What’s It All About Alfie?
From an Eighty-Year Old Alfie

I have several idiosyncrasies, one of which is saving things, as in nearly everything. I have sweatshirts that go back several decades. When I get cards in the mail, they will put them on my desk in my office. They will sit there for months. When I’m cleaning up the collection of stuff on my desk, I’ll sweep them into a drawer and often forget them for years.

A couple of weeks ago, while cleaning up my office area, I came across a birthday card from my father on my 40th birthday in a drawer. Today is my 80th birthday. I don’t recall receiving the card, let alone remembering what he wrote. Therefore, I took a moment to read my dad’s birthday card. This is part of his opening paragraph. “You have followed the dreams I had for you and become the man I hoped you would be. No father could ask for more.”

As I thought about the note my dad wrote, I looked through some of my baby pictures.

Old Photos

There I sat and pondered. My mother died when she was 51, and my dad died several years after this birthday card was sent. I have lived thirty years longer than my mother had and a dozen years longer than my father. Compared with my parents, I have been fortunate to have lived as long as I have.

Additionally, I danced with death fifteen years ago due to cracking my head on a retaining wall when I fell off a ladder, resulting in a subdural hematoma. I also had a prostatectomy. However, prostate cancer had metastasized beyond the prostate.

All those thoughts raced around in my mind before I thought about my father’s statement about his happiness. I reflected upon his determination to provide my younger brothers and me with an excellent education prior to college. My dad’s determination meant moving to Mt. Lebanon before I entered junior high. That experience wasn’t initially a blessing for me. Looking back on going to school in Mt. Lebanon actually gave me a chance to become what my father had hoped for me. It pushed me educationally.

I went to Muskingum College in the early 60s. At that time, Muskingum required a 10-hour art history class in either one’s junior or senior year. I took it in my junior year from Louie Palmer, the professor. At the end of the year, Louie asked me to be his teaching assistant in my senior year. That was an enormous educational opportunity for me at two levels. First, I taught a handful of subsections each week, wrote the midterms and finals in both semesters, and graded them. At another level, I began to realize my potential.

After graduate school, I went to New College at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, for a year of post-graduate school. During the summers before and after New College, I traveled throughout Europe. Over the years since then, I have been to Africa, the Middle East, the South Pacific, and Asia.

In the 14th century, Ibn Battuta visited much of the known world. I completely agree with his understanding of travel. Ibn Battuta said, “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Ibn Battuta’s travels

Ibn Battuta’s travels

Traveling left me speechless in every place I visited, starting with Scotland. However, a decade ago, I went to Myanmar in an attempt to interview Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, often called the Lady. And I failed. As happenstance would have it, I met a young lady who wanted to play Scrabble with me. The young lady was nine years old, and her name was Ti Ti.

This is a photo of Ti Ti and me playing Scrabble in her living room.

Playing Scrabble

What she recalls about our time playing Scrabble is that she beat me. What I recall about the event is that I discovered my granddaughter. Playing Scrabble with Ti Ti radically changed my Weltanschauung. Ibn Battuta was on point when he said, “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Ti Ti and her younger sisters, along with their parents, are a part of my family. Forty years ago, neither my father nor I had any idea what the future had for me.

Our Family

As for the man my father hoped for me, I have miles to go before becoming the man I hoped to be. I’m 80, and I grasp that my clock is ticking. I feel like Michael Caine in the movie Alfie.

In my journey down the yellow brick road of my life, I realize that it is for me to determine my purpose in life. It is solely my responsibility. Looking back upon eight decades, broadening my family is my purpose. My purpose in life must be more than merely me.

Interestingly, this poem was in my baby book.

The Bridge Builder

An old man, going a lone highway,
Came at the evening cold and gray
To a chasm vast and deep and wide
Through which was flowing a swollen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The rapids held no fears for him.
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” cried a fellow pilgrim near,
“You’re wasting your time in building here.
Your journey will end with the closing day;
You never again will pass this way.
You have crossed the chasm deep and wide;
Why build you this bridge at eventide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head.
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There follows after me today
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This stream, which has been as naught to me,
To that fair youth may a pitfall be.
He too must cross in the twilight dim —
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”

I have collected mantras during my life. This is one that I created. It is in giving that we get. The more we give, the more we get.

This is an interesting video about the history of Ibn Battuta.

This is the back of my dad’s birthday card.

Dad's Letter