Saturday, December 8, 2018

My friend Larry Fincher-A computer wiz for all ages

I've met so many men with long remarkable lives who come together to form Givens Guys Group at The Givens Estates, a retirement community in Asheville.  The group is the only one of our 16 men's groups that is not directly part of Men's Wisdom Works which operates from OLLI UNC Asheville.  It stands alone as a men's group for residents of Givens Estates with 14 members.

I first met Larry Fincher by way of computer.  No, not computer dating.  I was struggling with a complex computer system while teaching a class at OLLI on the mayhem and madness of The Marx Brothers four years ago.  Mayhem indeed.  It was like Grouch and Harpo took control of the classroom.

Typically I solve my own computer issues, but not this time.  Seeing my angst and frustration one class member stepped forward and offered, "Let me give you a hand".  His hand saved my butt in the classroom.  That was Larry; unassuming, polite and an expert on all things computer-related.  Larry was 80 at the time.

At the end of the 3rd of four sessions highlighting the lives and antics of the Marx Brothers Larry devised a plan that was pure comedy gold.  By that session the tech system and I were simpatico.  Finally, it worked without a hitch.  As the 4th and final class began I donned a Harpo get-up as Larry conceived in his plan.  I faked another computer problem.  Larry strolled in from the back dressed like and walking like Groucho.  The Marx Brothers came to life.  Larry's eyes twinkled as he pulled a rubber chicken from under the computer.  His creativity turned chaos into comedy gold, creating the best classroom dynamic I ever experienced in my 37 years teaching adults.

Larry possesses a thorough applied understanding of computer technology.  We're often told that if you need any help on your technology consult with someone under 20 years of age.  Larry tosses that notion out the door at age 84.

Larry's computer expertise came from his personal interest in learning, applying and teaching computers.  He did not major in computer science.

Larry earned a master's degree in physics from Vanderbilt in 1958.  In the early 60's Larry took his first computer course using the MISTIC system (Michigan State Integral Computer).  In 1961-1967, as an Assistant Professor of Physics, he integrated computing into classical lab procedures.  In 1967-69, he worked to complete his Ph.D. in Administration of Higher Education at The University of Michigan.  Larry took advanced courses in computing.

During his time at Michigan he dove deep into computer tech working on the huge "IBM mainframe 360".  He had to dive deep.  His dissertation required advanced computer skills.  It was an era of significant advances in computer technology and Larry found himself at the forefront in understanding and adapting this growth spurt in computer science.

With his Ph.D. in tow, Larry served in administration and teaching at the U of M, UNC Greensboro, and ended his career at in academe at The University of Oregon.  While at The University of Oregon he supervised the installation of the most advanced university computer systems, including a fiber optics network and the first online registration system.

Now at 84, Larry is an influencer and coach for younger and older folks, alike.  At Givens Estates he is the go-to computer guru for the many residents with computer issues.  Larry's son, David, built his first computer at summer camp during his high school years.  David continues the family tradition as an advanced systems consultant in Shanghai China.  Larry and his son have had continual interaction keeping up with the evolution of computer science into the current environment of mobile devices communicating worldwide with social media.  Computers are in Larry;s family DNA.

In recent years, Larry advises his granddaughter on the many uses of her Apple laptop, iPad, and iPhone.  This reverses that axiom of the "under 20 computer expert" we've been programmed to use as our computer expert.  Larry's granddaughter is 18.  He 84 year old granddad is her computer wiz.

As the family patriarch Larry coaches his granddaughter who, because of Larry's coaching, has learned to communicate using social media and other online resources with her father in Shanghai.  Larry shares his excitement with her as they correspond around the globe whether she's in Colorado or Shanghai.  She is a freshman at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  She continues to use the expertise and insights she learned from her Gramps to stay connected with him, her father, and the world.

So, this holiday season of gift exchanges and love of family and friends, I think of Larry, and his gifts of learning, passion for teaching, and his never-ending grasp of advanced computer technology to serve others.  To the Givens Guys Group, his family and friends...Larry is the best gift of all.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Smoky Williams-An American Hero and True Patriot in Service to his Country

Every member of Men’s Wisdom Works brings his special experience, talents, and memories.  Within this mix, one group brings an added richness.  These are the men of The Givens Guys Group (GGG).  These 15 men live in the Givens Estates retirement community in Asheville.  It has been my deep and abiding honor to facilitate meetings for this MWW group operating by a different name.
For several future posts to our blog, I will highlight some of these extraordinary men who, except for two, are all in their 80’s and 90’s.  Their vigor matches the men in all our groups, but it is their experiences that give pause for thought.

