My Biography

My Biography

John_cafe_fiore

CHILDHOOD AND PARENTS

My earliest memories are vivid and illicit nostalgia: the aroma of baked goods from my mother’s kitchen, a large cottonwood tree in our backyard, the smell of burning leaves in the fall, the glow of a real fireplace, sledding down the hills at the golf course up the street in the winter, and spring … when one could play baseball again. Was life ever better than when playing baseball? Or when playing sandlot football in the rain, snow, mud, and freezing cold? I don’t think so.

 Normandie Golf Course

I was loved by my parents more than I deserved—they loved me unconditionally. How indebted I am to them. My mother died on September 18, 2005 at the age of 86. She is no longer the beauty that stole my father’s heart in the 1930s; no longer the wife who waited through world war II for her husband to return; no longer middle age—but she was my first love, she was my father’s only love, and she was beloved by all her children.

My father died in 1989 at the age of 71, but not before he talked with me about politics, religion, history, sports and so much else. He labored physically for more than 50 years so that his family could have more than he did in his depression era youth. My parents did their best. They may not have received the wages due them—not many parents do—but they labored nonetheless. So now, after more than 50 years, I thank them for their labor and their love. My mother was comfort, consolation, and tenderness; my father was strength, guidance, and toughness. Both resonate within me still.

GRADE & HIGH SCHOOL (1961-1973)

Image result for greendale moA house like mine on the street I grew up on.

I grew up in Greendale, Missouri, a middle-class suburb of St. Louis in the midst of the baby boom. There were plenty of kids to play with and I grew up “with a ball in my hands,” as a childhood friend used to say. We played outside every day—baseball, soccer, and football mostly—since there wasn’t much to do inside back then. Our grade school soccer team won multiple city championships, and some of my soccer teammates went on to play college and professional soccer. (Needless to say, I was not among them.) Our baseball team was less successful, mostly because I was a pitcher who threw every ball right down the middle—with little or no velocity. As for football, I was “all-sandlot,” at least until we neared puberty when I found out I was too little for football. By high school, my sport of choice had changed to table tennis. I was lucky enough to play a number of the top-ranked players in the world, but I was beaten soundly by all of them.

 A picture of my high school, long since torn down.

The private high school I attended marked the beginning of my academic life. There I encountered the New England Transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—the first philosophers I had ever read. But it was the summer before college that marked the real beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was if a dam had broken within me, and I saw immediately the parochialism of the ideas to which I had been previously exposed. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.

COLLEGE – UNDERGRADUATE (1973-1978)

 The Univ. of Mo-St. Louis

My first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of religion, and Lenin’s critique of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked. Subsequently, I took the maximum number of philosophy courses possible; learning about Medieval, American, Modern, and Asian philosophy, and a bit of philosophy of religion, science, mind, and law from instructors like Edward Costello, Peter Fuss, Paul Gomberg, and David Griesedeck. In the meantime, I discovered women, and later, high stakes poker.

YOUNG ADULTHOOD & CHILDREN (1978-1986)

I headed off to Las Vegas with my poker winnings in 1979 and made a meager living playing poker over the next few years. On returning to St. Louis, I wooed my soon-to-be wife by the display of hundred-dollar bills I carried around in case a game surfaced. She was quite impressed, although less so when she found out that was all the money I had. (And that only 1 of the 4 doors on my dilapidated car opened!) But she married me in 1980, and during the next few years, we welcomed two beautiful children. We struggled financially during these years, as my poker income was inconsistent. By 1985 we had moved to Las Vegas where I dealt blackjack. However, the desert wasn’t to our liking and we moved back to St. Louis where I started graduate school in 1986. I wanted to go to Washington University in St. Louis, but unfortunately, I missed their deadline. So I accepted a graduate fellowship to St. Louis University, planning to switch schools. For a number of reasons, I never did switch.

GRADUATE SCHOOL (1986-1992)

 Dubourg Hall, St. Louis University

This is when I really became a good student. I raised kids, study hard, taught my own classes, and made some good friends. I learned much, both from my fellow graduate students—especially Darrell Arnold and John Ries—and from my professors—especially Richard J. Blackwell and William C. Charron. (For more on my professor’s influence see the “academic genealogy.”) I’ve always had mixed feelings about attending St. Louis University, which often leads people to mistakenly assume that I’m religious. The idea of attending a Catholic university sent shivers down my spine before I started, and somewhat haunts me to this day. Yet, I received an excellent education there for which I am immensely grateful. The other significant event was the addition of a new daughter in 1988. Like all my children, she has provided much joy.

POST-DOCTORAL (1992-PRESENT)

My first full-time job was at Ursuline College in Ohio—big mistake—both Ohio and the college. I rose to become chair of the philosophy department and had an office that overlooked the campus lake, but I wanted out of Cleveland—the weather there is horrific! Yet I did had some good students there, many of whom I recall fondly to this day.
(Especially Darcy A, Wendy W, Michelle F, Judy A, Donna O, Mary B, and Meredith V.S.)

 The view from my first office.

In 2000 I accepted a position as lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, where I taught in both the philosophy and computer science departments. In was while teaching at UT that I first realized the role that computer science would play in bringing about a future much different from the one I imagined. And I was always moved when walking through a quad whose main building has an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” But of course, this had no religious significance for me.

