I first met Jan Ford as Sung Hifeng in Second Life (SL). I’d bounced around various Buddhist sanghas in that virtual 3D environment, when I happened upon one called Skeptical Buddhists. The title nabbed my attention, and as I entered and sat, I found myself curious about the avatar of an old man beside me. I’d never seen an old person in SL, yet, here sat an old man, while up in the front, a woman named Star gave a talk based on a chapter from Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism without Beliefs. I was hooked, on the sangha, and the venue.
Over time, I chatted with Sung after the sangha talks, and enjoyed his wide-view perspective on the teachings. He didn’t take anything at surface value, and everything had deeper historical meaning. I came to learn in the physical, his name was Jan Ford, and he was a teacher in two areas, as an anthropologist and a sociologist, and as a marital artist. He’d come to Buddhism through the latter, but had a lot knowledge of the historical context from the former.
Over the next two years, Jan helped me develop my SIM (land in SL), and he helped foster both the Skeptical Buddhist community, and the Secular community I was working on. We talked a lot about Buddhism, but we also talked about science, philosophy, history, and computing. By then we had also connected on Facebook, so we were communicating outside of SL as well.
Ted came into the scene during that time, and we did a couple of podcasts together about our virtual sangha. It was then that Ted and I started scheming for the SBA website, and Jan gave us valuable input. Jan advised us in many ways on community building, on planning out how to keep people engaged, and he warned us frequently about burn-out.
Jan invited me to his 68th birthday party, I made the four-hour drive, and arrived at his party a bit early. I sat down near him and laughed. “Jan, I feel like we’re in Second Life. You look just like your avatar!” Jan laughed. He then went on to explain it was intentional and he had to pay more for an aged avatar, that the younger ones were cheaper. I was impressed with how comfortable he was with aging. This was his 68th birthday, and he had no qualms about it. He was very comfortable in his own skin.
That day, the house filled with over 50 people, many academics from the college where he’d worked, and many martial arts students, some who had become teachers themselves. I was fascinated by the friendships he had, many of which had been fostered for over 30 years. Everyone treated Jan with respect, kindness, and a reverence you don’t see every day. They confirmed for me what a truly amazing man he was, but also how strong his commitment to relationship building, community building, and trust was.
Meeting Jan in person allowed us to develop a much closer bond. We moved our communication from solely online to include occasional Facetime and Google+ video chats. I also made a point of driving to SB every four or five months for weekends to see him.
While Jan had been busy in his career teaching in two areas, he also kept up in electronics. The social networking sites wove right in with his philosophy of bringing people together, and his several computers, iPad and other gadgets allowed him to connect with people all over the US. He reunited with people he’d known back in college, connected them with people he knew had similar interests, and I found my Facebook Friend list growing with fascinating, smart people.
Jan was a matchmaker of the highest order. It was important to him that this friend meet that one because of similar interests, and that this person meet another who would present just the right type challenges in just the right ways. I marveled at his friendship scheming, and giggled a bit, whenever I’d plan a trip to see him because he immediately set into who he wanted to come over while I was there. He chose each person for specific reasons, and I found when he told me I was going to like someone, he was absolutely spot on.
I increased my visits as Jan’s cancer progressed. Jan would leave his garage door open for me, and from there I was greeted by his many dangerous looking marital arts weapons hanging on the garage wall, so many fighting trophies lined up on a shelf. I teased him about the one that looked like a pitch fork. He laughed, “Yes, a devil’s pitch fork,” he said, pointing at himself.
I had told him the good thing about knowing of his illness was that I knew I couldn’t take our friendship for granted. “You know, Dana, one thing I value so much about my Buddhist friends is that I can talk about my illness, that I’m going to die soon, and they don’t shy away.” Some people had grown uncomfortable around him, didn’t know what to say to him, and it in turn made him uncomfortable. “Well, since you’re going to be taking a dirt nap or resting on the BQ for all eternity soon,” I told him, “I’m hogging up as much of your time as I possibly can.” Jan laughed and let me know that I was welcome. On my visits, we’d stay up till 11 pm chatting.
At one point in Jan’s career he counseled men for “battery”. We had long discussions about that, and we talked about my marriage, and my divorce. It was great to get a male perspective, and Jan’s view was non-judgmental, one of understanding and compassion.