Would you agree that the word and concept of patriotism is being sullied by politicians and their rabid supporters in the current climate of divisiveness?  To try to better understand true patriotism I started by looking up the definition of patriotism in the Oxford Dictionary which defines patriotism as “The quality of being patriotic, devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country.”  As the co-opting of the word and concept is under assault for political gain I found the best example of patriotism in its truest sense from a man in Givens Guys Group.

Mansfield (Smoky) Williams had it made.  Born to a life of privilege he graduated from Princeton University in 1942 with a degree in chemical engineering.  Albert Einstein taught as a guest lecturer in Smoky’s physics class.  Upon graduation Smoky secured a defense industry job at US Rubber.
Something wasn’t clicking for this man.  Something wasn’t right for him.  He needed permission to resign so he could serve in the military during WWII.  Smoky felt a duty to his country.  Shortly after graduating from a very prestigious university and landing a job that marked him as essential personnel, so he could not be drafted, Smoky enlisted in the Marine Corps, and reported to Camp Pendleton.

His parents were shocked that their son would give up his safe life to join the war effort.  Then, in a letter that Smoky remembers receiving as if it came today, his father, a veteran of WWI, commended his son and gave Smoky his full support for committing to serve his country in WWII.

As a second lieutenant, he trained at Camp Pendleton for 9 months.  Then his training took him to Hawaii where he continued training and preparing for what was perhaps the bloodiest, most ruthless battle of the war.  Smoky led his platoon as they were part of the first wave of Marines to fight the Japanese at Iwo Jima.  Movies, books, and TV shows try to show us the horror soldiers endured on the battlefield.  They don’t come close to the reality Smoky and every other marines experienced on Iwo.

He fought and led by example.  He worked to secure safety, as best he could, for his men in battle.  Despite his passion to serve and bring his men home, only half his men returned alive.

Once stateside, he returned to Princeton to relearn what he forgot about chemical engineering.  War can have that effect on a returning Marine.  He went on to enjoy a successful career in chemical engineering from which he retired in 1982.

My friend, Smoky, continues to defy norms.  At age 97, he still plays golf.  Smoky took up the game at 70 because his wife could no longer play tennis with him.  Because of his age, he rides in a golf cart posting a white flag so that he can drive his cart anywhere on the course.  But let’s be clear.  This white flag symbolizes anything but surrender for this veteran of Iwo Jima.

He possesses a delightful sense of humor that keeps our Givens Guys Group laughing with him…never, ever at him, as he tells stories laced with humor, energy and playfulness of a much younger man.  Smoky remains passionate about patriotism and serving his country.  For him, patriotism is not about flag waving or bellicose boasting.  For Smoky, patriotism means service to your country, your community, your neighbors.  The military offers one service option, but Smoky sees many other ways for us to give back.

He believes serving on the PTA, behaving decently to fellow Americans of all stripes, serving up manners when behind the wheel, caring for neighbors, joining the Peace Corp or VISTA, and helping in the aftermath of natural disasters, all stand for “real” love of country.  Smoky continues as a role model for his contemporaries and younger folks as well.  More than believing in America, he served his country and continues to do so today as an ambassador for decency, the Marine Corps, Princeton University, and treating all with respect.  Smoky Williams, you are a true American hero, and I’m so proud to know you and to laugh with you and work with you at The Givens Guys Group.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The expression of feelings and the art of diplomatic candor within Men's Wisdom Works Group 3--Buck Bragg

In 1958 Casey Stengel, the legendary manager of the New York Yankees, was called to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Antitrust and Monopoly.  Stengel had a great mind for the game of baseball, but while dressed in a suit and questioned by lawyers about baseball’s antitrust exemption, he surely felt as out of place as a unicorn in a nightmare.  Following one particularly disjointed response, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, not wanting to embarrass the much revered Stengel, said gently:  "Mr. Stengel, I'm not sure that I made my question clear."

Senator Kefauver likely honed his impeccable sense of tactfulness during his long stint in Congress.  May we all remember well, the Senate was once a place for debate and discussion, almost always carried on with civility and diplomacy.  Sadly, those qualities are demonstrably lacking in today’s Senate chambers, but we try to keep them center stage during our men’s group meetings.

