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Names

Musician Mike Doughty has a song, titled “27 Jennifers,” in which he sings, “I went to school with 27 Jennifers // 16 Jenns, 10 Jennies, and then there’s her.” There was a period a few years back when it did seem like every other female student in my classes went by some version of Jennifer. Like all things, the popularity of various names is always changing. Currently, I’m being deluged with Paiges and Rebekahs. I’m not sure why, but I don’t notice as many runs on particular boys’ names. What I do know for certain is that names, first and last, matter, and new parents should think carefully before pinning one on their infant child.

I’m often asked the origins of my own name. Ty is unusual enough that many people assume that I’m named after or for someone. I’m not. My name is what it is because my parents needed a name with two letters to continue the pattern they’d begun with my older siblings as demonstrated below.

Kevin – The first three names are fairly typical.

Lori

Amy

Ty – I have no idea what they would have named me were I born female.

J – This is his legal name. He has often been forced to explain that his name is “Just J,” a regular act of self-belittlement that cannot be good for his ego.

Then, as my parents were obedient Catholics, they needed to return to the top when the babies kept coming.

Aaron – The only one with a biblical association.

Troy – Although unintentional, I love the Homeric connection.

Yon – This one they flat made up.

Everyone except Lori and my dad

There is a great deal of debate in the psychological community regarding the amount of influence a person’s name has on their personality, but I sometimes wonder if mine would have been shaped differently had I been assigned a more conventional name. I do not nor cannot know the answer. For better and worse, however, I do believe its relative uniqueness – especially when I was a child – made me feel different from my male peers who possessed more traditional names, and it motivated me to develop a somewhat aloof and contrarian tendencies.

Sadly, most of us assign our personal prejudices to names and make a number of false assumptions based upon them. For example, upon learning my name in a letter from student housing (This was long before the internet.), my assigned roommate for our freshman year of college was convinced that I would be a large Black man with “Ty” being short for “Tyrone.” He could not have been more wrong. On the other hand, I thought his name, Charlie Lenway, was the whitest, Midwesternest name I’d ever heard, but he turned out to be Puerto Rican. Such prejudices are especially damaging when those in positions responsible for admission or hiring weed out applicants sight unseen because of names that may indicate the candidate’s ethnic, gender, religious, or racial identity.

That’s Charlie in the middle when he and my friend Bob visited my home during our freshman year at Xavier. He was only 5″5′, so Bob and I must have been trying to make him feel tall.

For fear of such prejudice, many immigrants to this country have “Americanized” their names – both first and last – in the attempt to skirt past it. In a 2004 study, economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan “found that the ‘white-sounding’ candidates received fifty per cent more callbacks, and that the advantage a résumé with a ‘white-sounding name had over a résumé with a “black-sounding” name was roughly equivalent to eight more years of work experience. An average of one of every ten ‘white’ résumés received a callback, versus one of every fifteen ‘black’ résumés.” Similarly, when my son Taylor lived in New York City, based on the last name Roth, many people assumed him to be Jewish, for Roth and its variations (Rothstein, Rothberg, Rothman is a common surname found in the Jewish population, especially on the East Coast. There’s no need for me to outline the history of odious prejudice and utter persecution faced by Jews worldwide. I don’t believe my son was ever directly adversely impacted by the association of his name with anti-Semitism, but that’s the pernicious thing about prejudice: it doesn’t typically announce itself. So, who knows?

With Taylor, his fiance Mary Kate, and Julie in Times Square.

I’m especially dismayed when I hear whites belittle the names of African Americans that reject Eurocentric roots. Why should African Americans, whose ancestors were kidnapped and brought to this country, where they were enslaved, raped, and systemically-oppressed, be saddled with the names of their oppressors? That seems a bit like the addition of insult to injury. The choice by many African American parents to assign their children non-white sounding names should be viewed as an assertion of pride and independence. However, instead it’s not unusual to hear white folks make fun of the prevalence of vowel-endings, apostrophes, and unique spellings common among younger generations of Black Americans. Many of us have heard and even spread the ridiculous urban legends of the African American mothers who named their children “Shithead” (pronounced sha-THEAD), “Orangejello,” or “Fe’male” (pronounced like tamale”). Please, don’t be so naive as to believe or as racist as to spread such nonsense regardless of how much the friend of a friend who shared the story with you insists it’s true.

In the song “Say My Name,” Beyonce of Destiny’s Child gives voice to a woman who refuses to be objectified and treated disrespectfully by a male/player by insisting that he say her name and not call her “Baby.” During memorial services for 9/11, nearly three thousand victims’ names are read aloud for a reason. Protesters in the #SayHerName Movement demand that Black women who have been victimized by police violence be dignified by their names being publicly shared. At weddings, before pronouncing the name of our betrothed, we state our own name.

Clearly, as I began this post, names, first and last, matter.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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“Children Aren’t Coloring Books”

In Khaled Hosseini’s master work The Kite Runner, the protagonist, a hypersensitive boy (Amir) who aspires to be a poet, is being raised by a domineering, athletic, and macho father (Baba). Observing the growing animosity and disconnect between father and son caused by their polar opposite personalities and aspirations, Rahim, Baba’s best friend and business partner, shares a bit of sage wisdom that I wish had been shared with me when I was a young father: “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors.”

One of my favorite novels of all-time, and I’ve read a lot of novels.

The recent births of my two grand babies have reminded me of this quotation. I think too many parents, with good intentions, are like Baba in that they want to pass on their own interests, hobbies, lifestyles, etc. to their children. It’s only natural. But we’ve all known that parent who forces their child into sports, piano lessons, story time, etc. because the parent enjoys or values those activities, not the child. If we’re being honest, many of us have been that parent at least to some degree. I know I have been on both sides of that equation, and both cases have filled me with regret for the opportunities I or my children missed because of the narrow preferences of parents.

Admittedly, it is the necessary role of parents, at least initially, but, I’d argue, only temporarily, to draw the lines that set the boundaries of fundamental morals, values, and beliefs inside of which the child’s colors will bloom, but it is not wise to force blues into spaces where the child prefers pink or to insist on yellow when s/he prefers violet. I would also suggest that a parent should not overreact when their child colors outside of the preset lines or even completely forgoes the coloring book, preferring a blank sheet of paper on which to draw and to color in their own shapes. In fact, they should expect the former situation and be proud of the latter.

For what it’s worth and as Hosseini’s quotation suggests, I’ve come to believe that a parent’s function is to create fertile conditions in which their child’s innate personality is allowed to emerge — organically, naturally — rather than an environment in which the parent foists upon their child some predetermined vision of the type of child the they wish to possess and raise. I would go so far as to include matters of spirituality, gender, and sexual orientation in this process of emergence. As someone who has spent his adult years as a high school teacher surrounded by teenagers, I’ve witnessed first hand the damage done by the latter approach to child rearing, which is often a broken child and, eventually, a broken relationship with those overly-controlling parents.

What I’m one hundred percent positive of when I gaze at my granddaughters’ cherubic faces is that no child is born a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe. Such ignoble titles, like hatred itself, must be learned; none of them are hardwired at birth. It is incumbent upon parents, therefore, to teach their children the converse of these — meaning acceptance and inclusion — as the antidote to the lure of bigotry that wrongheaded others will attempt to poison their children with in the world at-large. As a parent of grown up children, I’m extremely proud that my wife and I, who have been anything but perfect parents, have done at least that much in guiding our boys into manhood.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in child psychology, but neither were Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young when they poignantly sang, “Teach your children well,” for the things we learn first, we tend to learn deeply, and they are the most difficult to un-learn.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Ten Questions: Question #2 – Failure

This is the second in a series of blog posts inspired by my friend and colleague Marcus Rimboch, who asked me to respond to a series of ten questions originally posed by Tim Ferris in his book Tribe of Mentors.

Question #2: How has failure set you up for later success?

Ernest Hemingway viewed life as a game in which human beings are ultimately defeated by death. Failure, then, is every person’s mortal end. Along the way, we all experience and endure numerous “little deaths” in preparation for the failures of the heart and brain that await us at life’s end. What matters, therefore, is not that we often and ultimately fail; that much is a given. What truly matters is our response to those failures.

The literary critic Irving Howe remarked that the typical Hemingway hero is a man who “finds a remnant of dignity in an honest confrontation of defeat.” I very much like and agree with Howe’s sentiment that there can be dignity in defeat. In fact, I would argue that it is in response to one’s failures that dignity or the lack thereof is most prominently on display. Even more so, as Ferris’ question implies, failure can serve to “set [one] up for later success.” A wise person recognizes failure as an opportunity rather than as a defeat.

In the aftermath of my many defeats and rejections, like a stream whose route is blocked, I’ve learned to reroute myself and either continue toward my original destination down a divergent path or in some cases to set my sights on an entirely new end.

For my entire life, the fear of failure has been a powerful motivating factor for me. As a child, I desperately desired the approval of my difficult-to-please father, especially as it related to my performance on athletic fields. As I was, at best, an average football player, an only slightly-better-than-average baseball player, and I didn’t play basketball beyond junior high, I mostly fell short of his desires for me. I believe this failure to please him is at least partly why I entered the coaching profession. It was a second chance to prove myself successful in his most beloved arena.

Coaching at SMCC in 1991, I believe. At this point, I believed football coaching was my future.

For a while, it worked. I had a fairly successful run as both a baseball coach and then football coach at my and his alma mater, winning several conference championships and making a few deep runs into district, regional, and state playoffs. My first encounter with abject failure as a coach occurred after leaving my first head coaching position for one in a larger school district. My initial success in coaching had convinced me that coaching would be the ladder I’d climb to increasingly better positions in both coaching and teaching.

That ladder, however, came crashing down when over four years I won a measly 5 football games while losing 35. I managed to lose 23 straight games, which for a football team is nearly 25 months between victories. By the end of my tenure, I was an emotional wreck, my self-confidence was shot, and I had lost my definition of who I was and who I was planning to become.

It was time for a reboot.

After resigning as head football coach, I convinced myself that, like Thoreau leaving Walden Pond, I had other lives to live. Besides, with my record, the odds of being hired as a head football coach at another school were pretty low. Therefore, I determined it was time to chase a different dream, one I’d harbored since childhood: to be an author. At the time, I didn’t know how small the chances were of ever having a novel purchased by a major publishing house. According to publishers themselves, they accept 1 to 2 of every 100 manuscripts they receive. Had I known the long odds, I may have never started to write.

However, start I did. I completed my first attempt at a novel just prior to the proliferation of the internet, which led to literary agents accepting queries through email. Therefore, I printed ten copies of the manuscript and mailed them all off to my top ten agents. Over the next three months, each manuscript returned home to me. Some were worse for the wear; others bore not a single sign of having been touched by their intended recipients.

I was bowed but not broken.

I almost immediately began work on a second novel. Within a year’s time, it was ready for submission. By then, the majority of agents were accepting email queries, which meant the process of submission had been streamlined. It was simpler and quicker, and an author had the ability to submit to a large number of agents simultaneously. For me and for the most part, it only meant that the torture of waiting for what began to feel like inevitable rejections was made shorter, but the number of cuts to my thin skin increased exponentially.

My saving grace was that one — just one — agent took the time to write a complimentary note regarding my novel and to encourage me to keep writing. Encouraged by the promise she saw in me, I tried once more, and a year-and-a-half later, I procured an agent, who fairly quickly thereafter sold my novel So Shelly to Random House. It would be the only novel I would publish with them, but to this day, it thrills me every time I receive a royalty statement or an email addressed to me as a Random House Author.

Since Shelly, I have written something like 6 complete novels and two partials, only two of which I’ve published through a small hybrid publisher. If you’re counting, that’s 3 out of 10. That’s not bad for a baseball player’s batting average but a lot of failure for an author.

So, to answer the question, I’d say, for me, failure has proven Alexander Graham Bell to be correct: “When one door closes, another one opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” As Bell advises, after each failure or rejection, I try not to dwell on them. Instead, I look for new opportunities for success. If my Heiler (my maternal grandmother’s family) blood has taught me anything, it is that life is for the living and much too short to dwell on anyone’s passing or the “little deaths” of failure along the way.

I’ve long advised my children that “If you work hard and believe in yourself, good things will happen. They may not happen exactly how and when you want them to, but they will happen.” I have to believe that or the most fundamental definition of myself will be erased, and I will disappear with it.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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You Never Forget Your First First-Class Flight

I recently flew first class for the first time in my life. It was an eye-opening experience on a couple of levels. In terms of physical comfort, it was unquestionably the most luxurious means of travel I have ever known. For brief periods, it was easy to forget that I was 37,000 feet in the air flying at more than 600 mph. Conversely, in terms of mental/emotional comfort, I have rarely felt so discombobulated or so out of place. I felt a bit like the answer to one of those “What doesn’t belong in this picture?” puzzles.

The rare but much-appreciated opportunity arose due to the number of frequent flyer miles my mother-in-law, who was traveling with us, had accrued and was generously willing to expend to purchase first-class seats for me, my wife, and herself. As we were flying in a Boeing-777, the first-class compartments consisted of a series of individual pods. Each private pod possessed 6’6″ of legroom compared to 31″ in coach, a fully-reclinable seat compared to the 3″ of recline for a seat in coach, 22″ of seat width compared to 17.05′ in coach, and a hot meal served by an overly-attentive steward.

Polaris Class pod on a United Airlines 777

I loved it. I hated it.

When I was a child, my family of working class parents and eight children didn’t go on vacations. With the kids’ divergent ages and schedules, the logistics of organizing and moving ten people, and the high cost of such travel, vacations were a luxury we “dreamt not of.” The mere notion of a family vacation of any sort was an illusion, and the possibility of first-class accommodations was downright fantastical. As a result of these humble origins, I’ve always considered myself a member of what patrician Romans derogatorily called the hoi polloi or common people. My sons and I, half-jokingly but proudly, use the acronym M.O.P. (Man of the People) to describe ourselves and to keep one another grounded.

A Polaroid of me and my siblings circa 1980

Unlike many of an upbringing similar to mine, whose working class roots inspire them to climb to higher rungs on the social class ladder, I have never directed my time or energy toward the pursuit of that which I’ve never had, for I have never considered myself underprivileged. Wealth, status, or possessions have never ranked high on my list of life goals. If they had, I would certainly have pursued a different career path. I can honestly say that I am not impressed by money, the things it can purchase, or the people who possess it. Some of this lack of envy I attribute to my immersion in literature, which repeatedly reminds me of the folly of equating the accumulation of money or possessions with happiness or a life well lived.

What I learned from my discomfort in flying first class is that the status and privilege inherent in such accommodations discomfort me. I felt every bit like a pretender, a phony — Gatsby-like in the denial of my origins and in the assumption of fictitious airs. Self-shamed by the spurning of my fellow citizens of the coach section, I waited as long as possible to board and then averted my eyes from those who boarded after me and passed me in route to their plebeian seat assignments. Stewards I treated with absurd politeness in the attempt avoid transmitting even the slightest attitude of condescension and to prove my M.O.P. status, and I refused to take advantage of most of the appurtenances of first-class travel. The warm meal, however, I accepted. I was starving! But I did eschew the cutlery and eat with my fingers, proving you can take the boy out of coach but not the coach out of the boy.

I do not judge or begrudge in any way those who choose to fly first class nor can I guarantee I will never fly that way again. As I often say, a person can get used to anything, and perhaps one day, as Matt Hooper says to Captain Quint in Jaws (my all-time favorite movie), I won’t “need this working class hero crap.”

For now, though, all I can say for certain is that on my first first-class flight, I felt like a little boy wearing a grown man’s suit, and I did not like the fit.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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High Places Phenomenon

I suffer from a sort of phobia that, until recently, I thought was unique to me. I have rarely shared this neurosis with anyone for fear of being thought strange or even a danger to myself. However, on the occasions that I do share my fears and anxieties with others, I often learn that I am far from alone or irrational. I imagine this will prove to be the case on this occasion as well.

The condition is known as High Places Phenomenon (HPP). The French have a term for it – L’Appel du Vide, which translates to the call of the void. In my experience with languages, I regularly find that practitioners of English often simply leave unpleasant realities unnamed as if, by ignoring their existence, they will go away. Anyway, my High Places Phenomenon was recently triggered during a visit to the Grand Canyon. As I stood at its very edge, I fought the nearly-irresistible urge to leap into the abyss. Similarly, whenever I visit my brother Kevin in his 32nd-floor NYC apartment or my brother J in his 20th-floor Downtown Tampa apartment, I consciously struggle with my HPP and avoid stepping out onto their balconies where the voices inside my head immediately begin their Sirens’ song.

Ironically, I don’t even like to fly. I have to prepare myself mentally for days ahead of my flight, and my anxiety level is extremely high the day of, nor am I a thrill seeker like my good friend Del, who regularly challenges me to to try skydiving. A challenge I’ve been able to resist with little temptation to jump from a perfectly-good airplane.

This is Del’s most recent willful and gleeful jump into the abyss over Oahu.

The good news is that a person with High Places Phenomenon does not possess a death wish – Freudian or otherwise – nor is s/he suicidal. Although it is not a highly-studied disorder, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people experience this feeling at one time or another. Jennifer Hames, a faculty member in the Psychology Department at the University of Notre Dame, led the most exhaustive study into the condition for The Journal of Affective Disorders while a grad student at Florida Statue University and coined the phrase High Places Phenomenon. Hames stated in an interview with Breena Kerr, “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live.” She also explained that the urge is best described as a misfiring of brain signals. The person with HPP misinterprets the message to step back from the void as having to resist the desire to jump (https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/04/09/high-places-phenomenon/) and is freaked out by their misunderstanding.

My non-professional belief is that not only are the majority of HPP sufferers not suicidal but they actually possess an intense love of and appreciation for life, which they find threatened by the proximity to high places and the potential for falling and ending their highly-treasured life. Speaking only for myself, I would add that there is also something perversely alluring about the notion of experiencing the thrill of those few seconds of free fall despite possessing clear knowledge of the devastating rendezvous with the earth that awaits. It’s certainly a strange paradox to simultaneously fear to fall yet long to leap.

This photo of “The Falling Man” from 9/11 has haunted me for nearly twenty years. Photo Credit: Richard Drew (AP)

In the end, I’m glad that few are the times I find myself standing at such heights forced to resist the “call of the void.” There is also some solace in knowing that others struggle with the same counter-intuitive urge. If you have your own experiences with HPP, I’d love to read about them in the “Comments.”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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A.L.I.C.E. Still Lives Here

My wife, Julie, my son Taylor, and I participated in March for Our Lives in NYC three years ago this week.

I started my day this morning having received an email from my assistant principal informing faculty and staff that sometime today we would complete an A.L.I.C.E. drill. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for Alert. Lock down. Inform. Counter. Evacuate. Alice is the anesthetized term for an active shooter drill.

For me, the most stunning aspect of the email notification was my blasé response to it. I’d no sooner read it than I had swiped right on my cell phone’s screen and deleted it as if it were just another of the many routine emails that appear daily in my inbox. Somehow, the notion of a person stalking the hallways and classrooms of my school building with weapons capable of massacring a large number of children seemed as banal as the monthly fire drills I’ve participated in throughout my career, just another state requirement to be checked off the list.

I want to ask, “How did I [we] get here?” How has the potential for being a casualty or watching your students gunned down in a mass shooting become so normalized in American society and schools? Both questions, however, reveal a purposeful naïveté on my part. Despite the obscene number of mass casualty shootings that have occurred in America in recent days, weeks, months, and years in grocery stores, malls, concerts, places of worship, nightclubs, etc., I want to live “normally” and do “normal stuff.” I don’t want to live constantly looking over my shoulder. I still do NOT want to believe a school building is an attractive target for these deranged males (They are always male.). As weak as it is, this is the only explanation I have for my blasé response to the morning email notification of the day’s forthcoming A.L.I.C.E. drill.

The March for Our Lives remains one of my proudest moments.

It all makes me worry about the psychological damage being done to our children who have never known anything but the constant threat of unprovoked and unpredictable carnage. My generation grew up and for a long time lived under the plumes of an imagined, yet what seemed a likely-to-be-realized mushroom cloud of nuclear annihilation. Not so much consciously but on the unconscious level, we waited for what felt like the inevitable news that nuclear-tipped warheads targeting the U.S. had been launched and would soon be devastating American cities and military installations. After which, radioactive fallout would be raining down on the entirety of the country. I’m not sure how anyone can even begin to understand or quantify the amount of psychic damage caused by such paranoia, gloom, and doom.

A major difference in the existential threat of nuclear annihilation versus the threat of falling victim of a mass shooting is that, for my generation, we at least knew the enemy. From where the death and destruction would come was predictable. We understood that the suffering would be widely shared, and in the twisted geopolitical reality of the Cold War, the damage that would be inflicted upon us even made some sense. Nevertheless, there would be no letting down of our guard. No Pearl Harbor. As a nation, we were constantly prepared and watching the skies.

In the culture of gun violence in which our children live today, however, there are no such luxuries. The killer can come from anywhere and begin his rampage with no obvious provocation or reason. The dead and wounded are typically unknown to the killer. The victims are simply the relatively few who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the explanation for the killer’s savagery, more often than not, dies with him, or it is inspired by such garbled logic or vitriolic hatred that it doesn’t provide even the slimmest of justifications for the inherently unjustifiable deed. The only predictable outcome is that, afterwards, the rest of us will shake our heads in faux horror, supporters of absurd justifications and protections for the ownership of weapons of war will bury theirs, legislators in the pockets of gun lobbyists will deflect attention to mental health, the faith-filled will offer up useless thoughts and prayers, and we all will continue to live under the delusion that it would never happen here to us or to ours.

Swipe right. Delete.

At 12:50, the announcement was made that there was a shooter in the building. Although they had been forewarned that it was only a drill, my students’ faces turned to me for directions with very real fear in their eyes. “Shelter in place? Fight? Flight?” Their expressions asked, and suddenly it struck me that, if it were an actual live shooting, the next words out of my mouth could determine whether or not they would live or die. To think there was a more innocent time when all the damage my bad advice could cause was imperfect syntax.

In the immortal nonsense words of The Beatles that capture the nonsensical nature of the culture of violence which we tolerate, live in, and must plan for in our daily lives and schools, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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It’s Spring! Happy New Year!

There is no natural law that establishes January as the beginning of a new year. The origins of it being considered so are rooted in the Roman worship of Janus, who was the two-faced God of Portals; therefore, he could simultaneously look both backwards and forwards as we are wont to do at the ending of one trip around the sun and the beginning of another. In fact, in ancient Mesopotamia, they celebrated the New Year in conjunction with the vernal equinox that occurs around March 20th and ushers in the spring season.

The Roman God Janus

The truth is I’ve never been much of a “spring” kind of guy. Rather, I’ve always been an autumnal sort of person. I like fall fashions, food, falling leaves, and football (I ran out of Fs). Some folks find that preference to be morbid or pessimistic as, symbolically, we associate the season with decay, dying, and denouement. But as a schoolteacher, it’s springtime that closes my work year, terminates my time with my current class of seniors, which, in the words of Janis Joplin, “takes another little piece of my heart,” and inspires me to ruminate on the general ending of things.

Photo by Stanley Morales on Pexels.com

If you follow my blog, however, you might recall that my New Year’s resolution this year is to press the reset button on my life in order to “be better” even in what are certainly my autumn years when old dogs typically turn their noses away from learning new tricks. However, I’ve grow determined to believe what Tennyson writes in his poem “Ulysses:” “Tis not too late . . . to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” This year, I’ve also coopted as my own the one-word motto of the University of Rochester, which I find to be similarly inspiring: Meliora, which is Latin for “ever better.” It suggests – as Tennyson also advises in “Ulysses” – that one must “drink life to the lees” in a nonstop effort to achieve personal and social betterment.

