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A One Tank Trip

While driving recently, I was surprised by the digital odometer on my dashboard informing me that I had only “110 Miles to E,” which was the equivalent of a quarter of a tank of gas. I could have sworn that I’d just filled it up. Shortly thereafter, it updated, “109 Miles to E” then “108,” then “107” and so on. The literature teacher in me couldn’t help but to recognize the metaphorical significance of the moment. The universe was talking to me, and my similarly past-its-prime Ford Taurus was the vehicle through which the universe was sending me a wake-up-and-live call.

Having just celebrated my 59th birthday and begun my 60th year on this planet, I began to question how I should respond to such a warning from the universe. In one of those too-apropos-to-be-coincidental moments, as I sat calculating that, if I’m lucky, I have about a quarter of my life yet in front of me, Keith Urban’s song “Days Go By” queued up on my shuffled playlist of random songs, and the lyric “It’s all we been given, so you better start living right now” — with “right now” meaning both immediately and correctly — poured through the car’s speakers.

My first thought was “Okay, where would I choose to actually go if I was suddenly granted only 110 ‘miles before I sleep’?” Of course, the work-a-round answer would be to save the miles, go nowhere, employ a “four corners” offense, park the car in the garage, and let the world come to me. That, however, almost immediately lost its appeal as I realized that the world wouldn’t “come to me.” In fact, it would quite quickly forget I even existed as it went about its own task of existence. I would devolve into a passive observer apart from the world rather than a part of it. Such a hermitage is no way to live whether one’s tank is full or nearing empty. It would be what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as a “life-in-death,” and dying ain’t no way to live.

I concluded that my 110 travel miles would be spent exactly how I’m spending them now: almost always, with my wife riding shotgun or taking a turn at the wheel while I try my best to take a good look at and to savor the beauty of both the natural and manmade world. Most of those miles would entail driving to be with family members, to drink coffee or beers and talk, laugh, and reminisce with friends, to play a couple of sets with my tennis buddies, and to help at OhGo’s biweekly mobile food pantries, where I’m an insignificant contributor to the efforts of people much better than me who are doing good work, donating their time and muscle — because none of us have much else to give — for goodness’s sake, not to see their names listed on a donors page or to pad their resume for heavenly admittance. Such are the people and activities that bring me the greatest joy as these “days go by,” and as my life-force tank empties, they will continue to fill my soul tank.

What I would try my hardest to avoid doing with my “110 miles to E” is to make wasted trips to any place, person, or activity that might bore, frustrate, or anger me. I would devote nothing to mean spirited, close minded, and/or intolerant people; instead, I’d even gladly burn a little extra gas to go around them. The fuel and time left is too precious to spend on such life-draining folks, experiences, and/or emotions.

Although it may seem like you just filled the tank, be sure to check your odometer because “days go by,” and life is a one tank trip.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Roth’s Class, Vol. 2: Monsters

Because we start the year in my college-level English literature class reading such classics as Beowulf and its companion piece, John Gardner’s Grendel, because Halloween is fast approaching, and because one of my favorite pop-punk (It’s that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t understand the term.) bands All-Time Low has had a song of the title recently spend eleven weeks at the top of the charts, my mind lately has been on monsters.

The presence of monsters in the early literature of England was literal. Because of the limited knowledge and travel of the people of that era, there were many places both near and far that few, if any, folks had ever visited. As humans are wont to do, they filled such places with the monsters of their imaginations: ogres, trolls, dragons, giants, sea serpents, abominable snowmen, zombies, etc. Today, however, those unexplored places are much fewer, and anyone with a rational mind knows there is no such thing as a monster — at least not on the literal level.

The remaining value of monsters in society and storytelling, beyond the visceral thrill of a good horror film or a terrified walk through a haunted house, lies in their usage as symbols of the fears and anxieties we must overcome and the challenges we must eventually face if we have any hope of functioning effectively in the world.

Although the monsters of literature, pop culture, and our imaginations do not actually exist beyond their sphere, there are any number of real world monsters — some of our own creation — of which we must be wary. Unlike the monsters of fiction and film, such real world monsters can terrorize us and do actual damage to our lives.

To make matters worse, real world monsters often draw near to us dressed as the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing so that, unlike the zombies pictured above, we don’t see them coming, and when we finally do, it often feels too late to save ourselves from them. Such monsters include petulant students/children, unreasonable teachers/supervisors, drugs & alcohol, all sorts of phobias, abusive partners, con artists, road ragers, mass shooters, sex offenders, etc. As Eminem and Rihanna remind us, weirdly enough, we sometimes even choose to become “friends with the monster” rather than defeat them.

The good news is that there has never been a fictional monster created that couldn’t be defeated by some means: a wooden stake, a silver bullet, a bucket of water. All responsible storytellers subscribe to the practice of killing off their monsters at the story’s end unless, of course, it’s part of a film franchise like Halloween; whereby, the producers can keep Michael Myers alive as long as moviegoers are interested in watching the same basic plot again and again ad nauseum. The monster’s vulnerability ensures us that we do not need to allow our personal and very real monsters to terrorize us forever. If we possess and show the courage to confront them, we can destroy even the most formidable among them; if not, there are others who are available to help us face down our demons should we have the wherewithal, the willingness, and most importantly, the wisdom to ask for help.

Are you a dragon slayer? If not, “Who you gonna call?”

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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“Here Comes the Judge”(ment)

In 1968, Pigmeat Markham released the novelty song “Here Comes the Judge.” It is considered by many to be the first rap song. I’ve included a link to it at the bottom of this post. Sammy Davis Jr. used the title line, which also served as the song’s refrain, for a bit he performed on the show Laugh-In. This song and bit came to my mind recently in response to the avalanche of judgment we all seem to be living under.

Judging and being the object of others’ judgment is certainly nothing new. In fact, it’s a natural and vital mechanism of the human species. It just seems to be much more pervasive, rash, harsh, and public than it once was. As consumers, we are constantly asked to rate services rendered and products purchased. Anyone who engages in social media is under subtle, but constant, pressure to judge others’ posts and to determine whether or not to “Like,” “Love,” or simply scroll past them. Many of the sports included in Olympic competition require judges to score the participants and to determine the winners. Surveys to be taken and polls to be completed are ubiquitous. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have an opinion regarding the best tanning salon in the Firelands!”

An increasing number of reality tv shows ask one or a group of participants to “vote off” another, or they come with a panel of judges who act as vicarious critics for the viewers. Oftentimes, the snarkier and more meanspirited the judges behave on these shows, the more popular they are. And God have mercy on anyone who performs their job/art in public and are vulnerable to the reaction of the Twitterverse, the press, or the multitude of “Armchair Quarterbacks,” who, because they’ve watched a lot of football or played in high school, think they know better than the coaches who’ve spent countless hours evaluating talent, conferring with colleagues, and watching film.

In my never ending quest to be better, I’ve made it a priority not to be so quick to judge others based on superficialities, not to be so dismissive of folks whose opinions and worldviews are radically different from my own, not to judge others — especially young people — for whom they are now but to envision the beautiful and wise people they are capable of becoming, and never to judge someone too harshly in the midst of their worst moments.

I believe that all of this unfettered judgment of one another is contributing to the rifts driving us ever farther apart as a society. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychanalyst, is noted as saying, “Thinking is difficult. That’s why most people judge.” I think he was correct. My wish is for people, including myself, to thoughtfully corral their impulse to leap to judgment and to learn “to live and let live” in the spirit of tolerance, with the awareness that we are all works in progress, and with the knowledge found in that old Ray Stevens song that “Everything is beautiful in its own way” independent of our judgment.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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A Country Song Gone Wrong

I rarely turn on the radio in my car, but recently while driving, I inadvertently pressed the power button on the radio rather than the A/C button that I was intending to push. The FM station was tuned to a country music station, and a song titled “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” played. I’ve since learned that the song has been around a couple of years, but it was the first time I heard it. Now, I’m far from a country music aficionado, but I’m not one to bash it either. In fact, some of my favorite singer/songwriters live and write on the border of country: Jason Isbell, James McMurtry, Lori McKenna, Kacey Musgraves, etc. But this song by Riley Green was groan worthy in its use of country music tropes, and I just have to vent with full knowledge that there are few, if any, music fans more defensive about or protective of their preferred genre than country music fans.

Trust me, I have mad respect for anyone who can get anything published in any mainstream media, and I’m positive there are hundred of thousands of country music fans who love the song. The official live performance of the song has been viewed over 2.5 million times. If the only measurement we use is the number of plays,, views, and downloads, the song has been an unqualified hit, but then again, so was “Disco Duck.” However, one should never conflate popularity with quality, and whenever a song or any work of art crosses unintentionally into self-parody through an overabundance of clichés, there’s a problem whether it’s popular or not.

By the way, it’s not an occurrence limited to country music. Fiction writers who are fortunate and talented enough to publish a multitude of stories often fall into the difficult-to-avoid trap of imitating themselves. I think Metallica, whose Black Album, I feel, is one of the finest works of metal ever produced, creeped into self-parody with its Saint Anger album. To me, that album sounds like Metallica trying to sound like Metallica if that makes any sense. The phenomenon is the equivalent of when Fonzie “jumped the shark” in the television show Happy Days. It’s just lazy as a writer and too much to ask the listener, reader, viewer to swallow. Listening to Green’s song, I had to pause to make sure it wasn’t actually a Weird Al spoof.

To illustrate my point, I’ll make a bulleted list of the tropes that appear in “I Wish Grandpas Never Died”:

  • Porch swings
  • A longing for the time when children said “Sir” and “Ma’am”
  • A shout out to iconic country songs/artists: Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”
  • Friday night football
  • Pick-up trucks and Chevrolets
  • Coolers full of beer
  • Backroads
  • Cotton
  • Honkytonks
  • Soldiers overseas
  • Dogs
  • Farmers forced to sell their farms

Mind you, this is in a song that lasts just over four minutes. The pathos in the play on the emotions of anyone who has ever lost a grandpa is to go for the lowest of hanging fruit, but the real kicker for me is the complete lack of self-awareness in the line “I wish country music still got played on country radio.” As correct as that statement might be, this is not the song in which to make it. I can’t imagine Merle Haggard or Steve Earle or any serious country songwriter or singer writing or singing “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.”

Let me reiterate, my complaint is with this song and those like it that make zero effort to display any originality and that play to the lowest of common denominators. If I come off as an aesthetic snob, that is not my intention. At the end of the day, the quality of any work of art is subjective, and if even the schlockiest works of art resonates with someone and helps them to get through their night, then it has value in the world. Who am I to contend otherwise?

I’m sure Riley Green and his songwriting collaborators on “I Wish Grandpa Never Died” are supremely talented, and they have probably made some money from the song. Also, I understand better than most the difficulty of breaking through to a mainstream audience, and I say, “Good on ya, boys!” for that, and I certainly wish them nothing but future success. But fellas, I’m sure y’all can do better.

I really hate to do it, but check it out for yourself, and if you can get past the pathos associated with losing one’s grandpa, I dare you to disagree with my complaint.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Roth’s Class, Volume 1

One of the main reasons I began writing novels and, more recently, publishing a blog is that I wanted to expand my classroom, where, in any given year, I might reach 100 to 150 students. Through my fiction and essay writing, I’ve been able to share whatever small measure of wisdom I’ve gleaned over my years of living and teaching with a much wider and sophisticated audience, and I have found it quite rewarding.

In addition, I somewhat regularly have folks tell me that they wish they could sit in on my lectures. Others who regularly pass my classroom as they go about their duties tell me they like to stop and listen when they hear me teaching. Therefore, I’ve decided to introduce a new feature to my blog titled “Roth’s Class.” I’m calling it that because that is how the majority of my students refer to whatever course it is they are enrolled in with me. It’s rarely British Literature, American Literature, or Composition; rather, it’s “I got Roth’s class.”

This first installment is from my opening day lecture in College Composition I. As it is a course that requires a significant amount of reading of position essays, the respectful discussion of those essays, and the composing of personal argumentative essays by the students, I spend some time at the start of the semester reminding them of what is required in the practice of respectful discussion/argumentation in an academic environment and that I fervently wish was adhered to by adults in their own discourse rather in the media, in face-to-face conversation, or online.

  • Learn to be a discerning reader. Just because something appears in print or online doesn’t make it true or accurate. Challenge what you read.
  • Listen attentively.
  • Examine all sides of an issue.
  • Suspend judgment: Discussion is not debate; it is about communication, not competition.
  • Avoid abusive or insulting language. We don’t have to agree with one another’s ideas, but we should respect one another as people.

We then discuss the difference between opinion and fact. This may upset some people, but despite the attempt by a former president’s spokesperson to insist otherwise, there is no such thing as an “alternative fact.” In academia, facts are not up for debate. For example, in addition to what our own eyes should be telling us (It was Dylan who sang, “I don’t need a weatherman to tell me which way the wind blows.) and no matter how much the occasional publication of junk science or politically-motivated disagreement with legitimate research pollutes our national intelligence, the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed research indicates that climate change is real, and anyone who paid attention in science class for over the past two hundred years knows that vaccines work. Similarly, in the teaching of American history and current events, racism has been and remains endemic. To insist otherwise is demagoguery, which is anathema in any serious academic environment and a grave disservice to our youth.

We then discuss from where our opinions emanate, and I encourage my students, who are juniors and seniors, to begin to question whether or not the opinions they entered the classroom holding are truly their own and if those opinions should be made the object of further examination. According to our America Now textbook, the most common sources of opinion are the following:

  • Inherited = Those opinions, for better or worse, impressed upon us by our parents usually with good intentions but sometimes wrongheaded.
  • Indoctrinated = Those opinions foisted upon us by various sources of authority (churches, government, teachers, coaches, etc.). Like inherited opinions, these are mostly good intentioned but also sometimes off the mark.
  • Involuntary = Those suggested to us subliminally. For example, advertising has a long history of portraying females as existing in subordinate roles or serving primarily as objects of male sexual desire. Such portrayals have resulted in young women settling for less powerful roles in every social institution and in young men inappropriately objectifying women.
  • Adaptive = Those opinions we alter or “adapt” to the environment in which we find ourselves (“When in Rome . . .) rather than boldly asserting our actual positions.
  • Concealed = Those opinions we hold that others might view as slightly or completely wacky; therefore, we keep them to ourselves for fear of judgment. For example, I believe our country could stand to press the reset button on the place of athletics in our academic institutions. I’d like to see all sports removed from them and converted into community-sponsored clubs. I generally keep this opinion to myself because most folks think I’m crazy for even suggesting it.
  • Linked = those opinions we hold merely because of the various groups with which we align ourselves rather than thinking for ourselves. Examples of such groups to whom we subsume our opinions include affiliations with particular religions, political parties, unions, sexual orientations, etc.
  • Considered = these are our most valuable opinions. They are the ones we arrive at and express only after careful reading, research, discussion, and discernment. Unlike politically-themed television shows and far too many online bloviations by uninformed blowhards, these are the opinions that carry weight in academia.