 Waggener Hall, UT-Austin

We left Austin in 2009 to follow our grown children to the Northwest—it was lonely in Texas without them. Since then I have taught part-time at a few different institutions, but now spend most of my time doing my own writing and research. I have left teaching behind, and have no desire to return. As the lyrics of an old Cat Stevens song say: “I’m not making love to anyone’s wishes, only for that light I see, Cause when I’m dead and lowered low in my grave, that’s gonna be the only thing that’s left of me.”

Today I live in Seattle, within walking distance of Puget Sound and the Space Needle. From my kitchen window, I can see both the Seattle skyline and Mount Ranier. Seattle is the best place I’ve ever lived. It is politically progressive and set in a breathtakingly beautiful natural setting—surrounded by snow-capped mountains, active volcanoes, undeveloped ocean coastlines, old-growth forests, temperate rain forests, alpine lakes, islands, waterfalls, and the Puget Sound fiord. Still, I wish I could live abroad, and long to die an expatriate, but for now, family obligations leave me in the United States.

My wife Jane has been the only woman I have ever loved, and we have been married for more than 35 years. She is an extraordinary woman in every conceivable way; intelligent, thoughtful, introspective, disciplined and conscientious, while at the same time possessing a heart full of warmth, compassion, and love. She is too good for this world. And, if all that is not enough, she is remarkably physically fit! I can’t keep up with her on our daily walks. For her, the most appropriate words are not my own, but the Bard’s:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Finally, as I look back over my life in search of its purpose, my sentiments are best echoed by the prose from the Prologue to Bertrand Russell’s autobiography. It is so beautiful that I long ago learned to recite it verbatim. (Which I can still do!)

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what
human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

10 thoughts on “My Biography

  1. What a moving piece. This brought a tear to my eye reading about your parents, your childhood, love of knowledge and family. This is beautifully written. Thank you.

  2. If it is not too personal, I would like to know;
    what your parents’ reactions were about you starting earning your living by gambling?

    I have also left teaching and research at university to start a business but I still yearn to teaching, do you feel the same sometimes?

    I am curious; why do you want to live and die as an expatriate?

    You speak very highly and lovingly about your wife; have you thought of the qualities she possesses or some of them before you decided to marry her or was it just pure passion and later you came to know these qualities? I am interested because, beside being attracted to my wife I thought rationally about her personal qualities and especially those that might complement mine before marriage.

  3. my parents probably weren’t happy with my gambling, but they loved me nonetheless. i have little desire to teach anymore after a 30 year career. i feel like a foreigner in this land, don’t like being a citizen of the empire, although that’s better than being a subject of it. as for my wife, probably both, but mostly i just got lucky.

  4. Thanks for sharing this John. I’ve been meaning to ask, but refrained because my endless curiosity usually overwhelms people’s time for it. It’s great to know you better though and now I wish even more that you’d make it to Britain for at least a visit. I’m a foreigner here and always will be, but at least that’s a feeling that’s easier to explain to people than when I too felt the same in the U.S. Most other countries also have their sins though. We individual citizens can’t bear them all.

    This also made me think that you really ought to check out “Becomming Myself”, the recent memoir by Irvin Yalom (the father of existential psychotherapy and author of “When Nietzsche Wept” among other novels). He is a lifelong gambler too and gushes about his wife / lifelong partner as well. I think you’d find that read a time well spent with someone who could have been a real friend.

  5. As with some previous comments, I waited a few days to mull this over before commenting, and I have two reactions to add to the mix.

    First, I am surprised that you have no desire to teach, although my surprise is probably due to the fact that I have no children. I derive enormous pleasure from teaching, from feeling that excitement of discovery that good students radiate. Another huge difference is that I my teaching is not in an academic environment, so I needn’t bother with the tedious crap of grading students. Grades pollute education.

    Second, I was very impressed by your ability to recall that long piece from Bertrand Russell. The only thing I can recite from memory is The Cremation of Sam McGee, and that because I had to memorize it in my first year of high school. There is something wonderfully ludicrous about that difference between us.

  6. I don’t think it has much to do with children.

    I think its a matter of being burned out after 30 years of teaching so many students who didn’t want to be there. Most all of my students took my philosophy classes to fulfill a requirement. So they were there because they had to be. So it’s like teaching someone to play the piano or play tennis or write a computer program who doesn’t want to learn how; they’re only there because their parents are making them take lessons.

    Also, there is the grading which creates a certain amount of conflict—mostly they care about the grade and I care about them learning. Thus the cumulative effect of teaching many years is that you’ve had battles with students over grades and quite frankly you encounter some very nasty students too. I often wished I could go into a class of 30 students and say “If you really want to study and learn we can do it together but if you don’t really care please leave.” Finally, I taught an extraordinary amount, as many as 8 classes in a single semester but almost always 5 classes a semester as I took on overload classes to pay to raise my kids

    As for the students who did want to learn, I enjoyed teaching them and learning from them. If I had a room full of them I would have found it immensely enjoyable. Thus my very best experiences were teaching philosophy majors who took upper division courses as electives.

    I don’t know what to say about memorizing short prose and short poems. I think what happened was that I read allowed 10 or 12 of my favorite pieces over the years and found that I had them almost memorized so I just went ahead and memorized them. I suppose for both the fun of it and to impress students. Rarely however did students even take note that I had recited from memory. If we ever get together I’ll recite Russell for you!

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