As a result, I’m trying really hard to embrace the idea of “springing forward.” The only other option really is stasis, to stay the same, stagnant and stuck (Oops, I did the alliteration thing again.). The reality is – as much as I might like to go backwards and try harder, undo mistakes, apologize for my occasional boneheaded behaviors and transgressions, or re-live the good times – there is no returning to the past. There is no “R” on the gearshift of life. Therefore, I choose to remove the rearview mirrors and go forward with the intent to become “ever better.” (Please pardon the banal and cliche metaphors of the previous sentences. They sound like they’ve been stolen from every bad graduation speech I’ve ever sat through.)

Alexander Pope, the great English Enlightenment-era poet observed that “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” This is never more the case than in the actual springtime. Nature blows it in with the promise of new life, new opportunities, and second or maybe even final chances to start living it right. I think Pope was referring to the kind of hope that inspires us to believe as Adam Duritz of The Counting Crows sings in “Long December,” “There’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.” To me, human beings’ capacity for hope – even after the coldest and darkest winters of their lives – is what truly makes us no less than remarkable creatures.

It is that springtime-like capacity for hope that no matter how shitty yesterday may have been or today is, tomorrow things are going to be better and the never ending commitment to the pursuit of personal and community betterment that is providing me with purpose in my autumnal days. I invite you to join me in this epic pursuit, for as Tennyson also rightly claims in “Ulysses,” “Some work of noble note, may yet be done.”

Oh, and Happy New Year!

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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St. Patty’s Day and the Wearing of the . . . Pink?

Nearly ten percent of Americans claim some Irish ancestry, including myself. My great-grandmother on the Benkey side, Mary Anne Lafferty, was born in Ireland most likely in one of the northern counties, according to Ancestry.com. Intertwined in my DNA, Mary Anne lives. In fact, I felt her presence nudging me towards my Irish nature and away from the much more dominant Germanic genes (no surprise there) long before my mother only recently informed me of Mary Anne’s existence.

I’m a firm believer in Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, the part of the unconscious mind which is derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all humankind, as distinct from the individual’s unconscious. I also believe that “ancestral memory and experience” is inherited not only from “humankind’s” experiences but also from one’s unique ethnic and racial forbears. In the corner of my unconscious where Mary Anne resides, she sings Irish folk songs, reads to me from Irish poetry and fiction, and taps Irish stepdance – all of which I found myself drawn to before I even knew I had a Great Grandmother Mary Anne. Irish culture and history, in general, have always spoken to me in ways no others have and not just around St. Patrick’s Day. My soul has never responded to Spanish, French, Italian, or any other culture the way it has to Irish culture for as long as I can remember. My only explanation for its allure is the collective unconscious.

One of my all-time favorite novels. It just happens to have been written by my friend Frank O’Farrell’s uncle.

Admittedly, my thin strands of Irish genetic material do not provide me much of a bragging right over the plastic Irish who, around St. Patrick’s Day, misrepresent Irish culture by enacting ethnic stereotypes that portray an inaccurate and often somewhat offensive image of Ireland and its culture and customs. One of my best friends from college is Dublin born – as in County Dublin, Ireland, not Franklin County, Ohio. He hated St. Patrick’s Day as it is celebrated in the States, especially the notion of green beer. Why would anyone put food coloring in a perfectly-good beer? He said, at home, they never ate corned beef and cabbage on Paddy’s Day, as he called it, and parades didn’t become common in Ireland until the 1980s after he had already emigrated to America. In fact, Paddy’s Day was a holy day of solemnity, not of bacchanalia as in the American version. Ironically, the majority of so called St. Patrick’s Day “traditions” — other than donning the green — actually are rooted in America and only occur in Ireland today in order to attract and cater to tourists’ false notions and to fatten pub owners’ purses.

That’s my Irish friend Frank O’Farrell second on the left. I’m thinking 1987.

You’d think that green then would be the color on my mind today; however, I’m thinking pink – as in the pink of a newborn baby girl. St. Patrick’s Day was the estimated due date for my granddaughter’s birth; however, she decided to enter the world a week early. Baby Charlee is of proud Mexican heritage on her mother’s side, so her genetic code is now intermingled with Mary Anne’s Irish, and I can’t help pondering how she represents two of arguably the most prominent cultural groups to emigrate to America and, without much question, the most persecuted.

The nativist, “America First,” Know-Nothing party of the Civil War era was born out of anti-immigration sentiment directed primarily at the wave of post-Potato Famine (1848- 1852) Irish immigrants coming to America in search of a sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their family, and it doesn’t require a history major or an overly-sensitive liberal to recognize the identical strain of xenophobia that has been directed at Mexican immigrants in recent years. These facts make me wonder what fears, hesitancies, and concerns were downloaded into Charlee’s unconsciousness on her birth day. Despite her native-born status, will she somehow intuit that she is considered the “other” by many of her fellow countrymen as her distant Irish and near Mexican ancestors must have felt? Will something inside of her cringe in history class at the mention of border walls and anti-immigration laws that were designed to keep her people out?

Meet Charlee.

I know it is a politically-charged notion, and I expect many to disagree with me, but I have always considered myself an internationalist, a word whose meaning – a person who advocates or believes in cooperation and understanding between nations – and one who welcomes immigrants from all nations. These beliefs inspire all sorts of vitriol from the nationalist crowd; however, I believe it was Nick Lowe who wrote but Elvis Costello who popularized the lyric, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” It sounds to me, oh, I don’t know . . . Christian.

I will encourage my granddaughter Charlee to proudly embrace both of these ethnic inheritances from those who, over time, have proven themselves in so many ways to be vital adherents and contributors to the American ethos — which many of we native born fail to live up to ourselves — by serving in our armed forces (Charlee’s mother is a Navy veteran), by humbly accepting often low-paying and back-breaking work that few native workers would, by assimilating into American culture while sharing much of its own, and by proving, time and time again, that, in the words of the great Irish-American bard Bruce Springsteen, America is still a “land of hopes and dreams,” and that immigrants’ sacrifices and travails can be rewarded by the elevation of each succeeding generation.

To Charlee, I say Erin Go Bragh! Viva Mexico! And Born in the U.S.A.! You are a beautiful embodiment of what we Americans once proudly boasted of: our existence as a patchwork quilt of ethnically and racially diverse people. After all, as the Indiana prophet John Mellencamp sings, “Ain’t that America?”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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Sports and Schools: An Unholy Marriage?

Cover Photo Credit: Johnny Dee

What follows is a thought experiment more than a serious proposal, but I think it’s worth thinking about if only to help us recalibrate the role of sports in our schools and in our lives in general. I fully understand the depth to which athletics are embedded in our education system and the difficulties and blowback an attempt to uproot them would cause. All I ask is what I ask of my students every day: just think about it with an open mind subject to reason.

Is it time in America to separate sports from education? The Beach Boys’ admonition to “be true to your school” aside, what do the two actually have to do with one another? Setting aside the infrastructure that’s already in place under the aegis of school districts, why not move to a continental European academy or club model for young people interested in participating in sports?

I say if the best arguments against such a divorce is that it has always been done that way and it would be too difficult to change, those are poor reasons for sports and education to stay married. I’d like to suggest that it might be time to break up for the sake of the kids.

The fact-of-the-matter is that, for many high school athletes, school-sponsored sports participation is already secondary in importance to their membership in private club teams. Such organizations as AAU basketball, JO volleyball, NCA cheerleading, and travel baseball teams often rank higher in terms of importance and devotion for young athletes than their school’s team. In tennis, it’s not unusual for the very best players to skip the high school team entirely, preferring to compete in USTA-level tournaments where the competition is much stronger. The same is true for elite hockey players as well, who, if good enough, play in the juniors. As indicated in the chart below, there is a deemphasis being placed on sports participation, in general, by young people themselves.

The hiring of coaches for scholastic sports teams has already experienced a necessary change. An increasing number of lay coaches are serving in both head and assistant coaching positions on middle school and high school teams. Oftentimes, these lay coaches only step up to coach when one of the their own children is a member of the team. More-often-than-not, their devotion to the program and other parents’ children ends the second their child’s eligibility expires. In addition, many student-athletes receive additional instruction by private coaches, which, at times, is at odds with the coaching they are receiving from the team’s coaching staff.

Long gone are the days when schools could afford to hire quasi-teachers to serve primarily as coaches. A move to which I say, “Amen.” The quality of instruction offered to the student body at-large should never be sacrificed in order to fill coaching positions or to possibly win a few more games. With the advent of statewide testing and academic report cards, no school district can afford to have dead zones in their curriculum maps in which coaches read newspapers with their feet propped up on the desk while students are tasked with reading independently, completing meaningless worksheets, or watching movie after movie.

In recent years and with great consternation, I have watched a number of promising young educators resign from coaching positions due to the excessive expectation of a nearly year round commitment to their sport. Added to the ever-increasing demands in the classroom, a rigorous teacher evaluation system, and their familial commitments, they just do not have the time to perform as skilled teachers and engaged parents while also committing an exorbitant number of hours to coaching for what is paltry remuneration when broken down into hourly pay.

Collegiately, the notion of the student-athlete is a near-absurdity beyond the Division III level. Even there, once you move beyond the high academic schools, many college athletes will readily admit that they are on-campus merely to play their sport of choice — the love of which they have yet to exorcise from their system, for the addiction to the adulation showered upon a high school sports hero is a strong one. If these athlete-students somehow do manage to earn a degree without accruing a disabling amount of debt, that’s great, but I’d have to believe it is often more by hook and by crook than by honest scholarly devotion, and I doubt if many have distinguished themselves academically in a manner that will make them especially marketable in highly-competitive and financially-rewarding fields.

My son Taylor (middle) is a college basketball coach on the Division III level.

Just think, if school districts were not required to pay athletic directors and coaching stipends, to pay the cost of game officials, to pay to outfit the ever-growing number of teams, to pay for the upkeep of facilities, to pay transportation costs, and the list goes on, how those monies could be spent on what are truly educational pursuits that benefit the entire student body, not just those who choose to participate in sports. For the fact is that very few schools – high school or collegiate – can cover the operations costs of their athletic departments from gate receipts.

Not for a second am I underestimating the value of sports or suggesting an end to them. I love sports. I played and coached several of them and vigorously-encouraged my children to play them as well. Therefore, I’ve experienced firsthand the lessons they teach and the positive impact they can have on young people. I’m just questioning whether they need to be affiliated with education.

If sports are considered essential and of certain value to young people, why are they not made mandatory like math, science, and English? If sports are truly a vital part of a child’s schooling, why are all practices and games held outside of the school day? If sports are so important, why do we take them away when a student is failing academically, but we don’t take academics away from a student who is a failure at sports?

If athletics are truly central to the well-being of our youth, plentiful would be the number of community members and organizations who would step up to organize the appropriate teams and leagues outside of the oversight of school districts, thereby continuing to provide the experiences and lessons gleaned from participation in sports that we deem so valuable. If not, then perhaps, we have been overestimating the importance of athletics all along.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 9, Renegades, Part 2: Kassie Finneran

I briefly introduced you to Kassie Finneran in my previous “Some of the People in My Life” post. When I contacted Kassie about featuring her, she responded with a beautifully-written testimony of her life story since high school. Therefore, I decided to get out of her way and to let her words speak for themselves as to her choices in fashioning her life’s journey to this point. What follows are Kassie’s words with only a few minor editorial fixes. I apologize. I just can’t help it.

There is an inherent shift that I believe every young adult reaches after high school. We are thrown into the world like a baby learning how to swim and are expected to know how to function in society. After high school, my family forced me to attend college at Cleveland State University where I majored in music education. I knew I did not belong there, but I did my best with the given situation. I figured if I were to attend college, I may as well pursue something I enjoyed. Taking on the challenge of twenty credit hours, extra curriculars, managing a Starbucks, maintaining a social life, and holding up a healthy relationship with myself — my mental health began to decline. I did not have time to take care of myself or give the appropriate amount of energy to my studies. When the semester came to an end and it was time for exams, I had lost an unhealthy fifteen pounds and was clearly struggling. My professor stopped me halfway through my test and looked at me dead in the eyes and said, “Kassie, are you sure you want to pursue music?” If his intention was to motivate me to do better, his attempt failed. I walked out of the stuffy music room defeated and immediately went to drop out of school. I had reached rock bottom, and it felt like no one could even recognize it. I felt like I had just lost a battle, but I knew the plan that lay ahead had something great in store for me.

Kassie performing at the Jubileego Music & Arts Festival in New London, Ohio, in 2019.

I remembered a moment in my freshman year of high school when a young woman came into my science class and told us about her journeys across New Zealand. She introduced me to a nonconventional lifestyle that I longed for. She spoke of the program World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms (WWOOF) that connected people across the world to organic farms, where they provided shelter, work, food, and community. I knew this was the path I was being called to walk. As a child, my family never lived in one place for more than three years and often traveled. Being a nomad was in my blood. It is what I knew. I signed up the next day. Possibilities began to swirl in my head with vivid color. My vision was becoming clear.

I found a small orchid farm outside of Hilo, Hawaii. I did not have a plan, but I knew I had to trust. The plane ride was long and exhausting. I arrived with no cell service and, honestly, no clue. Luckily, I had a met a kind man on my flight who offered to give my partner at the time and me a ride to our farm. We climbed into the bed of this man’s truck while he blared Jack Johnson and drove through paradise. This moment lives in my head as clear as day; the land was full of life, and unknown possibilities lay ahead. We arrived at our farm after sunset, and I honestly felt a bit scared. I did not know what I was walking into.

Kassie’s Kitchen in Hilo, Hawaii.

The farm hand, Mike, greeted us with a smile and a joint. He led us to a screened in hut built with 2 x 4s. I knew it was home. Our kitchen was the roof of a greenhouse with no walls. Everything was outdoors, including our shower. The land was full of vegetation unlike anything I had ever known. Our daily activities included weeding orchid plants, planting seeds in the garden beds, and harvesting green onions. George, the owner of the land, was a surfer from California who crossbred orchid plants and shipped them around the world. He showed us the beauty that the island had to offer, including Waimea Valley, a sacred valley between two mountains, where wild horses roam and natives thrive.

Waimea Valley

A short two weeks passed before a 6.4 earthquake struck, and lava began to flow just five miles from our farm. The vog (a form of air pollution naturally occurring with volcanic flow) made us sick. Feeling unsafe and unsure of what to do, we fled to the other side of the island. With our bags packed and no plan, we sat on the beach in Kona hopeless. A woman, named Kathleen, offered to take us in on her coffee and macadamia nut farm. We arrived on the side of mountain to a three bedroom house with a bathtub and shower in the middle of the woods. The farm was magical, ten acres of trees and coffee bushels. I knew I was in heaven. I began working at Menehune Coffee, exploring the island, and working daily to tend to the farm’s needs. It’s a beautiful moment when you begin to recognize that when you tend to a need daily, something is sure to bloom. That lesson inspired me to reflect on my life. After two months in paradise, the mainland began calling me back.

After returning home, I moved back to Cleveland. I felt as though it was unfinished business, and I still needed to prove myself. I moved into an apartment with my partner and looked endlessly for work. That feeling of defeat began to resurface. I went for three months with no job in sight until I interviewed for the Phoenix Coffee Company. Although they didn’t hire me, they sent me to a new business they were outsourcing to called Brewellas Coffee, Crepes, and Collectibles. Walking into the space, I instantly knew I belonged. My interview was successful, and I was officially their first hire. I saw the beginning of a journey unraveling before me. Chris Murphy, the owner, instantly became one of my closest friends and mentors. He opened my eyes to the importance of mental health and boundaries. Inspired by his transparency, I began therapy. Chris made me feel at home, and the people in my life became my family.

Today, I manage Brewellas, and I love every minute of it. I’m a firm believer that what you put into the world will come back to you. Helping nourish this business has brought nothing but prosperity and blessings to me. Chris and I recently had investors of the West 117th Foundation reach out to us about opening an LGBTQ+ cafe and safe space in Lakewood, Ohio. Based on the 70s feminist movement, we named it Golden Hour. There, we hope to help build and empower Cleveland’s queer community.

In my most recent endeavors, I’ve traveled to the coast of Oregon, staring in Portland and road tripping down Route 101 with my friends. I then made my temporary home at an animal farm, where I tended to goats, horses, and garden beds. I stayed in a tiny home on a mountain surrounded by woods with my best friend. From there, I visited Tucson, Arizona, and moseyed through the desert. I have pursued a personal music career, releasing my most recent album, Bird Feeder, and I’m working on my second album, What’s to Come. I perform regularly at small Cleveland venues. I have also begun operating my own non-binary vintage clothing line and released a podcast on the important of sex education.

In the future, I hope to one day own farmland of my own and host WWOOFers. I’m hopeful for the future, and I know it shall be fruitful. I continue to trust my journey, and I’m looking forward to the horizons that lie ahead.

I want to thank Kassie for such a candid sharing of her fascinating story. Whenever I think of Kassie, I associate her with the Jim Pepper song “Witchi-Tai-To” from 1969. It’s based on a Native American peyote chant that translates to something like “What a spirit spring is bringing round my head Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead.” In the quarter century of her life, she has accrued the experiences and the wisdom of someone twice her age. The world could use a lot more Kassie’s. Knowing Kassie makes me feel glad that I’m not dead. Be sure to check out the video for her song “Tales of a Golden Heart.” I’ve also linked “Witchi-Tai-To.” Give it a listen, I guarantee it’ll make you glad to be alive.

“Tales of a Golden Heart”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 9: The Renegades, Part 1:

In an earlier post, I shared my metaphor of the “people mover,” the moving walkways often found in airports. They require no effort from the pedestrian and, once on, must be ridden to their intermittent ends. My point was that, as we entered adulthood, most of us either chose to ride the people mover of a conventional lifestyle, or we allowed ourselves to be steered onto it by adult influencers, who, coupled with societal expectations, formed a powerful force for conformity.

In my teaching career, however, I have been blessed to encounter a few students who flat out refused to ride that conveyor belt of conventionality. Instead, to paraphrase Thoreau, they consciously chose – often against the advice and wishes of those closest to them – to live a life of their own imagining, to take Frost’s “road less traveled,” or to completely blaze a trail of their own devising in the pursuit of their passion for the arts, adventure, or altruism and, in some cases, all of the above.

The “People Mover:” Enter and ride at your own risk!

In this and the post to follow, I’d like to introduce you to four of these renegades: Ben Fox, Alex Moore, Ian Chandler, and Kassie Finneran. They are all former students of mine at Port Clinton High School, whom I sometimes envy and admire always. Even as teenagers, each of them had a sparkle in their eyes that communicated, “I’m too big for this town,” and a belief that “there’s gotta be something more.” Each of them were above average students with magnetic personalities who could have quite easily crushed the traditional academic path and/or graduated into careers that provided high status and income. Each of them possessed kind and gentle souls. None of them gave a damn about “fitting in.”

As adults, each of them have pursued Kerouacian, peripatetic lives – traveling from place to place, working or based in various places for relatively short periods. Each of them have accrued a tycoon’s wealth in lived experiences, and each possesses a proclivity for the arts. I loved them all as students, but obviously, I couldn’t share with them my admiration within the parameters of the teacher/student dynamic. Today, however, I can. I think you’ll love them too.

Music has taken Ben Fox (Class of 2000) all over the world and has exposed him to what he describes as “incredible situations,” including “standing next to David Bowie while watching Busta Rhymes perform . . . spending a week at Sound City Studios in LA and living in Julia Roberts’ mansion . . . celebrating my 21st birthday backstage with a ‘little band’ called Coldplay . . . and playing a sold out show in London to 1,000 people.”

Ben admits that there have been many “bends” in his personal road less traveled, including dropping out of college, living with parental disappointment and worry, having to hold a string of menial jobs that still left him with “shit finances,” and occasional bouts with loneliness.

The pursuit of his dreams allowed Ben to see much of the U.S. and to travel the world. He has lived in various Ohio cities, Detroit, New York City, Atlanta, and Nashville. Not long ago, Ben moved to the West of Ireland to be near to his wife’s family. Although he now has a day job in social care, working with autistic adults, he still makes music with his longtime friend and PCHS classmate Gordon Cooper as the duo Irish Lights (one of my personal favorites for ambient music). I’d encourage you to give them a listen on Spotify or wherever you stream your music and to check out their web page below.

In Ben’s own words regarding his renegade choice, “All I can truly say is that when it’s all said and done and my wife turns the light out at night, I don’t wonder about anything that could have been. I’m still doing it every day, and I believe the best things are yet to come. Someone once told me that ‘it’s the wondering that kills.’ I never have that problem.” In addition, Ben adds that, a few years ago, his parents shared that they were really proud of him. He calls it “a high point in my life to say the least.”

As the Gaelic proverb says, An té a bhíónn siúlach, bíonn scéalach or “He who travels has stories to tell.” Truly, Ben already has a lifetime’s worth of stories to tell with more yet to come. Travel safe, my brother, along the backstreets of free thinking, self-direction, and resistance to the status quo and in pursuit of the elusive life well-lived.

Alex Moore (Class of 2007) graduated from Hofstra University in NYC with a major in Global Studies and minors in Dance and Photography. Her LinkedIn page identifies her as an Educational Facilitator and as an expert (my word) in Holistic Body Care. Alex’s litany of work experiences include but are not limited to (hold on to your hat) tango instructor; Thai massage practitioner; yoga facilitator; co-op organizer for the Boston Creative Collective, an organization which works to further the careers of local artists; elementary school teacher; and a teaching artist and programming manager for Ballroom Basix, a nonprofit organization specializing in “non-competitive, arts-in-education and bringing the etiquette & education of partner dancing experience to school children across all 5 boroughs of NYC.”

Alex’s current primary occupation is serving as a trip leader for various organizations sponsoring worldwide student travel, which also serves the purpose of feeding her desire to experience new places. In addition to her diverse work experiences, she has also volunteered her time extensively. In fact, she is currently in Hawaii, volunteering for a couple of weeks in an ecovillage, which is a community that attempts to live with as minimal of an environmental impact as possible. That is the most “Alex” thing I can imagine.

Ian Chandler (Class of 2013) is Port Clinton’s version of Christopher McCandless from the John Krakauer book Into the Wild but without the tragic ending. Upon graduation from high school, Ian needed “to see more than a small town lifestyle;” therefore, after a less-than-gratifying attempt at college in Cleveland, he heeded the ever-resonant American call to go West and landed in Colorado for a year. After a brief sojourn back in Cleveland, where he worked as a bartender in popular downtown restaurants, the call of the wild beckoned, and like Huck Finn, Ian “lit out”: first for the mountains of Northern Maine, then to the canyons of Southern Utah in search of “a life of more freedom.”

Soon after, Ian purchased a motorhome, modernized the interior, and took a seasonal job near Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. While there, he trained in mountaineering, navigation, and weather reading before preparing for five months to scale a highly- technical rock climbing route to the summit of the Grand Teton, which he summited in August of 2019. After another move to Northern California and a less “workaholic environment,” Ian summited Mt. Shasta and landed a permit to climb Mt. Whitney, the tallest U.S. mountain outside of Alaska.

This past year, Ian returned to Southern Utah, where he works on a ranch taking care of livestock in exchange for free hookup for his motorhome. Throughout his travels and adventures, he has continued to work remotely on a degree in finance, which he will finish this May. Currently, he and his partner Devon are in the process of opening Kanab, Utah’s, first tattoo shop, where they “will be creating art for the locals and tourists.”

I like to think of Ian as my doppelganger/spiritual warrior: “someone who goes through life aggressively and purposefully, whether climbing mountains or wallowing through swamps. He takes the natural ups and downs in stride, and sees painful circumstances as challenges to work through, not as bad luck to lament” (Nine Ways to be a Spiritual Warrior).