Granted, this is probably not the sexiest lecture/discussion I lead throughout the year in composition class, but I do think it is one of the most important in the process of helping students to become free-thinking adults in a democracy that demands thoughtful and informed citizens.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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These Things I’ve Learned

Robert Redford’s The Natural is one of my favorite movies of all-time and one I often find myself quoting. Of the many great lines spoken in the film, the one that has come to resonate with me the most of late is spoken by the character Iris Gaines, Roy Hobbs’ long lost love, who near the end of the movie tells him, “You know, I believe we have two lives. The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.”

Glenn Close as Iris Gaines in The Natural.

It wasn’t too long ago that I finally entered that second stage of life, the one in which we find ourselves scarred, maybe a little bit scared, and a tad worse for wear but also a bit wiser. I’m grateful for reaching this point despite the many years lost trying to get here, for I know that there are many who, despite however age they may reach, never learn; therefore, they never get a chance to adjust their ways and to have a chance at what John Mayer calls “livin it right.”

Many essays from the pens of far better writers than me have been written based on this premise, including by such distinguished authors as Robert Fulghum and Maya Angelou. Still, if only to identify and clarify these things I’ve learned for my own purposes, I feel this essay is worth writing and sharing. A thought or feeling left unspoken is like that tree that falls in the forest with no one around: its very existence is open to debate.

So what follows is an incomplete but ever-growing list of some of the things I’ve learned in my first life that I’m trying hard to apply in my second:

  • Regardless the source, often a religious one, guilty, afraid, and intolerant is no way to raise or educate a child, nor is it a way to live.
  • Emotional vulnerability does not make me weak but being overly-sensitive to the opinion and judgment of others does. I need not overreact to others’ criticism of me or their reluctance to accept me.
  • To say with regularity, “I love you,” to those I love even my male friends and to say, I’m proud of you,” to whomever it applies. It’s surprising how infrequently some people hear those words and how good they feel when they do. Sadly, some no longer do or never did.
  • To figure out those few principles really worth fighting for and doing so but also, whenever possible, to choose to deescalate conflicts with those who believe differently. Avoiding or walking away from a confrontation does not mean I’m afraid or lacking in conviction. In fact, it is by far the most difficult and courageous choice. Even better, I need to make an attempt at least to sympathize with others’ points-of-view when empathy just isn’t possible.
  • To not pre-judge others based on the simpleminded stereotypes I’ve picked up along the way or that fit the narrow definition of them that makes me comfortable when interacting with them. Individuals are complicated beings, and no two are exactly alike. If I lump them together, I risk never actually knowing anyone.
  • Speaking of “not knowing anyone,” I’ll never completely figure out anybody, especially myself, but the attempt to do is well worth the time and effort.
  • I don’t have to win for the effort to win to be worth its expense. In fact, I’m finally realizing that not everything is even a competition.
  • Talk less, listen more.
  • I don’t have to please all of the people all of the time. Actually, I mostly need to please myself. In so doing, I am in a better state of mind to serve those others to whom I am responsible and whom I should rightfully and responsibly be trying to please.
  • Everyone, including me, deserves a second, third, fourth, etc. chance. We are all works-in-progress who never reach completion, at least not in this world. When we give up on someone, we are actually giving up on our own ability and willingness for compassion, love, and forgiveness, which only diminishes our own humanity.
  • As an addendum to the previous lesson learned: Good people sometimes believe and do bad and/or stupid things. This definitely includes me. That’s what makes us human. If we didn’t sometimes believe and do such things, we’d be too good for this imperfect world. Therefore, it’s unfair to judge a person entirely based on what they do or say in their worst moments or phases of life. Be willing to give them a pass or a do-over when appropriate and only I/We are the ones to know when our limit has been reached.
  • As obvious as it should have long been, I’m not going to live forever. I’ve watched friends and family members pass away, some young, most in advanced age. My time as a vital human being is so incredibly precious and short, but time is not the constant that the clock on the wall wants us to believe and adhere to. I need to find or invent ways to slow it down in order to better appreciate, if not savor, the moments as I’m living them.
  • To “act my age” does not mean to act old or to stop doing the things that make me feel alive. It’s important to continue to set goals and to dream big dreams. It does mean, however, not to deny the years I’ve lived and not to make a fool of myself by pretending to be anything other than my actual age. As my gray hairs and wrinkles increase, I hope to embrace, not deny, their existence.
  • The list is very short of acceptable reasons to risk destroying a relationship with a family member or friend. Neither group is in adequate supply and both are typically diminishing in number.

I apologize if any of this has come off as preachy or pretentious. As the character Doc says in West Side Story, “What do I know? I’m the village idiot.”

P.S.: Due to the fair number of visits I receive to my blog, I’ve been approached with offers to monetize it through advertisements. I, however, have no interest in profiting from it — at least not monetarily. If you are interested in supporting me and my blog, the things you could do include liking and sharing my posts, purchasing my novels and leaving a rating/review on Amazon, recommending my blog and books to friends, and/or following my blog by clicking on the “Follow” button on my web page at tyroth.com and sharing your email address. With that said, you really don’t need to do a darn thing.

Always with gratitude and love – Ty

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Ty(rannosaurus) Roth

Every year the flip of the calendar from July to August turns my thoughts to the upcoming school year, which, in turn, inspires me to ponder the year ahead and to consider what I might do differently and, hopefully better, this year than I’ve done in the past. For the last thirty-seven years, that ponderance has led to small but never wholesale changes in my style of teaching, which explains the title of this blog post. I’m increasingly feeling a bit like a dinosaur among my peers; many of whom are much, much younger than me.

Other reasons for my feeling myself to be a fossilized remnant include 1) half of the time, I don’t understand what the young bucks on staff are talking about, especially when they start throwing around education-related acronyms; 2) there are very few grandparents, like myself, on staff; 3) data, data, data; and 4) I wish I had my chalkboard back. Perhaps my most dinosaur-like attribute, however, is — GOD FORBID AND FORGIVE ME — I am a lecturer. I still possess the audacity to expect my students to sit for forty-five minutes while I offer instruction and, on the best days, entertainment and enlightenment.

No reason for this photo other than it was taken in the Main Branch of the NYC Public Library and looks kind of scholarly.

I’ll be the first to admit that my devotion to lecture is at least partly the result of my egomania and need to be seen and heard, and where can you find a more captive (Think about that adjective for a minute.) audience than in a classroom. I also half-joke that I’m prone to lecture because it’s much cheaper than paying a psychoanalyst.

Some of my readers of advanced age may be surprised by the desire of many in education to rid schools of teachers like me. In fact, we may very well be on the verge of extinction. For them, allow me to list five ways in which lectures are ineffective, according to the article “Advantages and Disadvantages of Lecturing” at Thought.com: 1) Lectures are very taxing for students, 2) Lectures are not engaging, 3) Lectures are teacher-centered, 4) Lectures do not accommodate individual needs, 5) Lectures cause students to rely on their teachers. I would not strongly refute anything on this list.

During professional development workshops, teachers are regularly warned to steer away from lecturing for anything more than brief intervals. Lecturing is referred to pejoratively as the “stand and deliver” method, which is an allusion to the movie of that name from the eighties with the implication that they are both outdated. I’ve even heard lecture called the “say and spray” method of teaching, meaning the lecturer addresses the class as a whole and hopes some of what he/she says falls upon each of the students; however, like when using a lawn sprinkler to water new grass, that is rarely the case.

I might also add that perhaps the “proof is in the pudding,” but I’m too ignorant, too stubborn, or both to see it. Since the inception of the most recent method of teacher evaluation in Ohio’s public schools, I’m consistently diagnosed as being a “Skilled” teacher. On first consideration, that looks pretty good when, in fact, it means I’m average. The most highly-rated teachers are identified as “Accomplished,” a designation I have never earned. Part of which is my own fault, for I have openly-shared my refusal to “play the game.” Even so, when I’m evaluated, I do what I do every day in class without putting on a “dog-and-pony” show, which means my teaching is basically viewed as average according to the system currently in use. The lowest category of evaluation is the dreaded “Developing” (Notice the euphemistic nature of that term.).

Yikes! Me in my early teaching days.

My thoughts are that effective teaching cannot be boiled down to checklist of items that need to be clicked off or data points that need to be reached. Much of what is done in classrooms today is teaching to the test. I totally understand why teachers do it; the pressure to put up good numbers is immense. I just refuse to do it. I figure if I do my job well and the test is truly a measure of the learning of necessary skills and the accumulation of vital content-based knowledge, my students will be fine.

I also feel that teaching is an art form akin to drama. I imagine my school day as a series of one-act plays. The tardy bell rings like the curtain rising, and I perform with the full range of verbal acrobatics, range of movement, body language, and emotive intensity as any stage actor. My best plays are the ones that inspire enthusiastic audience participation, but they’re still pretty good when they do no more than goad students to think quietly in ways they may have never thought before.

In my experience, when the teacher stops actively teaching, many students think the time for learning is over no matter how many independent or group projects the teacher assigns, and they’re very good at pretending to be working when the teacher approaches them or their group, and they’re even better at convincing one student to do most of the work while they all take the credit. I’ll admit that my perception may simply be the result of my own inability to invent and to structure independent and group activities, and there are many teachers who are very good at that sort of instruction.

One thing I do know is that more-than-a-few of my students have complained to me about the number of projects they’re assigned and of teachers’ excitement about and overreliance on technology, which the students themselves are quite blasé about. My students also regularly share how much they actually enjoy teacher-led lectures/discussions and simply talking to their teachers, especially the ones who are thoroughly knowledgeable in their subject area and passionate about sharing their own love of the material. In my mind, any teacher who is isn’t passionate and excited to share their love of their material doesn’t belong in a classroom.

So call me a dinosaur and label me “Skilled,” but the curtain is about to rise on another season, and I’m ready to “break a leg.”

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 13: Jim Lamb

The last person I thought I ever needed in my life was another little brother following me around. I already had four of them. Over the years, however, that once-thought unnecessity has become fundamental to my very existence and impossible to imagine being without. I’m referring to my childhood neighbor, former student, English department colleague, carpool partner, fellow book club member, like me lover of all things JAWS and Gatsby, and very good friend: Jim Lamb.

As Jim is the oldest of three siblings, it may be that I have filled in for his own lack of an older brother, which, by the way, in addition to the four younger brothers I have, I also have one older. If that is the case, it’s one of the great honors of my lifetime.

Jim with his wife, Karen, and son, Luke in downtown Sandusky.

The Lambs lived across 5th Street and down a block from me and my family on the east side of Sandusky. Although ten years younger, like me, Jim attended Catholic elementary school and Sandusky Central Catholic High School, where I was his American Literature teacher. After I accepted a teaching job in the Port Clinton school district, he took my position at Sandusky Central Catholic. Five years later when a position opened in the English department in PC, with my encouragement, Jim applied for and ultimately was offered and accepted the job, where he was installed in the classroom right next door to me. I wonder: if I should pass away before my wife does . . . just kidding.

There is a well-known quotation attributed to John G. Kemeny that “it is the greatest achievement of a teacher to enable his students to surpass him.” If Kemeny is correct in his assertion, I have little left to achieve as a classroom teacher, for Jim Lamb is one of the finest educators I have ever worked with or known.

Jim is first row on the far left. This is from when Jim coached football with me at PCHS and before we both became avid runners.

I have long been the kind of demanding teacher that students one day appreciate. Jim, on the other hand, is not only equally demanding and “one day appreciated,” he is loved in the present by the vast majority of his students, who enter his classroom enthusiastically at the tardy bell and exit reluctantly at the bell to change classes. It’s an ability of which I am admittedly envious and at which I marvel.

Standing in the hall with Mr. Lamb between classes, I may as well be invisible as one student after another, current or former, either stops to chat with him or calls out a “Hello, Mr. Lamb,” with obvious affection in their voices. In the infrequent moments when he isn’t the object of students’ greetings, he is the one actively seeking out passing students to greet with one of the silly but ingratiating nicknames with which he dubs many of his students. The coolest thing of all, however, is that he more-often-than not seeks out kids who are not necessarily the most popular or extroverted and makes them feel not only noticed but loved and appreciated. I begin most years with my incoming classes like the reluctantly-agreed-to blind date with Mr. Lamb serving as “the one who got away.” I have to spend a semester just weaning them off of Mr. Lamb.

I told you he was an avid runner.

Although his default setting is calm and inviting, when necessary, Mr. Lamb can transform quickly into Mr. Lion. Those who have been witness to or on the other end of his roar can attest to that. Amazingly, however, even the latter somehow still love the man and routinely seek him out later to apologize for having offended or disappointed him. The man is an absolute maestro of effective classroom management and behavior modification.

Mr. Lamb’s students know that there is not likely to be another teacher whom they will encounter during the remainder of their day who will meet them with passion for their material commensurate to that which Mr. Lamb brings every day, every class period. And, trust me, the man knows his material. I know because I taught it to him and literally gave him my notes, but like a great singer of cover songs, he has put his own spin on the material and made it better than that which he was given.

Jim likes to metaphorically compare the summer months for teachers to a school year weekend; whereby, June feels a bit like a Friday full of feelings of accomplishment for another week down and anticipation of the free time to oneself to come. July is similar to a Saturday, the actual day for fun and leisure, enough removed from Friday to relax and enjoy the day. And August feels like a school year Sunday with a work week staring you in the face, sapping much of Saturday’s joy.

As I write this at the tail end of Jim’s summer Saturday, my disappointment over summer Sunday’s arrival is greatly diminished by the knowledge that soon I will be in Jim’s regular company as a friend, colleague, hallway neighbor, and if I may be so bold to say, as a mentor. Of the many things we have shared, the most important is an absolute love for literature, composition, and PCHS, especially the students we have been and continue to be so blessed to teach and to learn from.

Teach on, Captain Lamb. Continue to sound your “barbaric yawp” through the hallways of PCHS to the betterment of us all.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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To the Dreamers

I often see on Facebook postings by friends, typically former students, who are chasing various dreams and life goals that many would perceive as unrealistic rather than settling for something less. They inspire me and give me hope. Reading one such post recently reminded me of a speech I gave a few years back at a banquet at the University of Toledo for English majors who had won various department-sponsored creative writing awards.

Rereading my speech, I feel that there is still value in it and real world wisdom for those dreamers learned from my own Quixotic experiences “tilting at windmills.” What follows is the written version of that talk with the numerical order of talking points included. This is for the dreamers who refuse to give up their dreams or give in to the naysayers. In the words of Aerosmith, I say, “Dream On.”