When our group formed seven years ago, I naively agreed to serve as the initial facilitator.  Truth told, I felt as clueless as Casey Stengel before that antitrust committee.  Yes, I understood that we weren’t supposed to talk about religion, or politics, or baseball, or anything else that held even the vaguest interest to me.  We were supposed to talk about feelings and emotions and relationships.  And we were supposed to do so openly and candidly from day one.  “Yo, nice to meet you guys.  Let me tell you how it felt when I first discovered my father was a cross-dresser.”

Learning how to express intimate thoughts in the setting of a group of guys (strangers initially) involves a steep learning curve.  Quite simply, our work careers and our past social interactions seldom prepare us for this. 

Even the language was new.  “Speak from the heart” was the catchphrase I continued to hear, always uttered in hushed tones and with great solemnity.  But for me, they might as well have whispered “Speak French.”  I didn’t know how to do either.

Over time we all improve at these interactions.  We let ourselves become vulnerable.  We learn to trust that our comments and our confidences will be respected.  We value and learn from the stories and insights of others.  And we’re constantly surprised and uplifted by the common threads that have woven their way through our separate lives.

We also learn that to speak openly and candidly doesn‘t mean to speak indiscriminately.  We learn the difference between participating in a conversation, and dominating it.  Do the math: in a typical men’s group meeting of ten guys, each member should be listening rather than talking 90% of the time!  And I mean truly listening, not merely pausing to think about what you’re going to say next.  Look around the room.  Are there members of the group who have not yet spoken?  If so, try to engage them.  In our group, we share the responsibility to encourage every member of the group to participate in every subject at every meeting. 

And we strive to be diplomatic in offering our thoughts and comments.  We recognize that members of our group, like most others, vary greatly in their health, wealth, and family relationships.  So as we express our feelings about travel, physical fitness, and intimate family reunions, we try to keep in mind that these involve means, abilities, and circumstances that don’t exist equally across the group. 

 Finally, we’ve learned that starting a sentence with the words “I feel” doesn’t magically turn it into an acceptable statement of our feelings.  Consider this perfectly appropriate comment: “I feel more optimistic about my financial well-being.”  Contrast it with the boorish and self-congratulatory:  “I feel great about the $50,000 I made in the stock market last week.”  So yes, tell stories with the candor that expresses true feelings.  But do so with the purpose of unifying and strengthening the group, and not in a way that might be perceived as boastful, insensitive, or divisive. 

Oscar Wilde once defined a gentleman as "one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally."  Wilde would have been welcomed into our group.  We would have enjoyed his wit and his candor.  And I’d like to think that he would have been grateful as I am for a men’s group composed of a dozen caring, respectful, and diplomatic gentlemen. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Renewal: A Life Lost and a Life Saved--Douglas H. Geister

I had a career in the health care industry as did my wife Carolyn who died from Alzheimer's after suffering all phases of this cruel disease for eight long years.  She was kept at home with private duty nursing care throughout.  The most difficult thing for me was to observe her fun loving, vivacious personality and powerful intellect gradually evaporate.

Carolyn was a charismatic feminist and renaissance woman.  She was a leader and teacher, and held positions of Clinical Professor at several universities.  Prior to our move to Asheville she was Vice President of Patient Care Services at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center.

And Carolyn changed my life.  She lived large and in "The Now".  She was a tennis player, down hill and cross country skier, golfer, was a great sailor and oil painter.  She loved the arts, traveled widely, and was fascinated by other cultures.  She had a great life and a good ride.  It was my privilege to spend my years with such an extraordinary woman.

My observation of what happened to my wife as the disease progressed through its stages had a devastating emotional impact on me.  As a result, I wallowed in self pity, drank to excess, slept for long periods, had no energy or initiative, dropped out of community activities and cut off social contacts.  I was not a pleasant person to be with.  I was in deep depression.

One day I decided to climb out of the pit I dug for myself.  I ventured out by enrolling in two classes at OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville.  One of them was Men's Wisdom Works, taught by Chuck Fink.  Men's Wisdom Works is Chuck's brainchild, a genius of an idea and elegant in its simplicity.  It is a way, a method by which men can get together and talk about their experiences, their hopes, dreams, plans, fears, joys and concerns.  It is something that men find hard to do because of how our culture has conditioned us, and because there are no organizations that encourage this sort of communication.

I joined Group V, a group of eleven men in generally the same age category, from a variety of different backgrounds, all of them interesting men with diverse life experiences.  We share personal information about who we are and where we are in life.  We learn from one another by sharing our life experiences.  The Group became my lifeline to getting back into a healthy lifestyle.  We have become a brotherhood of sorts, and there is nothing I would not do to support any of them.