As the Haitian proverb reminds us, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” In other words and as Ian’s life illustrates, there are always new challenges to seek and conquer. Stasis is akin to death, if not of the body then of the spirit. His living example reminds me that life, like mountaineering, isn’t about the end destination (the hoped-for afterlife or the mountain’s summit), it’s about the climb.

If you’re wondering about Kassie, I plan to devote an entire post to her in my next blog entry. Please, look for it in the very near future. You won’t be disappointed.

I often sign my books with the expression, “Always With Gratitude and Love.” It strikes me that this saying captures the essence of Ben’s, Alex’s, Ian’s, and Kassie’s general approach to living. In so doing, they inspire me to be better. If the greatest compliment a teacher can receive is to be surpassed by his/her students, I’m going to consider myself successful in my vocation, blessed, and lucky to have crossed paths with these beautiful souls. It is with gratitude and love that I want to thank them for proving to me that there are other options outside the confines of the people mover.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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NV

I had a neighbor once who worked in a local automotive factory. He regularly teased me about how I, as a teacher, had weekends and summers off. Growing tired of his ribbing, I challenged him to count up the number of days he worked each year after deducting his own weekends off, paid vacation time, and plant shutdown days. You can probably imagine where this is headed. After doing the calculations, the total number of days we worked were pretty similar.

I didn’t bother to educate him regarding the number of unpaid hours I work at home preparing for class and grading papers; although, I never once saw him bring home to work on whatever part of the car he was responsible for assembling. I chose to become a teacher – an English teacher at that – with full knowledge of the time I would be required to spend on my craft if I intended to be any good at it. I like to say that we all make choices as young adults as to how we will spend our adult work years. I don’t question or begrudge anyone else’s choice. Why should anyone begrudge me mine?

You may think that the story of my neighbor’s teasing was a set up to extract sympathy for teachers’ heavy workloads or to say something about unions – teachers’ or automotive – or maybe to defend clinging to a school calendar designed to sync with agricultural seasons. You’d be incorrect on all counts. This post is about one of the most pernicious and soul-poisoning of the seven deadly sins: Envy.

Natalie Merchant from the 10,000 Maniacs is one of my all-time favorites.

I’ve never understood why people study other people’s career choices or lives, in general, in order to take some measure of their own success or happiness. By the way, teachers do it all the time. We compare schedules, duties, class rosters, evaluations, etc. in order to determine if we are somehow being cheated or being taken advantage of. I hate that mindset. Another’s good fortune, success, or happiness should have no negative effect on my own.

In what I think is one of his most salient observations, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “Envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide.” As much as I use and enjoy various forms of social media, they can be inexhaustible sources of envy. “Why can’t I lose fifteen pounds like her?” “Why can’t I fly to the Florida Keys in February?” “Why aren’t my kids as accomplished or as adorable as my friends’ children?” “Why am I eating meatloaf and canned corn again instead of something from the photos of culinary porn that everyone else seems to be feasting on?” I could go on, but I think you get the point.

As much as I love Natalie Merchant, there’s no better jealousy-themed song than the Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy.”

Even worse, perhaps, although not listed among the seven deadlies, is the opposite of envy: schadenfreude, which is the pleasure one takes in another’s misfortune or unhappiness. I’m not so self-deluded to deny my own smug wallowing in this manifestation of some of man’s worst angels (the recent election comes to mind), but I’m trying to rise above it.

Oftentimes, the universe seems to operate according to an incomprehensible set of rules that run counter to what we might think of as logical or fair. For example, the notions that it is better to give than to receive, to kill with kindness, to forgive and forget, and to be truly happy for others’ good fortune – as paradoxical as they appear to be on the surface – prove themselves to be true over and over again.

Trust me, my own magnanimity is far superior in the world of the hypothetical than it is in reality, but like everybody, I’m a work-in-progress, and as I said, I’m trying.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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Ten Questions: Question #1

This is the first in a series of blog posts inspired by my friend and colleague Marcus Rimboch, who asked me to respond to a series of ten questions originally posed by Tim Ferris in his book Tribe of Mentors. In the first place, I am flattered to have been asked by Marcus, and I’m thankful for his inspiring this blog series. As I near the end of my career in the classroom, I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a host of young teachers whose enthusiasm for and innovation in a profession I have loved for thirty-six years inspire me every day. Marcus is among the best of them.

Question #1: What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why? What are three books that have greatly influenced your life?

The answer to the first half of this two-part question is easy: This is Water by David Foster Wallace (2009). This is Water is actually a print version of the commencement speech Wallace delivered to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. One reason I often gift it is that the book is, at most, a ten-minute read. I’m also a big fan of two other Wallace novels (Infinite Jest and The Pale King), but each of these are veritable tomes that come in at around one thousand pages. My fear is that they would more likely be used to lift a laptop to eye-level during a Zoom meeting than to be read.

More significantly, the reason I gift This is Water is for the lessons it teaches on self-awareness and perspective. The title comes from the following anecdote Wallace shares at the beginning of his speech: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” Clearly, the young fish are woefully oblivious to what should be the most obvious of realities.

The point of the story is that most of us live in false realities that result from the “default settings” we have obtained either from nature or nurture. The most fundamental and hard-wired of these default settings being the notion that we are the center of the universe. This egotistical understanding of the world has been installed inside our unconscious. Like the the dark web realm of the Internet, which is invisible to search engines, our solipsism is invisible to our conscious mind. Unless we are aware that it exists — which is the goal of my gifting the book — we will never just stumble upon it. We must consciously choose to descend the dark stairs into the scary basement of our psyches to locate and re-program it. And we should want to re-program it, for it blinds us to the fact that we are each merely one temporary collection of atoms amongst an infinitesimal number of other collections of atoms, and we are, in fact, NOT that around which the cosmos rotates. According to Wallace, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race”-the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

As for the three books that have most impacted my life, that question is much more difficult as there have been so many that have tweaked my understanding of my sojourn in this world. But as of today, here’s my list of three in order of the most significance. I’m not going to expound on my reasoning for their selection, I’ll just encourage you to read them for yourselves: 1) Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, 2) Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, 3) Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Life is But a Dream

Twice in my adult life I have changed homes. On each occasion, shortly after having moved, I’ve woken from dreams in which I had returned to and entered the recently-sold house as if it were still mine only to suddenly realize I was breaking and entering the new owners’ home and about to be caught. As a lucid dreamer and someone fascinated by the purpose of dreams, I wondered what this recurrent nightmare might mean, but like most people, I quickly dismissed them and returned to my workaday world.

My current home at Xmas time.

The other day, however, the experience of being a stranger in my former home returned to me in a waking dream, which is an involuntary dream occurring while a person is awake. It was similar, perhaps, to the way Mary Shelley described how the germ for the story that would be fleshed out as Frankenstein revealed itself to her. As I ran on the treadmill and absentmindedly scanned the basement, my now-adult sons’ high school letterman’s jackets, hanging in dry cleaning bags from a bar; the ping pong table, covered with miscellaneous items; the red tubs full of Christmas decorations and stored on racks all suddenly seemed to disappear. Footsteps of children thudded over my head, and the voice of a mother, not my wife, wafted down the wooden steps from the kitchen accompanied by the smell of a phantom dinner cooking in the oven.

For a moment, the selfsame panic associated with finding myself a trespasser in a house that no longer belonged to me washed over me like it did in those dreams. Irrationally, I pressed the stop button on the treadmill for fear of being heard and discovered by the home’s new occupants. In the middle of trying to devise an escape plan or, if caught, a rational-sounding explanation for my presence in the house, I emerged from the waking dream, chided myself for my irrationality, and resumed my workout.

Ever since the experience, I’ve been pondering those dreams, sleeping and waking, and I have come to the conclusion that – whether externally or internally generated – they convey the poignant reminder that life, like the dreams themselves, is ephemeral and transient. Pretty much everything is temporary. From the briefest of sparks to the biggest of bangs, nothing is permanent. Everything is borrowed; nothing is forever owned.

Inside of the current home at Xmas time.

Just as some folks lived in my house before I did, there will be a new set of inhabitants after I’m gone. It is only mine for the brief time I actually live in it, so it’s hardly “mine” at all. This reminds me of Plato’s conception of the life of the soul, which he believed to be permanent, existing both prior to life and after life in a dimension containing perfect “forms” of beauty, truth, justice, goodness, love, etc. The soul’s time in between is spent in a mortal body; the fleshy appetites of which cloud the soul’s memory of the forms and distract it from its ultimate goal of remembering the forms in their perfect state and returning to the world in which they exist. The souls that fail in this quest are continually reincarnated until they learn to value and exercise their ability to reason over their senses and get it right. So, like the homes in which we live, according to Plato, our bodies are only temporary abodes for our souls.

I don’t know about Plato’s notion of the soul and perfect forms. I’m not even entirely sure I possess a soul. And the purpose of dreams – at least for the near future – will remain a mystery. The only surefire conclusion I can draw from this exercise in speculation is that our lives and the bodies we occupy while living inside of them come with an expiration date that is ever-approaching, and the older I get, the faster the meantime seems to go.

If my dreams of trespassing in my former homes tell me nothing else, they remind me to live with a greater sense of urgency and to get my current house, body, mind, and soul in order before its time to make that final move to whatever comes next.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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The Cruelest Cut

I was deeply saddened recently upon reading a Facebook friend’s post recounting the hurt caused to her family when her daughter failed to make a softball team. It reminded me of the time that one of my sons was not invited to participate on a sort of post-season, 6th grade basketball tournament team. I’ll never forget the defeated look on his face when he came out of that locker room having been told that he wasn’t good enough. He was devastated as were his mother and me. Sixth grade. To this day, trying to convince him in that moment to keep his head up and to accept that life is rarely fair remains one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had to have with him. He had loved playing basketball. That little boy’s spirit was absolutely crushed by adults who’d decided that winning was more important than nurturing kids’ talents and teaching the love of competition – in the sixth grade – and should have known better. After that, he continued to play basketball halfheartedly for another year or so before completely giving up. I understand that there comes an age when children need to hear the truth about their limitations as athletes and students, and that they need to learn that life is full disappointments, and that, as Mick Jagger rightly crowed, “You can’t always get what you want.” But the sixth grade?

Only once in my twenty years of coaching did I ever cut a player. I only did it on that occasion because I’d been more-or-less directed to keep the squad to a certain number based upon uniform availability. Afterward I swore to myself that I would never do it again. If a kid wanted to be on the team and practice despite the unlikelihood of receiving much playing time, I would let him. Similarly, whenever I reflect on my coaching career, my biggest regret has nothing to do with losing games – and, trust me, I lost more than my share – but with not finding enough playing time for too many of my players who had worked just as hard at practice as the starters. I should have tried much harder to get kids on the field on game nights. I still lose sleep about it, and I am often ashamed when I run into those kids, who are now adults, and realize of what I robbed them and their parents because I was so concerned with winning.

In the classroom, I think long and hard before placing an “F” on a student’s grade report. In fact, over the past twenty years, I can count on one finger the number of students I’ve failed for the year, and he had to work hard to convince me that he deserved it. In fact, he had to more-or-less talk me into failing him. I will explore every alternative to giving a student an “F” on a grade report. “F” stands for failure, and I just don’t believe many kids are absolute failures, and I do not want to be the adult who labels one as such, for what happens when and if s/he believes me?

Tell me I’m a part of this namby-pamby participation trophy generation of adults. Call me a snowflake. Accuse me of being a bleeding-heart liberal. Accuse me of contributing to the wussification of America. I’ll say thank you. Based on the adult generations of Americans I see, I’m not so sure the “hard-ass,” “suck-it-up,” “quit-your-crying,” “winning is everything” philosophy of previous generations did such a great job of forming well-adjusted adults out of the children for whom they were responsible.

Looking back, I learned more from the teachers, coaches, and adults in general who respected me and showed me kindness and patience and compassion than I ever did from those I feared and who were hell bent on “making a man” out of me – whatever the hell that means. We need to find a way of teaching the love of sports and learning and music for their sakes alone, not because there will be winners and honors declared at the end. Call me a communist if that actually makes any sense and it makes you feel better about yourself, but I’ll believe we’ve become an enlightened society when we no longer have a need for cutting kids, scoreboards, and grade cards.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 8: Seth Benner

Most people know the story of the brothers Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, but few seem to remember that there was a third named son of those first parents. His name was Seth, and according to the story in Genesis, he lived to be 912. Although my good friend Seth Benner has somehow managed to escape many of the ravages of time and to maintain a youthfulness in both appearance and activity, as he turns 50 this weekend, I somehow doubt he has any hope of or intention to match his namesake’s longevity. On the other hand, I have no doubt that, for many of those who have known Seth the longest, it was an even bet – at best – that he’d make it to this half-century milestone.

Seth is a man of impeccable fashion sense with ever changing but always stylish facial hair.

Some of my earliest memories of Seth revolve around coaching football. When I served as head football coach at Port Clinton High School, I was in need of coaches. Seth had played at Oak Harbor for Gary Quisno, and as far as I was concerned, that was all I needed to know regarding his coaching creds. Fortunately for me and the kids in the program, it soon became obvious that Seth was passionate about teaching and coaching, he was willing to give whatever time and effort were needed to do the job well, and student-athletes were drawn to and inspired by his personality and teaching style. As it turned out, he was as invaluable of an addition to the staff as he has always been to the school.

That’s Seth first row, last on the right.

Over the years, Seth has become more than a fellow coach and teaching colleague; rather, he has become a true friend and a partner in my occasional attempts to seize the day. In the highlight film of my life – as short as that film may be – he will appear in many of the frames as we hiked and kayaked in the Adirondacks, paddled furiously while rafting the Gauley River, ran to South Bass Island on February ice, crawled through mud in an adventure race, tore through the streets of Washington D.C. in a 10-miler, and best of all, consumed a variety of meats around the many fires I’ve watched him build and beers, pizzas, and clams on our favorite rooftop bar in Old Forge, New York.

The view from our favorite rooftop bar in Old Forge, New York.

Seth is one of my very favorite conversationalists. He possesses a wealth of opinions, a treasure trove of stories from the rambunctious days of his youth, a quick and biting sense of humor, which leaves him with a ready comment should anyone let slip an illogical thought, and an absolute mastery of the simile. I can listen to Seth nonstop, be it on an eight-hour car drive, sharing a lean to in the middle-of-nowhere, or staring into one of his fires for as long as it remains stoked.

The man can build a fire with the best of them.

Seth has two biological brothers, one of whom happens to be named Ty, but I hope he is willing to allow me to consider myself a brother as well. If so, it is truly one of the great honors of my life. In his fifty years, Seth has proven himself to be an amazing teacher, coach, friend, husband, and father, which proves that those years have been well spent. Happy birthday, brother. I look forward to seizing more days with you in the near future.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Ice Run Revisited

This is a reposting of a blog I published seven years ago today. It remains the most popular blog article I’ve ever posted. It would later appear in an edition of Lake Erie Living Magazine. To this day, the event it recounts remains one of the coolest and stupidest things I’ve ever done. My mother is still angry at me. My fellow expeditioners that day were Del Culver, Melinda Cooley, Pat Adkins, Gary Steyer, Seth Benner, Erin Benner, Jodi Knoch, Marshall Brink, and Kent Felbinger.

Difficult to tell inside their gear, but I’m pretty sure it’s Erin, Del, Marshall, Kent, and Pat

Normally, I prefer to blog about my professional life as an author and teacher and to keep my personal life to myself because, really, who cares? Yesterday, however, was a day I have to write about, if only to put the experience into words for myself. Along with nine friends, I completed a ten mile run, which, on the surface, doesn’t seem like a big deal. What made this run special, however, was that six miles of it was over the frozen waters of the South Passage in Lake Erie between South Bass Island and Catawba Island.

When asked to participate, my reaction was “Are you crazy!? Subsequently, it became the first response of nearly everyone I told of our plans. Anyone who has lived along the lake knows the treachery of the ice. The truism holds that “There is no such thing as safe ice.” An admonition, by the way, that remains true, and I would share with anybody who wishes to duplicate our adventure.

You can see ice shanties and the Catawba coast in the background.

So why go? Unlike some of my buddies, I am not an adventure seeker or an adrenaline junkie. What I am is a patsy for peer pressure and someone easily cajoled into the stupidest of risks with the most childish and inane assaults on my manhood. I am not proud of my easy submission to macho cajoling, but I am what I am. What I couldn’t get out of my head was the thought of listening to their stories recounting their day on the ice for the next twenty-five years and regretting that I wasn’t there. Remember, it’s the sins of omission, not commission, that weigh most heavily in retrospect.

We did our research and learned that the ice was as thick as anyone in the area could remember. No, it wasn’t necessarily safe, but it was never going to be safer. So, I started thinking: if all I ever did in life was what was entirely safe and without risk, what would I ever do? I may as well not get out of bed in the morning if that is going to serve as my criteria for taking action. In the past, I’d certainly never have played sports, asked a date to the prom, fallen in love, had children, changed jobs, written books, etc.

Then, on Friday, as I was still discerning the wisdom of going, we were studying Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych in World Lit., and I quoted the central theme from the story: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been the most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” As Tolstoy intended, I found myself challenging my students to “Do something extraordinary,” and I realized that I was talking to myself. My opportunity to do something extraordinary and disrupt the all-too-often mundane progress of my own life was waiting for me out on that ice. I had to go or else come to uneasy terms with my own hypocrisy.

In the end, the experience of running through ankle deep snow over uneven ice in wind chills approaching zero degrees was ungodly awful. The life experience, however, was priceless. I’ll never forget the looks of the rugged ice fisherman, covered from head to toe in Carhartt products as we ran past their shanties, or the snowmobilers, rolling into Tipper’s in Put-in-Bay like bikers at Sturgis inside their helmets, boots, and state-of-the-art cold weather gear. Those snowmobilers and a few fisherman who were in the bar stared at us dumbfounded as we stood proudly in our running shoes and clothes. “You did what?” was their near-unanimous response to our declaration of “We ran here.” Between the three groups – snowmobilers, ice fishermen, and runners – it was like Larry, Curly, and Moe studying at each other and trying to figure out who was the “stoogiest.” I’m pretty sure we won.

Seals and Crofts once mistakenly sang, “We May Never Pass This Way Again.” They’re error was in the use of the subjunctive mood, which is used to indicate a hypothetical situation. In fact, we will never pass this way again. They should have used the declarative mood, which is used to make statements of fact. With that understood, how could I have not ventured out onto the ice with great friends for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Praise Up

In the military, they like to say that “shit rolls downhill.” In other words any crappy order or policy coming from the top of the chain of command will eventually land on the lowest of ranks. Supply side economists, despite most evidence to the contrary, still insist that low tax rates for businesses and the wealthy will eventually “trickle down” and benefit society at-large. Perhaps, in both cases, it is because, so often, the many are made miserable by the behaviors of the few that the majority of the many assume a rather antagonistic attitude toward their so-called superiors, and as a result, they are incapable or unwilling to give credit to their bosses, supervisors, managers, etc. Ergo the saying that it is “lonely at the top.”

Mostly, we expect those in positions of power and leadership to be the allocators of praise. It is their job to shower it down, like the proverbial manna from heaven, in the appropriate amounts to the deserving. Such praise can go a long way in the building of both individual and group morale. It can even inspire some to rise consistently above and beyond the parameters of their job description or the expectations for someone of their pay grade. In the hands of a skillful leader, the awarding or withholding of praise can be the most valuable of currencies.

But what about those at the top? Most hierarchical structures are pyramidal. As one climbs the managerial ladder, one has fewer peers to lean on or to commiserate with and an even smaller number of superiors from whom s/he might expect to receive praise and encouragement to fill their own reserves of motivation and purpose. Therefore, in recognition of myself as a human being, who like all human beings, is a perpetual work-in-progress (W.I.P.) and as part of my conscious attempt to “get better,” I’m intending on appreciating, complimenting, and thanking more often those under whose direction I labor.

For several reasons, this goal is not especially difficult for me. Having been a head football coach for a number of years, I know the loneliness of being the person with the biggest whistle and of performing my job in the presence of hundreds of people who were pretty sure they knew my job better than I did. A handful of those hundreds were also more-than-willing to let me know how little I knew my job. As a high school teacher, trust me, rare are the occasions that a teenager thinks to or is willing to praise my day’s lesson plan or lecture, and there is still no tip jar on my desk. My point is that I – like most people (especially mothers) – understand what it’s like to labor in “a no-praise zone.”

Another reason this goal to “praise up” is undaunting for me is that both of the people I’d consider my superiors at work were my friends before they were my bosses. I have never asked nor would I ever expect preferential treatment from them because of our shared pasts as friends, and I’ve never struggled to separate work from our friendships. It doesn’t hurt that I have the utmost respect for them both as educational leaders and men.

I also find that, as I get older, it gets much easier to “praise up.” I no longer worry or care about many of the things I did when I was younger and less experienced. As a young firebrand, I much preferred “sticking it to the man,” than complimenting him. I would have rather “buried Caesar,” than “praise” him. With years of experience behind me, however, I no longer worry about being thought a sycophant, which is a big word for a brownnoser or suck up, because at the current stage of my teaching career, there’s very little room for me to climb or fall with the aid or hindrance of my bosses. In other words, I have little left to gain or lose by speaking the hard or pleasant truth to my superiors, and like most aging folks, I care less-and-less every day of what others’ think of me.

I’ll finish by practicing what I’ve preached and “praise up” the principal of Port Clinton High School, Gary Steyer, and Port Clinton’s superintendent of schools, Pat Adkins. The Port Clinton Community is beyond fortunate to have their students under the leadership of such men. Mr. Steyer has shown profound grace in listening to teachers and students in the pursuit of being the type of principal they would like to learn or teach under. He has also modeled incredible consistency and resiliency in the implementation of our district’s Focus 3 initiative for improving our district-wide culture. His tenacity has made believers out of many reluctant students, faculty, and staff and greatly improved the school’s overall environment.

Gary Steyer

Pat Adkins has time-and-again proven himself to be the smartest man in the room by pretending to be the most ignorant in the room. By “ignorant,” I do not mean being unintelligent but being willing to listen to those who know (or at least think they know) better than he does. This approach has resulted in a school district that is truly owned and operated according to the wishes and dreams of its community members and a city that many believe is on the verge of a renaissance that will reach far beyond its school buildings. He has proven that schools are not just a reflection of the communities in which they lie, but they can also be the drivers of positive change and progress. Once, when we were discussing his criteria for calling for a snow day, he shared that he has only one: the wellbeing of kids. I absolutely believed him then, and I’ve come to realize that criteria is also what drives every decision he makes in his role as superintendent.

Pat Adkins

I have to believe there is someone in your life who is deserving of being “praised up.” As I’ve recently learned in volunteering my time to OhGo, a local food assistance organization, we truly receive more than we give when we serve and praise others.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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The Right, True, and the Good

I recently began teaching my sixty-second semester of English courses. In my own reading and in the texts I choose to share with my students, I have always gravitated toward iconoclastic authors, meaning those who “buck the system,” “make waves,” “rock the boat,” and attack the “sacred cows” of society. Choose your own cliche. Such authors and their texts are not difficult to find, for there seems to be a fairly direct correlation between texts with a subversive bent and literary greatness: Shakespeare, Swift, P.B. Shelley, Twain, Kate Chopin, Joseph Heller, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, are among my favorite subversives. Much of this tendency of mine I attribute to my Jesuit college education at Xavier University, for the Jesuits have long been a thorn in the paw of Catholic orthodoxy. Those educators were the first to expose me to the great philosophers and truly to encourage me to think for myself and to question darn near everything.