  1. It’s an absolute joy to be among so many of my people, my kind of people: you English Majors, you purposeful idlers, you unapologetic romantics, you unconventional thinkers, you iconoclastic throwers of conceptual bricks, you rejecters of the status quo. Most pleasing for me tonight is the opportunity to address particularly those among you who will choose to become members of the 99% – not the 99% of economic have nots but the 99% of those who will seek mainstream publication for their writing but never see it on their local bookstore or library shelf. I cite this deflating statistic not to discourage you; rather, by standing in front of you tonight as a 1 percenter myself (in the published sense, not the financial), I hope to convince you that you too can make that giant leap. Early in Sophocles’ Antigone, Ismene, the title character’s timid sister, asserts that “things impossible, ‘tis wrong to attempt at all.” But if I had believed such nonsense, I’d have never bothered to defy the absurd odds against achieving mainstream publication, yet here I am. Know this, if I can do it, trust me, so can you. I have no preternatural gift for writing. Believe it or not, I don’t even enjoy writing that much. All things considered, I’d rather watch television. As a writer, I compare myself to the type of hockey player known as a “grinder” – not a particularly graceful skater or stick handler but one willing to muck it up in the corners, throw a few elbows, and, in general, do whatever needs to be done to put the puck in the net. When I started, I didn’t have a single contact in the publishing industry. I was a nobody from nowhere, but I possessed a stubborn determination to succeed, and I resolved that I would never stop trying until someone told me I was good enough.
  2. However, I must warn you that the world of mainstream publishing is not for the thin-skinned or the easily-discouraged. You will, most likely, fail repeatedly, and you will give up on the dream if you do not learn to make friends with the devil that is REJECTION.     
  3. Actually, you should be more than mere friends with REJECTION; you should be lovers – with all of the sublimity, ecstasies, frustrations, masochism, and neuroses that mark any halfway-decent love affair.
  4. As English majors, you should be fairly accustomed to rejection and already well on your way to forging this relationship because, if I can assume you’re anything like me, for many of you, REJECTION has been a lifelong companion:
  5. As children, we were rejected by potential playmates who grew weary of waiting for us to “put down that stupid book,” so that we would come out and play.
  6. We were rejected by potential romantic partners who were less-than-impressed by our pale skins and under-toned bodies, which resulted from so many hours spent indoors with books and writing journals.
  7. We were rejected by those who were mortified by our choices in fashion and hair styles, both irrelevant considerations as we spent most of our time reading and writing in our favored nooks and crannies.
  8. We’ve been rejected by potential hook-ups who immediately disconnected when the inevitable question arose: “What’s your major?”    
  9. Some of us were even rejected by those more widely-esteemed major programs themselves and only “settled” for the English department as a second choice because “I like to read,” or because “I did ‘good’ in English in high school.”
  10. I know of some rejected by their parents who refused to pay the tuition for such a “worthless degree.” I mean, “What are you going to do with an English major?”
  11. As undergrads and grad students, we’ve had draft after draft rejected for being either too original or too derivative; too under-sourced or too over-sourced; too obvious or too obscure; too conservative or too unconventional; too timid or too overreaching.
  12. We apply to numerous grad schools and MFA programs hoping that just one will take us and allow us to borrow even more money that will take a decade to pay back – if we can pay it back at all.
  13. In pursuit of academic publication, we’ve had papers and articles rejected by the most arcane, yet somehow significant, literary journals.
  14. Chasing mainstream publication, we’ve been rejected, in my case novel after novel and by agent after agent (somewhere north of  a hundred), and, once represented, by editor after editor at publishing house after publishing house.   
  15. Once published, the rejection doesn’t stop. We brace ourselves against not only the rejection of the trades (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Book List, to name a few) and mass media publications but also against that of the myriad of amateur bloggers and the dreaded and spiteful “Allocators of the Stars” at Amazon and GoodReads.   
  16. We face the almost certain rejection of the general reading public who prefer their pot boiler stories of paranormal beings, soccer mom erotica, political thrillers by right wing talk show hosts – hell, anything by right wing talk show hosts, ghost-written celebrity novels and tell-alls, and the story of a five-year old, raised in a shack, who recounts his journey to heaven and the five people he met there (I may be guilty of conflation there.) to anything that is remotely literary or nuanced.
  17. Finally, we find our books rejected by the slew of e-readers who prefer the un-vetted crap they can download for free to the painstakingly-edited pieces that require an investment of nine dollars.

So, if any of you intend to advance further into the world of mainstream publication, I heartily encourage you to do so and, as I earlier noted, I’m living proof that anyone from anywhere can make it; however, proceed with full knowledge that the devil of rejection lurks. If he is unable to simply tempt you away from your goal with the Internet and television and fancy Smartphones, he will test your resolve with the constant reminder that the odds of publishing are too great and your talent too lacking. So, thicken your skin, steel your nerve, trust in your talents, think of my example, and stubbornly resolve to render the sinewy arms of Rejection impotent by embracing it.

To the Dreamerswhatever your dreams may be.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Thanks for Nothing!

While out for a run today, the song “Celebrate,” by Grady Spencer and the Work played on my ear buds and reminded me that I need to be mindfully thankful for all of the nothing that happened to me and mine on this oh-so-ordinary day:

"People ain't got it this good,
So let's get down and give thanks.
Baby, don't worry let's celebrate . . .
Time is gettin' shorter don't make me wait."

Spencer’s lyrics certainly remind us to count our blessings while we have them and to be conscious of just how good we already got it rather than living for St. Nevercome’s Day when we claim we’ll finally be truly happy. But how often are we reminded to count and be thankful for all of the negative things that didn’t happen? I would think not very often. So I’m going to make a brief list of some of the crappy things that didn’t happen to me today for which I am endlessly thankful.

  • I didn’t not wake up this morning, and when I did, it was without a single spot of bother that might portend the onset of a serious illness. Today, at least, I didn’t suffer any painful accidents and I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been. Ditto for my children and grandbabies.
  • I didn’t wake up hungover or a victim to an addiction of any kind unless you count those new Nerd candies that are crunchy and sweet on the outside but soft and sour on the inside. I can’t control myself.
  • I didn’t have a panic attack, stress headache, or nervous breakdown, and I remain free of the need for any meds for physical, mental, or emotional issues; although, I am in no way judgmental or critical of their place in anyone’s health management.
  • My wife of thirty-four years didn’t leave me, and I’m pretty sure at this point that the whole marriage thing is going to work out.
  • My mother, who is 86 years old, didn’t suffer a life threatening event of any sort. This is a woman who, prior to knee replacement surgery in her early eighties, was asked by the surgeon if she’d had any recent major medical issues. She answered, “None that I can think of.” The doctor, while reading her chart, reminded her of the obstructed bowel, aortic heart valve replacement surgery, and breast cancer she had endured in the near past. “Well, if you’re going to count those as ‘major,'” she responded.
  • Not a single major appliance broke down today, and my automobiles are not in need of any major repair.
  • Unlike many in our country and world, I was not made a victim of a catastrophic natural disaster; although, the “natural” part of that statement is in question and might be more accurately described as a “manmade disaster.”
  • I don’t have a single boss whom I don’t respect or who treats me unfairly; in fact, I have the upmost respect for all of my bosses.
  • I didn’t have to report to a job I hate this morning; in fact, because it’s July and I’m a school teacher, I didn’t have to report to a job at all. But when I do return to the classroom in late August, it will be with love and enthusiasm for a job, students, and co-workers whom I truly love.
  • My Facebook wasn’t hacked. I know there are a lot of FB haters, but for me, it has been an incredibly-effective and rewarding method of staying in touch with friends and family and even re-connecting with some from whom I’d drifted. Just last week, FB led to an email reunion with my best friend from high school, whom I hadn’t spoken to in forty years. It reminded me of what a special place he had in my heart and formation as a person. I hope we will soon be able to arrange an in-person reunion.
  • I didn’t accidentally delete the 50,000 words of my novel-in-progress.
  • No bill collectors called me because all of my bills are paid thanks to my wife’s skillful handling of all family accounting.
  • I wasn’t bored for one second. I tell my students, “Shame on you if you’re ever bored. The world in which we are fortunate to live and life, in general, is far too interesting to be bored by it.”

These are just a few of the many potentially-awful things that didn’t happen to me today, and I want to tell the universe, “Thanks for nothing!”

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Jim Bollenbacher, Author of “The Signers: The Adventures of the Cushman Family”

I recently partook in an email “conversation” with Jim Bollenbacher, the author of The Signers: The Adventures of the Cushman Family, an intriguing work of historical fiction. What follows is a slightly-edited version of that discussion. It’s a longer article than my typical posts, but I’m positive you will find it enjoyable and enlightening, especially if you are, like me, a fan of historical fiction and a fan of Jim Bollenbacher.

Jim Bollenbacher

The amount research required to write such a long, detailed, and historically accurate text as “The Signers” must have been overwhelming. Could you briefly discuss your process for completely such a daunting task?

I think it was Confucius that said “the most difficult part of a thousand mile journey is the first step.” I was a government and history teacher and football coach my whole adult life. I had never even written an article let alone a novel. When I retired and took the ‘first step’ into writing, I had a couple things going for me. I had taught American history for 11 years and American government for 20, so I had a pretty good background for the American Revolutionary period. I had read several biographies on Jefferson, (Fawn Brody, John Boles), John Adams, and George Washington. My motivation to write a book surrounding the Signing of the Declaration of Independence was first inspired from a lesson I taught in my government class. It was a three day lesson plan, where on day one, we read aloud and discussed the Declaration. On day two we read a 4 page article written by Rush Limbaugh’s father (a lawyer and school superintendent), detailing the huge sacrifices the Signer’s were forced to endure. Each student would then write an essay regarding the magazine article. On day three, we talked about the impact the Declaration had throughout history.

I then crafted an adventure tale around the signing, introducing Thomas Jefferson’s fictional best friend from childhood. From there it was more research, mostly by reading historical books around that era like, A.J. Langguth’s Patriot, David McCullough’s 1776, James Flexner’s Washington, and several others.

As the book started to come together, I realized I had to become an “expert” in 1800 century weapons, military strategy, 1800 century British sailing vessels and tactics, uniforms, clothing, all the way to common slang and vulgarity. Luckily the internet provided a wealth of websites dealing in such areas and I soon had a very large folder of sources.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction as it combines two of my favorite academic disciplines. I find that the difficulty in authoring such a novel is the balancing of the two, and the danger is avoiding slipping too much into either discipline. In other words, if the author leans too heavily on the historical half, the text can very easily slip into sounding like a dry lecture in a high school history class. On the other hand, if the author slips too heavily into the freedom allowed by writing fiction, they risk coming completely unmoored from the debt they owe to remaining true to history. What are your thoughts on this conundrum, and how did you maintain a proper balance between history and fiction?

Attempting to balance history and fiction was probably the toughest part of weaving the tale of The Signers. I decided early on in creating the Cushman family, especially Jefferson’s best friend Ben, to try to keep their relationship believable. Jefferson’s early life is well, known, he was gifted with intense curiosity and was a student that thrived in every discipline, from science to foreign languages. What few people probably don’t realize about Jefferson is that he was also a skilled outdoorsman, a horseman with few peers, a gifted swimmer, and an excellent shot with both pistol and musket. He enjoyed cards and gambling, like many Virginians. The fictional Ben Cushman is a reluctant farmer, more skilled as a warrior, but also more intelligent than he would let on. I think the reader can relate to these two becoming best friends despite the totally different trajectory of their chosen professions.

My hope was to weave an adventure tale, (mostly fictional, but there were many rumors of assassination plots against the founders, large bounties on all the signers by the British government and of course the real life harassment’s that follow almost every signer and George Washington.) while exposing the reader to a thorough history lesson concerning colonial America during this time period.

I found that a fun way to keep from making the history to “dry” and fiction too “unbelievable” was to divide many chapters into multiple story lines. Bouncing back and forth from each story helps to move the book along and allows the reader to escape into each layer.

Without providing any spoilers, which of the fictionalized characters is your favorite, and what role do they play in the novel?

Wow, love this question, tough choice, but probably Ben Cushman. He is Jefferson’s best friend and would do anything for him. Ben is reluctant warrior who has been on a personal vendetta for the past 10 years (hinted at throughout the book, you’ll need to read the prequel and later the sequel to fill in all the dots). He, more than anyone, knows how vicious and deadly the British Army is and believes that Colonial school teachers, shopkeepers, artisans, and farmers will be no match for the professional and experienced British Army and Navy. He arrives in Philadelphia, two weeks before July 4, 1776, to surprise his best friend. He stumbles on a British and Tory plot to kill the leaders of the Continental Congress. Of course, it’s like the movie Titanic: you know the boat is going to sink and you know the leaders will survive, but it places Cushman in the center of one of the most important two weeks in human history, not just American history. The Declaration of Independence is more than just a notice of separation. It championed a political theory that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This political philosophy, that rights come from God, flew directly in the face of the current philosophy through most of the world known as the “divine right of kings.” Cushman knew the King of England, George III, would never let such a philosophy take hold and the Colonies would feel the full brunt of the mighty British Empire.

Two close seconds of fictional characters to Ben Cushman, would be his partner throughout the book, the mysterious spy, Major Jacob Hall and Cushman’s eventual love interest, the spoiled and confused, Deborah Johnson.

Major Jacob Hall is a spymaster, reporting only to Benjamin Franklin. His involvement with Ben Cushman goes back 15 years to the French-Indian War, the two shared many a close call with both the French and the Indians. I love his character, (for more of Major Hall, you’ll need to read the prequel America at the Abyss, The Adventures of the Cushman Family) and try to keep his role as mysterious as possible.

Deborah Johnson, spoiled daughter to the wealthy Tory David Johnson winds up on the wrong side but still falls for Cushman. Her vulnerability contradicting with her strength makes the attraction to Cushman an interesting sideline. She is a rare breed, working as a waitress-barmaid in the most popular new tavern in Philadelphia. A beautiful and fun loving young woman right in the middle of the approaching storm.

Let me ask the reverse. Which of the characters drawn from history is your favorite and why?

Thomas Jefferson. John Kennedy once commented at the White House honoring Noble Prize winners, that “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” The “Da Vinci” of the 1700’s, Jefferson deserves to be one of the four figures on Mount Rushmore. Most importantly he chose to serve his fellow citizens throughout most of his adult life. Jefferson served on the 2nd Continental Congress, wrote the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Virginia Statutes of Religious freedom (serving as a model for the 1st amendment in the Bill of Rights), was our 1st Secretary of State, our 2nd Vice President, and our 3rd President. In addition, he founded the University of Virginia. Any single one of those accomplishments would have been of major significance, but all of these makes Jefferson an American Icon. Despite these amazing achievements, Jefferson was very shy and at times unsure of himself. He dreaded speaking in public, (probably because a slight lisp) and preferred to let his writings spread his unique ideas.

Another challenge faced by the writer of historical fiction, especially if the writer is a fan of the historical figures of whom they write, is to provide an honest, 360 degree portrait of the those who play a major role in the novel and not to “whitewash” them in a way that ignores their human frailties. For example, the Founding Fathers are often given a pass for some of their questionable behaviors so that they come off as borderline superheroes rather than as real, imperfect men. The opposite is true as well. It’s just as tempting for some writers to villainize historical figures far more than they deserve. I’m thinking particularly of a man like Thomas Jefferson. What are your thoughts on this dilemma faced by writers of HF, and how did you attempt to navigate through it?

