficial for me. First, I am not working in an environment that ethically dysfunctional. Another is that the person hired instead of me lasted a year and either quit or was fired. A friend of mine who was an assistant dean there for decades was let go in an attempt to save money. Therefore, when something happens to you unfairly, make sure you don't lower your modus operandi to theirs. Martin Luther King reminded all of us, "That old law about 'an eye for an eye' leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing." Don't you forget both my experience and King's comment. You will go far if you do. Trust me.

This critical lesson of life applies to personal relationships with other people...your family, friends, and the person with whom you fall in love and marry. Don't respond negatively and/or in the same manner as they dealt with you. When someone steps on your feet either by accident or intentionally, don't jump into their face. Either they just made a mistake, or they meant to step on you.

Nevertheless, don't become equivalent to that lesser person by being like them. Steve Biko said once, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." Don't allow others to control your mind and behavior. Do not allow their psych issues to become contagious and affect you in the same way. Again from Steve Biko, "It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die."

5. Understand why you think the way you do. You are either left brain or right brain bilateral. Left brain people are linear thinkers, they love math and science, and are into the details of life. Right brain people are artsy, their minds are anything but linear, and the see the global picture and not the details of the left brain people. Most right brain people can access some segments of the left brain but generally are right brain with some exceptions. I've been guessing what you will be. Neither the right nor left brain thinking is good or bad per se.

I'm right brain bilateral and am married to your grandmother who is left brain. Opposites often attract. I'm out there dreaming in the clouds and she is here on earth attempting to figure out how to make my dreams concrete. I was rattling on one day a dozen years ago about traveling to Tibet. Your grandmother merely said, "So what are you going to do about it?" She in a polite manner was saying, "Put up or shut up."

What is critical is that you understand what you are. It is something with which you were born; it isn't a choice. Know your strengths and also your weaknesses. Spend more time on your strengths. Utilize your strengths. Attempting to bring your weaknesses up to being equivalent to your strengths won't work. Having said that, know what you don't like and you do like. Be aware that you won't reverse which hemisphere in which you are dominant. However, some of those weaknesses need some attention on your part so that they don't become an Achilles heel for you.

If you are left brain, you won't be driven by art. What they wear or how they decorate their home aren't really terribly important to you. Therefore, be aware of your shortcoming. Listen and ask questions of others who live via their right side of their brains. You can start with me.

If you are right brain, organization and getting things lined out won't be your forte. Therefore, get a day planner and before your day begins plan the day by writing down hourly tasks. I assure you that I attempt to get my day organized, but my attempts often fall short of precise organization of those that are left brain. At least, attempt to compensate for your shortcomings while pushing hard with your strengths.

6. Birth order is critical also for you. Birth order determines the way we look at the world and interact with it. First borns are different in personality than a middle or a last born. Again, know what you are based upon some easily determined guidelines. Read any book on birth order. I read years ago The Birth Order Book by Kevin Leman. Go also to Google and pull up any of the Leman tapes like:

Know what all the birth order grouping are like. First borns are successful, but they pay a high price for it. Middle children are into helping the family or an organization's function but are often lost in the middle. Last borns are parties waiting to happen while everyone enjoys last borns.

Know what position you are. So far, you are a first born, but that gets iffy if a little sister comes into your world within the next year or so. However, if you are at least two or two and a half when she comes into your family, you probably remain a first born. The reason for that birth order reversal is because little girls mature at a faster rate than little boys. Little girls can make up the difference if the time period is two years or less.

As a first born, you will be an overachiever, competitive, never satisfied, and very driven. These are virtues, but you won't be as outgoing and gregarious as the last born and the family's smooth functioning won't concern you like that of a middle child. As with left and right brain option, know your strengths and fully utilize them. In addition, be aware of things about which you won't be interested. Attempt to compensate for your shortcomings or for those thing about which you are indifferent. You won't be able to move your shortcoming to the level of achievement that your strengths. Nevertheless, you will be able at least to improve your shortcoming a bit more than you would have attempted.

Finally, Jack, you sent me a Father's Day card just before you turned one year old. Inside it read, "When I grow up, I want to be just like you-very loved." You will be loved whether or not you use any of my advice to you. I give it to you freely, because I dearly love you just because....

Reread this small volume of suggestions during your journey through life. If you think something might work, try it. If not, try something else. Nevertheless, remember this one thing, you are loved just as you are.

And to those that will read this, Ayanna, my 16-year old granddaughter, my kids, your parents, and the rest of the world. What I said to Jack is applicable, IMHO, to all. Life is a precious gift; don't waste it.

Dancing with Death

Dancing with Death

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