At the onset of every new semester, especially in the age of “trigger warnings,” I inform my students, who are all either juniors or seniors, that I will consider myself deficient in my job if I fail to offend them at some point in the semester. I tell them directly that I hope to challenge many of their notions of what is “right, true, and good.” I do not overtly tell them what to think but to think. The fact is that, at their age, most of their thoughts on such concepts have never been questioned. Most of their ideas, values, and beliefs are not truly their own. For the entirety of their lives, most of them have simply tilted their heads back, opened their mouths, and swallowed whatever the adult influencers in their lives have poured in. They are usually not principles they have arrived at as the result of serious scholarship, consideration, or discernment, and they almost never have been exposed to ways of thinking and believing outside of the ones with which they have been inculcated. For the most part, they merely parrot the ideas, values, and beliefs that have been thrust upon them by various adults and, increasingly, by their peers.

I do none of this out of orneriness; although, I won’t deny it plays a role. Because I teach either actual college credit or college prep courses, I am aware that the majority of them will soon be off and living on college campuses with extremely diverse student bodies and faculties who will not necessarily share much of my students’ small town-engendered view of the world. They will be without those folks whom they have so long leaned on to form their ethics; therefore, it is the perfect opportunity to begin thinking for themselves and to decide for themselves what is actually “right, true, or good” for themselves. The sad fact is that we adults – intentionally or not – often fill them with some pretty awful ideas. I firmly believe I would be doing them a grave disservice if I sent them off to the university intellectually naive, under-armored, and unarmed.

I would argue that such a reexamination of the basic tenets of one’s belief and value system is beneficial at any age. Personally, I was in my late teens before I shed the majority of any racist ideas I’d learned; in my late twenties before I let go of homophobic language and insensitivities; in my thirties, I became a feminist; and in my forties, I jettisoned the narrowminded elements of my Catholic upbringing. I was led to the majority of these awakenings by iconoclastic authors who challenged my own learned sense of the “right, the true, and the good,” and I continue on my quest to be a better person by continuing to seek out alternative views.

Nothing is “right, true, or good” simply because an elder or a book says it is. I would challenge anyone who reads this to take a personal inventory to discover what in their own worldview might be in need of a tune up or complete overhaul. What I tell my students is that if I challenge their notions of what is “right, true, and good,” and they still cling to those ideas, then those notions will only be strengthened in the crucible of honest examination, but if not, then it might be high time to start thinking for themselves.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Crabs in a Bucket: Welcome to Congress

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

Observing our Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington, D.C. – “lawmakers” being a generous term in a time when they do much more posturing than lawmaking – I can’t help but think of them as little more than crabs in a bucket. Sadly, it is one of the few ways in which they ever act in a truly bi-partisan manner.

In case you didn’t know, if a bunch of crabs are placed in a bucket, a sort of groupthink emerges that disallows any of the crabs to climb out of said bucket. For as soon as one tries to ascend, the others will latch onto the climber and pull it back down with the others.

I see this happen almost constantly in the bucket that is the Capitol Building primarily in two ways. Firstly, it seems that any time a member of either party attempts to think for herself and – God forbid – buck party orthodoxy or, even worse, attempt to work with members of the opposite party to actually accomplish something other than protecting the likelihood of her personal reelection or party ascendency during the next election cycle, all of the other representatives or senators of her party grab ahold with their pincers and drag her back down into their pathetic muck of obstinate opposition.

Secondly, and this applies to both parties as well, when one of the parties achieves a ruling majority, the minority party immediately adopts obstructionism and undermining as their modus operandi until they are able to re-obtain the majority for themselves. At which time, the party roles simply switch, the cycle begins again, and the entire country wallows in stagnancy in the sludge at the bottom of the bucket.

As a result of this congressional do nothingness, in recent years presidents of both parties in order to accomplish any of the promises they made while campaigning have had little recourse but to resort to dictating a slew of executive orders in a less-than-democratic fashion that are typically reversed with head-spinning alacrity the minute a president of the opposite party assumes the office. I totally understand the place of legitimate opposition in a two-party democratic construct, but this persistent result of one step up and two steps back is no way to run a government.

Just so many crabs in the bucket.

We can do better.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Poetry Has Its Day

Like so many others, I was blown away and inspired by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. As an English teacher and writer, however, my reaction is probably slightly different than most folks.

Watching Gorman perform her poem from the steps of the nation’s Capitol Building in the presence of the multitude of senators and representatives in attendance, my mind went immediately to the famous declaration by Percy Bysshe Shelley that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Although, Shelley’s words have often been ridiculed for their hyperbolic enthusiasm regarding the place of poets in society, I cannot imagine a better representation of their actual truth than watching Gorman in her red headband, canary-yellow coat, black-pencil skirt, and black leather boots, standing in colorful relief against the preponderance of black and grey overcoats of the lawmakers and dignitaries seated in front and behind her.

The only bone I pick with Shelley is the need to extend the conversation to include not only poets but artists of any ilk who seek to aid in the betterment of society and/or its individuals. Poets and legislators share the desire and responsibility of changing the world; they just go about it in completely different ways. Elected officials attempt to configure a black-and-white world with clear definitions of right and wrong/the moral and the immoral. With literal language and legalese that demands logic and common sense, they attempt to hammer out achievable legislation that will keep their constituents within the constraints the legislators establish – all done with good intention. Meanwhile the poet/artist portrays the world in vivid colors while accepting the ambiguities of ethics and morality and using figurative language that plays to the imagination and encourages flights of fancy and utopian dreams – all done with good intention.

Evidence of Shelley’s bold assertion is plentiful in American Literature. For example, how many legislators in the Civil War Era were persuaded towards support of abolitionist policies after reading H.B. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How many legislators were moved towards suffragist and women-friendly legislation in general upon reading Chopin’s The Awakening? How many more years would have passed before workers were granted basic rights and protections under the law had Upton Sinclair not penned The Jungle? And how many former opponents to Gay marriage have been won over by Sandusky, Ohio’s, own Jim Obergefell’s brilliant account of his groundbreaking Supreme Victory in Love Wins? Quite often, it is the poets/artists who first win over the minds and hearts of the people before the legislators write the laws to reflect those thoughts and emotions. These are just a few examples of major pieces of legislation in the United States that were inspired by literary art. There are myriad other examples from around the world and in the genres of music, filmmaking, theater, etc.

Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” recently featured in the film One Night in Miami is an excellent example of art influencing legislation. In this case, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It is because of the power and influence of their art that artists are some of the first people rounded up and imprisoned or worse at the onset of any totalitarian regime. It is the poet and her pen, not the resistance fighter and his gun, that the dictator most fears. So, I encourage you to attend the council meetings and to write to your respective representatives at all levels of government, but I implore you to seek out the artists who, today, are penning the poems, singing the songs, and telling the stories we recite, sing, and retell that will, tomorrow, become the laws by which we live.

With my apologies to P.B. Shelley, Artists are truly the legislators of the world.

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Some of the People in My Life: The Adirondack Pack

Anybody who knows me knows that I am anything but an outdoorsman. I much prefer concrete to grass, buildings to trees, and the noise and bustle of a city to the quiet and stillness of nature. My idea of a hike is what the quarterback barks when he wants the ball snapped to him. To me, the most interesting thing about a kayak is that it is a palindrome, and I’d much rather stare into a television set than a campfire. I once cheekily asked a worker in Cabela’s where the fiction section was. He didn’t find it funny. Having spent a half hour in that store, I learned what my personal hell would be.

Sublime

With that said, however, I have shared each of those experiences and other adventures with four of my very best friends, my Adirondack Pack, because they are my friends and for some ungodly reason they seem to enjoy such excursions. I’ve long believed the true measure of a person is taken by the quality of those s/he can rightly call “friends.” And if I’m correct, the friendship of Del Culver, Seth Benner, John Cornell, and Pat Adkins render me one of the most fortunate of souls.

Me, Seth, John, and Pat outside the lean-to in which I nearly froze to death.

Why Adirondack Pack? Because John, who once taught and coached in Port Clinton, is a state trooper in upstate New York, where he is raising his amazing daughter, Molly (who is an unofficial 6th member of the pack) and his two adopted foster children as a single parent. It’s probably obvious that it’s much more difficult for John to come to us than the reverse. John is also trained in outdoor education and has mad outdoor skills, and those he doesn’t possess, he’s very good at pretending that he does, which has brought me a modicum of comfort on several occasions while traipsing (a word only an English major would use to describe a hike) through bear country, while Pat occasionally barks, “Hey, Bear. Hey, Bear,” which completely freaks me out.

Pat is another true outdoorsman. He loves that shit. He especially loves his equipment and his theoretically ready-to-eat camping meals. Trust me, there is not enough time left in the world for those to ever be “ready-to-eat.” He has more gear than I have excuses to not go camping. When the others picked me up for our last trip into the bush, the SUV was stuffed with Pat’s gear. My pack was literally a bookbag – with a book in it, a bath towel, a pocket knife that couldn’t cut through butter, and a change of clothes or two. I think they only invite me for comic relief and the existential conversations I like to spark around the aforementioned campfire. Pat and John act as my surrogate parents on our trips. They make sure I don’t do anything stupid to hurt myself or anybody else, which I greatly appreciate.

Pat and John. Previous campers must have left the adult beverages.

Seth and Del are kind of like my big brothers on our excursions; although, I’m the oldest one in the group. They cut me little slack and seem to enjoy some of my city slicker ignorance that once resulted in my near freezing to death in a lean-to because I don’t own a sleeping bag rated for Mt. Everest like the rest of them. I think I once used my kid’s old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sleeping bag, but turned it inside out so they wouldn’t know. With that said, they both would give me anything they own should I really need it. In addition, no one tells a better story than Seth, and there is no better brown-liquor-sipping buddy in the world than Del.

As for the Adirondacks, if you follow my blogs, you know my affinity for the word sublime. The mountains and meadows, lakes and streams are truly sublime. Their majesty is truly beyond the capability of words to express, and they have had a way of providing me with an occasional course correction when I’ve begun to overestimate my place in the universe or the problems with which I’m confronted. Like my Adirondack Pack, they’ve made me a better man for knowing them, and I look forward to the day we are all reunited once more, especially because my wife bought me a new sleeping bag for Christmas!

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Even I can’t help but appreciate this view.

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What Were They Thinking?

In Greek mythology, Epimetheus and his much more famous and levelheaded brother, Prometheus, were Titans charged by the Olympian gods with creating Earth’s inhabitants. The only caveat was that fire was to be kept exclusively for the gods. Prometheus, with great care, shaped man out of clay in imitation of gods while Epimetheus was assigned the task of creating the lesser beasts that would populate the planet. In his overexcitement, Epimetheus rashly bestowed all the gifts to his creatures and left nothing for man, leaving them naked and weak. Concerned for mankind’s well-being, Prometheus brazenly stole fire from the gods and gifted it to man. For defying the gods, Prometheus was punished by being chained to the side of a mountain, where every day an eagle would descend and slowly devour his liver, which would regenerate itself overnight only to be tortuously torn out and eaten once again the next day. Later, despite his brother’s warnings, Epimetheus plays a role in Pandora’s opening of the infamous box that let loose disease, famine, and all sorts of evils into the world.

The foolhardy Epimetheus on the left with big brother Prometheus.

From these Titans, we have derived the proper adjectives Promethean and Epimethean. The former is used to describe one who exhibits careful foresight, planning, and daring; the latter is applied to those who lack foresight, charge headlong into situations, and afterwards wallow in afterthought and regret. My wife is quite admirably Promethean in most things while I tend toward the reckless hurriedness of Epimetheus. It’s a trait I wish I did not own, for it often leaves me shaking my head and asking myself, “What was I thinking?”

I had a similar reaction last week in response to the Epimethean actions of those misguided many who somehow thought it wise to storm the nation’s capitol. I’ve been shaking my head ever since and wondering, “What were they thinking?” Not so much in terms of their goals that afternoon. I understand that they were attempting to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden as the next president and thereby foster the continuation of the Trump administration. What I wonder, however, is did they really believe this was an achievable goal? Did they really think a few thousand of them could overthrow the U.S. government? They had to know that whatever small measure of success they might achieve that day would be short-lived and that the will of the people as expressed in the election and the gargantuan machinery of the U.S. government would in short order come crashing down upon them and squash their quixotic uprising. Despite their questionable identification with the insurrectionists of the original American Revolution, we no longer live in a time when one can put on an Indian costume, board a ship, and dump tea into a harbor without all of it being captured on a myriad of CCTV cameras.

I’m not even questioning the legitimacy of their actions – at least not in this post – but did they really think that they could mount no less than an armed insurrection on a Wednesday and return to their families, jobs, bowling leagues, and life as normal on Thursday? Such thinking was not only Epimethean, it was straight delusional. I have to believe it was spurred on by what they sincerely felt to be righteous anger, mixed with a false sense of anonymity and the very real momentum easily ignited inside a mob of likeminded and goal-oriented people. In some small measure, I can appreciate their pluck, but I have a very difficult time, empathizing with any of it.

For their lack of Promethean foresight, in the aftermath, a number have been arrested and charged with a myriad of crimes, some have lost their jobs, many have expressed remorse, and tragically, one has even ended his own life. With the Inauguration in the offing – at least according to reported intel – sadly, a good number seem not to have learned much from last week’s debacle and assault on normalcy and are planning additional acts of insurrection in the coming days. I think they would be wise to heed the warning of the story of Epimetheus, whose name is forever associated with foolishness and who was left to live with the feelings of guilt and shame for ruining not only his own reputation but the very life of his brother. I would also remind them of the words of that great Midwestern philosopher and songwriter John Mellencamp. who famously sings, “I fight authority; authority always wins.”

For readers of my earlier post on my favorite words, you might notice that I managed to squeeze both “quixotic” and “pluck” into this one.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Words Matter

It seems I can’t travel very far these days without passing a hero’s home or place of employment at least according to the signs posted in front yards or at the entrances to various buildings. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that the vast majority of folks living in those homes and working in those buildings are excellent people. My issue is a semantic one regarding the over-application of the term “hero.” As a football coach, I used to remind my defensive staff that if we try to defend everything, we’ll defend nothing, or as a teacher, I like to remind my students that if everyone is an “A” student, the “A” grade doesn’t mean much.

Just as a knife’s edge grows dull with excessive use, so do words. My favorite case in point is the word “awesome,” which should be equivalent in meaning to the word “sublime.” Sublime is an adjective used to describe an experience “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” The problem, however, is that we have so dulled the meaning of the word “awesome” that it has became banal and can no longer appropriately substitute for “sublime.” If I were the King of Words, I’d limit everyone to no more than ten uses of the words awesome and/or sublime in their lifetimes. An “awesome” experience should be one that literally causes one’s jaw to drop and leaves them nearly speechless with only the choice between two words – sublime or awesome – to use in a pale attempt to describe the otherwise indescribable. We pronounce so many experiences to be awesome that the word has been rendered all but meaningless. I love pizza, but pizza is not awesome. I love the television show Schitt’s Creek, but it’s not awesome. I enjoy an occasional fireworks display, but it’s not awesome.

I greatly appreciate men and women in the armed forces and those working as first responders. In fact, my youngest son is a firefighter/EMT. I’m also very grateful for the work performed by those in the medical field. Indeed, I have several family members who serve in that profession. I have never believed, however, that the mere donning of a uniform qualifies one as a hero. Sadly, there are numerous examples of people who behave dishonorably at the minimum and repugnantly at the worst while wearing such uniforms. What matters is how one behaves while wearing that uniform. (For a timely and similar discussion of the importance of a word’s meaning and interpretation, I refer you to an earlier blog post titled “Who Are You Calling a Patriot”: https://wordpress.com/post/tyroth.com/152).

On the left is my son Tanner, the firefighter. This was a training exercise.

The current Covid-19 pandemic has inspired many – with good intentions – to stretch the term “hero” well beyond its accurate designation. We are now supposed to think of grocery store workers, package delivery personnel, assembly line workers, teachers, etc. as heroes as well when the irony is that the vast majority of those folks would rather be seen and thought of as “just doing their jobs.” The larger irony is that the majority of those who do act truly heroically when a situation demands it almost always reject the notion of their being heroes and usually say something humble to the effect of “I was just doing what anyone else would do in that situation” and are embarrassed when labeled as a hero.

Again, please do not misconstrue my point. The bone I pick is with the bastardization of an important term, not with those who courageously face the dangers inherent to their occupation or life situation. God knows we are in desperate need of genuine heroes today, not those of the comic book sort. However, if we continue to apply the term “hero” to people just doing their jobs or making it through their days, we will be unable to appropriately apply the term to those men and women who go to extraordinary measures to behave in a truly Herculean manner. We will lose the ability to even identify those deserving of the title or, more importantly, to use them as exemplars for admiration and imitation.

One of my favorite Shakespearean quotations is found in Act II, Scene ii, of Hamlet. When asked by Polonius, “What do you read, my lord?” Hamlet cryptically responds, “Words, words, words.” The meaning of this smart-assy yet all-too-literal response has been interpreted and debated since they were first performed over four hundred years ago. Where I like to focus is on Polonius’ subsequent question, which is “What is the matter, my lord?” I choose to emphasize the definite article “the” in the question. For me, as Hamlet seconds, THE matter, the one that “matters” most for me as a teacher of English and a writer, is our respect for words and their meanings.

Therefore, please, mind your words. Remember that words have particular meanings. Language, in general, is one of mankind’s greatest gifts whether God or Nature given. Our vast and rich vocabulary is arguably that which most separates us from the animal kingdom and its species’ limited use of snorts and grunts and howls. Most importantly, words represent our most effective means of making sense of the world and of communicating a shared understanding of virtue, righteousness, morality, honor, etc. – and their unsavory opposites – to one another and especially our children.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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The Story Beneath the Story

I tell my students that anyone who can read can read the letters that form the words and the words that form the sentences and sentences that form the paragraphs and the paragraphs that form the chapters and the chapters that form the novel, but only a true reader can read in the white space between the lines and the hidden spaces beneath them. It is in those wordless spaces that the treasure that is the meaning and purpose of a novel is often found.

I penned Island No. 6 with two goals in mind. My primary goal was to tell a fast-paced, fun but also a bit scary-to-read story. My second intention was to allegorically explore the application of several divergent social theories regarding mankind’s true essence, which is only exposed and observable when s/he is unpreparedly cast into a state of nature free from any existing social or political contract. This second purpose was most likely the result of the desire to put to use my Jesuit education heavy in both philosophy and theology studies.

Many readers of Island No. 6 have directly expressed to me and through Amazon reviews (Please do leave one!) their enjoyment of the plot, which leads me to believe that, at least to some degree, I achieved my first goal. As to the second, although only two readers have shared their recognition of my thought experiment regarding the contrasting social theories as to man’s default nature, I’m sure more-than-a-few have sensed there was something more happening with the story than the literal plot revealed.

The most important symbols that provide the clues to this deeper layer of meaning appear in the names of several characters, beginning with Police Chief J. P. Sarter, whose name is a scrambling of Sartre, as in Jean-Paul Sartre, the min-20th century French existentialist. Existentialist philosophy generally posits that there is no larger purpose or meaning to any man’s existence beyond that which s/he creates for her or himself. Therefore, many existentialists, like Chief Sarter, doubt or flat out deny the existence of a god who has control over people’s lives or any sort of plan for them. Life is about the choices we make as individuals, and these choices in response to the world, which is otherwise characterized by randomness, chaos, and coincidence, reveals and defines our essence.

Tom Hobbs, the general store owner, is based upon the early 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the man who introduced the idea of social contracts and who argued that at his core man is a selfish creature and that when in the state of nature a person’s primary duty is to oneself, a notion that Charles Darwin would later describe as “survival of the fittest.”

The island ferry owner/operator is named Russo after Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose philosophy was directly antithetical to Hobbes’, which explains the differing strategies for confronting the viral pandemic on the island proposed by the characters of Hobbs and Russo. The original Rousseau was a champion of individual freedom who held a rather romantic view of man in his natural state as living in Edenic harmony and cooperation with his fellow man and nature.

The ever-practical good soldier in the novel is Dr. Jennifer Bentham, a virologist with the Center for Disease Control. My Bentham is based on the late 18th to early 19th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is considered the founder of modern utilitarianism. His basic ethos was that the morally-correct act is always the one which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Charles King II, the longtime bachelor-mayor on the island, is based upon the late 17th century English King Charles II, who was a bit of a playboy and known as the “merry monarch” by many for his love of the arts and his rather hedonistic lifestyle. Although married, he had no legitimate children but twelve “illegitimate” children to whom he claimed parentage.

Finally, John Patmos is named for John of Patmos, the reputed John of the Christian Gospels and the Book of Revelations. His philosophy, obviously, is based on Christian evangelism and trusting in God’s plan for mankind, a plan over which men have little-to-no actual influence and to which they must simply submit themselves.

When a highly-virulent strain of the bird flu virus breaks out on the island, its population is cut-off from mainstream society by a government-imposed blockade, which casts the island’s denizens into a virtual state of nature. The main question I pose in the novel is which of the philosophies identified above will prove the most accurate representation of mankind’s hardwiring. Is man basically self-serving and independent or is he selfless and communal? Is the purpose of existence the selfish pursuit of one’s own pleasure or is it service to and sacrifice for others? Is life ultimately without a higher purpose and meaning or are those things to be found in the faith-inspired adherence to a belief in a deity and its mysterious plan for all of us?

In order to see these philosophic battles play out, you are going to have to read the novel. If you’ve already read it, I’d encourage you to read it again in light of your new knowledge of these characters’ symbolic significance.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Tyme

As a Masters of English Literature student, one semester I enrolled in a seminar class on John Steinbeck. On the first day of class, the professor began with a sort of ice breaker exercise, asking all of us, as we sat around a large conference table, to name some of our favorite pastimes. Once we all had shared our hobbies, sporting activities, favorite movies and television shows, etc., he bluntly pronounced that if we had any intention of doing well in the class, we would be doing none of those things over the succeeding four months. We all sniggered, believing he was joking.

He was not.

The seminar’s syllabus included the reading of an eleven hundred page biography of Steinbeck and an assortment of novels and non-fiction works that easily added up to another thousand-plus pages. In addition, an extensive, multi-sourced, argumentative research paper on an original thesis regarding some aspect of Steinbeck’s catalog was due by semester’s end. Mind you, at the time, I was also enrolled in a another graduate-level literature course with its own extensive reading demands, I was teaching full-time, and I had three school-aged children at home.

He was right.

This is the 1,116 page biography assigned in the graduate seminar class on top of several full-length novels.

Every spare second I could find – usually late into the night after everyone else had gone to bed – was spent reading and note-taking. The professor utilized a Socratic method of pedagogy that left a student quite exposed as a slacker should they fall behind in their reading, and I was determined not to be embarrassed as he had betrayed a clear prejudice against part-time grad students like myself. In the end, I read nearly every word assigned, wrote one of my favorite papers ever exploring the role of Steinbeck’s catalog of fiction in the songbook of Bruce Springsteen, and finished with an “A.”

I share this story to give evidence to an earlier blog post I shared titled “I Wanna Get Better” in which one of my stated goals as I move forward in my life is to make better use of time. My arch-enemy in this pursuit has long been and always will be my love of watching live sports and television in general. It doesn’t help that we are living in what has to be considered a golden age of television fare. Sure, there’s a lot of drivel being offered for live viewing or streaming, but if you’re willing to ferret it out, there is also an abundance of high-quality storytelling to be had as well, and I LOVE a good story in any form.