Another great question. My very first rule was not to put myself into the 18th century with 21st century morals. For instance, slavery has existed on planet Earth probably longer than civilizations themselves. It has existed in every human society, in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Ancient philosophers often claimed it was a natural order of things. Christians were probably the first group who questioned the practice of slavery. But, It wasn’t until the 1600’s that some philosophers began to lament the condition of slavery. Still, by the 1770’s very few were speaking out against slavery with some exception in the American colonies. Puritans in the northern colonies were quite outspoken against the practice of bringing African slaves to the Americas. John Adams spoke out against slavery quite often as did Benjamin Franklin. In Pennsylvania, the Quakers were adamant in their campaign against slavery. John Dickinson, a key member of the Pennsylvania delegation was constantly scolding his Southern brethren concerning the issue. Even Jefferson, a slave owner, was conflicted. One of his grievances against George III in the Declaration was the importation of African Slaves. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Dickinson fought hard to keep the passage in the Declaration, but the Northern states eventually gave in to the Southern slave states in the spirit of compromise and deleted the key passage. In my research about Jefferson, he was clearly conflicted and wrote about this conflict when he and Adams were near the end of their lives. (Of course, in one of the great ironies in history, both men died on July 4th, 1826).

I know it is popular to attack the founding fathers in today’s hyper sensitive media, but I refused to do that. In fact, I believe that the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of the end of slavery in the world. Jefferson’s words were electric and sparked conversation around the world. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”! These words not only sparked an American Revolution, but revolutions continuing to this day, (demonstrations in Cuba this weekend is the latest example). All men are created equal in the eyes of God, rights that come from God and not man. These ideals appealed to the American colonists and have continued to appeal to generations of people ever since. Jefferson’s words sparked a movement. Within 11 years, the American Congress voted to end the slave trade. Within 80 years a civil war and amendments to the Constitution ended slavery in the United States, and within 100 years of the Declaration of Independence, slavery had disappeared from most of the planet.

In The Signers, I tried to humanize all of the founders. Most were young men, literally fighting for their lives. They were filled with doubts, imperfect men who made incredible decisions under extraordinary circumstances. Jefferson’s fear that his fellow delegates would reject his Declaration, Washington’s multiple doubts regarding his army and the strategies he was about to employ. John Dickinson’s fear in sending young men off to fight an unwinnable war. John Hancock’s commercial fleet, which made him one of the richest colonists, was about to be hunted down by the world’s greatest navy. Despite their many imperfection’s, these men came together and orchestrated the greatest upset in human history. History should absolutely look at these men, imperfections and all, but history should never disregard their tremendous achievements, bravery, and foresight in the incredible difficult times they faced.

One of the things that most interested me was the way many of the issues your novel addresses are echoing in the present. Do you agree? If so, which issues were conscious of doing so at the time of your writing or today?

Absolutely. As a government teacher, I always taught my students that the freedoms we have today are not guaranteed tomorrow. Our founder’s words have been tested through time and there are millions of examples of people fighting for their freedoms. If you read The Signers, you’ll notice a quote at the beginning of each chapter. Some are humorous or clever, but most of them serve as a warning to future Americans and other freedom loving people. One of my favorites is a John Adams quote about all government whether democratic or dictatorial. “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.” Think of what is currently happening on college campuses, where free speech is constantly squelched. Wokeness, political correctness, speech codes, are all examples of limiting free speech right here in America. These are just some examples of powerful institutions (government, media, big business, and even churches) abusing their powers and eroding our “unalienable rights.” So, like our forefathers, modern Americans have to have to be constantly aware of this overreach. As Thomas Paine wrote so eloquently, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil: in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

I can’t say I agree with Paine’s assessment of the role of government, but that’s for a different conversation. It is a truism that the majority of novels are purchased by women; whereas, men, much more so than women, gravitate towards historical texts. Did that influence the writing of the novel? I don’t mean to come off as stereotyping female readers in any way, but I’m wondering if the romance elements of the novel were a conscious strategy on your part intended to entice and satisfy female readers?

Not necessarily, I wanted to write an interesting adventure story that would hold everyone’s attention, while reminding the reader what an amazing set of circumstances occurred to allow our founders to accomplish what they did. These people were not Marvel Superheroes; they were real men and women who did extraordinary things at an extraordinary time. Life did not stop at this time: people got sick, children died of childhood disease, they fell in love, they got spurned, they made friends, they made enemies…

So no, it wasn’t a strategy to include the love stories, but I must admit I enjoyed including them. I thought it made the characters more realistic.

You’ve already hinted at this, but what’s next for Jim Bollenbacher, the author?

I am currently editing the prequel to The Signers: The Adventures of the Cushman Family. This second novel is complete and will answer some of the things brought up in the first. The Signers, America at the Abyss: The Adventures of the Cushman Family will follow the Cushman family into the French Indian War in the colonies. Ben Cushman’s father, Ben Sr., will follow George Washington and the Virginia Militia into the Ohio Country to confront the aggressive fort building by the French. When Washington’s militia fire the “shot heard round the world,” the story will race through the war, with Ben Jr. and his brother James, (14 and 13 years old at the time) coming face to face with the horrors of war. New characters, love interests, and some old favorites will follow a young George Washington into what most historians refer to as the real first World War.

What’s the best way for readers to get their hands on “The Signers?”

The best way is to go to http://www.pagepublishing.com/books/?book=the-signers. This personal website will allow anyone interested to order the book in hard copy, soft copy, or download. This website will direct you to Amazon (hard copy, soft copy or download to Kindle), Barnes and Noble (hard copy or soft copy), Apple I-Tunes (download to Apple Music), Google Play (download to Google Play) or Reader House (soft copy). Or you can always go to Amazon or the others and search Jim Bollenbacher.

Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to share about yourself or “The Signers?”

I’d just like to thank you for all your help and advice. As a kid growing up and living my whole life in northern Ohio, I never really thought I would ever write a book. I thought maybe I’d play professional baseball or football or basketball (ha-ha). It has been a great adventure, and I want to thank my wife, Patty, and the rest of my family for putting up with me all these years. Interestingly, people who have been the most help through this process all had a huge connection to sports and especially football. Marc Munafo wrote a self-help back and has been extremely helpful through this whole process. Of course, Marc played football at Huron and at the Air Force Academy, and his father, Tony, was my high school coach, friend and mentor. Dave Brown wrote a book about Huron Football and gave me sage advice. Tony Legando, Huron football coach, high school teammate, and childhood friend, recently wrote a motivational book and has been a great help. Both Dave and Tony played and worked with Tony Munafo. Lastly, Ty Roth, a St. Mary’s rival, ex-football coach, and coaching colleague, you have been a great help, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all you’ve done and the time you have given me.

I can’t thank Jim enough for his thoughtful responses, and more importantly, for undertaking the daunting task of penning The Signers. If you’ve read this far and you’re like me, you must wish you would have had the opportunity to sit in on Jim’s history classes. The next best thing, however, is to read The Signers. It just so happened that I read my copy over the Fourth of July holidays, which lent a special significance to my experience.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Greenlights by Mathew McConaughey: A Book Review

Just when you think you know a guy, he goes and writes a memoir that completely blows your preconceptions out of the water.

I don’t do many book reviews on my blog. When I do, it’s because I was super impressed by the author’s storytelling ability or because I found the themes of the book so impactful. In Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey checks both boxes. Like many others, I’ve enjoyed the majority of his movies and bought into the version of McConaughey, the man, as a pot-smoking; naked, bongo-playing; airheaded; beach-loving intellectual-lightweight just breezing his way through one rom-com after another with the occasional “artsy film” thrown in to maintain his self-respect as an actor. It’s an image McConaughey admits he helped to create and perpetuate, and one he, rightly, does not apologize for. The fact of the matter, however, is that the guy is a modern-day Renaissance Man.

I’m aware that any first-person storytelling, fictional or nonfictional, needs to be read with a tad bit of skepticism regarding the veracity of the story the narrator tells. All people, when telling their own stories, tend to embellish their positive traits and achievements and understate their negative ones. In John Mayer’s song, “Why Georgia,” he asks himself, “Am I livin’ it right?” After reading Greenlights, I’m confident that if there ever was a person who could answer that question in the affirmative, it’s Matthew McConaughey. I absolutely love my life, but if I was ever given the magical opportunity to trade my life for anyone of my choosing, I wouldn’t do it, but I would be tempted to do so with McConaughey.

I and anyone else who bought into that simpleminded characterization of the man as an airheaded doofus could not have been further from knowing the truth of the man. Which is that Matthew McConaughey is a highly-educated, well-read, deep-thinking, soulful philosopher for the everyman. This much more accurate portrait of the man is made abundantly clear in Greenlights.

A traffic light is the extended metaphor that McConaughey uses throughout the book. It suggests that, at various junctures in each of our lives, we arrive at red, yellow, and green lights. At such intersections, it is vital that we understand the significance of the color of the traffic light we face and that we proceed accordingly in order to navigate our lives in a manner that allows us to experience our best life and to be our best selves. In order to do so, McConaughey reminds us that “Life is not a popularity contest. Be brave, take the hill but first, answer the question, ‘What is my hill?'”

Red lights come in many forms: rejections, job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, etc. According to McConaughey, “We all step in shit from time to time. We hit roadblocks, we fuck up, we get fucked, we get sick, we don’t get what we want, we cross thousands of ‘could have done better’s and ‘wish that wouldn’t have happened’s’ in life. Stepping in shit is inevitable, so let’s either see it as good luck, or figure out how to do it less often.” When stopped cold by one of life’s red lights we must “[p]ersist, pivot, or concede. It’s up to us, our choice every time.”

Photo by Davis Sanchez on Pexels.com

Yellow lights are life’s “caution[s], a detour, a thoughtful pause, an interruption, a disagreement, indigestion, sickness, and pain.” They don’t stop us cold but remind us to slow down and proceed with more caution. The good news is that “Red and yellow lights eventually turn green in the rearview mirror.” 

Greenlights, as you would assume, are those moments in life that affirm that we are on the right path and that urge us to continue full steam ahead. They are about “skill: intent, context, consideration, endurance, anticipation, resilience, speed, and discipline. We can catch more greenlights by simply identifying where the red lights are in our life, and then change course to hit fewer of them.” McConaughey implies that there are most likely many more greenlights on the road of life we travel than red or yellow, but many of us are hesitant to accept that Fortune is — more often than not –actually smiling upon us. Perhaps my favorite quotation from the book reflects this idea. McConaughey writes, “I have a lot of proof that the world is conspiring to make me happy.” The same is true for the majority of us, but for some reason, too many of us doubt our good fortune or simply choose to focus harder on our bad.

Photo by Davis Sanchez on Pexels.com

I often surprise people when I tell them I don’t believe in happiness — at least not as a constant state of being. Like an emotion, happiness cannot be sustained; it can only be experienced in fleeting moments. Instead, I believe in joy. I try to identify as many of the the people, things, and experiences that bring me joy and then purposefully pursue them. So, I was thrilled when I read, “If happiness is what you’re after, then you are going to be let down frequently and be unhappy much of your time. Joy, though, is something else.” If I can string enough moments of joy together along the way of the road of life I travel, I figure it’ll come pretty close to a sustained state of happiness.

Technically, Matthew McConaughey’s book is a memoir, but it’s the best self-help book I’ve ever read. I’m going to finish my review with a final bit of advice from this book of Matthew: “So to any of us . . . whatever it is we look up to, whatever it is we look forward to, and whoever it is we’re chasin’. To that I say: Amen. To that I say: Alright, alright, alright. To that I say: Just keep livin’. “

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life: Vol. 12, Brian Marshall

When I began this feature on my blog, my goal was to spotlight two sets of people: 1) family and friends who have had a profound influence on me personally, professionally, or both, and 2) those I’ve encountered along my life’s journey who have devoted their lives to at least one of what I call the “Three A’s”: Adventure, the Arts, or Altruism. One of the first individuals I thought to spotlight was Brian Marshall, a former student of mine at Sandusky Central Catholic from the class of 1996.

Despite my own jock, “There’s no “I” in team!” background, as a classroom teacher, I’ve always been drawn to the nonconformists, independent thinkers, and artistically inclined. Undoubtedly, it takes a significant amount of courage to run downfield on the kickoff team or to take to the wrestling mat, but I marvel at the even greater courage shown by those who are willing to lay themselves bare on a stage and perform as actors and musicians. I think it was in Brian that I first recognized the challenge and beauty of producing and performing in youth theater. I knew he was special then, and he has only further validated my faith in him and hopes for him in his adult life and theatrical career.

By the way. I’m sure I never told him any of that. I should have.

This is Brian in the role of Harry Bright from Mamma Mia! Kera O’Bryon is playing the role of Donna.

My problem in featuring Brian has been twofold: firstly, I have only personally run into him a handful of times over the past twenty-five years, and secondly, he is one of the busiest men in show business. However, to my great joy, Brian recently found a few moments to share some tidbits of his life and career with me through Facebook. He also suggested a title to the post, which wouldn’t be too far off for my own autobiography: “Brian Marshall: Diet Coke and Musical Theater Addict.”

Among the parishioners of Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Sandusky, Brian and his brother Dan, a brilliant playwright, the Education Manager at The Metropolitan Opera in NYC, and one who I hope to feature in the future, are top tier celebrities and parish treasures. For a number of years, they have sung at Christmas Eve masses in angelic harmony. I’ve witnessed mass attendees cry during “Mary, Did You Know,” and with apologies to Andy Williams, I’ve never heard the much-performed “O, Holy Night” ever sung so beautifully as the Marshall brothers’ version. Their rendition is always met with thunderous applause.

Like most people of genuine accomplishment that I know, Brian says he is “TERRIBLE at talking about myself.” He was especially reluctant to discuss his battle with leukemia in his twenties, so I’ll leave that there. The “most exciting thing” — which is far from the truth — that he could think of was that he currently lives in an “1893 train station in downtown Cleveland. Let me help Brian boast.

After SMCC, Brian continued his education at the prestigious and highly thought of among theater professionals Conservatory of Music at Baldwin-Wallace University. He eventually added to his curriculum vitae by earning a Masters degree in Non-Profit Management.

In his 21 years on the stage, Brian has performed in 7 national tours and appeared in over 150 shows. He has also directed 100 shows, most notably with the award-winning Caryl Crane Youth Theatre for whom Brian has served as Artistic Director since 2010. During his tenure with CCYT, he has won first place director’s awards at the Musical Theatre Competitions of America (2021) and first place at the National Performing Arts Festival in Orlando, Florida.

Brian is also the Co-founder, Managing Director, and a frequent actor for the Mercury Theatre Company based in Cleveland, whose vision is to “strive to lead in the creation of wildly innovative works of musical theatre, in theatre training and generating unique programs for using theatre as an inspiration for creative development.” Brian won the Best Actor Award in a Musical for playing the title role in Chaplin, the Musical. According to one review, “Brian Marshall was born for the role and there was nothing humbling about his spot-on and highly entertaining portrayal.”

Here’s a link to The Mercury Theatre Company’s next production, the musical Amelie, in which Brian will be performing:

http://mercurytheatrecompany.org/am%c3%a9lie.html

Break a leg, Brian!

