Category Archives: Personal

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.

Children

Thirty four years ago today my wife and I welcomed a beautiful, first-born, child into the world. The thrill of watching a child grow from an infant, to an inquisitive child, and to a wonderful adult has been one of the most profound experiences of our lives. All of this has reminded us of some simple poetry we read long ago:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. ~ Kahlil Gibran

And what advice should we give our children? The best advice any parent can give their children is that they should strive for a meaningful life filled with joy, love, and inner peace. The best advice for parents is to listen to your children, they have a lot to teach you too.

So happy 34th birthday to a our firstborn, and thanks for all you have taught us. We love you. Live long and prosper.

Glarus Switzerland

Direct democracy being practiced in Glarus, Switzerland in 2009.
My great-great grandfather, Christopher Messerli, was from Glarus.

What follows is the little I know of my geneology. I like that the Messerly’s came from Switzerland—a wonderful, peaceful country, famous for their neutrality. I dedicate this post to the memory of my father.

 The city of Glarus, in eastern Switzerland.

PARENTS – John’s Parents:

Benjamin Edward Messerly (Oct 8, 1917 – Jan 3, 1989)
Mary Jane Hurley Messerly (May 1, 1919 – September 18, 2005)

Ben’s siblings: Blanche Helen Messerly Meinert (June 20, 1907 – 1994)
Joseph Fredrick Messerly (Apr 8, 1914 – Oct 8, 1977)
Alice Cecilia Messerly Hardt (March 9, 1921- 2012)
Vernon Forrest Messerly (Feb 21, 1923 – Apr 10, 1974)

Mary Jane’s sibling: Hugh Richard, died at about age 6 before Mary was born.

GRAND PARENTS – Ben’s Parents:

Joseph Louis Messerly (Jan 8, 1888 – Nov 8, 1948)
Alice (christened Else) Stuessie Messerly (Dec 14, 1888 – Jan 26, 1973)

Joseph’s siblings: Louis, Bertha, Otto, John, Mazie

Alice’s siblings: Anna Stuessie Griffin; Ollie Stuessie Killibrew; Emma Stuessie Honnick; Martin Stuessie  (Anna’ children: Anna Marie Schuelle, Edgar; Ollie’s: Oris and Lola Wright; Emma was childless; Martin: Estelle, a step-child)

Mary Jane’s Parents:

Joseph Hurley (July 13, 1871 – 1951) Born in Cincinnati Ohio
Stella Roll (Rawl?) Hurley (July 1, 1878 – Dec 18, 1968) Born in Cinncinati Ohio

GREAT-GRANDPARENTS –  Joseph Louis Messerly’s parents:

Louis Messerly – Came to St. Louis from England. He was a stove repairman who was originally from Switzerland.
Mary Ellen Sweeney Messerly –Believed born in St. Charles, Mo. Her parents were Catholic and came from Ireland.

Louis’s siblings: He had a brother who lived in London and a sister, Bertha, who married a man named English. Mary’s siblings: Had a twin brother who died.

Alice Stuessie Messerly’s parents:

Christopher Stuessie – (a Protestant. Born in Highland, IL (Oct 1, 1842 – Aug 3, 1904)
Mary Olseuski (Olendowski sp?)– Born in Mariensburg Germany near the Polish border  (Jan 13, 1863 – Jun 14, 1911) and came to America when she was 17.

Joseph Hurley’s parents:

Joseph & Mary Hurley – From Ireland.

Stella Hurley Roll’s parents:

Sam & Matilda Jane Roll – believed to be from England. (After Sam died Matilda married William J. Pavey.)

GREAT-GREAT GRANDPARENTS

Louis Messerly’s parents – from SWITZERLAND (His father was named Christopher Messerli and Christopher’s father was also named Christopher. They were from Glarus Switzerland.) Mary Ellen Sweeney’s parents – from IRELAND; Chris Stuessie’s parents – from GERMANY. Mary Olseuski’s parents – from GERMANY? POLAND?

Joseph Hurley’s parents – from IRELAND? Mary Hurley’s parents – from IRELAND?

Sam Roll parent’s -? Matilda Roll’s parents -?

Wondering

This is the view tonight of the Seattle skyline from my kitchen window.

city_skyline_night2

Like many scenes, it elicits thought. Of the long journey that brought me to this hill, on this night. A journey full of randomness and choices, of sorrow and joy, and of questions arising. Why here? Why now? Why anything at all? But more importantly, what brought the universe to this point in space and time? As Wittgenstein said: “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” We will not solve this mystery in our lifetimes. It will take an eternal cosmos to do that.

But perhaps the cosmos is immortal and we, as a part of it, are too. After all, we know little of cosmic destiny. So who is to say what is possible in the vastness of cosmic space and time?

 

Book Dedications

For the first time since beginning to blog, I did not write an entry on consecutive days. The weather was beautiful here in the northwest and the mountains were calling. I appreciate the hundreds of readers who visited the site during the lull in my productivity.

Today I was thinking about book dedications. I have always tried to write meaningful ones and I enjoy reading the other book dedications. The first dedication I wrote was for my master’s thesis in graduate school.

“To my father, who approved of my being inquisitive.”

This honored the memory of a dinner table conversation when I was young. My father told me I was inquisitive, and I asked what the word meant. After he told me, I asked if it was good to be inquisitive. He said yes.  My next one was for my doctoral dissertation.

To my mother and father
whose love nurtured me,
And to Jane,
whose love sustains me …

I suppose this represented the transition from a focus on parental love to the love of my spouse. The next was for a college ethics textbook:

 For Jane
“a lily among the thistles …” (Song of Solomon 2:2)

Anyone who knows me will find it ironic that I quote the Bible, which is for the most part a terrible book. But I had recently run across the quote and was trying to capture the sense in which Jane is incorruptible. I dedicated my next book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution
to my graduate school mentor whom I discussed in my very last post.

To Richard J. Blackwell
an exemplar of moral and intellectual virtue.

Professor Blackwell was the inspiration for that book so it seemed appropriate. Talking with him years later he told me that I was the only one to have ever dedicated a book to him. He seemed pleased. My recent book The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives bore this inscription:

For my children—John Benjamin, Katie Jane, Anne Marie, and Joshua Harrison—that you may live forever in a good, beautiful, and meaningful world;

And for Jane … that together we may somehow join them.

And I dedicated my last book, Who Are We?: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific and Transhumanist Theories Of Human Nature, as follows:

To Jane, who has a beautiful nature.

Finally here are my two favorite dedications, both from two of my intellectual heroes. The first is Will Durant’s dedication to his wife Ariel in his 1926 book, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers one of the best-selling philosophy books ever published. At the time Durant was in his early forties and his wife was in her late twenties, so clearly he wrote it with the expectation that she would outlive him. As it turned out, they died a few days apart after almost seventy years of marriage. It conveys the notion that others will pick up where we leave off. 

Grow strong, my comrade … that you may stand
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
The shattered fragments of my song will come
At last to finer melody in you;
That I may tell my heart that you begin
Where passing I leave off, and fathom more.
― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

And here is the dedication by Bertrand Russell to his wife Edith. It was written when Russell was almost 80 years old, after many attempts at finding love. It is wistful reminder through struggle and toil … love and peace can be found.

To Edith

Through the long years
I sought peace,
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.
Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace,
I know rest,
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep,
I shall sleep fulfilled.