One of my favorite authors David Foster Wallace had a similar affinity for television. He described his as an addiction he could only escape by not owning a television of his own. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and Fiction,” he said of television that “We literally cannot imagine life without it . . . we are dependent on image technology; and the better the tech, the harder we’re hooked.” If anyone is interested in undertaking the ultimate challenge for a post-postmodern reader, try tackling the 1,079 pages of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel that, among so many other themes, satirizes our screen addiction and points out its dangers to us as individuals and as members of a society.

My goal is to reduce the time I spend as a member of the passively-entertained masses and to increase the time I devote to actively creating. For me, that means working diligently on what I hope to be my next novel. The exception is time spent reading, which directly correlates to improving my abilities as a writer. I’m committed to furthering the project everyday, even if it only entails adding a single sentence or merely editing my previous day’s work.

When the people in my life or other responsibilities and/or pleasures must be attended to, it might require my working early in the morning or late into the night, but when and if I finish, what I’ve created will be of much greater value to me than whatever I’ve missed on any of the various screens I too often mindlessly scroll through or stare at. Lately, I’ve been getting out of bed around two or three in the morning – I’m an inveterate insomniac – and writing for an hour or two. That’s me at three a.m. in the screenshot above – yikes!

My ultimate point, which my Steinbeck seminar proved to me, is that – if I want to badly enough – I have much more time in my days to complete the projects I want or need to complete. I must, however, be willing to sacrifice somewhere, whether that means eliminating other projects and activities, squeezing in a few minutes of project-oriented work whenever possible, or working on my projects at unorthodox times.

When I’m gone, I want to leave something of more-than-physical value behind, and I don’t want anyone to remember me as that guy sitting endlessly in front of a television, iPad, or cell phone screen. The irony of this, of course, is that my goal requires me to spend a great deal of time behind – you guessed it – a screen of the computer variety. I have no plans, however, to break out the old Smith-Corona typewriter. I’ve learned that if there’s one inescapable force in the universe, it’s irony.

You need to do you, but I’d challenge you to do something creative and lasting with at least some of your time.

Always with gratitude and love.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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What’s Next?

I typically find it a bit narcissistic, even off-putting, when writers talk or write about their works-in-progress. I mean, really, who cares? It feels like a cheap and somewhat pathetic ploy to elicit encouragement and positive strokes from friends, relatives, and past readers. And, it’s a lesser version of that most deplorable of social media practices: the “humble-brag,” which is defined as “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.” If at all, talk to me about it when it’s actually a thing.

On the other hand, I’m equally surprised to learn that there are people sincerely interested in the existence of said projects and in the process from which they materialize. Therefore, it’s with great ambivalence regarding the value of doing so and with a bit of trepidation as to how its motivations will be interpreted that I’d like to share the behind-the-scenes story of my current novel-in-progress.

I actually finished a draft of this novel something like thirteen years ago. It was the product of only my second attempt at writing a novel. Upon completion, I shared it with two readers for editing suggestions and pitched it around to a few agents. Those were the days before the proliferation of email and when most agents still required hard copies of manuscripts and query letters. That’s why I only pitched it to a “few agents.” I couldn’t afford to waste so much paper and printer ink; it took so long for said agents to return the manuscripts for submission to others; and I had yet to thicken my writer’s skin, and every rejection was soul crushing. As a result, after a couple of encouraging responses but mostly form rejections, I abandoned the project. To my current great dismay and thinking I simply needed to move on, I stupidly lost my only hard copy of the novel. In addition, I hadn’t thought to save it to a flash or external hard drive, and the computer on which I wrote it crapped out. I thought, therefore, I was finished with it forever.

The story itself, however, never quite left my consciousness. It was like a former girlfriend, who, no matter how far I’d moved on from the relationship, I couldn’t quite erase her/it from my mind because, despite the ultimate failure of the experience, there had been a lot of good as well. Over the past thirteen years, even as I’ve proceeded to write something like eight complete drafts of other novels and to publish three, I’ve continued to write that story but only in my head, tweaking it in some places and totally re-imagining it in others.

With Christmas vacation in-progress, providing me with time free from the demands of teaching, and with a new year fast-approaching during which I’ve resolved to “get better” by making more productive use of my time, I’ve rescued that too rashly-spurned and too long-shunned novel from the Island of Misfit Toys with the intention of devoting myself to updating it and making it viable. I’ve begun picking up the shards of salvageable material that lie on the floor of my memory and to sweep up and dispose of forever the pieces that didn’t work the first time and still will not. What little credibility I possess as a reader and writer has never stopped telling me that’s it’s a good story and one worth the telling to others.

As easy as that sounds, it’s actually not that simple. When I am in the creative mode, I become somewhat obsessed. Wait. Can you be “somewhat” obsessed?” I believe “obsessed” to be an absolute. Either you’re obsessed or you’re not. You cannot be “somewhat” obsessed. That’s a small example of the type of exercise my brain puts me through when I’m writing. I struggle to think of or devote myself to much of anything else. One eye and half of my brain is always focused on the story I’m trying to flesh out. The real, flesh-and-blood people in my life are then often relegated to second-class citizenry as I tend to the fictional demands of characters who, for the time being anyway and maybe forever – only exist in my head. I’m not sure that’s appropriate or even sane, but I’m sure it’s not fair. With that said, however, it’s too late. I can’t go back now. I’ve already waded too deeply into the re-write. I’ll just have to see them on the other side.

I never share – not even with my wife – knowledge of the plot of a story I’m working on. Therefore, I’m not going to do so here. I’m just going to quote, somewhat arrogantly, the song “Something’s Coming” from the musical West Side Story in which Tony sings, “Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is / But it is going to be great.”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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My Xmas Wish: I Want to Get Better

Jack Antonoff is a much in-demand music producer and the lead singer of the indie pop band Bleachers. As the curtains close on 2020, I find myself reflecting on the quality of my being in that eventful year and, simultaneously, staring into the yet unknown face of the fast-approaching 2021. The outcome of this confluence has been the emergence of a certain mantra that keeps playing on a loop inside my head. It’s the simple title and refrain to the Bleachers’ song “I Wanna Get Better.”

This Christmas wish and New Years resolution for self-betterment, which only time will tell if I have the discipline or capacity for such improvement, has primarily been driven by witnessing so many good examples being set by people in my acquaintance who are doing so much better than me.

Allow me to share some of the examples of folks whom I’d like to emulate in 2021:

My friend and middle school English teacher extraordinaire Annie Head, whom I encountered in the hallway the other day as she was returning to the middle school after having contributed to the high school’s blood drive, which I did not. I wanna get better.

My wife, Julie, who volunteers her time weekly with a local food bank, which I do not. I wanna get better.

My brother J and his wife, LaVonna, who purposefully order extra food at every meal out to place in a to go container then actively locate a homeless individual to whom they present the meal, an act of kindness that never crosses my mind. I wanna get better.

My friend Kelly, who squeezes more productivity out of a single day than I’d think humanly possible, which I do not do as I loll away so many hours in front of various screens. I wanna get better.

My mom, who never lets a birthday, anniversary, funeral, or personal achievement of virtually anyone she knows pass without sending a card to acknowledge the occasion, which I rarely remember to do. I wanna get better.

My mother-in-law, who never watches a sunset sink beneath the horizon without relishing the moment, an occasion from which I am likely to look away while foolishly assuming there will be many more sunsets to appreciate. I wanna get better.

My son Tanner, who more than anyone I’ve ever known truly garners more joy from giving than receiving, while I remain a better taker than giver. I wanna get better.

My mother-in-law on the left and my mom on the right with my son Tanner on his graduation from fire school.

My friend Steve, who in his fifties learned to play the guitar, an endeavor the like for which I use the excuse that I’m too old to learn something new and so difficult. I wanna get better.

My cousin Sheldon, whom many of you know as your favorite UPS guy, who – when wedding receptions were a thing – danced every dance like no one was watching (and he’s a good dancer), while I typically chose to sit out for fear of being judged. I wanna get better.

My neighbor Jim, who every spring edges my entire lawn without me asking, which I would never think to do unasked for. I wanna get better.

My friend Melinda, who meets every day with enthusiasm and boundless optimism and refuses to surrender to negativity or anything or anyone who tries to deflate her lust for life and spiritual bliss. I wanna get better.

In the words of my favorite songwriter Dan May: “Melinda concentrates and tries her best to demonstrate how the world is good and life is fine.”

My boss Pat, who seriously considers all sides of any argument or proposition before making decisions, never seeks self-aggrandizement, and always prefers to credit others for the school district’s successes, while I shallowly and addictively feed off of the praise and “likes” of others. I wanna get better.

Twins!

That guy I see out running nearly every day regardless of rain, cold, heat, or snow, while I make excuses. I wanna get better.

My friend Del, who, when faced with any mechanical or home improvement issue, says, “Let’s figure it out,” while I’ll typically say, “Let’s call someone.” I wanna get better.

My friend John, a New York State Trooper and a single father, who adopted two foster children, both with special needs, while I luxuriate in my empty nest. Not sure I want to get that much better.

My friend John and I on a lake in the Adirondacks.

My friend and fellow English teacher Jim Lamb, who smiles at and says hello to everybody he passes, while I tend to wear an unwelcoming glare or choose to look away. I wanna get better.

The mere thought of making some of the changes necessary to get better causes me anxiety, but I guess at the end of the day, no matter our age, we are all W.I.P., or Works-in-Progress. How fortunate am I to have so many good friends and family members to learn from? What better time to begin learning and making those changes than the Christmas Season and New Years?

Happy Holidays and Happy New Years! May all of your Christmas wishes and New Years resolutions come true.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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An Interview with . . . Me?, Part 1

Because no other media outlet has requested an interview with me since the release of my latest novel, Island No. 6, I decided to interview myself and to ask the types of questions that actually interest me rather than the typically banal ones interviewers tend to ask.

Me: Thanks for sitting down with me.

Ty: Really?

Me: Sorry. So, tell me about yourself. (Ty rises from his chair in an effort to end the interview.). I couldn’t resist. Please, stay. Tell me about Island No. 6 then. Had you really begun writing it long before the current pandemic?

Ty: I did. I actually began the first draft in 2011.

Me. But you published Goodness Falls in 2014. I’m just wondering about your process. Do you work on multiple novels simultaneously?

Ty: Not typically, no. Island No. 6 had been a sort of pet project for me, just something I started and left lying around while working on other novels. Whenever those plots went cold, I returned to Island No. 6 and played with it over the next seven years until I had a temporary final draft in 2018.

Me: Why “temporary?”

Ty: Well, once the current pandemic hit, I went back and polished up a few things – not much really.

Me: So would I be correct in assuming you have other novels either unfinished or still waiting to be pitched to publishers.

Ty: That would be correct. I have three other complete drafts and one nearly two-thirds of the way finished.

Me: Do you have any plans to finish and/or publish any of these?

Ty: Not really. I pitched a couple of them around a bit, but when I didn’t receive an enthusiastic enough of a response, I just kind of filed them away.

Me: Wait. So you have three novels more-or-less finished and another two-thirds of the way complete that you have little intention of publishing.

Ty: Correct. There are a lot more swings and misses in writing/publishing than there are home runs – at least in my experience.

Me: I’m sorry. That just seems like a colossal waste of time to me. Those four novels had to have taken years to write.

Ty: They did. I think of them like the songs that don’t make the album or the scenes of a movie left on the cutting room floor. Although I no longer have any intention of publishing them, they’ve helped me progress towards being a somewhat competent fiction writer and to writing the types of novels I’m proud of.

Me: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about Island No. 6. Compared to your first two novels, it is clearly directed more towards an adult audience, yet at the same time, it contains less of what might considered “adult content.” Why is that?

Ty: First off, you’re correct about the intended audience for all three novels. I actually hate the notion of books being directed toward narrow age groupings. I’ve known some fourteen year old readers who were much more mature and able of dealing with so-called “adult” content and complicated ideas and issues than folks two and three times their age. It’s the publishing and bookselling industries that insist on identifying and targeting specific age groups for their own marketing purposes.

Me: I see.

Ty: In my own case as a reader, it was some of those adult books, which I somehow got my hands on and that were not supposedly “age appropriate,” that turned me on to reading fiction and, ultimately, to writing it.

Me: Really? Like what books?

Ty: One that sticks out is Ball Four by Jim Bouton.

Me: Isn’t that a baseball book?

Ty: Only on the surface. Bouton was a ballplayer, but the book is about behind-the-scenes stuff like players having sex with groupies, players doing drugs, and all of the petty bullshit that goes on in any industry. It was my first realization that the adult world I’d been being prepared for was not the one I was soon to enter.

Bouton’s Ball Four was my introduction to “adult” literature.

Me: Interesting. You said “first off.”

Ty: I’m sorry. What?

Me: You began your answer about adult content with “first off.” I assume you had more to say on the subject.

Ty: Oh, right. “Adult content” is more-often-than-not a euphemism for sexual situations. I have a sort of backwards theory on that. I think there should be more frank portrayals of sexuality in young adult novels and, in many cases, a bit less in those written for adults.

Me: Really? Why’s that?

Ty: No one’s talking honestly to young people about sexuality. They get “scared straight” lectures about STDs and pregnancy in sex education courses, but that’s about it. They’re not being spoken to about what a healthy sexual lifestyle looks like for an adult or how to go about forming one for themselves. Like every generation before theirs, they’re groping around in the dark . . .

Me: Both literally and figuratively.

Ty: Right. Good one. . . and trying to make sense of their bodies and natural urgings without fucking up their entire psyche and lives. On the other end, sex is often too easy of a crutch in adult fiction. And anything beyond an occasional sex scene – if it’s well written, which is exceedingly difficult to pull off – is typically gratuitous.

Me: I take it you were not a fan of 50 Shades of Grey.

Ty: I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think the trilogy is a classic work of fiction, but it obviously struck some sort of nerve with millions of women and more than a few men, who, like me, secretly flipped through their wife’s or girlfriend’s copies looking for the good parts. . . . I see what you’re doing. Don’t do it. No bad puns on “the good parts.”

Me: Clearly, you read my juvenile mind. Before we get off this topic. Are there any books of high literary quality that explore sexuality in a productive way?

Ty: Oh, certainly. Many. Although, the ones I’m familiar with are mostly heteronormative and the product of the “male gaze,” and from a modern understanding of sexual and gender relations, they are sometimes – I think fairly – accused of being misogynistic. I’d include several of the novels of Philip Roth, John Updike, John Irving, and James Salter as being quite literary and sexy at the same time. I’m ashamed to admit that my experience with such novels written by women is severely lacking and probably the result of the general lack of women writers being properly represented in the literary canon, promoted by publishers, and equitably reviewed by critics.

For my money, Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is one of the best novels that is both literary and erotic.

Me: Wow! I didn’t expect a lecture on contemporary literature.

Ty: I’m sorry. These are topics that matter to me, but few people are discussing, and I’ll always be a teacher first.

Me: Not a problem. It was to allow for such authorial self-indulgence that I wanted to interview me . . . er . . . you. Let’s move on to another topic. I’ve noticed that all of your novels are set locally. Why is that?

Ty: The simple answer is that northern Ohio, the folks who live here, the lives they lead, and the truths they encounter are all I really know with a depth of lived experience and any semblance of truth. The best writing advice ever given remains to “write what you know.”

Me: That makes sense, and it’s certainly not unusual for an author to mine his or her world for material – sometimes exclusively.

Ty: That’s right. I’ve also come to the realization that a “local author” will be the extent of my reach. I no longer have illusions of some sort of national or international breakthrough to those audiences. So Shelly, my first novel, was in bookstores and is still available in libraries around the country and internationally, but I really don’t expect for that to happen again. I’ve grown quite comfortable with my place in both the literal and the publishing world.

Me: There’s “no place like home.”

Ty: Absolutely. Plus, I’d hate to misrepresent a people or a place with my faulty imagination. Also, there’s a great deal of concern in the contemporary world, especially within the arts, regarding cultural appropriation.

Me: I know the phrase, but why don’t you expound on your thought.

Ty: Well, the concern is with – my apologies to Lin Manuel-Miranda and Hamilton – who gets to tell whose story?

Me: Go on.

Ty: Take the novel American Dirt for example. It’s an amazingly well-told story of a Latinx mother and her child’s attempt to escape the ruthless violence being perpetrated by drug cartels in some parts of Mexico, but the novel is written by Jeanine Cummins, a white, American author. Some accuse Cummins of culturally-appropriating and profiting from a story she does not own. Another example is occurring in Hollywood. A recent controversy involved James Carden playing the role of a gay man in the televised version of the Broadway musical The Prom when he, in fact, is not gay, and there exist many gay actors who could have filled that role with authenticity.

I highly recommend Cummins’ American Dirt.

Me: That’s the word. Isn’t it? Authenticity.

Ty: I think so especially once you get past all of the haters screaming about political correctness run amok. But for me, more than anything, I just want my writing to sound authentic. To do that, I need to set my stories in the world I live in and know and to fill it with people I live with and recognize – at least to the best of my limited abilities.

Me: Cool. Let’s stop here for now, but I’d like to continue this another time if you don’t mind.

Ty: Happy to. I’m pretty sure you know how to find me.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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Quixotic

I’ve never been a collector. I am, in fact, the opposite of a hoarder. Like my mother, I am what she would describe as a pitcher, not of the baseball variety but as in, if it isn’t going to be used in the next ten minutes, “Pitch it.” The nearest thing I have resembling a collection is an abundance of books, but I’m not really a collector. I just don’t know what to do with the many books I read when I’m finished reading them. I sometimes give them away, but I mostly stuff them into nooks and crannies of my den, believing that someday I may want to re-read them; although, I’m really not one to re-read.

I guess, the books themselves are a collection of the items I actually do covet and most actively seek to expand my ownership of: words. I am a logophile, a lover of words. I love the way they feel in my mouth when I say them and the way they ring in my ears when I hear them, some, of course, more than others. I love how they shape and organize the mishmash that is my thoughts and translate them into meaningful, shareable ideas. I love how words have allowed me to convince people I’m a lot smarter than I actually am because I can flex my lexiconic muscles by using many archaic, arcane, and polysyllabic ones.

One of my favorite words is “plucky.” I can’t help but smile whenever I say it or even as I just typed it. Plucky is a funny word to say, and I like that its meaning has nothing to do with the verb “pluck.” It’s sneaky that way. Plucky means having or showing determined courage in the face of difficulties. Some of my favorite people are plucky. The Tiananmen Square Tank Man was plucky. Baker Mayfield is plucky.

I like to think I’m plucky, but I typically hesitate to flatter myself. My favorite example of pluckiness is the Chicken Hawk in the old Looney Toons cartoons. He constantly badgers the much larger and unfazed Foghorn Leghorn while insisting he’s going to capture the rooster because a rooster is a chicken and that’s just what a chicken hawk does. Don’t let my clever association of the word plucky with a chicken and chicken hawk be lost on you, not exactly Shakespearean-level wordplay, but hey, you’re reading this for free.

My favorite word of all, however, is quixotic. Firstly, I love its literary roots as it is derived from the name of the eponymous character in the bestselling novel of all time: Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Quixote, although an old man long past his prime, sets out on a seemingly-impossible and absurd quest to restore chivalry to a world that was fast losing its moral center. It was first published just over four hundred years ago and simultaneous to the peak years of Shakespeare’s own career. I’ll let you judge how well mankind has done maintaining its “moral center” over the past four centuries.

I’d rank Don Quixote beside the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey along Shakespeare’s plays as the most important literary works of Western Civilization. If you haven’t read it, you should.

The adjectival form of the term derived from Quixote’s name means to be exceedingly idealistic and impractical, which, now that I think about it marries quite nicely with plucky. I like the romanticism of such an attitude even if Quixote is delusional in his quest and spends much of his time “tilting at windmills.” The song “Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha best captures the meaning and value of being quixotic.

I think, however, what I most like about the word quixotic is its attitude of tolerance and inclusiveness. It’s a word in which the oddball and often excluded letters “q” and “x” are not only included but necessary and celebrated. I often feel like a “q” or “x” myself. I think we all do. Off the top of my head, the only other word I can come up with that contains both of these letters is exchequer, which is the treasury, as of a state or nation and/or the person who oversees it. This is actually the first time I have ever typed the word exchequer. Anyway, the point is that I like students and people, in general, who are what my Grandma Benkey would call “queer ducks,” and “x” and “q” are the queer ducks of the English alphabet.

I’m a fan of the music of Eric Church, but I don’t care for the lyrics to his song “Kill a Word.” I understand his point as he sings about killing words like “poison,” “regret,” “fear,” “hate,” and “heartbreak.” To me, however, his wish is the proverbial killing of the messenger. The words themselves are not the things they name; they’re mere symbols for those regrettable realities. If we kill words, we will be unable to name life’s vices and iniquities or to call them out, and that which we don’t name festers and grows in the darkness of its anonymity. I guess I’m the Father Flanagan of unwanted words. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a “bad” word. I’ve already fessed up to my proclivity for the “F-word” in another blog post.

Remember that most of our greatest accomplishments as individuals or as a species were once thought to be quixotic. When I set out over a decade ago to make a dream of becoming a published author come true, it was “exceedingly idealistic and impractical” to think I would, – after nearly five years and three failed attempts at writing novels – become a Penguin-Random House Author.

This is the lobby of the Penguin-Random House Headquarters on Broadway in NYC. Behind those glass cases is an amazing collection of first editions.

Just a few months ago, it was thought absurd that the scientific community would be able to concoct a vaccine for a novel virus in less than a year’s time, yet here we here queuing up for our vaccinations. So, here’s to all of us plucky, quixotic dreamers and daydream believers. May we never lose our willingness to try and to fail.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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Compared to What?

In 1969 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Jazz duo of Les McCann and Eddie Harris covered “Compared to What,” a tune originally performed by Roberta Flack. It almost immediately became a jazz standard. Since then, the song has been covered by more than 270 artists, including Ray Charles and John Legend. Although, in my opinion, the McCann/Harris version has never been bettered, the next best version is by Al Jarreau (linked at the bottom). Similar to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” the song’s jaunty rhythm is incongruous to its lyrics, which are laced with social criticism regarding war, income inequality, and American hypocrisy. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs.

The song and the three words of the title come to mind whenever I – for whatever reason – start to feel I’m “all that” as the kids used to say. They also occur to me whenever I see others puffing out their chests a bit more than might be deserving regarding some recent accomplishment or assertion of their superiority. On such occasions, I think, “Compared to what?”

For example, I’ve been playing a lot of tennis in recent years and have greatly improved my game – so much so, in fact, that I arrogantly started to believe that I had become too good to play with some of the guys I’ve been hitting with. Having forgotten those three bubble-bursting words (Compared to what?), I had allowed myself to think myself a pretty good tennis player. However, as the universe has a tendency of doing, it delivered me a serious dose of reality when I was asked to join a league of truly outstanding tennis players. Now, every Wednesday evening, each supersonic ace they blow past me, each overhead they whistle past my ear, each blistering passing shot they rip by my flailing racket, and perfect lob they send me chasing fruitlessly into the curtains screams, “So you think you’re a good tennis player? Compared to what?”

My College Credit Plus classes, which are full of the best students in the high school where I teach, sometimes bring that musical question to mind as well. For example, I’ve spent the majority of my non-teaching, waking hours this past week reading the first drafts of the semester’s final essays from my college composition students. Many of them were good; none of them were great. In my experience, most people mistakenly believe that “good” is right next door to “great,” but it isn’t. In fact, it is light years and millions of miles away. Similarly, the distance between an A and an A+ may seem to be only an arithmetically-advancing point, but the gap between those points is astronomic, for at that high of a grade level, the points advance exponentially, not arithmetically.