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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There are Islands in Lake Erie.?!

Cover photo is of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island looking west from Kelleys Island.

As my use of multiple forms of end punctuation in the title suggests, the sentence they conclude can be voiced in a declarative (.), interrogative (?), and exclamatory fashion (!).

In the past month, I’ve had two different close acquaintances, not from the immediate area, half-question/half-exclaim, “There are Islands in Lake Erie?!” (Clearly, they hadn’t read my books.) To which, I calmly replied declaratively, “There are islands in Lake Erie.”

I admit that my initial response was surprise at their surprise. On reflection, however, for the first twenty-five years of my own life — although I had lived the entirety of it less than a mile from Sandusky Bay — I had been on the water myself only a couple of times and to any of the islands just once as a child and once as an adult. The islands of the Bass Archipelago may just as well have been the Cyclades of Greece in terms of the likelihood of my visiting them. Sadly, like so many of life’s experiences, one has to be able to afford the time and money required to make the trip in person.

With the recent termination of service by the Goodtime I, the opportunity for many in the area to spend a few hours on the lake and on the islands has been severely diminished. You can read the article below to learn more about how you can help save this Sandusky and Lake Erie treasure.

https://sanduskyregister.com/news/321632/all-hands-on-deck-to-save-the-goodtime/

There are, in fact, many locals who have never been on the lake or to any of its islands. Therefore, why was I so surprised by my acquaintances’ ignorance of their existence? I’m sure some of it is a sensitivity common to those of us who live in the so-called “fly-over states.” Many natives of New York City, for example, are completely dismissive of any island other than Manhattan and believe that all that lies between themselves and Hollywood are endless stretches of wheat and corn fields. The same attitude is not uncommon among West Coasters. We who live in those states are rightfully proud of the unique offerings of our regions, and on one hand, want to share them with the world while, on the other hand, we want to keep them to ourselves. It’s a paradox.

I think another explanation for the lack of awareness of those who didn’t grow up in or ever visit the Great Lakes region is those folks’ perception of what constitutes a lake. Erie, like all of the Great Lakes, could just as easily be identified as an inland sea. For many, however, lakes have only been experienced as relatively-small bodies of water, like many of those found in Minnesota, Michigan, and in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. Personally, having spent my entire life living near Lake Erie, for a body of water to be classified as a lake, the other side cannot be visible when standing on its opposite shore. I’d call that a pond. But now who’s displaying a bit of geographic arrogance?

I have visited all of the major and publicly-accessible Lake Erie islands in American waters: Johnson’s; North Bass, Middle Bass, South Bass, and Kelleys. Like Goldilocks, I’ve tried the various islands on for size. Like her, I’ve found the mean (as in average or central) to fit best. Other than the Confederate Prisoner Cemetery, which is well-worth the visit, Johnson’s Island now consists of mostly private residential lots. South Bass/Put-in-Bay is an extrovert’s playground. Middle and North Bass are perfect getaways from . . . well . . . pretty much everything. For me, Kelleys Island provides just enough of what each of the others offer in spades.

On Kelleys with two of my best friends, the Tavolaccis. They LIVE near Lake Michigan, but they LOVE Lake Erie.

Another reason for my appreciation of the nearby Erie Islands is that I find them to provide excellent settings for a novelist. For one, islands are sexy. They possess an aura of “anything could happen” and “the rules don’t apply.” As Fitzgerald described the parties at Gatsby’s West Egg mansion on Long Island, on islands, adults “conduct[ed] themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks.” Such relaxation of norms makes for plentiful fodder for plot-making. In my most recent novel, Island No. 6, Kelleys Island’s location along one of the Western Hemisphere’s major migratory bird routes, allowed me to explore the potential outcomes of a viral bird flu outbreak and to muse over man’s natural state when all of the conveniences of modern society are stripped away.

This is my Kelleys Island novel.

My final affinity for Kelleys Island is that it has been an ideal location for a writer’s retreat. Whether seated at a bar on a sunny afternoon draining their wi-fi, or as I am as I write this, sitting in a condo while the rain pitter-patters against the skylights, I never fail to find the inspiration and solitude so vital to my creation process.

In closing, if at all possible, I recommend, as the saying goes, you “put an island in your life.” Whether for relaxation, socialization, or inspiration, I promise there is an island to suit your wants. And, just in case you still don’t understand, “There are islands in Lake Erie.”

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life: Vol. 11: Tony Guerra

Eight years ago today, my father-in-law, Tony Guerra, passed away after a brief battle with cancer. A few days later, I had the honor of delivering the eulogy at his funeral. In addition to celebrating a life remarkably well-lived, I hoped to deliver a message to his grandchildren and to challenge them to live a life true to the precepts their grandfather lived by and that he and his wife, Peggy, passed on to their own children and their spouses. I managed to narrow down those precepts to six, which I’d like to share in this post as a reminder to those grandchildren and as a tribute to Tony.

Life Lesson Number 1: No job is too small.  Tony understood the integrity of honest labor. Throughout his lifetime, he worked as much as he could, including well into many evenings, on weekends, and until his deteriorating health made it impossible. After he began working at Lake Erie Welding in 1955, he went nearly nine years before conjuring the nerve to ask for a vacation. As owner/operator, no matter how minor the job, he tried never to tell a customer that “he didn’t have time for it.” He would make time. Nor would he ever accept that a job was beyond his capabilities. With hard work and mechanical ingenuity, he would find a way to get the job done. Many of his jobs were in far-from-pleasant work conditions, as in the packing house or in a furnace at Ford, but in his soul, Tony knew that all work was noble and that, after his faith and his family, it is a man’s work ethic that best defines him. He believed with all of his heart and proved with his deeds that no matter how humble your beginnings, if you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do most anything to which you set your mind.

What began in a garage on Ogontz Street as Lake Erie Welding is today LEWCO, a world-class industrial equipment manufacturer.

Life Lesson Number 2: No favor is too big. There was next to nothing Tony wouldn’t do for someone in need. Many were the times that he gave cash from his own pocket – cash that would have gone a long way at home – to others he knew to be in greater need. More than once, complete strangers have tapped me on the shoulder and told me of a difficult time in their lives when Tony, or Mr. Tony, or Mr. Guerra provided them with a job, or a loan, or some kind of opportunity otherwise unavailable to them. In turn, he never forgot those who helped him along the way.

Life Lesson Number 3: Live, Laugh, and Love.  One of Peggy’s most enviable traits is her ability to slow down and to live in and enjoy life’s moments. More than anyone I have ever known, she understands that the beauty of living is in the little things, in the smallest of details. This truism ran completely counter to Tony’s “get there and get it done” nature; however, whether on the boat or in the car, he sheepishly acquiesced to Peggy’s “Slow down, Tony!” And although he loved to brag to Peggy that he “took her out of poverty and halfway around the world,” it was Peggy who taught Tony the difference between living and living well. LIVE!

Tony’s had an infectious smile that spread from ear to ear. He truly enjoyed people and went out of his way to ensure that everybody felt welcome in his company. Possessed with natural charisma and a magnetic personality, he drew people of all ages and backgrounds to him like none other. LAUGH!

Most likely because he was as comfortable in his own skin and as lacking in pretensions as any person I have ever known, Tony showed a genuine interest in everyone and made friends with remarkable ease. Tony had bosom friends from all walks of life and from all classes of society, but he treated and valued them all equally. Whenever he and Peggy went on vacation, they invariably came home with new friends. And once you were a friend of Tony Guerra’s, you were always his friend, which is proven by the many who were his friends for decades. LOVE!

Tony and Peggy’s wedding day.

Life Lesson Number 4: The test of a truly great man is humility. Tony’s father once told him that “if you see a man coming towards you and you have to cross the street to avoid him, you’re not a very good person.” One point being that a good person maintains a clear conscience and can always look another in the eye. The other point is that the day you think you’re too good for anybody, you’re better than nobody. During his time, Tony graced many ballrooms and boardrooms, but he was never more in his element than when wearing his blue work shirt, with his name on a patch, working the shop floor. Despite the many hard earned rewards of his success, there wasn’t an ounce of arrogance, avarice, ostentation, or snobbery in Tony. Until the end, he lived in the modest three bedroom house he built with his own hands and in which he and Peggy raised their children. He wasn’t perfect, and he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes, but I guarantee you that, in his entire lifetime, Tony Guerra never slunk across the street to avoid another man’s gaze.

Tony is on the right.

Life Lesson Number 5: A man’s greatest reward comes from belonging to groups larger than himself. Nothing mattered more to Tony than family, both the one he was born into and the one he and Peggy created and nurtured together. A person’s greatest inheritance is his name. Tony worked tirelessly not only to protect but also to burnish the good name of Guerra in Sandusky, and he shuddered at the notion of ever tarnishing that same good name. Tony also took great pride in his Sammarinese heritage; in his country; in his Catholic faith and his membership in Sts. Peter and Paul Parish; in being a Sanduskian; in his naval service; in being a Blue Streak; in being a Panther; in being a Buckeye; in being a member of the Elks, the K of C, the Rotary Club, and in serving on the boards of various local entities.

Finally, and I think most importantly, is Life Lesson Number 6: There is no room in life for self-pity. The opportunities to feel sorry for himself were numerous. He began school unable to speak English. As a boy, he was made to butcher the family’s goat, which he had come to love as a pet, for the evening meal. After he had proudly made the high school golf team, his father broke his clubs over his knee. Times were tough. Tony was expected to work, and the time demand of sports participation was a luxury the family couldn’t afford. He saw his sister, Ann, pass away far too young. In the navy, although happily appointed as Company Clerk, he was reassigned and ordered to attend welding school instead. After the service, he toiled long hours for low pay for many years before rising to partnership at Lake Erie Welding, which only resulted in longer hours, After becoming sole owner and recognizing the need for expansion, he was turned down time after time for bank loans. His most reliable customers, the manufacturing plants of Sandusky, closed one after another. He lost all of the fingers on his left hand in machining accidents. He had to have both knees replaced and one hip; and he had open heart surgery and contracted cancer of the esophagus. Despite all of these hardships, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who ever heard him complain or use any of these setbacks as a reason to quit. Self-pity was anathema to Tony Guerra, and the rejection, defeat, and suffering he endured only made his ultimate acceptance, success, and joy that much sweeter in the end.

After her father’s death, my wife, Julie, began quilting specialty quilts to mark special occasions in the lives of the Guerra grandchildren. On each quilt, she includes six stars as reminders of the six lessons I outlined in my eulogy. They are beautiful keepsakes.

To know Tony Guerra was to want never to disappoint the man out of respect for his own lofty self-expectations. As his son-in-law, I continue to strive in all I do to be worthy of his daughter and of his respect. I can only hope that I haven’t disappointed him.

Finally, it was always nearly impossible to think of Tony singly. I mean, I know there was a time before Peggy moved to town when they lived separate lives, but for the majority of their lives, it was always “Tony and Peggy.” On his own, he was larger-than-life. Together, they were a force of nature. Therefore, the world has not been the same these past eight years without him or the amalgam of Tony and Peggy.

It was impossible eight years ago and remains so today to capture the essence of Tony Guerra and his influence on me, his family, and his community with the too few words at my disposal and spoken over too few minutes or included in this post.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Dogged

I’m not what you would call a dog person. I never have been. I didn’t think I ever would be. I have never had anything against dogs nor their owners, and I totally understand and appreciate the relationships and close attachments many folks have with their dogs. I just have never felt the need for a dog in my life.

As a child, I never had a pet of any sort. With up to ten family members living in a three bedroom house, there simply wasn’t room. I don’t remember any of us even having a stuffed animal. To conserve space, we were encouraged to have imaginary friends, and the majority of our “dolls” were one-dimensional paper dolls or baseball cards.

Although my memory is foggy on this point –which should help explain why I should never be responsible for a pet “of any sort” — I think my mom did allow us to have a dog for a short time. He was a stray mutt, who like many humans who came into our house and lives, showed up one day and never seemed to leave. My mother has always had a soft spot for human strays. Anyway, we named the dog “Skeets” after the nickname for Renaldo Nehemiah, who was an Olympic sprinter and football player. I’m pretty sure things did not end well for that dog. He didn’t sprint quite fast enough. I’ll leave it at that.

I only use this photo of my boys as boys to taunt Tanner, the youngest, he is a HUGE Buckeye fan now and hates this photo.

If I’m being totally honest, I’m just not a person who enjoys having a pet of any sort. When my sons were children, we bought them each one of those Tamagotchi virtual pets in the hope of satisfying their desire for an actual one. If the length of my children’s ability to keep their Tamagotchis alive is any measure of how a real pet would have fared under their care, it’s a good bet things wouldn’t have ended well for that theoretical Ty Roth family pet as well. In order to end their occasional begging for a dog, I actually told them I was allergic to “pets,” not specifically dogs, cats, or any other species of animal, but pets in general. This doesn’t place me in Cruella DeVille territory, but it certainly leaves me far from Jim Fowler or Steve Irwin’s neighborhood.

They’d ask, “Dogs?”

“Allergic,” I’d answer.

“Cats?”

“Allergic.”

“Hamster?”

“Allergic.”

“Goldfish?”

“Allergic.”

Looking back on it, it was actually kind of genius.

True to the way children tend to contradict their parents when they become adults themselves, two of my sons now have a dog, and my third will have one as soon he lives somewhere with a lease that allows it. Full disclosure: I’m his current landlord.

Somehow, however, I’ve become one of those people I swore I would never be: the kind who refer to pets in human terms and talking to them as if they were rational, English-speaking beings. I’ve even begun referring to my sons’ dogs as my “grand dogs,” and I often catch myself talking to them in that baby talk tone of voice I use with my actual grandbabies: “You’re such a good girl! Yes, you are!”

Who am I?

My oldest son’s (Taylor) dog is a Goldendoodle named Pippen. He and his fiancé are both college basketball coaches and fans of Scottie Pippen, the former wing man to Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. I, however, just to torment them, call her “Pippin” (with an “i”) after the character of the same name in the kind of creepy, very 70s Broadway musical Pippin.

“Corner of the Sky” is my favorite number from the show, but watching it, I see how it pretty much encapsulates everything musical theater haters hate about musical theater. Look, I get it. You might recognize that William Katt, aka The Greatest American Hero, is playing the role of Pippin.

Pippen’s an excitable, playful, and loving little dog with energy and affection to burn. She regularly boards with us when her “parents” must go out of town, and I love every minute of it.

While we were “babysitting” them both, Pippen refused to leave Charlee’s side when it was her (Pippen’s) bedtime.

My middle son’s (Travis) dog is a golden retriever named Ralph because . . . well . . . he looks like a Ralph. He’s a big lug of a dog that remains a puppy at heart. He has little of Pippen’s energy or excitability, but he’s friendly, gentle, and affectionate. With a human sister in the house, Ralph has had to deal with a little less attention than he’d grown used to, and it hasn’t always gone well. Perhaps, that explains the doggie bed he tore the stuffing out of in the photo above.

Look at that face! It screams, “Ralph.”

