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Humor, Humility, Music, And Exercise

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PRELIMINARIES:

I am not only honored to be asked to speak for a few moments to so distinguished a group, but am decidedly pleased to be alive to do so. Clearly I shall eschew trying to play pseudo-doctor and shall not speak medically, let alone "hard" scientifically. My own doctorate is in Philosophy, with special focus on Plato, Hume, Whitehead and the Philosophy of Mind. It is within that context, the philosophy of mind, that I locate my remarks.

I have found it possible to live very happily and very well even though I was assigned to Death Row about sixteen months ago, and it is my "prescription" for this that I propose to give you, for free even! The connection with the philosophy of mind, by the way, is straightforward. Unless one is an unreconstructed Dualist (that is, one who thinks that "minds" are immaterial entities and quite distinct from "brains") one cannot help but acknowledge that how one thinks and feels (i.e. brain activities) affects and is affected by more "bodily" events such as stomach aches, bruised knees and, yes, mesothelioma.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

The surgeon who operated on me December 28, 1999, was extremely discouraging to my family and, when I went for my one and only "follow-up" (a.k.a. "exit") visit with him, I inquired whether I should continue to use a funny little "blower" object which had been handed me in the hospital. (You may have seen such a thing: it has a mouthpiece and four little plastic balls.) "Oh" said he, "no point in bothering with that. Throw it away." When my husband and I got back home from this enchanting visit, I went to pick up and throw away the "blower," but instead I gave it another whirl (I mean blow of course, or actually an inhale, since that was what is was designed for). And behold, ALL those silly little balls (in nursery-room colors) ascended rapidly to their intended place. "Hmmph, so much for him!" I thought. (I did eventually throw the gadget away, but that was months later.)

Meanwhile, in January 2000 at the urging of a son of ours who lives in New York, I went for consultations to Sloan-Kettering and New York University Hospital. It was there in New York that I learned about the presence of a Mesothelioma Clinic at the very hospital (the University of Chicago) where I had been operated!

So much for background, and now it is on, briefly, to my "prescription" for how to live well and very happily on death row. The prescription is dressed up this occasion in the form of an axiom and some theorems.

AXIOM

DO NOT TAKE YOURSELF OR YOUR DISEASE TOO SERIOUSLY AND BY ALL MEANS MAINTAIN AND NOURISH A SENSE OF YOUR RELATIVE INSIGNIFICANCE, A SENSE OF IRONY AND ABOVE ALL A SENSE OF HUMOR.

THEOREMS (OR HOW NOT TO TAKE YOURSELF TOO SERIOUSLY)

1. My husband, an attorney, plays the 'cello and I play the piano. From the day after I was released from the hospital (and blew those balls) we have spent at least half an hour late each afternoon playing duets (baroque music).

IF YOU LOVE AND APPRECIATE GOOD MUSIC YOU ABSOLUTELY CANNOT BE THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF OR HOW YOU FEEL WHILE PLAYING.

2. Ever since I got my Ph.D. in 1964, I have worked teaching college and teaching or tutoring as a volunteer in Inner City schools. Brilliantly thoughtful friends and former colleagues of mine sent me manuscripts to read and to edit, when I returned from the hospital. One eve asked me to write a short piece about the ethics of clinical trials! The present Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, Cozette Buckney, (who had been Principal of a school where I taught Junior Great Books long ago) sent me proposals to evaluate and books and articles to criticize. Then when I was strong enough to work outside my home, she got me a challenging job (volunteer) tutoring quite advanced mathematics at a local school. I have been working there two half-days a week since last spring, and the accelerated math for 8th graders at this school is more sophisticated than anything I ever had in high school, so -- as in the case of the music -- I do a lot of work! Also this winter I took an elementary course in cuneiform (the ancient Sumerian writing and mathematics) and shall do a follow-up course this coming summer. So I guess my theorem 2 is:

IF AT ALL POSSIBLE RESUME WHATEVER ENGROSSED YOU AND REQUIRED NEW HARD WORK FROM YOU BEFORE YOU GOT SICK. YOU WILL FIND THAT YOU ARE JUST AS GOOD AT IT AS YOU WERE BEFORE. (That is, if you are lucky enough to have "it" be some cognitive activity. Perhaps if you were a ballet dancer, hmm, you might take up choreography? I don't know but a dancer would.)

3. I returned to walking our standard poodle (an Einstein among canines!) Quite soon after I returned from the hospital (although my extraordinary daughter often does the early morning walk). And I resumed swimming within about four weeks after "dismissal" (there is a pool in our apartment building which helps!). I have always gone in for sports and exercise, not faddishly but with joy, so these physical activities like the intellectual ones, returned me to myself so to speak. So theorem 3 is:

DO WHATEVER PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES YOU USED TO ENJOY AND DO SOME SUCH THING EVERY DAY, BUT DO NOT SPEND YOUR TIME WHILE DOING IT BROODING OVER HOW YOU FEEL!

4. Not everyone has the extraordinary good fortune to have a "mate" like my husband (who does NOT hover solicitously over or gaze loving but sorrowfully at me) nor has everyone so large and wondrous a family of children and their spouses and their children, so I cannot really call this a theorem: perhaps a lemma:

APPRECIATE THE KINDNESS OF FAMILY AND FRIENDS BUT TRY TO LAUGH AND JOKE WITH THEM AND NOT TO ENCOURAGE THEM IN OVERLY TENDER AND CONCERNED BEHAVIORS.

And that is about it. I want to add that I got "my affairs in order" the first week I was out of the hospital. I am NOT "in denial." And of course there are other delights which it seemed inappropriate to dwell on here, except to reiterate that the experience of pleasure(s) is crucial to my axiomatic system.

Thank you every much for this privilege!

Fay Horton Sawyier -- April 18, 2001

*** POSTED MAY 30, 2001 ***