I’m sure many of my comp students believed they had turned in exemplary work, and compared to the student body as a whole, their papers probably were exceptional. However, I need my students to understand that it’s a big world full of outstanding high schools with driven students who never settle for good. These are my students’ peers with whom, in the very near future, they will be competing for college program placements, grad schools, med schools, and jobs. Whenever my students start to believe they’re Rhodes Scholars or Macarthur Genius Grant scholarship candidates, I need to remind them “Compared to what?”

They don’t always take it well. This week, one student cried as I pointed out the deficiencies in a paper on which she clearly worked very hard. After I, more-or-less, told another student that she should delete her entire first draft and start over, she apologized for “letting me down” with her sub-par paper. In both cases, I felt like a complete jerk. These were diligent and hard-working students, who are used to being told how stellar they are as students, not that they need to be better still. Delivering such critiques is one of the most difficult but necessary aspects of my job.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

All good teachers and coaches know that the line separating pushing from pushing too hard is a thin one, and they carefully measure the amount of pressure they exert on each student. As I set expectations for myself and my students, I like to apply the wisdom of the Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope, who wrote that “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” In other words, leave the low-hanging, easily attainable fruit for the lazy others and reach for the unattainable. In so doing, even if we fall short of our goal, we’re all likely to do and be more than we ever imagined possible.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 7 Kelly Croy

The designation “Renaissance Man” isn’t used frequently these days, but it describes a person of many diverse talents and of eclectic interests. Some of the people most deserving of and who best exemplify the title were literally men of the European Renaissance, including Henry VIII, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Leonardo daVinci. Bono of the rock group U2 and the actor James Franco are often identified as modern-day Renaissance men.

In my personal experience, the best example of a Renaissance Person is my friend Kelly Croy. If you don’t believe me, check out this link: https://kellycroy.com/. Kelly’s official job title is the Director of Innovation and Instruction for the Port Clinton City School District. In that position, he works tirelessly to keep Port Clinton’s administrators, teachers, and students in the vanguard of those implementing technological advancements to enhance instruction and learning. If Kelly’s day ended there, it would be more than enough to sap the energies of any typical human. Kelly Croy, however, is not your “typical human.”

In addition to his primary responsibilities as the husband to Lorrain and four daughters, Kelly is all of the following and more: an Eagle Scout, an Apple Distinguished Educator, an illustrator, a performance artist, an expert on leadership and mindfulness, an internationally-in-demand speaker, an author of two books, the brain behind and the voice of two podcasts, and a devoted friend of too many to name.

At an early age, I recognized a desire to improve myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  I saw too many people focusing their attention on just one area and living an incomplete life.  I aspire for the ‘complete package’ and balance in all areas.

Kelly Croy

I’m sure I’ve left one of his many hats on the rack. I often wonder when the man sleeps.

This is a sample of Kelly’s Performance Art.

I first met Kelly nearly twenty years ago when our mutual friend Del convinced us both to compete with him in the Rock-and-Roll Sprint Triathlon in Cleveland. On first glance at Kelly, I couldn’t imagine he and I would have anything in common. Kelly is a tall, broad-shouldered man. I am neither. As a proud member of the Irish diaspora, he possesses a bold, outgoing, and welcoming personality. Me? Not so much. His disposition is best described by using his own most-used word: awesome. He exudes positivity from every pore. I tend toward the glass half empty mindset. I soon discovered my first impression to be wrong.

Kelly, Del, and Me. We were much younger then.

After slipping into the bench seat in Kelly’s mini-van, within five minutes, I felt as if I’d known Kelly my entire life. He’s that kind of guy. As it turned out, we had much in common. In addition to possessing a passion for physical training, we were both “English” teachers with a shared love of literature and the dream of being published authors ourselves one day. A former rugby player in college, he was a high school football coach at Oak Harbor High School, and we shared several mutual coaching friends; also, I had only recently ended my own football coaching career. In addition, we were both big fans of U2.

My forever-friendship with Kelly was cemented, however, when, after checking into our shared hotel room, this big man disappeared into the bathroom only to burst out wearing only his tiny, purple, race-day Speedo. It’s an image that has been seared into my memory. I’ll always believe Kelly had intuited my extreme nervousness regarding the next day’s race and, you know, fear of drowning, and he purposefully found a way to make me laugh and to settle my anxieties. From that moment on, I’ve known that whether it be in the midst of a triathlon or in the travails of daily life, I have another friend who will always have my back and will never let me drown, literally or figuratively.

You can follow the link below and listen to Kelly’s interview with me a few years back on his podcast The Wired Educator:

https://wirededucator.libsyn.com/wep-0031-a-teacher-and-a-random-house-novelist

My dream of being a published author would never have become a reality without the encouragement and undying faith in my talents with which Kelly has showered me since the beginning of our friendship. He, like all great teachers/coaches/mentors believes in me more than I believe in myself. I shared my gratitude to Kelly in the Acknowledgements for my first novel So Shelly, which earned me the title of Random House Author:

I’d like to thank my friend Kelly Croy, whose relentless words of optimism and encouragement through four years of rejection continually drew me back to my laptop to eke out a few more words.

Ty Roth, So Shelly

Quite simply, the greatest accomplishment of my professional career; my one claim to a modicum of fame; my opportunity to share a dais with such distinguished authors as Ellen Hopkins, Carl Hiaasen, Katheryn Stockett, and Lauren Groff (although none would remember me at all); and my forever place in the catalog of the Library of Congress would not have been possible if not for Kelly Croy. How can I ever thank him for that?!

My grandbaby, Quinn, with Kelly’s fantastic children’s book: Unthink Before Bed.

In numerous ways, my life and my person have been made better by Kelly. I know that I am just one of the many who can make that claim, including the audiences he’s reached through his speaking gigs and podcasts, former students and players, former and current colleagues, his friends, and most importantly, his family. Kelly is truly a force of nature. Anyone who gets swept into his wake should consider themselves to be one of the fortunate many.

Unthink Before Bed is the perfect bedtime book with over forty, beautifully colored illustrations and a whimsical rhyme reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. Follow the bedtime adventure of a young boy and his dog as they learn how to prepare their mind for bedtime. Written and illustrated by a veteran educator of thirty years and a father of four. This is Kelly Croy’s second book. Unthink Before Bed teaches children (and adults) how to slow down, build a routine, get to bed, and fall asleep. Woven into every stanza and illustration are the ten, secret lessons of mindfulness. Reduce anxiety, worry, and stress. Fall asleep happily. Get a peaceful night’s rest.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Thanks, Ty

https://tyroth.com/

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The “F-Word”

Like the British, who are, in general, far less squeamish about curse words than we Americans, I find the “f-word” to be extremely effective in many situations and as many different parts-of-speech. Despite owning a rather extensive vocabulary, in the appropriate context, I can sling it with the best of them. This post, however, is about a far more pernicious and overused four-letter “F-word”: Fair.

When my boys were children, had I caught them using either, I would have been much more disappointed in their use of the latter rather than the former “F-word,” especially if they muttered the most useless sentence ever given voice: “That’s not fair!” This declaration is almost always declaimed in the whiniest and most annoying of tones. To make such a proclamation as a child, however, is both understandable and forgivable, but not so much when uttered by a so-called adult. Should any of my high school-aged students speak it to me, my response is always the same: “There are only two sorts of people who expect life to be fair: children and fools. Which one are you?”

To be a functional adult, much less a successful one, it is necessary to accept that life will not always be fair. When life deals you cards from the bottom of the deck, the only mature response is to “deal” with it yourself. Go around, under, or over life’s unfairness to reach your desired outcome, but don’t waste your or anyone else’s time and energy with mewling over your victimhood. Excuses are for losers, and protracted self-pity is the most worthless and self-paralyzing of emotions. From peons, who lose the birth lottery, to presidents, who lose an election, we are all regularly confronted with realities we wish were different. Such unwanted realities, however, are not necessarily and typically are not unfair. They simply are.

According to Tim and Brian Kight, the father and son duo responsible for the R-Factor philosophy employed by Urban Meyer when he served as the highly-successful coach of the Ohio State Buckeye football team, as individuals we do not always control the Events, fair or unfair, that impose themselves upon our lives. What we do control, however, is our Response to those events, which, in turn, will go a long way to determining the final Outcome. Their equation is E + R = O. Nowhere in that equation is there an “F” for fairness or “-F” for the lack thereof.

Unless your using “fair” in a poetic sense as in Shakespeare’s Romeo’s impatient plea for the “fair sun” to rise “and kill the envious moon,” or as in Hamlet’s bawdy implied allusion to the other “F-Word” when he says to his erstwhile girlfriend, Ophelia, “That’s a fair thought to lie between a maid’s legs,” I’d recommend going lightly with either of the “F-words.”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” below. – Thanks, Ty

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A Painful, Personal Thanksgiving Reflection

The holiday season typically inspires thoughts of bounty: Thanksgiving Day dining tables overspread with an abundance of foodstuffs and/or numerous gifts spread beneath Christmas trees. My mind, however, especially at Thanksgiving, often moves in the opposite direction to memories of a much less bountiful time in my life.

According to a recent New York Times article, “Seventeen percent of community college students experienced homelessness in the last year, according to a 2019 survey of close to 167,000 college students by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia. And half reported housing insecurity, paying only part of their rent, skimping on utility bills, or sleeping on friends’ couches and sometimes in their cars.” The number is not much better on the campuses of four-year institutions, where, according to the same study, the percentage of homeless students is at fourteen percent.

This issue is especially poignant for me as, for three-quarters of my junior year of college, I was a member of this largely-invisible homeless population. Having been evicted from an apartment for somewhat spurious reasons and with no means or the time to fight the eviction, I was quite literally kicked to the curb. My roommate quickly procured other accommodations. I could not afford a place by myself with what I had set aside for future rent payments nor did I have the time or wherewithal to find another roommate, especially as it was mid-semester. Therefore, I made a questionable decision to use the erstwhile rent money to pay down a tuition bill I already could not afford and to live homeless. The university may have provided services to students in my predicament, but if they did, I didn’t know of them, nor would my pride have allowed me to take advantage of them. The shame associated with homelessness and hunger is one hard to imagine unless you’ve been homeless and hungry yourself. Out of desperation, I took a few short term jobs for cash money during that period that only a desperate person would take, but I’d rather not go into those specifics.

As one of eight children with several siblings in college at the time and several others still in Catholic school, even if I shared my predicament with my parents, they would not have been able to help financially any more than they already were. So, I kept it to myself. This was a time long before cell phones allowed for easy tracking of one’s children; therefore, I’d occasionally call home collect, and they were no more the wiser. I could have transferred at the semester to a less expensive university closer to home and succor, but I greatly valued earning a diploma from the college I was attending, I was already three years into my program, and I had made great friends as this story attests. Besides, I was a twenty-year-old male, my decision-making skills were a long way from maturity.

Bob, Frank, and Chris were my three best friends, who were also my angels of mercy when I needed them most.

During those months of homelessness, I established a sort of circuit that allowed me to crash on the dorm room floors of various friends, who were kind enough to host me, my mesh bag of clothing, and my bookbag without once making me feel ashamed of my outcast state. My best friend, Chris, and his roommate, Junior, even procured and stored a spare mattress for me that I’d drop on their already limited (and quite disgusting) floor space. I could not stay too long in any one place, however, or the RA would figure out what was going on and, most likely, report me. I’m pretty sure more than one actually did know what I was doing but took pity on me and looked the other way.

Many were the nights when I could not gain entry into dorms or my friends’ rooms because I lacked the necessary keys, and/or they were out doing the things college students typically do, which I, obviously, could not afford to partake in. On such occasions, the library was my refuge. I can’t count the number of naps I took with my face planted between the pages of some textbook or even splayed out on a third-floor piece of furniture that was more bench than couch. Thankfully, although the library would close, the doors to the student center and main classroom building were always unlocked. They provided me a place of warmth and an emergency home for the night when necessary. Many university students are night owls with peculiar hours and study haunts; therefore, I did not appear conspicuous. Maintaining personal hygiene was a constant source of stress and concern. I could usually use friends’ bathrooms and combine loads of wash with theirs, but there were times when a library sink would have to do and clothes had to be worn a second or third time.

A daytime trick was to report to my work-study job in the university print shop but not always punch in as I was allotted the maximum but still a limited number of work hours and income. There were often bowls of various candies to which I’d help myself in as prodigious yet stealthy manner as possible. My boss was not very tuned in to my comings, goings, or helpings to his candy. Every other Friday, I would visit the bursar, pick up my check, withdraw fifteen dollars to cover the next two weeks, and sign over the remainder towards tuition.

In addition to shelter, food security was precarious. Whenever I could find a ride with someone heading north, I’d take it, and before my return, my mom would do my laundry and provide me with groceries, which might last a week or two if I could find a place to store them. If you’ve ever lived among young men, you might know how quickly food is assumed to be communal property and devoured. On many days, my entire caloric intake consisted of a candy bar and a small bag of chips. I regularly attended noon mass, not out of extreme devotion to my faith but because the on-campus chapel served chunks of bread for communion rather than the typical wafer-sized host. I’ll admit occasionally visiting more than one line of communicants in order to procure seconds (Lord, have mercy on my soul.). Once again, several friends who were on meal plans and knew my predicament often came to my aid by pilfering extra helpings in the cafeteria, which they would wrap in napkins and deliver to me. I finished that school year weighing about a buck twenty-five, a good twenty to twenty-five pounds below my usual weight.

This is a story that I have rarely shared. Why would I? It was not exactly my proudest moment, and I really didn’t want my parents to feel bad or blame themselves. It was then and remains mine to own. I guess I’m sharing it now on the day of our nation’s annual tribute to gluttony because although I’m blessed beyond deserving these days, there’s a small pang of hunger that never leaves my belly, and I know there are still too many college students and regular folk who are food and shelter deprived while living in what is the wealthiest nation on Earth. These deprivations have grown especially pronounced as America struggles to overcome the unemployment and financial distress that has resulted from an anemic governmental response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

You might think that having experienced such short-term poverty, I would be a regular volunteer for organizations that provide food and shelter for the needy. Sadly and to my discredit, I’m not. Ironically, my experience has had the opposite effect. Instead, I have great difficulty visiting such charities as I’m flooded by harsh memories of my own hard-knocks period, and I’m stricken by anxiety whenever I do.

If you are so lucky as I am to sit down to a bountiful Thanksgiving meal this year and to shower gifts upon your loved ones this Christmas, be sure to appreciate your good fortune and try at least to be mindful of the many who will be needy through the holidays and into next year.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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A Four-Year Term

Not many of my current students or fellow faculty members are aware of it, but I used to be a football coach. Other than “Dad,” it’s the best thing I have ever been called. Twenty years since I last blew a whistle, I still light up when I run into former players and they refer to me as “Coach.”

Although coaching had been a secondary passion for me after my first love, which has always been teaching, I loved to compete, and I especially enjoyed getting to know the kids outside of the classroom and sharing with them a different side of me. All of which begs the question, “Why then did I retire from it?”

The year I was hired as the head football coach at Port Clinton High School, the administration had introduced an initiative that asked all head coaches to step aside if their program was unable to finish in the top half of the league over a four-year period. As we were suffering from a dearth of competitive teams across the entire athletic program with only a few exceptions, something radical needed to be done. I thought then it was a reasonable request, and I still believe so. I’m not sure if it was ever an official policy or simply a “gentleman’s agreement,” but it doesn’t matter. I accepted the position with full knowledge of the initiative; therefore, I felt honor bound to adhere to its expectation.

Long story made short. After four years of trying everything I knew to try and a number of my own radical initiatives, I had failed to move the needle. My roster was always filled, but sadly, the win column stayed damn-near empty. Even so, I loved every second of the job: from the countless hours in the weight room (too often by myself or with a handful of players), to the time spent with my coaches preparing our asses off for teams we knew deep down we had no chance of defeating, to the countless hours on the practice field with the kids. The only part of the job that grew excruciating were the halftime and post-game talks with the team while or after being humiliated on the scoreboard. It broke my heart trying to convince them that our hard work the previous week had been worth it and that next week would be better.

Although there were a few positive outcomes from my time as head coach, when my four-year term was up, I had not done enough to make the football team competitive. Believe it or not, over that period I did not field one phone call from an angry parent, disgruntled fan, or impatient-for-success administrator. I dearly wanted to continue as the head football coach, but I knew the agreement I had made when I started the job. As much as it hurt, I knew surrendering the job was the only honorable course of action. Even though I’d failed in my four-year mission, I still had my honor. It was time to swallow my pride, concede that I was not the right person for the position, and abdicate the big whistle.

As difficult as it was to inform my players and staff of my retirement, it was doubly difficult to tell my boys, who were all in elementary school at the time. Ever since they could walk, they would often attend practices and work the games as water boys, ball boys, or tee boys. They loved their dad being the football coach. My leaving the position was going to radically change their lives as well and perhaps even their perception of their dad as some larger-than-life figure.

My Two Oldest, Travis and Taylor. Tanner was still too little.

After the last day of practice in my final year, I kept them with me on the field after practice, and told them that, despite his best efforts, dad had failed, and it was time to turn the reins over to someone else, who might be better able to serve in my soon-to-be former position. I’ll never forget the look in their eyes. “How can it be?” their eyes communicated. “You’re Dad. Dad doesn’t fail.” But, dad had failed, and I had given my word.

Twenty years later, I know that walking away – good to my word and with my honor intact – from a job I loved was the right thing to do. I may have modeled for myself, my players, and my own children the best lesson I have ever taught. I’m far from a paragon of humility and grace, but on that one occasion when necessity demanded it, I chose to do what was best for my community, my school, and my players rather than what was best for me.

From My Days at SMCC.

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Let’s Talk about Race in Our Classrooms

Over my many years in the classroom, I’ve realized that some of the best opportunities for impactful teaching/learning occur when students are made most uncomfortable or in moments when their ostensibly bedrock beliefs are shaken by something we’ve read or a wild Roth lecture. The two topics that are most capable of wrong-footing them are sex and race. As soon as either of these topics is broached, eyes are averted and butts begin to squirm.

I’ve long thought that it is in these two areas that we most fail to adequately prepare our young people for life in the adult world. The American education system’s clinical approach to sex education reduces human sexuality to a biological experience with mostly negative outcomes and somehow manages to make sex boring. This, combined with most religions’ equating of sexuality with sin, guilt, and shame, has resulted in generation after generation of sexually-maladjusted adults. This, however, is a topic for another day. In light of the current prominence of race relations in the American zeitgeist, it seems the more pressing of the two topics.

My college composition classes recently finished a unit in which all of the supplementary readings were focused on race relations. I’d highly recommend Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility to anyone interested in the topic. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. Concepts such as microagressions, white privilege, and white fragility were explained, and topics such as systemic racism, confederate symbolism, and affirmative action were discussed. For the record, of the nearly fifty students enrolled in the classes, only one is African American.

It was through my best friend, Bob, that I witnessed the effects of systemic racism firsthand.

After a couple of weeks exploring the topic, the feeling I received from many of my students was that they just wanted to move on, which, I explained, is one of the primary reasons we, as a country, still have significant problems with race relations. Our discomfort with the topic, possibly the result of repressed guilt inside of our collective unconscious, causes us to underestimate the problems caused by institutionalized racism or simply to prefer to ignore the realities of it and to pretend we live in a post-racial world. This is an option easy to choose if you are white. I suggested the possibility that such glossing over of historical truth has resulted in an insufficient coming-to-grips with or a full atonement for America’s original sin of slavery and the subsequent era of Jim Crow.

When asked to share in written responses their own experience with race relations, it became clear that the most formidable obstacle to anything approaching enlightenment on the subject is ignorance born of inexperience. Most of their perceptions of African Americans has been gleaned from pop culture. A consistent theme was that none of them have ever had an African American teacher, principal, coach, boss, or authority figure of any type. This is mostly the result of the demographics of the small town in which I teach rather than systemic racism; however, many of the students will soon be entering universities, the military, the workforce, and moving to urban areas where ethnic and racial diversity are common. If in schools we fail to confront the realities that continue to cause racial division and enmity in society at-large, how can our graduates be expected to be effectively functional in these contexts without the proper sensitivity to the issues of racial and social justice? I ask this especially because, in their essays, a surprising number of my students referred to African Americans as “colored people.” I can already imagine the conversations to come with the folks in their HR departments at their future places of employment.

Trust me, I get the desire to “just move on,” but that strategy has only served to kick the proverbial can down the road to successive generations. We will most likely never reach a state of true colorblindness nor am I sure we should, but I’d be proud to be member of the American generation that finally picked up that can of systemic racism and placed it in the rubbish of American history where it belongs and provided truly equal opportunities and access to societal resources to all of its citizens regardless of race or ethnicity.

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“To Lead a Good Life” Read Tony Legando’s New Book

When I was a senior football player at SMCC, we had a very good team. The coaching staff was comprised of several men who would become highly-respected coaches on the local football scene: Butch Weyer, Toby Notestine, and Gary Lill. In addition to these outstanding individuals, the staff included future Ohio High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame member Tony Legando, who would go on to a storied career at his alma mater, Huron High School.

As that senior year began, I was a non-letterman with decent hands and speed but of small stature. Most of my actual playing time through the first game had been limited to holding for extra points. Still, I worked hard, never backed down from mixing it up with any of my larger teammates, and continued to hope that I’d get my chance to prove I could play on Friday and Saturday nights.

That chance came after the first game when my defensive back coach managed to convince Coach Weyer to give me a shot. I started the next game on both sides of the ball, played on most special teams, and rarely left the field for the remainder of the season. That coach, who believed in me when no one else did, changed my life forever and for the good. It was Tony Legando.

I often credit Gary Kelley for being the man who inspired me to become a teacher. In a similar way, it was Coach Legando who showed me the difference a coach can make in a young person’s life and similarly motivated me to pursue a twenty-year coaching career. To this day, I consider him one of the most important role models and mentors I’ve been blessed to watch and learn under.

I have tried to incorporate Coach Legando’s leadership techniques into my own coaching, teaching, and even parenting, especially his cerebral approach to instruction. Even more so, from him I learned the value of storytelling in providing real world relevance to otherwise abstract concepts. Coach Legando can weave a story like few others I’ve known. I have had the pleasure of watching him speak to an auditorium full of easily-distracted teenagers and – without note cards or a fancy PowerPoint presentation – hold their rapt attention for over an hour. Trust me, this is no small feat.

Coach Legando delivering a motivational speech.

Since Coach retired from coaching and teaching, in addition to his public speaking and writing a weekly column for the Sandusky Register, he recently published a book on leadership: To Lead a Good Life. It contains many of his seemingly-endless and always entertaining and insightful anecdotes. As the title aptly communicates, however, the book is much more than a leadership manual for teachers, coaches, parents, or managers. Through stories drawn from many of his own experiences, Coach Legando’s book reveals the necessity of toughness, hard work, resilience, fair play, teamwork, service, compassion, etc. necessary for anyone who aspires to live a meaningful existence worthy of imitation by others.

I will be forever indebted to Coach Legando for the lessons I learned from him first hand as will be the literally thousands of students and athletes who have had the privilege of being in his charge. Through the reading of To Lead a Good Life, that opportunity is now available to everyone. Regardless of one’s age, I promise you there is a story from Coach Legando’s vast store that will make your journey through life more purposeful and, perhaps even more importantly, of value to others.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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All the Rage!!!!

Whether it’s Achilles’ sustained rage in Homer’s Iliad, Dylan Thomas’s raging against “the dying of the light,” or the railing against a litany of social injustices by the rap-metal band Rage Against the Machine, rage seems to be all the rage these days. One need not look far for additional, more immediate examples: rage is common on our roads, Rage is the title of Bob Woodward’s bestselling biography of Donald Trump, rage has been repeatedly unleashed on American streets in recent months in response to accusations of police abuse and court negligence, and rage has certainly been a prime motivator for many voters both prior and in reaction to this week’s elections.