Despite my affection for my grand dogs, I still have no plans for one of my own, but I have learned to enjoy playing with them, walking them, and rubbing their bellies. I tend to give them treats they’re not supposed to have, and I generally spoil them like my grandkids.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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On Father’s Day

I intended to let Father’s Day pass without mention, but reading so many moving posts on Facebook dedicated to friends’ fathers caused me to reflect on my own.

My hesitation to write is primarily driven by knowing that several of my family members read my blog regularly, and I’m not sure if my memories of and/or reflections on my father will match their own. The last thing I’d want to do is besmirch whatever image of our dad they may hold. The truth is that he probably wasn’t the same father to each of us spread across sixteen years; therefore, although our memories regarding him may differ, it doesn’t mean any of us are more right or wrong than the others. We all have a right to the memories or the fabrications we need to make sense of our relationship or lack of a relationship with him.

I do not believe it is fair to judge the quality of a man’s fatherhood based upon standards that didn’t exist in his time. Fathers of his generation were breadwinners first, foremost, and in some cases, mostly. It seems like my dad was always at work. I have no memory of hugging my father, telling him I love him or vice versa — ever. I think I used to kiss him goodnight when I was very young, but I’m not totally sure if I’m remembering that or wishing it were the case. By today’s expectations for fathers, such aloofness would be considered harsh and unloving, but I’m willing to bet that it was far more the rule than the exception for folks of my generation.

There was, however, a cost for such child rearing methods. For example, I didn’t cry for my father when I was told he had died. I didn’t cry at his wake or funeral, and I haven’t cried for him since. I don’t think of him much now, and I can’t honestly say that I miss him. All of which may be as much, if not more, of a reflection on me than my dad. I don’t know.

What I do know is that my dad was not a rich man, and every child added to our brood subtracted from the number of life’s experiences and possessions he and my mother could have for themselves, but as a kid, I never wanted for anything. If I was lacking something, I never knew it. Eight children’s tuition was paid to attend Catholic school. Whatever athletic gear or equipment was needed was provided. Christmas gifts were plentiful, and my parents never once complained of their sacrifices — at least not in front of us. The best gift they gave me, however, were my seven siblings. Our house and the lot on the corner of 5th and Marlboro Streets were always full with brothers and sisters and our cousins, friends, and neighbors. Looking back, I may have, in fact, been the richest kid in town.

I’m sure I’ll never be nominated for Father-of-the-Year myself. The one thing I’ve asked my own boys, as they become fathers themselves, is to mimic the things I did/do well as a father and to try to do better with the things at which I failed/fail. My dad didn’t give much fatherly advice or really even talk to me that much, but he did model the one unspoken but ironclad promise I made to my own sons when they were children: “I promise I will be there when you go to bed each night, and I promise I will be there when you get up in the morning.”

My boys.

In between our children’s rising from and retiring to bed, my dad was and I have been far from perfect, but we both kept that singular promise, and I have no doubt that we both have done our best within the confines of our generations’ job descriptions for fatherhood.

Excuse me. I may go have that cry now.

I love you, Dad.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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“Can You See Me?”

Two of my favorite singer/songwriters, Bruce Springsteen and Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows, share a motif: the need for humans to see and be seen. At some point in between songs during many of his concerts, Springsteen will shade his eyes from the spotlights with his hand, or the house lights will go up and he will ask, “Is anybody alive out there?” The line actually appears verbatim in his song “Radio Nowhere.”

Meanwhile Duritz provides a sort of reciprocal query from the object to the subject when he sings, “Have you seen me lately?” in the song of that same title. Similarly, in the song “Insignificant,” Duritz asks the exact question, “Can you see me?” multiple times. The theme of seeing and “being seen” appears again in “Angel of 14th Street” from the Counting Crows new EP Butter Miracle in which Duritz repeatedly asks some version of “Do we need a light on.”

As a typically overly-sensitive middle child (In my case the 4th of 8 siblings) and as a person of nondescript features and average talents, I’ve related to and struggled with this notion of wanting/needing to be seen and validated all of my life. I know. It sounds a bit pathetic. But I don’t think I’m all that rare in my need. In fact, I believe it’s one of the motivations that led me and, most likely, many others to become teachers, where every day of the school year, I/we stand in front of students who have no choice but to see me/us, listen to me/us, and even occasionally validate me/us as somebody with something worthy of saying.

I, furthermore, have no doubt that the need to be seen and validated is a primary motivation for my novel writing, blogging, and my presence on Facebook. I admit that I’m terrible at self-validation. These forums occasionally blow up in my face in the form of negative reviews, counter-argument, or worst of all, the absence of interest, but I persist because, for me, being rejected is far preferable to being neglected. Even if you hate my ideas, at least I know that you know I exist. I was once taught in a class on human behavior that physical abuse is less damaging to a child than neglect, for the abused child feels their abuser at least cares enough about them to abuse them. The neglected child feels invisible or as if they do not even exist.

Perhaps, that is why I have such a strong affinity for students and people, in general, who are independent thinkers and livers, who with Thoreauvian confidence and courage march to the beat of their own drummer. (I have for so long wanted to use “Thoreauvian” in a typed sentence.). I spotlight some of these folks in the “Some of the People in My Life” feature on this blog: https://tyroth.com/category/some-of-the-people-in-my-life/. I admire them. I envy them. I truly wish I were one of them, but I know that I desperately need to be seen and to be validated by others in order to know I exist and matter.

The Ladies of the Lake Book Club were tremendous hosts and source of affirmation for me during a Covid-era visit.

If you’ve read this far, thank you so much, but please understand that my purpose in this blog post is not to “fish for compliments.” My purpose is to lay myself open and vulnerable before anyone who is willing to see me – an act that grows increasingly easier as I age – with the hope of recognizing our common humanity and as a way of reasserting the notion of psychiatrist Thomas A. Harris that even with all of our faults and foibles, “I’m Ok — You’re OK.”

“Is anybody alive out there?”

“Can you see 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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Summer “Vacation?”

As a school teacher, I’m often asked what I’m going to do during my summer vacation. When the question emanates from non-teachers, it is often tinged with a touch of jealousy or maybe it’s vicariousness or maybe both. I think these folks expect me to say that I will be lying poolside on a chaise lounge with constantly-replenished cool drinks. To be honest, I will do my share of that exact form of relaxation and other similar activities.

My friend Chris and I at Dockers, our favorite summer spot on Kelleys Island.

However, I will also spend nearly every other available minute I can spare either conducting research for or writing what I hope will be my next novel. That is the best answer to what am I going to do with my summer.

My first memory of actually vocalizing my desire to be a writer occurred when I was thirteen. I remember I surprised myself when I said it. Like most childhood dreams, however, I put it aside and settled for what I thought was the next best thing: being paid to read from great writers and to talk about their works with students. I became the poster boy for my most hated of adages: “Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach.” For over twenty years that snarky bullshit grinded my gears until – after surrendering all of my coaching duties and completing my masters in English Literature – I grew determined to prove it wrong. The experience that most validated that determination occurred when I was invited to the University of Central Florida’s Author’s Festival, where I sat in on a panel discussion with the great Ellen Hopkins, author of multiple YA bestselling novels (Crank, Perfect, Impulse, etc.) and met Lauren Goff, whose novels and short story collections (Arcadia, Fates and Furies, Delicate Edible Birds, and Florida) have earned her the respect of critics as one of the finest literary novelists of her generation.

Over the past fourteen years, I’ve managed, somehow, to write nine complete novels (only three of which have been published), one partial that I’ve more or less abandoned, and my current Work-in-Progress, which currently sits at around 30,000 words. The vast majority of these projects were completed during summer months. I pick at them during the school year, but I spend so much creative energy just trying to motivate my students and to convince them of the value of what I ask them to read and write that there is very little left in my tank at the end of the day for creative writing.

What further complicates the writing process is that, as any serious artist of any genre knows, Art is an exhausting mistress. In my case, she demands more of my time and energy than I can reasonably devote to her and still fulfill the many other roles I play, responsibilities I carry, and time and attention I owe to the people in my life. Any turn of my attention away from her sends her sulking into a corner of my mind from where she constantly reminds me of my need to return and to tend to her: “You really should be writing,” she goads me. Even as I compose this blog post, her arms are crossed, her bangs are being uplifted with repeated puffs of exasperated air, and her eyes roll at my wasting of her precious time.

In order not to reduce myself to some stereotype of a novelist as an anti-social, solipsistic, work-consumed, tortured artist who drinks too much, I have to write in bursts whenever a window of time not already promised to or required by someone or something else opens. Whenever the rare three-hour block of time to devote to sustained writing presents itself, I seize it, but such periods are the exception, not the rule.

A more recent photo of me in my writing space.

I imagine both the quality and quantity of my writing would increase exponentially should I commit myself and my time exclusively to writing and to a hermit’s existence. And maybe it would pay off in both critical and financial success. For me, however, that price is too high. My Art will have to remain my part-time mistress, for I am in no way ready or willing to give up all she necessitates to be married to her.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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NYC vs. Chicago

I love big cities. But I have to admit that I love them in a romantic way only someone who has never actually lived in a big city could love them. Nevertheless, there’s something about the energy of big city life that appeals to me, which may very well be the common experience of glamorizing and wanting what I don’t have. I am, however, especially drawn to their energy, the diversity of the people, the abundance of cultural experiences, and the possibility that the most unpredictable thing could happen at any moment.

NYC in the background looking north from near Hudson Yards.

As a lifelong resident of Ohio, I love all of our Big Cs: Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Each of them are unique and offer a variety of big city-like experiences, but many of the citizens of any of them might describe their home city as a “big small town,” which is in no way meant to be pejorative. By population, Columbus is only the 15th largest city in the U.S. while neither Cleveland or Cincinnati crack the top 50. Therefore, it would be unfair to compare them with the largest of U.S. cities.

With apologies to the many American metropolises which I have either never visited or spent enough time in to form an opinion, when I think of cities, it is New York and Chicago that come to mind for two reasons: 1) with the possible exception of Philadelphia, these are first and second cities of America, and 2) they are the two I have visited often enough to have conjured somewhat-informed appraisals. Therefore, with the caveat that my experience in NYC is limited to Manhattan and my time in Chicago has mostly been spent inside of its various downtown loops, allow me to provide an entirely-subjective analysis of the two cities and to humbly name my preference between the two in regard to the factors that matter most to me.

Pizza. Other than the monstrosities labeled “fruit pizza” or “vegetable pizza,” I’ve yet to encounter a style of pizza I do not enjoy. I am on record as declaring I could eat pizza seven days a week, and should I ever be in a situation as to request a meal that I know will be my last, it will definitely be some variety of pizza. Both New York and Chicago styles of pizza are excellent and served in a such a manner that a single slice of either could be a meal in and of itself. That is if I ever had the willpower to limit myself to just one slice. Chicago style pizza is a true “pizza pie,” thick and stuffed with deliciousness that requires a fork to eat; whereas, the New York style is thin, covered in melted cheese, and dripping in grease. I love them both, but I like to hold my pizza in my hands and for my money, I prefer New York.

photo credit: Laugh at First Site

Mass Transit. For me, the ease and convenience of NYC’s subway system – only equaled by D.C.’s – is a major point in its favor. Despite warnings to the contrary, I have found the subway cars to be as clean and safe as could ever be fairly expected of a system that daily transports so many people. In fact, on more than one occasion – when I found myself wearing a rube-like expression staring at a ticket station or a wall map of subway lines – a random New Yorker has kindly helped me navigate my way. It’s true that my good Samaritans may have been more motivated by just wanting to get me the f#@* out of their way than by altruistic neighborliness, but either way, they helped get me to where I was going. Yes, the cars can get uncomfortably hot in the summer and super-uncomfortably crowded during any season; whereby, choosing to take a seat will most likely result in trying to avoid staring at or getting too strong of a whiff of the crotches of a multitude of strangers whose nether regions regularly invade your “safe-space” as the trains navigate turns on the tracks or rock back and forth.

As for Chicago’s L trains, mostly because I typically drive to Chicago, I have had far fewer opportunities to ride them. The fact that I pretty much either need a car when in Chicago or to be constantly calling for an Uber or Lyft, is in itself a demerit against it. When I have taken the L trains, I have found them to be less crowded but more confusing to decipher, dirtier, and my fellow riders to be a bit more imposing. With the acknowledgment of a limited experience utilizing Chicago’s mass transit system, I’m declaring a preference for NYC in this category.

Theater. I love theater almost as much as I love pizza. NYC has the largest theater district in the world and a large number of off-Broadway opportunities to view theatrical productions of every ilk imaginable. Therefore, it’s a bit unfair to compare any city’s theater scene with NYC’s. I have attended a number of productions in various Chicago venues and have loved every one of those experiences. Let me add that few people, however, realize that Cleveland actually has the second largest theater district in the United States with ten fully-operational performance spaces. In the theater category, NYC claims the gold, Cleveland the silver, and Chicago the bronze medal.

Running. I make it a point to go for a run in every place I visit. I absolutely love jogging through Central Park alongside other runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and horse drawn carriages. If I’m not careful, I find myself sightseeing and staring up at the skyscrapers that surround the park in a way that makes me a nuisance to others and a danger to myself. Even still and admittedly somewhat due to my affinity for the Great Lakes, I prefer the run along various stretches of Chicago’s lakeshore to my adventures in Central Park. The view of Chicago’s skyline is breathtaking while Lake Michigan offers its own scenic wonders and provides occasional cooling breezes. I’m going with Chicago on this one.

Not running in the photo, but you can see Chicago’s magnificent skyline in the background.

The People. It’s a bit ridiculous to even attempt to lump millions of people into such simplistic categories as New Yorkers or Chicagoans, so I’m going to declare a draw on this one and simply state what I like about being immersed among each of them. I find New Yorkers fascinating in their gruffness, arrogance, sense of entitlement, toughness, weirdness, and big-heartedness. Chicagoans I like because they are familiar to me as Midwesterners. They possess a kid sibling sense of being overlooked and underappreciated in comparison to NYC and various southern and coastal cities that I can relate to, but they know who they are and apologize to no one for it. If you give it time, a midwestern niceness will almost always eventually seep through their defensive and thick skins.

Two of my best friends, Chris and Christine Tavolacci, are native Chicagoans and two of the most beautiful human beings I know.

Although these are surface-level comparisons not based on an overabundance of data or firsthand experience and probably not worth much to anyone, these are my thoughts on comparing New York City with Chicago. Thanks to having family and/or friends in both locations, I hope to visit both with some regularity in the post-pandemic era that awaits.

My brother Kevin is a dean at Columbia University and lives in Manhattan.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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“Learning to Fly” Over the Political Divide

I recently viewed and became enamored with a 2006 video of Tom Petty singing “Learning to Fly.” What has so captivated me about the video is not just that it’s an amazingly well-written and performed song but that during the audience participation section near the end damn-near every person in the audience claps in unison and joins in the refrain with the type of full-throated joy found — and perhaps only possible — in communal participation and celebration. It is a type of shared joy, participation, and celebration that has been rendered nearly extinct in modern America — certainly exacerbated by Covid-19 restrictions — but mostly due to our political divide, one which too many of us either refuse to or have forgotten how to fly above and cross.

