“Francis” and the phonograph


Today is my youngest brother’s 65th birthday, and a good occasion for me to pay tribute to him as an inspiration and role model.

He’s six years my senior.  We have two other brothers, one 7½ and one 9 years my senior.

Let’s see if I can compose this before my Net access runs out for today, 45 minutes from now.

In order to grasp what he has achieved, one must first have a grasp of what he has overcome.  His childhood was a living nightmare.  He is dyslexic, spelling constant academic difficulty in an education-oriented home.  His frustrations from that, and from seeking some warmth from our emotionally absent father, led to much risk-taking and self-destructive behavior.  He endured — Let’s face it. — bullying from his older brothers, and unending verbal slights from me.

When my mother died a few years ago, and we gathered at a brother’s house for the memorial service, we were discussing our childhood experiences, and in view of the just-said I asked him what finally unlocked the vision to turn his life around, opening the door to what he has since achieved.  He said it was the Physics course in high school, which all four of us took from Mr. Corbi.  I had no difficulty grasping that.  It is also pertinent to the story I’ll tell of, for me, the most outstanding incident from our childhood.

Because of the fascination that he developed there, he said, he went on to seek a B.S. in Engineering.  The job market at that time in that field, however, being severely depressed, he for a different reason turned his attention to a certain medical specialty.  In short, after obtaining a doctorate and serving a career in that field, he “retired” to a position of professor in that field in a medical-related university, teaching doctoral students.  He continuously engages in original research, and publishes at least once a year in any of various professional journals.  He has become one of the nation’s foremost experts in a particular medical disorder.  And this pretty much describes his career today.

What about his dyslexia?  Medical texts are no easy read!  I asked him about this.  He keeps up with all the latest publications in his field, and says he has to budget an hour per page to read them.  If there are 50 pages to read in a given week, that means 50 hours to read them.

Some years ago, he wrote what has become the go-to resource for general practitioners concerning that disorder.  He hired me to edit the manuscript pre-publication, as he also hired me to edit some of his journal articles.

In graduate school in 1991, I happened to learn about the early Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander, who lived roughly at the same time as Columbus.  I quickly developed a strong identification with him.  He thought like me.  He felt like me.  His struggles were like mine.

The October 1999 issue of Astronomy magazine carries an article, “An Unlikely Revolutionary,” telling the story of Copernicus, who re-introduced to Western thought the theory that the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of the solar system.  His demonstration depended heavily on trigonometry, which in this life my brothers and I all learned from Mr. Fenstermaker.  To my astonishment, of all people, the Catholic monk Copernicus asked the Lutheran priest Osiander to edit his manuscript!  Thus they had the same relationship as my brother Francis and I.  I have ever since taken Francis as a this-life incarnation of Copernicus.

The most outstanding story from our childhood goes back to 1963, when I was in third grade and he was in eighth or ninth grade, and anticipates his later interest in physics.  For a science fair project at school, he conceived to get — actually, rebuild — a 1930’s-vintage phonograph.  He invested endless hours in this project, using the money he earned from his paper route, making phone calls and checking the want ads to go all over town — on his bicycle, with a wagon on the back that he and Dad had built to help with his paper route — locating parts.  He assembled it in an “x-ray” fashion so that all the internal workings were visible.  He built a plywood and plate glass (There was no plexiglass nor acrylic at this time.) display case, with labels explaining each part and strings leading from the label to the part.

He had records and needles.  We could wind it up and play them.

At one point I pointed to a certain part and asked him what it was.  Remember, he was perhaps in ninth grade and I perhaps in second or third.  He told me it was the “governor,” and explained its function of buffering energy from the drive mechanism before it would reach the turntable.  He explained to me how it operates, by virtue of the conservation of energy.  To this day, I think that’s a pretty darn advanced concept for a third grader.

There’s more to that story, that I can’t go into now.  But it has profoundly influenced my life.

His moral support for me personally has been important, not least throughout my homelessness.  At one time as I was approaching college, he suggested I go into medicine, saying — after all the taunting I’d given him throughout childhood — I’d have “a good bedside manner.”  Medicine proved completely inappropriate for me in terms of the courses I’d have to take, but that exchange stays with me as to my aspirations to become a healer.  Circa 1983, he introduced me to mysticism, which is the basis of my cosmology and my understandings of prayer today.

This blog’s first post about emotional intelligence mentioned “five components of EQ — self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, social skills and empathy.”  Francis continues to be a role model for me as regards motivation.  My current spiritual work is very much about developing that, which for me thus far has been a very much undeveloped trait.  Francis has always been among the most highly motivated people I know, and still inspires me in that regard.

(And I got this all done within the time frame available!)

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