In his novel The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon perfectly describes rage as “when the red mist comes down.” Red here is symbolic of hot-bloodedness and wrath while the mist represents the fog that envelops a rager’s temporary loss of rationality and causes poor decision making. Aristotle comments on the necessity of managing and channeling one’s rage toward a productive end: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” It seems to me, as a people and a body politic, we have lost our sense of justifiable rage and have begun to exercise it much too liberally so that we rage at the slightest provocation or injustice.

I’m not being judgmental. I’m a longtime rager myself. For much of my life, anger and rage have been the twin engines driving many of my thoughts and behaviors. Many of my family members and friends can cite plentiful examples of my moments of uncontrolled rage. My fist has lost its share of childish, meaningless, and unwinnable battles with walls, windows, and doors. My mother occasionally reminds me of a temper tantrum I unleashed on a decorative bird cage as a child (Disclaimer: No actual bird was injured.). My quick temper is one of my most shameful traits. It doesn’t happen very often, but once I let it out of its cage, I immediately regret it and wish I were a better person; however, I no longer promise I’ll never let it happen again. Doing so would be a waste of time as I know it will inevitably flare again. I may as well apologize for having curly hair or brown eyes. It’s part of the complex dynamic that is me.

When I was a father of young children and as I continue as a teacher, I believe it’s useful for my charges to get a glimpse of my red mist every once and awhile. It keeps them on their toes and compliant. A little crazy goes a long way. But in my personal life, as I continue to age and my personal mortality draws increasingly imminent and less abstract, I find myself reducing the number of things that are actually worth getting so worked up over. Becoming a grandparent has much improved my sense of priorities, and there are few, if any, aggravations for which a picture of my granddaughter isn’t the perfect antidote.

Her father and grandfather are Michigan fans. Don’t hold it against her.

Going forward, I hope to exercise my rage according to Aristotle’s standards, directed to the right person, in the right degree, at the right time, and for the right purpose.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Thoughts on This Election Day 2020

The Roman god of portals was the two-faced Janus. With sets of eyes on both sides of his head, he was capable of looking both backward into the past and forward into the future. On this election day 2020, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on these past four years of the Trump Administration and offer some insight, for what it’s worth, as we move together into the next four years regardless of who wins the presidential election

“Teflon Don” is a nickname that has often been applied to President Trump. Seeing how so few of the numerous controversies with which he has been associated have failed to “stick” to him or to alienate many of his supporters, it is clearly an apt moniker. If I’m being honest, however, many of the so called controversies never should have risen to the level of serious discussion. Based upon my long experience as one who appreciates, teaches, and regularly employs metaphorical language, I think an even more appropriate comparison for President Trump than a Teflon pan is a child’s toy, the Etch-a-Sketch.

At whatever point Mr. Trump began to aspire to political office as a Republican, he already owned a long history of promoting liberal causes and candidates. His Democrat-leaning past was in dire need of erasing. Therefore, with both hands, he gripped the Etch-a-Sketch on which his past was drawn, shook it violently, and rode down the escalator inside of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy as a blank slate. This time, however, he kept his own fingers off of the directional knobs and abdicated the responsibility for filling it in to each of us, which allowed him to surface from the lead filings as a sort of shape shifter. He became whatever each of us wanted or needed him to be: a wall-building savior for some but a fascist-leaning demagogue to others. The truth is that we are all much better at defining ourselves in opposition to others, elucidating what we are not, than we are at simply proclaiming whom we are. Trump used this tendency to his advantage and rode it to the highest office in the land.

In the course of his life prior to his presidential aspirations, President Trump had exhibited little, if any, adherence to unshakable bedrock principles. In Dante’s Inferno, upon death, people like Trump are assigned to the vestibule of Hell, an anteroom reserved for “Neutrals,” people who, in life, were never really in or out but chose to never take a stand to which they could be pinned down. They are doomed to forever chase a white flag symbolizing, not surrender but the lack of devotion to any one thing or cause. These Neutrals endure being constantly stung by hornets and wasps that cause blood and pus to ooze from their wounds and to create a shallow pool populated by maggots and worms at the sinners’ feet. The pro-life, free market, promoter of family values, and supposedly god-fearing Trump of today is a far different manifestation than the pro-choice, big government-supporting, skirt-chasing, and irreligious Trump of his not-so-younger days. He is now, nor will he ever be, more or less than that which is projected upon him. He is being used by both his followers and his haters as much as he is using them, but he is the only one laughing on the way to the bank.

As a result of his lack of firmly-held values, his supporters (Evangelicals, One Percenters, blue collar Joes and Janes, conservatives, xenophobes, and racists) create a portrait of Trump that is a persona, not a real person, onto whom they project many of their own hopes, dreams, and visions of what America should be, or he is the Etch-a-Sketch on which they draw the version of a leader they most desire. The same is true, however, for those who revile the man (socialists, the poor, Dreamers, liberals, service workers, feminists, and supporters of alternative lifestyles). He is the bogeyman of their personal creation, a hyperbolic embodiment of all their fears and their nightmare visions of a dystopian America.

I remember in the aftermath of the 2016 election, I earnestly asked a Trump-hater acquaintance to at least give the newly-elected president a chance. After all, I reminded him, Abraham Lincoln was rejected by a majority of the electorate, loved by few, and downright abhorred by many. He was thought to be an unsophisticated country rube with no qualifications for the presidency, yet he became one of the greatest presidents to ever occupy the White House. Looking back, I was certainly overly-optimistic in my hopes for competency from the oval office, but my friend was equally wrong in denying the President the benefit of the doubt, and he must also assume a modicum of the blame for Trump’s failures, for a leader can only be as effectual as those under his charge are willing to be led. And, please don’t get me started on the tit-for-tat of Republicans showed the same recalcitrance and spewed even worse vitriol towards President Obama’s agenda. We can do better.

This chameleon-like ability is both President Trump’s genius – although I hesitate to use the word because I do not believe he is conscious of his own modus operandi – and simultaneously his Achilles heel. At some point, he will be more like the emperor who realizes he is naked than the Lion, Tin Man, or Scarecrow who learns the virtue they sought was inside of them all along. Just as Martin Luther KIng said the arc of history bends toward justice, that arc leads to a reckoning.

Although President Trump has done much to fray the seams of the fabric that has kept Americans and their institutions together for over two hundred years, he is certainly not solely responsible for the coming apart of the American quilt. Even from a proud liberal thinker like myself, it would be a bit disingenuous to blame him entirely for his perceived shortcomings and faults or for the fractured state in which we find ourselves. Employing the often-used twist on Commodore Perry’s famous post Battle of Lake Erie communique, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 6: Ferd

Over my many years in education, I’ve been blessed to work alongside and learn from so many dedicated teachers across the curriculum, but I’m especially grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to share my love for literature and composition with an array of talented and passionate English teachers. Among them, I include Gary Kelley, Chris Ceccoli, Margaret Phillips, Julie Quayle, Jenna Kline, Annie Head, Matt Fujita, Lori Scalf and my current English Department stablemates at PCHS: Catherine Haskins, Joe Miller, and Jim Lamb.

Karen and Catherine Haskins

Because I teach primarily seniors, by the time our students get to me, batting cleanup, I have some very tough acts to follow (Please, excuse the mixing of the baseball and drama-based metaphors.). In fact, when the school year begins, I kind of feel like the new stepparent, the one who the children hold responsible for the absence of their preferred parent. The students’ antagonistic stares scream, “You’re not Mr. Lamb!”

Among the many talented English teachers with whom I have been honored to work, in recent years, I have especially grown in admiration for Karen Ferdinandsen, or Mrs. Ferd, as she is referred to affectionately by all. Fulfilling the role of department chairperson is difficult in any academic discipline as educators are typically fiercely-independent thinkers and protective of their own ways and domains, but it is doubly-difficult in a department full of flighty English majors. By the very nature of our chosen field, English teachers tend to be creative types, who do not surrender easily to leadership, conformity, or even common sense. Loath to be herded, we are the proverbial cats of any faculty. For over a decade now, however, Karen has somehow managed to corral us without bruising egos and to wrangle us towards the greater goals and necessary expectations of our bosses and school community at-large while allowing us to preserve our uniqueness and protecting us from having to deal with added mundane responsibilities that she tends to for us. I like to refer to Karen as our den mother.

Karen and Jenna Kline

The mother metaphor is especially apt for Karen, especially ever since she has switched primarily to teaching freshmen. Whereas, I am much too brash, demanding, and impatient to ever teach a classroom full of emotionally and intellectually-insecure fourteen-year olds, Karen is just the right mixture of warmth, understanding, discipline, and fair expectations. The vast majority of her students sincerely love Karen, and when I hear them call her “Mrs. Ferd,” it’s in the same tone as children say “Mom.”

I also like the word “mother” in application to Karen because encased in it is the word “other,” and in all of my life, outside of my own mother, I have never known anyone who places such high emphasis on others’ needs. Whether caring for her and Mike’s parents; performing small acts of kindness for fellow faculty members; bending over backwards to help the neediest of students to stay on track and earn passing grades – often giving up much of her own precious planning time just to talk or, more accurately, allow them to talk; or staying in intimate contact and commemorating important life events with innumerable former students, Karen is the living embodiment of giving.

I sincerely love and respect this woman. Against the still pervasive headwinds of both blatant and tacit sexism, she has never backed down and has forged a life and career worthy of imitation by all of the youths she serves: females and males.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Karen’s life partner and husband, Mike. If another couple exists who are more suited for one another or who have truly achieved the goal of being married to your best friend, I have yet to meet them. An elementary teacher, Mike matches Karen in their love of travel, the Cleveland Browns, light gambling, family, friends, and teaching. The are one of my favorite couples.

Karen and Mike

Port Clinton and the world, in general, are better places because Karen courageously chose to leave the world of restaurant management and take her talents into the classroom. I know for certain that I am a better person having Karen as a colleague and friend.

It has been my absolute pleasure to share a hallway and love of teaching with Mrs. Ferd for over twenty years, and I plan to treasure the precious and few we have remaining together.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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In the “Spirit” of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos

With Halloween and Dia de los Muertos just around the corner, I thought I’d share an excerpt from my second novel, Goodness Falls. The plot unfolds during Halloween Week and reaches its climax on The Day of the Dead. In the story, I was going for a Poe-like ambiguity that allows the more rational reader to explain the characters and events of the story in natural terms but also makes room for the much more fun, irrational, and supernatural explanation as well. The character Mr. Mortis, who appears in the scene below, may be just a substitute English teacher, or he may be Death himself. Similarly, Perdita may be just another transfer student, or she may be a succubus in Death’s service.

In the scene that follows, T.J. Farrell, who is suffering from a traumatic brain injury, finds himself coming down from an Ecstasy (MDMA) high and trying to discern fact from phantasm.

Around four a.m., Perdita took me by the hand and led me outside. We climbed into the pickup. She reached inside her top and bra and removed the bottle of Vicodin. She poured a handful into her palm, closed the lid, then slid the bottle into my jeans pocket, where she allowed her fingers to linger teasingly on the inside of my thigh.

In Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Perdita (Latin root is “lost.”) is a teenage enchantress.

“Open up,” she said. “But chew them this time before swallowing. You’ll be glad you did.”

I opened my mouth. Perdita placed several tablets on her tongue one at a time then transferred them to mine with a deep kiss. I chewed each one and swallowed.

The comedown effects were nearly immediate. I could feel my heart slowing down and the blood returning to my core. In a moment of epiphanic clarity between the high from the ecstasy and the crash from the Vicodin, I looked deeply into Perdita’s black eyes. “Are you trying to kill me, Perdita?”

“The pain is almost over,” she said and kissed me once more, deeply and long. She ran her bony fingers through my hair, then lightly traced my ears and inspired layers of gooseflesh to surface all over my body. She held an index finger in front of my face. The tip was dabbed with blood from my ear.  She whispered, “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust.”

“I suppose that’s Shakespeare.”

“That’s right, baby. Night, night.”

At some point – I’m not sure what time it was – I woke up, or maybe not, maybe I dreamt it or, as Dr. Young insists, I just hallucinated it. Anyway, instead of Perdita, it was Mr. Mortis who sat on the passenger’s side of the pickup.

“Mr. Mortis,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

This is how I pictured Mr. Mortis (-mort is Latin for death).

“The better question, T.J., is what are you, still doing here. Perdita fed you a cocktail that should have put down a newbie like you an hour ago.”

“So she really was trying to kill me,” I said more to myself than to him.

 “But,” he ignored my accusation, “to answer your original question, I’m waiting for you.”

“Waiting for me to do what?” I asked.

“To die, T.J. What else? Haven’t you been paying attention this past week?”

“I’m sorry?” I said, meaning that I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, but Mr. Mortis took it differently.

“No need to be sorry. Most people share your reluctance but not your talent for avoiding the inevitable.

“Wait. You’re being serious. Aren’t you?”

“Dead serious. Think about your past week: a vicious blow to the head, a tractor trailer with your name on it, several more brutal head shots at practice, a near-miss stabbing, and now a lethal mixture of drugs and alcohol assault on your nearly virginal system. Just be glad you never did go duck hunting. That would have been messy.”

“So you’re like the Grim Reaper?”

“I’m not ‘like’ anything, T.J. I am what I am. But that’s one of the names people use.”

“You’re Death?” I asked incredulously.

“Not exactly. Death is a condition, a nothingness. It’s not a being. I’m more like a collector.”

“You mean like a guide to the next world?”

“No. I think I told you once before, there is no next world.”

“I can’t believe you came here just for me.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I haven’t. There have been others. Do I need to list them?”

“No,” I said in a despondent tone.

“Believe it or not, I don’t always control or even exactly know the how, when, or order of deaths. Sometimes, I’m surprised myself.”

“You just show up for work?”

“You might say that.”

“Have you ever been wrong or have you ever changed your mind?”

“Not yet.”

“Why me?”

“That’s a silly question. Why not you?”

“That’s a silly answer.”

“It’s all I’ve got.”

“But people aren’t just dying in Goodness Falls,” I said. “They have to be dying all over the world.”

“That’s correct, and they are. Ubiquitous, remember? I’m always around, T.J. I’m around so often and in so many different forms that few people notice me. I’m the substitute teacher, the bus driver, the delivery guy, the emergency room nurse, the virus on the doorknob, the unexplained lump in the nut sack.”

“What about heaven and hell?”

“Nonsense.”

“Really?” I asked disappointedly.

“Really.”

“Will I see a light or something?”

“You might – for a while. Trust me. It’ll be fine. It looks quite nice, death. I actually envy you.” He assumed a faraway gaze that I recognized from his recitations in class.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Not again. You’re not going to . . .”

“To die – too sleep: no more; . . .”

“Quote Shakespeare,” I finished too late.

 “. . . and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.’ Hamlet.”

“What’s with all the Shakespeare?” I asked.

“In all the history of mankind, he’s the only one I regretted collecting. He’s the only one who came close to understanding.”

“Understanding what?”

“Everything.”

“What about Perdita?”

“She works for me.”

“What is she?”

 “Dead.”

 “I thought you said . . .”

 “She’s the exception.”

 “I’m afraid.”

 “Don’t be. Nothing is nothing to be afraid of.”

 “I guess not.”

“I really must be going. I don’t want to be late for class.” He opened the door, which illuminated the cab of the truck. “T.J., it’s been a pleasure. I will say I do enjoy the occasional challenge.”

I tried to prolong his stay, but I was already alone and on the verge of release.

If you enjoyed this excerpt and are interested in reading the rest of the story, click the link below.

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Nuns Marching

One of the final frontiers that remains a mystery to mankind is the inner space of dreams. What exactly is the practical, evolutionary purpose of dreaming or its metaphysical, spiritual role? I’d love to know. What I do know is that artists have often been inspired to creation by their dreams. Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have dreamed the words to his classic poem “Kubla Khan,” and Paul McCartney woke one night with the tune to “Yesterday” playing in his head. Me? I just have strange ones.

For example, last night I dreamed I was standing in the parking lot outside of the St. Mary’s football facility while every Sister of Notre Dame I had in elementary through high school marched past me toward the Catholic cemetery next door. I’m no oneirocritic – one who interprets dreams (Look it up; it’s a real word.) – but it may have been a commentary on my football coaching career or possibly some kind of dire prediction regarding the future of the Catholic Church, or, most likely, neither of the above but just some fetishistic repression breaking out of the basement of my unconscious mind, which is just about as Freudian as I’d like to go here.

The sisters from my earliest school days were dressed in full black, ninja-like habits with only their faces bared. Others were in the more modern, grey, midi-length habits. I recognized each of them. There was Sister Mary Cristela, who we referred to as Sister Mary Elephant from the Cheech and Chong bit of the same name; Sister Mary Claver, my second grade teacher; Sister Berneta, the accordion-playing, while roller skating English teacher; Sister Vivette, a statuesque woman of both a beautiful mind and visage; and many others.

These are the habits of my earliest memories of the good Sisters of Notre Dame.

The impression I’ve carried with me throughout the day, however, is what amazing people were the majority of them. As in any profession, there were good ones, and there were not so good ones, but in general, they were the truest servants of the god in which they believed and of the children to whom they ministered that I have ever known. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t fully noticed them, much less appreciated them, when I was in their charge, but maybe that was intentional on their part as humility was their most sacred attribute.

I’ll never forget my one foray into the convent that was attached to the school. I can’t remember on what errand I’d been sent into this inner sanctum, but I remember feeling great trepidation, a bit like Frodo delivering the Ring to Mordor or Sir Galahad in Castle Anthrax in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My experience inside the nunnery, however, could not have been more unlike either of those two adventures.

What struck me most then and remains most starkly with me today was/is the Spartan conditions in which the sisters lived: a communal kitchen; tiny rooms with single beds and a desk; few personal mementos in the room; if there was a television in the place, I didn’t see it; and a shared automobile for the occasional errand or outing. It’s difficult not to think of Luke 14:33: “Each of you who does not give up all he possesses is incapable of being my disciple.” I compare this with the lifestyle of the priests in their rectory attached to the church across the way, which I also had occasions to enter: large, well-furnished bedrooms/studies; a garage with personal automobiles; a cook, secretary, and a maid; golf outings and regular meals out with well-positioned parishioners, and it didn’t take me long to know who lived the more beatitudinal lives.

The convent on Decateur Street

I’m fully aware that Catholic priests do not take the same vows as sisters; however, I also know the advantages of patriarchy when I see them. I think, in some primordial way, these juxtaposed visitations marked the beginnings of my adult feminism. I hadn’t thought of those heroic women, really, ever until they marched through my dreams last night. Maybe that’s at least one of the purposes of dreams: to remind us of those to whom we owe so much but whom we never bothered to notice or to express our appreciation to when we had the opportunity.

With that in mind, I’d like to say thank you to all of the good sisters who played such a significant role in my and so many others’ formations. For those still with us, I hope your god blesses you abundantly in your golden years, and for those already passed, I hope you have moved into a heavenly rectory with large screen televisions, queen-sized beds, fully-stocked refrigerators, and priests to act as your personal assistants.

I really hope I haven’t made too many grammatical errors in this post, or Sister Lenarda will be waiting for me with a ruler when and if I meet her in the next go around.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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There’s No Life in a Vacuum

A common theme that arises in several of the texts I teach – most recently in a reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein –  is that no one has the luxury of living in a vacuum. By vacuum, I do not mean a Hoover upright. Rather, the sort of vacuum to which I refer is a space devoid of matter, and what I mean by the expression is that we all live in a world where our behaviors impact those with whom we share space (e.g.: family, friends, co-workers, classmates, teammates, etc.). We cannot expect to put anything out into the universe without it responding in adherence to Newton’s Third Law of Motion. You know, the “equal and opposite reaction” one.

By way of example, in Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein becomes so obsessed with creating life that it consumes him. For six years he devotes all of his time and energy to his work. Upon the completion and immediate abandonment of his creature, Victor, much worse for the wear, returns home and hopes to resume life as was normal before he began his unholy quest. The creature, however, has been set loose upon the world. It soon begins to wreak havoc and, ultimately, is responsible for the deaths of five of Victor’s closest friends and family as it seeks its revenge. Frankenstein pays dearly for what he “puts out there.”

This principle of action/reaction becomes especially relevant during election season when one chooses to fly flags bearing the name or likeness of their preferred candidate, to festoon their property and pick-up trucks with signs bearing the name of said candidate, or choose to post a meme or link to an article in support of this candidate and his/her policies. I find it a bit naive or disingenuous, however, when one of these folks, wearing their political preferences on their sleeves, act surprised or offended when those who disagree with them clap back.

When this happens, it’s not unusual for the wounded party to blame the messenger. Today, that messenger is often Facebook or some other form of social media. Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve taken breaks from Facebook myself. Once, I was called out by a relative after posting what I thought had been an innocuous opinion. Similarly, I was bluntly informed on Twitter that I was going to hell after pointing out the hypocrisy of our so-called-Christian nation’s ambivalent shrug directed at an Ebola outbreak in Africa.

After some time and much reflection, I eventually realized that social media platforms were not to blame for my comeuppance. I was. I’m the one who made the posts that inspired the ire of others. Facebook and Twitter were just a vehicle. Blaming them would be like blaming your car for an accident that results from your own poor decision-making while behind the wheel. I should have anticipated the ruffling of some feathers was in the offing when I felt compelled to share my opinion, and if I wasn’t comfortable with the blowback, I should never have posted. The fact is that Facebook and Twitter don’t suck, but people often do. There is no shortage of trolls out there. But for whom is that breaking news? Like I once did, we all have the choice to leave or to just keep our views to ourselves. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to blame the vehicle.

I have since returned to both Facebook and Twitter and take them for what they are. I love the songs/videos that Dan May posts and greatly appreciate the invitations he shares to his upcoming online gigs. All of which bring me great joy. I literally laugh out loud at the posts featuring the original humor of Andrew Zucker and Tara Roth-Mulvin. I burst with pride when learning of the various achievements of my many nieces and nephews, and I love catching up on the lives of so many students past and their adventures in parenting (Brenda Mazur) and literal adventures hiking and rock climbing out West (Ian Chandler/Tristan Nighswander). The words of positivity shared by Lorrain Croy and LaVonna Roth often convince me to make an attitude adjustment and to face my day with a smile and optimism. And pictures of the grandbaby . . . !

We are without question social animals. That reality results in both positive and negative outcomes. I occasionally go too far in expressing my views on social media or here on my blog, and I sometimes insert my foot deeply into my mouth. On both occasions, friends step up in what I believe is a well-intentioned attempt to nudge me back on course, not because they wish to be mean but because they care about me. And I’m fortunate and glad they do.

I don’t want to live in a vacuum of any sort.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 5 Steve Kohler

If “nice guys finish last,” as the Baseball Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher has been ascribed as saying, there’s no place I’d rather be than last because that’s where I’m sure to find my longtime friend, Steve Kohler. And if, Matthew 20:16 is correct that “the last shall be first, and the first last,” should you come looking for Steve on Judgement Day, I’ll surely be able to direct you to the front of the line. For although written in an entirely different context, truer words could not be used to describe Steve than Eddie Vedder’s declaration of “Can’t find a better man.”

I have no idea what year this photo is from. I swear the man does not age.

I can humbly and with tremendous gratitude say that I have more very good friends than anyone deserves, but I have had only one brother-like friend in my life for a longer period of time than Steve. From the moment I met Steve – me a first-year teacher and he beginning his second at Sandusky Central Catholic – there was a connection.