If you don’t want to watch the entire video, FF to the audience participation section at 3:00.

Similar euphoric experiences of united behavior may be found today at a Trump rally or a BLM march, but those are sub-cultural gatherings in which a large portion of the satisfaction found in such participation is derived from what participants are against and to whom they are opposed rather than in a spirit of nurturing the general good. I’m not suggesting that either of these events are inappropriate but that we all need to recognize that our larger allegiance must be to one another as members of a community whose strength is in its diversity. It is vital that we remind ourselves that many once-great institutions and nations have been laid low, not by external assaults but by fractures opening from within. We must consciously choose to disprove the warped take on Commodore Oliver Perry’s famous declaration that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Occasionally, I hear zealots (I loathe zealots of any sort.) speak of Americans being already engaged in or on the brink of a sort of civil war, and it makes me cringe. Let me remind them that there is no such thing as a “civil” war. That word-pairing is an oxymoron, with an emphasis on “moron,” and a statement of mocking irony directed at anyone who promulgates civil war of any sort. Sadly, we live in and too many of us contribute to a political climate in which being willing to compromise or to build consensus is perceived as weakness, but we can’t have all things our way all the time, and we can’t continue to view those who disagree with us as our personal rival or as enemies to our country. We don’t have to fly our flags, don our hats, or wear our partisan t-shirts all of the time. To do so is to keep your hands on the sledgehammer of divisiveness that is driving the wedge between us as Americans. In an ideal America, not only would we unclench our fists and stop shouting at one another but also open our ears and listen to what those who think differently than we do have to say. I’m not asking anyone to change their ideology, just to recognize others’ right to their own opinions, values, and beliefs. The possession of which does not make them the enemy nor deserving of scorn.

When I was a football coach, my players competed fiercely against one another daily for starting jobs, but on Friday nights, they united as a team. As citizens of a democracy, during election cycles we should compete vigorously against one another for the primacy of the ideals we hold dear, but once the election is over, we must be able to reunite as a country in common cause. If teenage athletes can do it, why can’t adults?

Every spring, I go on a guys’ camping weekend with my brothers-in-law and our boys. The politically right-leaning among the campers far outnumber the left-leaning, who are easily identified as me and whichever of my kids is able to join us. During the trip, politics are typically set aside, and if they are discussed at all, it is with respect for the others’ point-of-view. Although I disagree with them on nearly every political subject and social issue and they with me, we all agree that the greater good of preserving family cohesion far outweighs engaging in political arguments that may cause fractures within that family structure. We love, value, and respect one another even if we don’t view the world in the same fashion. Similarly, Republicans and Democrats alike, need to remind ourselves that our first allegiance is to our country, not our party.

Not exactly roughing it but about as primitive as I ever want to go.

Finally, when I watch that Petty video, I see an audience that is most certainly comprised of people who can be placed all across the political spectrum from far right to far left to everywhere in between, yet for a few hours, they are united in their love of good music, and for the enjoyment and betterment of all in attendance, they leave their partisan flags, hats, t-shirts, and attitudes at home and set aside their differences and sing along with one voice. It’s possible that this is one of the primary functions of the arts in society and that, once we arrive back at closer to normal in the post-pandemic world, the arts will help to salve the wounds we’ve inflicted upon one another in recent years of political acrimony by providing us opportunities for collective joy and celebration.

We are approaching an inflection point in the American experiment with democracy, and the whole world and posterity is watching. It’s time we return the zealots to the periphery and find common ground in moderation. If we do not, I fear for my grandchildren. Will we leave them one indivisible nation or has that ship of a united state already sailed? Either we “learn to fly” above our political differences or we may fall from the nest and break our wings on the hard ground of factional partisanship.

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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What’s Your Pronoun?

The English language has long had its peculiarities and weaknesses. Like all things, however, it is an evolving entity that seeks to accurately reflect the culture of the moment. No matter how much elitist grammarians wish to impose their dominance over the language, it is the people who ultimately determine what is acceptable usage, and if the people wish to split their infinitives — as I did in the previous sentence by wedging “accurately” in between the infinitive “to” and its verb “reflect” — there’s ultimately little the grammar ideologues can do about it except to choose to “Roll with the Changes” as REO Speedwagon once encouraged us all to do. Language, in fact, may be the most democratic of all social conventions.

They just don’t write them like this anymore. I’m a sucker for an organ solo in the middle of a rock song.

Similarly, most societies have long maintained strict definitions regarding gender assignation, but many are rolling with the changes and slowly opening their minds to what philosophers, artists, psychologists, rock and rollers, and openminded folks have long intuited, argued, and demonstrated: To limit the designation of gender to anatomy is both simpleminded and false. A person’s gender is as much the product of choices and behaviors as it is a reflection of what does or does not dangle between his or her thighs. (I apologize for the indelicacy of the previous sentence. I swear that sometimes my fingers start to dance across the keyboard as if they have a collective mind of their own, and they detour around the rather porous filter in between my brain and fingers to transpose my thoughts — raw and crude — into words.)

Shakespeare, for example, was bending gender in his plays over four hundred years ago. A regular trope of his was to have his female characters (being played by male actors as was the practice of the day) “cross-dress” as male characters, which, of course, the actors portraying them actually already were. Take a moment to wrap your brain around that and let the hilarity ensue. Were Shakespeare and his plays merely the victims of a convention that disallowed for female actors? I think not. To do so would be an unforgivable underestimation of Shakespeare’s genius. Rather, I believe he was fully intentional in his brazen display of gender fluidity as his actors quite easily and believably traded their “parts.”

My Shakespeare “action” figure as he stands on my classroom podium.

Similarly, in The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” “Jack is in his corset // Jane is in her vest,” and in the Kinks’ “Lola,” when Lola walked like a woman but talked like a man,” these songs were subtle pleas for tolerance and acceptance of gender fluidity and in no way meant to be derisive. Both Lou Reed and Ray Davies were decades ahead of their time; although, I was not perceptive or mature enough to realize it as I sang these tunes at the top of my lungs at college parties.

The terms used for pronoun and gender assignation have been on a collision course for years and have finally crashed at the corner where the avenues of Intolerance and Compassion intersect. It is becoming increasingly polite and necessary to ask a newly-encountered applicant or acquaintance, “What is your preferred pronoun?” At which point, the vast majority of folks will stick to the traditional gendered pronouns (he/him/his or she/her/hers); however, a growing number prefer non-binary terms, such as the use of the plural “they/them” to indicate a singular person or “ze/zir in the place of he/she or his/her.” In so many ways, this runs contrary to what so many of the good Sisters of Notre Dame taught me in language arts. They were, however, as I have since learned, innocently wrong about so many other things that I’ll just chalk this up as another.

I’m not stupid. I can see how such demands for non-gendered identifiers is rife for satire of political correctness run amok. However, I’m also aware that my mother taught all of her kids the simple admonition to “be nice.” For me, then, asking for and respecting someone’s personal pronoun choice is more a matter of being nice than it is some sort of statement of one’s political leanings. It certainly doesn’t cost me much time or effort to be sensitive to and respectful of another’s preferences and feelings.

When such paradigm shifts are asked of us, we are often reluctant to comply to the changes. In my experience, there is no better catalyst for accepting such shifts in our ways of thinking and behaving than actually knowing someone who is being marginalized by whatever is the current standard belief or practice. For example, I’ve known more than a few chauvinistic men who suddenly became ardent supporters of issues pertaining to female equality — if not exactly outright feminists –upon the birth of their daughter(s). In my case, my sensitivity to and support for gender neutral pronouns has grown exponentially by witnessing courageous students and relatives who, despite the difficulty of doing so, identify as and live their lives as non binary or transgender persons.

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Some of the People in My Life: Volume 10, Lucas Kennedy & Bobby Good – Living Lives Less Ordinary

By the time we reach our late twenties to early thirties, the majority of us have already made most of life’s momentous decisions regarding careers, where to call home, life partners, children, etc. At which point, we merge onto life’s heavily-traveled highways and switch our lives over into cruise control and then, to varying degrees of satisfaction and fulfillment, stay within the confines of those white lines for the remainder of our life’s journey. Some folks — soon after slipping into the flow of traffic –find themselves trapped, and in order to escape, they must abruptly change lanes and risk causing all sorts of havoc in the traffic pattern of those who’d been traveling with them, including leaving some wrecked alongside the road.

There are some — not many — however, who — before it’s too late — resist the cruise control button and, anticipating the safe but predictable drive ahead or simply wanting to explore a different path, skillfully maneuver their way out of the patterned traffic before it’s too late and make their way to an exit and an adventure far from the well-traveled highway. Two such risk-takers and skilled drivers are my colleagues, friends, and beautiful souls: Lucas Kennedy and Bobby Good.

Lucas Kennedy

After completing his sixth year of secondary math instruction at Port Clinton High School and working through ISS Schrole Advantage, Lucas has accepted a teaching position at the George Washington Academy in Casablanca, Morocco, of classic movie fame. When I asked him why, Lucas said, after living his entire life in a small town, it was time to “switch it up,” to get out of his “comfort zone,” and to travel to exotic places. Although Lucas admits his current life includes “great people, a great home, and work I enjoy,” it was a good life [not great life], and he had settled for the “familiar, comfortable, and routine.” He could see the road he was traveling and, sadly, predict exactly what lie ahead on that road. Still in his late twenties, Lucas says, “I was slowly turning into a 60-year-old version of me that I didn’t want to be.”

Lucas Coaching Football.

In his own words: “I’m at a point in my life where I am confident enough to throw up a middle finger to that 60-year-old me who lived a comfortable life and say that I am coming for more . . . I want to be more. I want to see more. I want to do more. And I know that all of what I want in life is in my control. My life is a result of the decisions and actions I make . . .. So I’ve decided to sprint towards being am adventurer-extrovert-outdoorsmen-photographer with many other talents and interests. I’ll chase the comforts later in life.”

Although young, Lucas is not naive and admits, “I have spurts of anxiety, leaving . . . . friends, family, and work. It’s a really good life. However, I don’t feel as if there’s a lot of risk.” He concedes that “Port Clinton is truly special . . .. Six years ago, it was just a town down the road from where I grew up. Now and forever, Port Clinton is my home.”

Annie, Kerri, and Lucas.

Lucas will be sorely missed in Port Clinton as a friend, coach, and teacher, but this life choice may be the best lesson he has or ever will teach: We all only have one life, and before we decide to settle down and, perhaps, share it with others, it’s necessary to live selfishly for a while so that, when the time comes to merge into the mainstream, we can do so contentedly with our eyes ahead able to enjoy the drive without looking ruefully at all of the missed exits.

“Here’s looking at you, kid. We’ll always have [Port Clinton].

BOBBY GOOD

Bobby has been the engineering technology instructor at PCHS for eleven years. He’s every woman’s dream: the good-with-his-hands, tall, dark, and handsome contractor/designer type as seen on HGTV.

A Face Made for HGTV.

This July, Bobby; his wife, Pookie; and two children are moving to Bangkok, Thailand, where he will be teaching at the VERSO International School setting up a robotics program and Makerspace, which according to weareteachers.com is a “room that contains tools and components, allowing students to enter with an idea and leave with a complete project. The best part is that makerspaces are communal. The goal is to work together to learn, collaborate, and share. Most importantly, makerspaces allow us to explore, create new things, or improve things that already exist.” These are two programs Bobby has pioneered at PCHS with great success.

As to his motivation for making such a life-altering move, Bobby says, “My wife is from Thailand and it’s always been our dream to move there with the kids. As Americans we often say we’re German, Italian or part this and that. We buy DNA tests to confirm or to our surprise realize our ancestry. Are we really these things though? So few of us continue any traditions or speak any of the languages of our distant relatives. I’m no different. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of my great grandfathers coming to the US, where they’re from and so on. This opportunity gives my children that connection which so many of us have lost but desire . . . Providing my children with this level of awareness of the world around them is a priority of mine.”

The Beautiful Family of Bobby Good.

I was inspired by Bobby’s answer when I asked if he felt as if he were “running to” or “running from something”: “I suppose we all are running to or from something. If I dig down deep inside, I’d say I’m running from the comfortable routine.” Like many in education and other fields, Bobby feels he has become enslaved by his own successes: “I’ve designed a makerspace, learned new equipment, implemented new teaching practices, found new student projects and started and participated in so many extra curricular activities. I feel the weight of what I have accomplished heavy on my shoulders as I’ve continued in my position.” Unlike most, however, Bobby appears brave enough to steer toward that exit I mentioned in the introduction and correctly — I think — recognizes there are risks involved, but there are also many who are “politely envious, wishing they could escape to an adventure but feel the restraint of their spouses, career, family ties, or taking a big leap.”

Like Lucas, Bobby is keenly aware of what he is leaving behind: “It’s accurate to say our closest friends are our family. We’re going to miss annual clam bakes, family gatherings, Thanksgivings, Halloweens, weddings, birthdays, births, surgeries and funerals. This will weigh heavy on our minds.” For now, however, Bobby is clearly content with his decision: “My wife is from Thailand and it’s always been our dream to move there with the kids.” And I especially love this: “Seizing this opportunity will keep me uncomfortable. Right where I want to be.” Brilliant, Bobby!

Both Lucas and Bobby will be greatly missed, but I say, good on ya, boys! As I once wrote, “If all I ever did in life was what was safe and without risk, what would I ever do?” You both inspire me to , as Carbon Leaf sings, “live a life less ordinary.”

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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Special Needs

English novelist Mark Haddon has written two of my favorite novels: A Spot of Bother and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The latter novel is frequently included on lists of the best novels of the 21st century, and it is one I teach in both my high school and university-level English literature courses.

One reason I include it is that it makes for great discussion regarding reliable vs. unreliable narration as, Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old with Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis placing him on the autism spectrum, provides the point-of-view from which the story is told. Another reason for teaching the novel is that, thematically, it addresses the issue of “othering” or humans’ seemingly irresistible need to identify “We” vs. “They” on life’s scoreboard.

However, what I like best about The Curious Incident, is that Christopher himself never identifies himself as “suffering” from Asperger’s. In fact, he never mentions that word or autism. Instead, he shares that he possesses “behavioral problems” and at one point conducts and shares a brutally-honest self-inventory of his own, which range from the minor to the quite serious. I openly share with my students a few of my many behavioral problems (a quick temper, an inattention to detail, rashness in decision making, a reluctance towards emotional intimacy, the list goes on and on and on), and I encourage them to conduct a similarly-frank inventory of their own as a first step towards admitting them and, hopefully, ameliorating them.

Christopher also balks at being assigned the description as possessing “special needs,” for as he points out, everyone has special needs be it for eyeglasses, hearing aids, or something as innocuous as cream in their coffee. From his perspective, special needs, like autism itself, occur on a spectrum; therefore, it should not be a matter of separating ourselves into camps of those who suffer from them and those who do not but a realization that we all appear somewhere on the gamut of so-called special needs, and we are only differentiated by degree.