I have learned with these brothers that life goes on, but also life is short and unforgiving.  I am fortunate in having met a woman who is my life companion.  I have a boat that we sail on a nearby lake, play golf, attend social and cultural functions and travel together.  My health is good and I'm enjoying life with Julia.  Much of it happened because of Chuck Fink and MWW Group V.  I will always be grateful for Chuck and his Men's Wisdom Works idea.  It saved my life.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Yin and Yang of Men's Wisdom Works

“This must be tough for you”.  Those empathic words of concern were softly spoken by my friend Richard.  He leaned in when my men’s group talked of a mutual friend who passed away in October of last year.  Then, Richard added, “You must know every Men’s Wisdom Works member who dies”.  I stroked my brow as I reflected, and without much of a pause I replied, “Yes, it is difficult losing these men, but there is a yang to that yin.  I’m able to see the impact MWW has on our 150 members and their loved ones while we’re still strolling above the ground."  As our members continue to age, Men's Wisdom Works supplies the shelter for sustaining meaningful friendships.  Our bonds lay the groundwork for living a good life during the latter stages of life.

Since Richard’s supportive statement three more men of MWW have passed away.  The toll grows heavy as I’m asked to speak at the memorial services for these deceased members.
To witness the love and presence our members share with our ailing brothers seems like a mirage when you consider our male-patterned conditioning to keep our feelings at bay.  Men are wired to hold back emotions and move on.  But the depth of friendship, bonding and social engagement within MWW groups changes that worn out paradigm.  As we lose fellow MWW members we cry together, remember together, and celebrate the life of our deceased brothers.  Then we move on as one.

The man who was the first man I asked to join MWW 2009 passed away early January.  Dave cleverly stated that he only joined the first group because he did not want me to be alone in this social experiment.  Dave became the heart of our group, always bellowing that “It is a great day to be alive”.  We made our loving presence felt as we comforted Dave, his wife and their family, week after week as his life slowly ebbed away.  Now, we leave an empty chair when we hold our bi-monthly meetings, so we remain forever honoring his memory and our friendship.  Dave’s widow, Kaaren, knows she is part of our extended group of men and our loved ones

This devotion to a sick or dying member of MWW certainly is not limited to my group, Group I.  The men of Men's Wisdom Works drive our ailing brothers to appointments.  As a brother's illness worsens, MWW group members make frequent visits to the three H's:  homes, hospital and hospice.  We develop schedules for visitation and food delivery.  One of our members even accepted the role of executor for a fellow member's estate as his friend's life wound down.  All 150 of us are there for each other in good times and “not so good” times.  That's what brothers do.

Perhaps our experiences with loss of aging friends may serve as an example, maybe even a role model, for older men losing friends via the ceaseless actions of the grim reaper.  The choice is clear.  One may choose to isolate himself and have loneliness as his sole companion when he rounds third and head for home.  Or, an aging man may choose to surround himself with friends, especially male friends.  The latter life choice offers a living antidote to depression, anger and early death for a man who otherwise would languish as an island in his later years.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, cites the following stats concerning loneliness and life span:  One analysis of 148 separate health studies found that people who cultivated a wide network of social networks had a 50% lower early mortality risk than those lacking friends and social relationships.  In fact, Coontz tells us that having a substantial network of friends gives older folks better protection against early mortality than death due to smoking or obesity.

Research of 28,000 people in nearly 100 countries by William Chopik of Michigan State University found that among older adults, relationships with friends are a better indicator of good health and happiness than relationships with family.  A 2017 study found people who often socialize with good friends have partners reporting fewer depressive symptoms as do study subjects.  The evidence supports what the men of Men's Wisdom Works experience daily in our retirement.  
That positive yang I spoke of earlier is the lifeblood for the MWW groups.  Our membership grows.  In that spirit of renewal, our 15th MWW group forms tomorrow.  How does MWW sustain its expansion?  The many stories of the impact on the lives of those of us in MWW seem to go viral in our city of 89,000.  For older men in Asheville, our stories broadcast messages of hope and joy to men in search of meaning in life's third stage.

The members of the newest Men’s Wisdom Works group already understand the uniqueness of MWW. Each man expressed his desire to join by telling me of his eagerness to develop bonds with other older men.  Like the rest of us they’re eager to build a community of male friends.
So, as we mourn our losses, we continue our mission with a growing roster of members and groups.  Here’s a toast to members we’ve lost and to the new members we gain, and to the joyous and meaningful life 150 older men and their loved ones enjoy today.