Strangely enough, for as much as we have in common, we often find ourselves on opposite ends of various spectrums. Whereas Steve is a political conservative, I am proudly a left-leaning liberal. Whereas Steve is staunch in his Catholic orthodoxy, I tend to be a bit more of a Doubting Thomas. Whereas Steve is neat and orderly, I’m much more comfortable with chaos. Our friendship even overcame the fact that Steve is a diehard Buckeye while I am equally devoted to the Wolverines.

Steve and Me in the early years. Check out those coaching shorts.

It may have originated from our similar upbringings as middle children in very large Catholic families filled mostly with boys, somewhat stern fathers, and saint-like mothers. It may have been our similar taste in music. It may have been our dry senses of humor. It may have been our shared belief that the National Anthem should be sung the way it was written, and as a side note, no one sings it better than Steve Kohler. Most likely, I believe, it was our mutual love and regular frustration with the Detroit Tigers. Whatever it was, we hit it off and spent the next two years sharing apartments, laughs, and mostly Steve’s groceries as I am an inveterate mooch. Steve never complained.

Steve performing the National Anthem. Nobody does it better.

What we share most in common, however, is a love for our profession. I have had the honor to work with many outstanding teachers during my career, but I can attest with all honesty that Steve is the only one next to whom I feel inferior. Please excuse the lofty comparisons, but in my mind, I will forever be Lou Gehrig next to his Babe Ruth, John Oates next to his Daryl Hall, James Madison next to his Thomas Jefferson. And I’m cool with that.

A part of moving our family back to Sandusky was due to wanting our children to have the privilege of sitting in his classroom, where he teaches with erudition, humor, and an unmatched passion that inspires his students to think big thoughts, to recognize their responsibilities as citizens and their place in America’s long struggle towards a “more perfect union,” and, most importantly, to believe in themselves as someone who matters if only because Mr. Kohler cares about them enough to push them to be better scholars and people than they ever thought they could be. For that gift to my own children, I will be forever grateful and in debt. Countless are the stories my boys and their friends share of “that time when Mr. Kohler . . ..”

Steve with my son Taylor and Kelsey Opfer. Steve is Taylor’s godfather.

I like to think of my years at SMCC as a sort of Camelot. When I left twenty-six years ago, my biggest regret was having to leave behind the amazing people, both students and staff. Even then, I knew there was no one I would miss more than Steve. Trying to match his enthusiasm in the classroom, brilliant lectures, and the high standards he set for himself in general were a constant source of inspiration. I still rue the many years we have been apart as educators and still harbor a desire to one day serve on the same faculty once again and maybe even co-teach a course in American Studies.

Steve on the far right.

I think it was on the night of my wedding rehearsal – a wedding in which Steve was one of my groomsmen and which he made sublime by his move-me-to-tears rendition of the “Our Father” – that for the first and only time I told Steve I loved him. Being the stoic that he is, it made him quite uncomfortable, but truer words had never been spoken, and I’m so glad I said them.

In recent years, Steve learned to play the guitar and has implemented it into his teaching.

For all the great religious and lay men and women who have served the SMCC community over its one hundred year plus history, Mr. Kohler has earned a vaunted spot in its pantheon among such legends as Rev. Joseph Widman, Lee Zierolf, Chuck Lococo, Eloise Renwand, and Gary Kelley. For over thirty-eight years, Steve has served the SMCC and Sandusky community with rarely-matched displays of virtue, dedication, service, and excellence. I’m confident that should you ask any SMCC graduate from those past thirty-eight years who was their favorite and most influential teacher, the vast majority would, without hesitation, answer Mr. Kohler.

Coach Widmer, Me, Coach Hammond, and Coach Kohler at the 25th Reunion of the 1990 State Runner-Up Team.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Book Clubs (and male strippers)

The beautiful ladies pictured above are members of the Best Cellars Book Club. The photo is of a pre-Covid-19 era gathering. I love these ladies. They have been extraordinarily kind to me and my writing avocation. Thanks, girls!

I love book clubs. I especially love book clubs that choose my novels for reading and discussion! I really, really love book clubs when they invite me to their gathering to discuss my novels and my writing process!! The food and drinks (usually wine, a lot of wine) that they provide are also greatly appreciated, and if we’re being honest, may be the actual cause of the current popularity of book clubs in America, where it is estimated that over five million people belong to one.

In recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of being the guest of honor for two local book clubs. Because, as is typical, both clubs were entirely comprised of women, as I approached the venue, I could briefly empathize with the trepidation a male stripper must experience as he enters a bachelorette party. In some ways, I felt myself to be the more vulnerable of the two. The stripper is only required to bare his body; whereas, the author is expected to bare something far more personal: his innermost thoughts. Also, the stripper goes home with a G-string full of ones and fives. If I’m lucky, I may be able to coax a positive Amazon review or two from the ladies. Of course, there is the wine.

A recent visit with the brilliant and beautiful members of the Ladies of the Lake Book Club. I felt so welcomed and appreciated.

I actually belong to a book club myself; however, the gender balance is like 6 to 1 male to female. Therefore, a preponderance of the books we read are nonfiction. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good nonfiction read, but I much prefer a thought and emotion-provoking novel. The great psychoanalyst Carl Jung might have diagnosed my affinity for fiction as an expression of my anima or feminine side. I diagnosis with which I’m totally cool.

This is me at my book club’s most recent gathering.

I never fail to be impressed by the insights, questions, and suggestions for alternative plot twists and endings that I receive from book club members. I often find the suggestions most humbling, especially when I realize their ideas may have been better than those I’d chosen.

For Island No. 6, a common question from book clubbers has been, “How did you know a pandemic was coming?” The answer, of course, is that I didn’t. I’ve long been a fan of pandemic stories, so in 2011, when I was struggling to land on a new idea for a novel, I decided to write a pandemic narrative of my own. In 2018, I finished it, so it just happened be hot and ready when Covid-19 struck.

This is me and the amazing Ellen Hopkins, one of the top selling YA authors of all time, at a book event a few years back in Orlando.

I’ve been surprised how interested book club readers have been in the the Muslim character, Jalil, who is a fairly minor one. They want to know what happened to him when he fled the island. Did he make it through the naval blockade? Did he make it home? Was he infected? Did he spread the virus? The answer to all these questions is I don’t know. I have never even pondered those questions, but I think it’s a good thing for a novelist to leave a few questions unanswered and open to the readers’ imaginations.

Another point of high interest is the resemblance of characters from my novel to real life islanders. That, I guarantee you, is either pure coincidence from my end or projection from those who see the similarities. I don’t really know any full-time residents of the island. If my islanders, or “lifers” as I refer to them, appear to be a cantankerous and unwelcoming lot, it is only because I needed them to be that way to tell the story I wanted to tell. It was in no way meant to be a slight against island inhabitants.

This is the smallest book club I’ve been invited to, but it’s also my favorite.

I just think it’s so cool that – in a time when there are so many modes of mindless and much flashier entertainment than reading a book available and when it’s so easy to choose to cocoon yourself alone in your living room – many people still do choose to read and to gather with friends and fellow readers to have a conversation about a shared experience. Oh, and don’t forget the wine.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Shakespeare, the Plague, and Me: Turning Tragedy into Opportunity

During the years I was conducting a lot of research for Island No. 6, I became a bit of a quasi-expert on virology. I’m quite proud of the fact that nearly six months into its release, I’ve yet to be called out on the accuracy of my portrayal of how a virus operates. I’m doubly-proud of the manner in which some of my predictions regarding how society would respond to a pandemic have rung remarkably true.

For example, in Chapter 5 of Book 2, I wrote: “Compared to allowing this virus to spread, the cost is negligible. Not even considering the human toll, imagine the economic impact of a widespread epidemic on not just this island but the country and even the world should it be forced to battle this flu. There could be no mass transit, no manufacturing, no commerce, no schools in session, no public sporting events, no tourism or travel, basically, nothing that would require large numbers of people to occupy shared space.” Pretty close, huh?

https://www.amazon.com/Island-No-6-Ty-Roth/dp/1506909418/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=ty+roth&qid=1602355960&s=books&sr=1-1

Another byproduct of my extensive research is that I became quite knowledgeable on the history of epidemics. I was reminded of one such outbreak this past week while lecturing about the life and career of William Shakespeare. In 1593, London experienced an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague that ultimately resulted in approximately 20,000 deaths in and around the city.

The twenty-nine-year old Shakespeare had only recently accomplished the staging of his first play, Henry VI. By what would become his standards, the play was only moderately successful, and it remains one of his lesser works. I only mention this factoid because not long after the play began its run, the theaters of London were shut down due to the aforementioned outbreak of the plague, so here is where this essay becomes relevant for anyone reading it during this time of Covid-19.

Just today, I also read an article about how, with Broadway recently extending its shutdown until at least May, a large number of playwrights are using the closure to pursue projects which had been placed on a back burner or had been receiving short shrift prior to the dimming of the lights. The ultimate result of which will hopefully be an explosion of fresh material ready for the stage come springtime. They’re taking what is otherwise a tragic situation and turning it into an opportunity.

Favorite Broadway Experience

During his forced hiatus from the stage, Shakespeare took the opportunity to write poetry rather than drama. As a result, he penned his two classic narrative poems, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. During this downtime, he also began penning his sonnets, which along with the narrative poems, would have been enough to earn him a very high ranking in the pantheon of English authors.

Ultimately, the plague passed, the theaters, reopened and Shakespeare returned to writing for the stage. On a larger scale, England entered what was perhaps its greatest period of literary production and ushered in its own Renaissance. If not for the tragedy of the plague, much of what we recognize as artistic genius may never have come to fruition.

On a personal level, I’m trying to apply this lesson to my own attitude and activities during the Covid-19 Era. I can either choose to allow the drastic diminishment of social activity to drive me to sadness and stagnancy or I can view the unasked for hours of downtime as an opportunity for learning, self-improvement on a number of fronts, working on the next novel, and/or all of the above. This morning, I dusted off a draft of a novel project I have not worked on in years. I saw the embers of potential still burning between its pages, and once again, my imagination is alive with possibility.

I challenge anyone who has read this far to challenge yourself to find that something that will help you to find yourself in a better place, when this national nightmare eventually ends, than you were in when it started.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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The King of Wishful Thinking

I never was a fan of the “hair bands” of the 80’s, like Poison, Cinderella, or Motley Crue. However, I must admit a soft spot for schmaltzy pop songs from that era, the kind you’d often hear in the soundtracks of rom-coms or teen-centric films. For example, I still love “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Waiting for a Star to Fall,” and “I Can Dream About You” (Go ahead. I know you’re humming it.). But my favorite of all in this genre is “King of Wishful Thinking” by the English duo Go West, which was featured on the soundtrack of my wife’s favorite movie of all-time Pretty Woman.

This song has been on my mind of late primarily due to what seems to be a sort of metaphorical pandemic of wishful thinking in the middle of a literal pandemic of Covid-19. Such thinking has had and continues to result in some very real and dire ramifications for the many who have been infected by Covid-19 and who will experience long-lasting and deleterious consequences to their health. More significantly, the more than 210,000 and still-growing number of Americans who have succumbed to the disease and the one million+ deceased worldwide have simply run out of wishes.

This proclivity for wishful thinking had long infiltrated the White House and has now culminated in the President’s contraction of the viral disease that has proven often to be deadly for folks in his age bracket who possess his comorbidities. Even more tragic and possibly unforgivable is the fallout of his personal wishful thinking that Covid-19 would simply go away. I’m honestly not trying to make a political statement. Regardless of my or your attitude toward the President’s job performance, it’s undeniable that his willful naivete has led to such wrongheaded declarations as, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle. It will go away.” That was on February 28. Certainly, he wears the crown reserved for the King of Wishful Thinking.

The sad reality is that it hasn’t gone away, and many epidemiolgists are warning of dramatic increases in the number cases as we move increasingly indoors in response to cooler weather. The President’s flippancy regarding the disease has certainly contributed to many now-deceased individuals assuming a lax attitude toward their own risk of contraction, and they have paid for it with their lives. The examples are numerous and easily found.

Currently, the NFL, as many college football programs have already, is being forced to come facemask-to-facemask with their own wishful thinking regarding their ability to ward off the virus as the number of infected employees climbs, causing postponements and cancellations of scheduled games and gamblers and fantasy football team owners to scramble. What a tragedy!

Similarly, many school districts with the bewildering support of various health departments have completed some form of new math and come up with a measure of an acceptable contraction rate (although they’ll not use that phrase or admit to making that measurement) that allows them, in seemingly good conscience, to mandate a return to full attendance despite the fact that such a return will render their own social distancing recommendations all-but-impossible in many cases, including, by the way, my own classroom. In so doing, they readily admit that there will be a spike in infections. I imagine they must sit back and wishfully pray that none of the victims who will be impaled on this predicted spike die or pass the virus on to others who die.

I’m not dismissive regarding many people’s insistence on a return to normalcy. I get it. Their arguments are legitimate and weighty. But I also know there’s still much we don’t know about this virus, and regardless of the President’s wishful prognostications, we are still a long way from possessing an effective vaccine and a sufficiently inoculated population. Nor am I ignorant of the economic pain the necessary response to Covid-19 has and continues to cause. I am, however, of the admittedly pollyannaish belief that we should always error on the side of safety and the preservation of human lives.

If, however, we lived in a society that hadn’t been allowed to so denigrate the role of government in the lives of its citizens and that wasn’t so crippled by partisan politics, this would be the sort of once-in-a-century emergency situation that would allow for the government to intervene on a massive scale and to provide the relief necessary to tide over its citizens, small businesses, and corporations in an appropriate, not a one-size-fits-all manner. But, now who’s getting lost in his wishful thinking?

In English grammar, the subjunctive is one of three moods expressed by verbs. The subjunctive mood is used to express wishes, desires, or suggestions. In its spirit I’d like to end this essay by sharing my wish that we all come out healthy on the other side of this pandemic. I truly desire that those in positions of leadership will move cautiously in the attempt to return society to pre-Covid-19 normalcy (whatever that is). Finally, until then, I suggest we all don our masks and maintain proper social distancing, even – no especially – if one happens to live or work in the White House.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life: My Mom, Barb Roth

I had planned to save this edition of “Some of the People in My Life for Mothers’ Day. However, while out on a recent run, John Mayer’s “Say What You Need to Say” shuffled into “play” mode in my earbuds, and I realized that May was still over half a year away. Neither my mom nor I are getting any younger, and words left unsaid are not really words at all, just intentions. And, for better or worse, words are my best currency for sharing my love and appreciation for my mother. My brothers and sisters do it in their own ways: regular visits and phone calls, doing her shopping and sharing meals, making sure she gets to as many of her grandchildren’s sporting events as she wants, etc. They have their ways; this is mine.

Look What She Started, And This isn’t even quite all of us.

Growing up as a Roth in the Sandusky area, you regularly are asked, “Who’s your dad?”, as one can hardly swing a dead cat in this town without hitting one, and most of us are related. It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I realized that the more appropriate question might have been, “Who’s your mom?”, as more often than not, they were the ones keeping their own Roth brood fed, clothed, bathed, disciplined, on time for school and practices, and the list goes on and on. In order to right that wrong, I proudly say my mom is Barb (Benkey) Roth, and she has always been the most important person in my life.

Grown up kids minus Lori.

From her own Benkey/Heiler roots she passed on to her children a certain silliness and love of laughter. I regularly encounter vestiges of her somewhat twisted sense of humor in my son Tanner, and I think of my mom. From her, I learned that a person’s true value has little to do with money, materials, or status, and that everybody is deserving of respect and kindness. In her mind, there was never a reason not to be nice and polite.

Visiting Kevin in NYC. She walked 10 miles that day and never complained.

My mother possesses a tendency for taking in strays, not pets, but people. Whether it was the brotherless neighbor boy across the street, who needed some toughening up; the Ontario School crossing guard’s son, who today would probably be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum; or the many cousins, friends, and roommates of her children who more or less just showed up at all hours and stayed for as long as they wished, there was always room for them in her house and in her heart.

The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall

Again, only when I became a parent myself did I realize how much she must have gone without, uncomplainingly, so that her eight children could have what they “had to have,” including cleats, baseball cards, ice cream from The Dairy Frost, penny candy from Mrs. Longs’ store, the latest toys at Christmas. Again, the list goes on and on. The gas tank on the station wagon was always precariously near empty, yet she’d buy a dollar of gas at a time – I’m pretty sure – so that she’d have something left to share with us when we “needed” spending money.

My Mom and Dad on My Wedding Day

Unlike me, my mom has never been one for words. Rather, she lived the example she hoped her children would emulate. I believe the most valuable example she set for us was – in my words – that you are always the least important person in the room. In other words, one’s first responsibility is to serve others, not oneself. For example, I do not have a single memory of my mom sitting down at the picnic table in our kitchen to eat dinner with us. I have loads of images in my head of her rushing from cupboards to the stove to the sink and back again preparing and serving meals but none of her actually sitting and enjoying one. It was a lesson in humility and service that has always stuck with me and that I try my best to imitate.

A Recent Birthday Celebration.

Similarly, on many occasions when my mom could have turned vindictive or petty toward other parents, relatives, and her own friends, I watched her choose the high road. She taught me that holding a grudge or trying to get even usually costs you more of yourself than it hurts the target for your animosity. For her, it was always about forgiveness. Service to others and forgiveness are the two rules for living that that Jesus fellow tried his best to exemplify, and my mom learned and has lived his example as well as anyone I’ve ever known.

Mom and Her Great-Granddaughter Quinn

Perhaps the lesson I most value from my mother’s example remains the obligation to love, cherish, and support one’s siblings. You would think that, over the so many years and among so many of us, schisms would open up between us, if only by virtue of our separation by distance, but they haven’t. We don’t agree on everything, but we value one another too much to ever let petty differences break the bonds welded between us by our parents, especially our mom. She has never spoken of this filial obligation; rather, we learned this lesson symbiotically by observing the priceless value she placed on her own relationships with her siblings, especially her sisters. It’s something her mother modeled as well in her relationship with her sisters, my great aunts Elsie and Tec. They were each others’ best friends.

Aunt Paulette, Aunt Ann, and Mom

If I can claim any measure of success as a husband, father, brother, friend, and teacher, it is directly attributable to my mom. I’m willing to say that each of my siblings would second that claim as it applies to their own lives. I’m also willing to bet that nearly every tribute I’ve paid to my mom in this post can also be said of all of my Roth and Benkey aunts.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Autumn

I’ve always been partial to autumn. One reason is that it presents a context in which to use the adjectival form of the word: autumnal, which is one of my all-time favorite words. Another could be that there are so many great poems written about the fall of the year. No one has ever captured the essence of the season as keenly as Keats in  “To Autumn,” which describes it as that

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-

eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set the budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For summer has oe’r brimm’d their clammy cells.

It may be the end of my rather directionless summers and the return to the routine and structure of the school day and to my future-leaning students still in the springtime of their lives that inspires my anticipation of fall, but I know for certain that it has much to do with playoff baseball and Friday night lights, apple orchards and pumpkin patches, Ciders and October ales, but you can keep your pumpkin-spiced everything. Fashion-wise, I much prefer boots, jeans, long-sleeves, and jackets to flip-flops, shorts, and polo shirts. And give me open windows and cool nights under layers of blankets rather than the illusion of air conditioning that is shattered the second I step out into the summer’s heat.

I love autumn’s dissonant reality as a season brimming with the ripeness and vitality praised by Keats yet also one that, leaf by falling leaf, reminds me of my own impermanence and admonishes me to assume a sense of urgency for winter is coming. Similarly, each fall squadrons of honking Canadian geese, like those in Whitman’s Specimen Days, make routine flyovers over my house on their journey south. They call to me and remind me in a less-than-soothing tone that nothing lasts forever and that Nature, of which I am part and parcel, operates on ever-changing and inexorable cycles.

According to current projections the average U.S. male lives to be seventy eight years old. If that is correct, I am entering the late autumn of my life, and I see myself reflected in the photograph of the tree below. It’s a tree that stands outside my classroom window, and, like those geese, it prods me to 1) be cognizant that I’m not the person I once was, and 2) even so, there’s still a little beauty and vitality left in me to share with the world – one last blaze of glory before I go.

My favorite tree and memento mori.

This tree, like autumn, serves for me as a sort of memento mori – something that acts as reminder of one’s mortality. It doesn’t make me sad or regretful. Rather it’s a gentle reminder that, unlike the illusion under which live Keats’ bees, our “summer days will cease.”

The Byrds once echoed Ecclesiastes by singing, “To everything (turn, turn, turn) / There is a season (turn, turn, turn) / And a time to every purpose under heaven.” These words along with autumn’s easeful and slow-fading beauty teach me to make the most of my time and that the winter of my live will have its own benefits and virtues and that whatever comes at its end will be alright as well.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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On Boredom

I frequently tell my composition and literature students that the greatest sin a writer/reader can commit has nothing to do with grammar or subject matter. Rather, the greatest sin a writer/reader can commit is to be boring or bored. I believe this same standard holds true for a human being.

Trust me, there are days when I turn on the evening news that I would all-but-kill to be bored silly by mundane accounts of legislatures passing bills with bipartisan support, of street improvement projects rather than marches in the street, and of police organizations sponsoring youth sports leagues in disadvantaged neighborhoods. That’s a type of boredom I could get behind.

I will also concede that there is another school of thought that suggests boredom should actually be sought out. One of my very favorite authors David Foster Wallace wrote a 548 page novel, The Pale King, about an accountant working in a regional IRS office just to prove his point that, when properly approached, boredom can serve as a means of slowing down our perception of time and of nurturing mindfulness. Wallace explained it this way: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” Despite our contrary means, I think DFW and I have the same goal: to become unborable.

It might also be relevant to point out that DFW hung himself at the age of 46.

So boring it’s interesting.

I believe that life is too short and the world is too interesting and filled with fascinating people and worthwhile experiences to allow yourself to become bored. Sure, we all experience periods of boredom, but to wallow in it is to fall victim to what the French call ennui: a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. Such a condition often results in or from hours spent thumbing maniacally through social media or surfing Netflix for the perfect antidote to your boredom. I enjoy social media and I love a good Netflix series as much as the next person; I just don’t let either of them become all-consuming or soul-sucking, of which both are capable of becoming.

To some extent, I think the key is to do interesting things yourself rather than watching others do those things and to never stop learning. The saying is true that life is not a spectator sport. For example, instead of watching others redesign their homes on HGTV, begin a home improvement project of your own. Instead of just listening to music, take a guitar or piano lesson. There are plenty available on YouTube. Instead of watching your favorite sports on television, join a local league or organize a pick-up game. As for lifelong learning, iTunes University, MasterClass, and plenty of local organization offer some high-level instruction in a variety of fields of interest, academic and otherwise. Instead of complaining about injustices and/or bad policies, join the debate. One of the most moving experiences of my life was participating in the March for Our Lives march in NYC after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School to demand sensible gun reform.

Although I encourage thrill-seeking as an occasional reminder of life’s fragility and therefore its preciousness, and I’ve done my share of pushing the boundaries of my personal comfort zone (mountain hiking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, ice runs, half-iron mans), there are plenty of less extreme antidotes to boredom to be applied on a daily basis. Some of mine include writing, reading (which I consider an activity), tennis, physical fitness, coffee and conversation with friends, long walks (often in nature) with my wife, and napping (God, I love napping, and I consider myself an “active” napper).

“If you’re bored or boring, shame on you!” I like to chastise my students (and occasionally myself). The world is an amazing place, and we are amazing creatures with a limited-time opportunity to make the most of this life with which we’ve been gifted.

I like to share with them the words of Keith Urban in his song “Days go By: “[This life] is all we’ve been given . . . so you better start living RIGHT now.” “Right,” of course, has a double meaning in this case: 1) immediately and 2) correctly and with the implication to be up-and-doing.

Amen to that.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty