FORUM: Making a Planet

As an aide in developing ideas for Blog Posts I examined photos taken across my life (thus far) to help me recall my past. In this process it occurred to me that I never worried about “getting older” because I was too busy searching for interesting ways to fill time—increasing my aptitude in an area that I found intriguing, or (re)directing me in even more tantalizing directions.

  • “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” (Mark Twain)

My family moved from Virginia to California after I completed 7th grade. That summer I completed my first college courses at George Washington University in Washington DC (introduction to biology and genetics laboratory). In 8th grade I did not attend any college courses, instead I learned to fish in salt water, and helped my Mom to care for her other children (I was the oldest of six kids). I was a happy, confident young man—I was ready for anything. I graduated at the top of my class of 80 students, when I was 13 years old.

Soon after I began high school, we lost dear Dad. We moved into the poor section of town. Mom worked at night (so she could care for her children during the day) but earned so little that we became the first family in the County on Public Assistance (“Welfare”). We faced discrimination from people who resented our receiving aide, so it became my mission to demonstrate to my brothers and sisters that our tragedy was no impediment to our futures. I substituted community college courses for high school courses and had the highest grades. I won national awards in competitive speaking tournaments, science fairs, essay contests, and chess tournaments. The high school I attended gave me a private office on campus, and free supplies to support my academic pursuits. I had multiple jobs—supervising an afterschool playground (rich children behaved like gremlins and made me feel like their zookeeper), preparing and delivering advertisement packages for a thousand houses per week, mowing lawns, cooking chicken, and drafting (blueprint corrector for Bell Labs). I played sports (baseball, tennis, badminton), and became a champion sustenance angler—catching up to 60 pounds of Pacific bonito a week. I graduated near the top of my class of around 1,000 students when I was 17 years old.

  • “You don’t stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.” (George Bernard Shaw)

After my graduation we could no longer afford to live in California. The family packed what we could into a tow trailer hitched to our old station wagon, camped our way across the country, and moved into a slum—Humboldt Park in Chicago, which had replaced Brooklyn as the arson capital of the US. It was urban warfare: I found myself in the middle of several gun fights among rivaling gangs, was chased by gang bangers and drunken barbarians bearing knives, and I had school materials stolen from my room for ransom by the street gang every week—which finally stopped when I began paying $10/week for “protection.” I had pleasant weekly chats with Lefty, the head of the Latin Kings gang on my block, when I paid him. Lefty told me he only left the hood once in his life, to visit the Barrio of his grandmother in Los Angeles. No wonder his gang was so territorial—the hood was their world: understanding motivated compassion.

I applied to Annapolis (I wanted to become an Astronaut) but was rejected after the Captain came to interview me in the slum. I joined NROTC which paid for me to take engineering courses at Illinois Institute of Technology during the school year. I attended weekly USNR training programs on Fridays and went into active service in the summer (submarines and amphibious assault, each for a year). After injuring both ears I left and tried my hand at selling insurance, working for a retired USN officer. When I sold a contract worth a half million dollars in royalties (tremendous money in the 1970’s), I was immediately fired by the boss—who reaped my reward.

Next, I worked part-time as a computer operator on a minicomputer (Dec Alpha, Chicago Daily News), mainframe computer (IBM 3081, Chicago Sun Times), and one of the first commercial supercomputers (Dual Dec 10, Chicago Tribune), and I enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I could only work for two years because my studies became extremely demanding. Student loans (requiring ten years for me to repay) helped me cover the cost of tuition. I finally found substantive areas in which I excelled: academic psychology (College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), systems engineering (College of Engineering), and quantitative methods (College of Business). I fulfilled requirements for graduation in these programs in three years with a nearly perfect GPA, substituting graduate for undergraduate courses starting in the last trimester of my Freshman year.

I enrolled in the graduate school at UIC and supported myself by teaching undergraduate and graduate courses at UIC, and at Loyola University Chicago. I had to quit all sports except for bowling, at which I became a champion. It was during this time that I acquired my nickname “Planet” which persists until today.