We also talked a lot about earlier cultures, how some lacked the idea of individualism, while others, like the US, know little else. He’d regale me with beliefs of tribal people, religious beliefs much older than the Christian religion, and how society shapes and molds each of us.
Death was a topic of interest to both of us, not just because of Jan’s illness, but something we had in common was that we both had contemplated death since we were children. We talked about people’s attitudes about death, societal attitudes, and earlier cultures treatment of death. Jan was fearless about his own death, but he wanted to continue watching the evolution of the Occupy movement. He wanted to see what was going to happen with this US election coming up.
I could always count on Jan for a historical perspective, for the broader social ramifications, and for a reality check. I’m often puzzled by people’s reactions and behaviors, especially regarding politics or groups. I could count on Jan to give me background, and psychological factors that might be involved. Very often I’d present my view on a topic, then ask if I was missing the greater picture. He always came back with great information, food for thought. He knew how to challenge me without pushing his views on me.
Within the last year or so, I had taken up the obsession of learning math. Jan told me how proud he was of me over that because I was the first adult he had met in all his teaching career who was willing to learn without being forced. On one visit down, he shared a book on statistics with me, talking about how important that was to critical thinking. He had taught the course in the college.
I sighed. “Jan, I’m hoping we’ll both live long enough to see me through learning calculus, but I don’t think we’ll make it.” Jan laughed. “I may not be around long enough for that, but I have confidence you’ll make it. You’ll learn calculus. The question is . . . what the hell for?” He laughed and winked. I went onto explain how calculus fits into science and he patiently listened, smiling.
Whenever I visited him, it was over the weekend, so that allowed me to go to the park where he had his weekly Sunday martial arts practice. This was a tradition that had been going on for years, and I enjoyed watching his students, and hearing him instruct them. I had questions galore about what they were doing, about that particular art, and he always patiently explained the details to me while keeping his eye on his students. He’d interrupted himself from time to time to correct someone, and then he’d continue our discussion.
For Jan’s 70th birthday bash, he asked me to bring my camera. He was expecting at least 75 people, and he hoped the following marital arts Sunday practice would bring many of the out-of-towners together who hadn’t seen each other in years. He had this pressing feeling that it had to be recorded, or it would be forever lost.
He was not to be disappointed, and I met yet even more people than I had on previous visits. He had a full deck of students. I could see how proud he was, how excited to see sparring between people who hadn’t sparred for years. I had fun taking pictures. But I also had a hovering sadness, a heaviness in my heart as I watched him across the deck, because somehow I knew it would be the last time I’d see him there, knew in spite of his excitement, he was not feeling well. I wished it were different. I wanted to join him there every Sunday. I wanted him to teach me Tai Chi. It felt so unfair, yet I and the others on that deck were so very fortunate.
Jan was a mentor to us all in so many ways. I’m a better person for having known him. Sometimes I wish I had met him much earlier, but I would have been a different person then, and perhaps we would not have hit it off in the same way. Who knows. I met him when I did, and I am forever grateful to have been treated to his wisdom, his guidance, his friendship, and his trust. I’m grateful to him for introducing to me to such wonderful, kind, thoughtful people.
I read something, I see a funny interaction between people, or see some wild abuse in politics, and I want to Facetime Jan. It’s hard seeing his name in my app, on my phone, and knowing he won’t answer. It’s hard not being able to send him a message. I know if I go to his house in Second Life, Sung won’t join me. The silence on the other end is deafening.
Jan and I shared the practical view that death is the end of the road. But my practice has taught me, enabled me, to be with this sadness. Jan will always be in my heart and in my memories, and in that respect he is with me. I remind myself how lucky I am to have known him, how fortunate I am to have these new friends because of him. And together we share our grief, and I imagine, over time, we’ll share our healing.
The influence Jan had on others is profound. While he is gone in body, his influence lives on in each of us. We are all better people for having known him, and we each will go on to share his legacy, his wisdom, his knowledge, and his compassion.
From Jan’s About page on Facebook: “I’m proud to be one of the founders of the Skeptical Buddhist Assn and tho I don’t label myself as a Buddhist, I am doing what I can to develop the website and the movement surrounding it.”
Rest in peace, our dear friend and mentor, Jan Ford, July 7, 1942-October 1, 2012.
You are missed!