What Makes Me Tick?
The True Value of Pain

I have taught with Maeve Duffey at DeVry for over a dozen years. Name any political issue in our nation or the world, and I cannot think of a person who is more of a political clone of me than her. We were talking about racism in America recently and discussed what America needs to do to address this issue. I told her that even though I am a liberal that I also know that I am not liberal enough.


During the conversation, Maeve looked at me and said, "What makes you tick?" That is the wrong thing to ask me unless you had the time for my answer. She did have the time, and I gave her a long list of things that have made me who I am today. While it was a long-winded explanation, it was a quite eloquent elucidation.

I began 60-years ago with the first of three things that explain who I am. While in elementary school, I was an above average student in an average school district in Pennsauken, NJ. However, my dad received a promotion in an insurance company, and we moved to Pittsburgh, PA. Because of WWII, he did not get the opportunity to go to college, but he was determined to make sure his three boys went to college.

My dad asked a realtor in Pittsburgh where the best school system was in the area. The answer was Mt. Lebanon, which is in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Indeed, it was the best school system in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. In fact, Mt. Lebanon was the 19th best school system in the entire country. In addition, Mt. Lebanon was also the richest community in Pittsburgh.

The net result of me being at this school was that I thought that I was both poor and dumb. We did not really have the money to live in the community nor did I have any experience in a school system like Mt. Lebanon. It took me half my life to realize that I had come to a faulty conclusion. The fact that we managed to live in this golden ghetto meant that we were not exactly poor. While we were not wealthy either, we were made to feel it in that community. Additionally, getting Cs, occasionally Bs, and on rare occasions an A, meant that I was not dumb, either.

That mistake of thinking I was poor and dumb turned out to be a blessing in the last half of my life. Interestingly, one of my college professors at Muskingum College, Louie Palmer, saw me as much brighter than I ever thought that I was. After taking a required 10-hour art history class in my junior year, he asked me to be his teaching assistant during my senior year. That experience helped me to begin to realize that I was not dumb. I loved teaching. My pain of feeling dumb made me sensitive to others who thought less of themselves like I had. I gained from my pain.

Maeve talking with Al
The second issue was dancing with death twice. I told Maeve that I would not delete either of these dances. They both helped me become who I am. I know that I am not immortal. Therefore, I live everyday knowing that I have a short time to live. I was active in the civil rights movement during the 60s when I was in college and graduate school. However, my drive in this decade of the 21st century is on steroids due to dancing with death. One dance was the result of falling off a ladder and hitting my head, causing a subdural hematoma. I was in ICU for a month...and do not recall a moment in the hospital.

Al in the hospital

The other dance was with prostate cancer. I was diagnosed with it and had it removed robotically, but it returned. I underwent four months of drug therapy and two months of radiation.

Al getting radiation

Finally, a year ago, I was in Myanmar (Burma), which was the most transformative trip in my life. I have traveled overseas, lead tours to various countries, gone to school in Scotland, and taught in China and Tibet. I have been to four dozen countries and have a long list of other countries still to see.

Nevertheless, my month in Myanmar was the best trip that I have ever taken. It reminded me of the 60s and going to the South a half century ago during the civil rights movement. When I was in Yangon, Min Ko Naing, who is the Bobby Kennedy of Myanmar, invited me to the 88 Generation luncheon and to the protest rally at Sule Pagoda on their Independence Day.

Min Ko Naing

I gave Min Ko Naing Scottish shortbread as a symbol of my wish for Myanmar and Scotland to become free.

I walked around the rally hearing speeches in Burmese but hearing Joan Baez sing We Shall Overcome in my head. It was déjà vu for me. As I walked in the midst of the crowd, I felt that I was in two different places at the same time: Myanmar and America a half century ago.


After my explanation regarding what made me tick, I mentioned to Maeve that I would love to interview Clarence Page, who writes for the Chicago Tribune. Page is only a couple years younger than I am. I want to ask him about what makes him tick. I would love to know about his view of the 60s, which I considered a golden time for America.

Clarence Page

Clarence Page

I also want confirmation from him about whether he would see the 60s the same way that I do. In addition, I want to have him critique my excitement about the rebirth of the civil rights movement today a half century later. Today, we are seeing mass protests throughout the country. I have not been this excited or driven on addressing racism since the work we all did in the 60s. Could this be the century when we WILL overcome?

Dancing with Death

Dancing with Death

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