Very few photographs were taken in this period—I had no camera, but here is a photo of me teaching, taken by a student in my advanced undergraduate statistics class at UIC.

After obtaining a PhD, I applied for a post-doctoral position at Northwestern University Medical School. The interview went so well that I was offered a position as Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine (funded at the level of the post-doctoral position)—which I immediately accepted. The University took my photo while wearing my grey Doctor’s smock: my name was embroidered in purple—the color used to signify academic faculty.

The medical school upper-ups were interested in learning something about me, so they requested a one-hour colloquium: my introductory talk at the Medical School. I was asked to discuss my thoughts on patient satisfaction. The meeting was attended by the Chief of Medicine, Departmental Heads of many of the Divisions in the Department of Medicine, Directors of Clinical Services, top hospital and medical school administrators, and young hot-shot physicians. I estimated the youngest attendee was ten years my senior.

I began my talk: “I was driving in my car, and a man came on the radio.” I looked about and detected no awareness of where I was going. I continued: “He started telling me more and more, about some useless information!” Many began smiling but secured their tongues. I went a little further: “Trying to fire my imagination! I-can’t-get-no…” Then everyone, all at once, raised an arm into the air and shouted: “satisfaction!” It was a great start. Better still, I was then, and am even more so now, an expert in satisfaction—a psychological construct intrinsically related to the subject matter of my PhD, and about which I have published many articles.

The photo of me seen below was taken in the summer, when I was visiting the psychology department at UIC, hanging out in the faculty lounge. Don’t recall if I was an Assistant Professor, or an Associate Professor at this time, but I do recall that I was wearing my favorite shirt!

I became the fastest advanced, youngest Full Research Professor of Medicine (eventually accumulating eight Divisional Affiliations). I was simultaneously promoted to Adjunct Full Professor of Psychology (specializing in Behavioral Medicine, Measurement, and Statistics). Below is a University photo taken of me, and a less “formal” photo.

Half a decade later I switched to the Department of Emergency Medicine. I decided to stop exclusive work in medical, psychological, and statistical research, because I missed the field of engineering. I reignited my interest in space by taking up a hobby in amateur rocketry. In four years time I became a nationally-known expert in designing, building and flying high-power rockets. I was one of the initiators of experimental rocketry in the Midwest region—a field which involves designing and making solid rocket propellant and motors.

Then I had a cardiac arrest: recovery required two years of rehabilitation. During this time I’d take my daughter for lessons at a local music school. I always wanted to play classic rock, but never took the time to learn. I asked her teacher if an aging man like I could learn to play an instrument. I was told that it is possible. I asked if they had an instrument with only one string because it seemed that would be easiest to learn, but I was told there was no such instrument. I asked, what about two strings? Nope. I was told that the minimum number of strings was four, and I replied “sign me up.” I learned to play many of my favorite rock songs (four written by the Who), to play the 1-4-5 classical blues, and I formed a band.

Nearing the end of my decade-long sojourn in EM, my daughter took a photo of me in our home basement as I was practicing bass guitar (I play classical blues and classic rock). I showed the photo to a colleague at work, who augmented it with a photo of Jerry Garcia—whom he thought that I resembled. I still don’t recognize the resemblance.

A few years later my beloved mentor, the awesome Dr. Roy Patterson, died. I decided to quit working for others (life is too short), lived off my meager pension (before retiring), moved to San Diego, worked full time (80-90 hour-long weeks) on theoretical statistics (when and how I discovered novometric theory), and became an outstanding big-game saltwater angler. Hiking daily and exercising in a gymnasium three times a week, I regained excellent physical conditioning—a Guess store took me on as a mannequin model.

My friend Dean photographed me at the Fisherman’s Landing docks as I actually appeared in daily life. I’m standing in front of the first long-range boat on which I was privileged to be an angler.

Much happened since those days, beginning when I accepted my current part-time position as a remote Adjunct Professor of Pharmacy at the University of South Carolina. But that is a story for another day…

  • “For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of the harvest.” (Hasidic saying)

There’s no better time than the present!

Making a Planet

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

May 19, 2021

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