On the micro level, the novel, like Christopher, asks us to reconsider our attitudes toward folks with clinically-diagnosed special needs. On the macro level, it wants us to reconsider the many ways we needlessly seek to label and to build divisive walls between ourselves based on other identifiers as well, including race, ethnicity, political party, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

My final thematic reason for reading the novel with my students is for how it illustrates the work of developmental psychologist Howard Gardener and his famous identification of Multiple Intelligences through which he champions the notion that there are many different kinds of intelligence beyond that which is obtained and demonstrated through formal education, and, perhaps, we, as a society, overemphasize and overvalue such “learned” intelligence. Here’s a simplified listing of those Multiple Intelligences:

  • Naturalist Intelligence = Understanding living things and reading nature
  • Musical Intelligence = Discerning sounds, their pitch, tone, rhythm, and timbre
  • Logical-Mathematical = Quantifying things, making hypotheses and proving them
  • Existential = Tackling the questions of why we live and why we die
  • Interpersonal = Sensing people’s feelings and motives
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic = Coordinating your mind with your body
  • Linguistic = Finding the right words to express what you mean
  • Intra-personal = Understanding yourself, what you feel, and what you want
  • Spatial = Visualizing the world in 3-D

I ask my students to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing the least proficiency and 5 the most. The purpose of which is twofold: one, to show them that we are all intelligent in our own ways, and two, to try to convince them to match their areas of intellectual strength with future college majors and/or career choices. As the character Spur says in the movie The Man from Snowy River (for my money one of the greatest PG-rated, romantic films ever made), “Don’t throw effort after foolishness.” By way of example, it would have been foolish for me, a person who ranks his Mathematical Intelligence as average or below, to pursue a career in engineering or accounting. Conversely, I rank my Existential Intelligence quite highly, which made forging a living and career from reading and teaching literature a fitting and endlessly-rewarding choice.

Oh! One more reason we read The Curious Incident is that it is a fun and fast read, especially compared to the stuffy 19th century English novels of Austen, Dickens, Hardy, etc. All of which are typical fare in English lit. courses and that I love, but I’m an English major. Such novels are not the most effective means for turning Twitter-loving teens into page turning readers.

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 Lesson Learned or A Teacher Tricked?

I teach a class in subversive American literature for Ashland University at PCHS. In the course, we read texts whose themes focus on nonconformity, undermining authority, and protest, including Chopin’s The Awakening, the poetry of Langston Hughes, Kerouac’s On the Road, Heller’s Catch-22, and many more. Among the “many more,” is Melville’s classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which provides a master’s class in passive disobedience.

The story is set in the mid-19th century. Bartleby works as a scrivener (copyist) in a law office. It is dull, soul-sucking work. One day, when asked by his employer to copy a document, Bartleby calmly responds, “I would prefer not to.” He shows no further disrespect or acrimony, but as the plot continues, he repeats the phrase, “I would prefer not to,” to every request his employer makes of him. I can’t help but believe everyone of us would love – just once – to respond, “I would prefer not to” to our bosses’ or our lives’ demands. Ultimately, things don’t end well for Bartleby, but at least he took a stand and willingly faced the consequences for doing so.

Whenever I discuss the themes of nonconformity or “fighting city hall” with my students, I emphasize that both of these choices come with repercussions. The nonconformist is typically marginalized by society and the subversive punished by an authority figure. In other words, I warn them to exercise either at their own risk. In the end, most of us most of the time choose to go along in order to get along.

Now, you need to understand that this class is full of the academically best and brightest of our senior class. They are teacher-pleasers all. Some of them could probably rattle off their cumulative GPA down to the one thousandth of a point. I’d be surprised if any of them have ever served a detention, and prior to last week, their next act of nonconformity or serious subversion would be their first. I have to admit, somewhat ashamedly, that what’s left of the teenage rebel in me occasionally reveled in rubbing their faces in their “Goody Two-Shoes” reputations. All of which leads me to the question found in the title of this post.

I dare you to find anything more “80s” than Adam Ant singing and dancing to “Goody Two-Shoes.”

Last week, I assigned a take home test for their semester exam grade. For an hour, I labored while composing a question that required two complete paragraphs to pose and demanded a minimum of five hundred words in response. It was a summative assessment of rhetorical beauty. Although I was not looking forward to spending the succeeding Saturday grading the exams, I was looking forward to the students expressing their understanding of subversion and nonconformity and the place of both in America’s past, present, and future appropriately supported by references to the various texts we read and my accompanying lectures.

You can imagine my stupefied reaction when I opened the first exam doc., and instead of finding the five hundred+ words I requested, I saw four: “I’d prefer not to.” I proceeded to page through the remaining fifteen exams. They all read, “I’d prefer not to,” which left me in a quandary. If I chose to assign them failing exam grades, each of their final grades would have fallen two complete levels. An “A” would have become a “C,” and a “C” would have become an “F.”

My first thought was to write on their exams, “Great! “I would prefer not to” have to grade all of these exams on a Saturday anyway. Instead, I awarded them each a 95% and wrote, “Well Played!”

My reasoning for arriving at this assessment was threefold. Firstly, they illustrated that they had learned and fully understood the risk inherent to subversion. Remember, this was their college transcripts that these students were playing with, not some measly unit test. After fifteen weeks of long readings, essay assignments, and lectures, they were willing to throw all of that away in this one act. Secondly, at a time in our society when it’s nearly impossible to convince sixteen people to agree on just about anything, they impressively managed to build a unanimous bloc that acted in complete concert with one another; although, they are not necessarily a group of close friends. Thirdly, they knew me well enough and trusted me enough to believe that I would appreciate the bold brilliance of their play and not punish but reward them for it.

Going forward, I hope that they will always remember the risk they took and that it was worth it. I hope that, in the future, should circumstances ever require them to act subversively in the furtherance of a good cause or in the attempt to stop an evil one, they will have the courage to do so. I hope that – even if they lack the courage to act subversively when justly called for – they will appreciate the efforts of those who do, always with the knowledge that dissent is not the same as disloyalty.

As for me, the more I thought of their act of subversion, the more proud of them I grew. They had actually put into practice what I had preached. Not to brag, but what better affirmation of my own effectiveness as a teacher? They really had been listening!

I know one short story, however, that will NOT be included in next year’s syllabus. “Fool me once . . ..”

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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“To SenIoRs With Love”

Dear ,

This is a letter, an antiquated means of communication with which I suspect you are not very familiar. Thirty-five years ago, I used to write love letters to my now wife as I was courting her (another antiquated notion). She still has them, and they somehow continue to resonate in a way that, sadly, the truncated text messages you share with the people you love never will, and that’s if they survive at all. It makes me sad to think you will probably never write nor receive a real love letter other than the treacle written by proxy on some greeting card.

So, as you stand on the precipice of graduation, I want to write you a love letter – of sorts — for like most teachers and despite any appearances to the contrary, I truly do love all of my students, past and present. If I didn’t love my students, I could not love teaching as I do. I sincerely hope I wore my love for teaching, for literature, and for you “upon my sleeve” as Shakespeare wrote. And, although you are about finish your high school careers, like all of my former students, which now number around four thousand, none of you will ever graduate from the chambers of my heart. Your faces will change, and in the future, I may struggle to put your names with them, but I will never forget nor take for granted the time we spent together and the many ways you helped me to make sense of myself and the world and how you have managed to keep my faith in young people and hope for a better future perpetually alive.

As I typically do at this time of year, I feel I need more time with you. I do not feel as if I have passed on enough of what I believe you will need to know as you begin your slow detachment from the safe confines of family, high school, and hometown. I’m not even sure I know what you need to know to navigate successfully the waters of this 21st century. The world you’re entering at eighteen is very different from the one I stumbled into forty years ago at your age, not better or worse, just different, but, I believe, many of the lessons I attempted to share with you this year are timeless and of considerable value.

Me at 18 in my graduation garb.

Therefore, before you move on, I’d like to reiterate a few of those lessons mostly gleaned from literature and urge you to carry them with you into your adulthood: 1) In life, we mostly get the monsters we deserve – the vast majority of the problems and stresses we face are of our own creation; 2) Life’s challenges are constant; therefore, when you overcome one, take time to luxuriate in it, then move on, not resting too long on your laurels, for the next challenge is already in queue; 3) There’s no one way or right way to forge a life. Whichever path you decide to take (even if it’s a ride on the people mover), be sure it is one of your own conscious selection or, better yet, forging, then live the hell out of it; 4) Your body belongs solely to you; no one has a right to impose their will upon it without your carefully considered, full, and clearly given consent; this is also true of your mind. Cherish them both and guard them well. 5) It’s a big world full of fascinating places and people; go see it for yourself; 6) The religious, political, racial, nationalistic, and economic walls of exclusion, often built by well-intentioned people, must be torn down with the velvet sledgehammer of tolerance; 7) Blind faith in anything or anyone is lazy, ignorant, and dangerous; reasoned faith is beautiful and unshakable; 8) Make an effort to figure out what YOU believe, what YOU value, where YOU stand, and once you figure them out, don’t be afraid to change if YOU feel you must; 9) Love (verb form/action word) music, knowledge, sports, cooking, whatever, etc. Most importantly, love people in their infinite variety, but not just the ones who are easy to love; 10) Do your best to be good, but if you can’t be good, don’t get caught.

The lessons I’d like you to draw from the writing and research we conducted are just as valuable: 1) There’s no such thing as a final draft; there just comes a day when you have to turn it in. Our lives are like that as well; we are all works-in-progress until our last day. If you’re not a work-in-progress, it’s not because you’re perfect; it’s because you’re already dead; 2) Stay humble; there will always be people who know more than you and write better than you. Don’t be envious in response to these folks; learn from them. Stand on their shoulders to reach new heights of knowledge. 3) Writing/research, like life, is a process; it requires the completion of stages in their correct order over time. There are no shortcuts that will allow you to produce a work/life of equal worth to one that remains true to the process of writing/researching/living.

If you find any of this hokey, platitudinous, or insincere, then I have failed you. If you find any of this valuable, take it as my gift to you.

Always with gratitude and love,

Mr. Roth

Probably the greatest graduation song ever is Lulu’s “To Sir With Love.” Here it is performed by two of my all-time favorite singers: Natalie Merchant of The 10,000 Maniacs and Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

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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Dan [m]ay.

I’ve always been envious of those whose names form brief but complete sentences: Tom [w]aits. Ben [f]olds. Bill [w]ithers. Even Britney [s]pears. I love how such names tell the very shortest of narratives and leave me wanting to know the rest of the story. What exactly is Tom waiting for? Is he like Hamlet? I wonder what’s up with Ben’s defeatist attitude and think, “Poor Bill.” And what/who is Britney spearing and why?

Bear with me. There is a methodology to my madness.

You may have noticed that all of these names belong to singers and/or songwriters. To varying degrees, I admire each of the aforementioned artists; however, my favorite singer/songwriter with an independent clause for a name, an independent spirit, and independent label to match is Dan May. And despite the noncommittal sentiment his name expresses, he has definitely devoted his life to the love, production, and dissemination of music of sublime quality. In fact, his music and storytelling, both in song and prose, have enriched my life in ways impossible to quantify. My ever-expanding playlist of Dan’s songs is in constant rotation on my various listening devices, and I often deliberately select particular songs from Dan’s eclectic catalog to either match or generate my mood.

“Roll” from Dan’s debut album Once was Red remains my favorite song of Dan’s. Both musically and lyrically, it captures the pure exuberance and innocence of young love from the perspective of an older soul who knows love can’t stay that way forever. I describe it as a YA novel in three minutes and forty-one seconds.

Like me, Dan was raised in a very large Catholic family of working class means. Also like me, Dan is a product of Sandusky, Ohio, and Sandusky Central Catholic. As in my fiction, the shared stomping grounds and people of our youth often figure prominently in Dan’s music. Because Dan was a senior when I was a freshman, we never really crossed paths in high school. What I remember of Dan from those days are a distinctive shock of red hair and that he somehow managed to exude cool without being a standout athlete at a jock-centric high school. Like me, I think it’s fair to say, Dan is an aesthete – one who possesses a special appreciation of the arts. Admittedly, however, Dan’s immersion in and impact on the arts far exceed my own. Finally, in addition to his singer-songwriter’s craft, like me, Dan is a storyteller in prose. We differ, however, in my preference for long-form fiction; whereas, Dan’s unique brand of observational humor, wistful nostalgia, and subtle social commentary best fit the personal narrative and short story genres. Any opportunity to catch Dan reading from his collection is equivalent to a master’s class in the art of anecdotal storytelling.

Although, I am a big fan of Dan’s personal essays and short fiction, it is the narrative quality of Dan’s lyrics to which I am most drawn. One of my favorite stories-in-song Dan has delivered is “The Glory Years” from the Heartland album. It’s a first person account of a man attending a high school class reunion fully cognizant that he and his onetime classmates are no longer the pictures of youth they once were as each of their faces is the “the road map of our lives.” While learning of the failed marriage of one classmate and the death of George, who “died last May,” but who “always was a sullen jerk I hate to say,” the narrator chooses not to dwell on the unrecoverable and unchangeable past. Instead, he optimistically asserts that “It’s not where you’ve been but where you go from here” that matters — even now.

Dan is a singer-storywriter in the “every man” tradition of Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Cleveland’s Michael Stanley –rarified company for sure. His songs teem with philosophies and wisdom gleaned from a life both traditional and extraordinary in equal measure. At this point, it’s typical for Dan’s biographers to dive into obstacles faced and overcome in both his personal and professional life. I’m not going to go there. For one, others, including Dan, have documented it better than I’m able, and two, my relationship with Dan is primarily with his art. Also, most artists I know and know of would prefer to shrink into the background, if not completely disappear, and let their art speak for itself. For those unfamiliar with his story, I’ve linked an excellent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/philly/entertainment/20100921_From_Air_Force_to_opera_to_singer-songwriter.html

I think one of the secrets to Dan’s genius is the relatability of his song-stories and his willingness to express genuine emotion and vulnerability. The somewhat incongruous but, ultimately, perfect blend of his deep baritone with the touching sentimentality of many of his lyrics share that it’s okay for me – even as man – to feel, to cry, to dream, and to be less-than-perfect. I could link so many examples, including “Dreaming at the Speed of Sound,” “Fate Said Nevermind,” “The Field,” etc., but I’m only going to share one such heart song, my favorite: “Shades of Grey.”

As a lover of language, my focus in music appreciation is often zeroed in on the profundity and/or wit shared in lyrics. To the contrary, my wife, who is another fan of Dan, is a slave to melody. I actually watched her listen to an entire Jon Secada album without realizing, until it was over and I made her aware of it, that every song was sung in Spanish. My point is that Dan brilliantly checks both boxes: music and lyrics. For example, dig the wordplay in these lines from the poignantly wistful “Lucy:”

Lucy sits in the middle
And rubs my leg just a little,
Plays my heart like a fiddle,
Will it ever end?

Like skipping stones in the river,
With deadly aim she'll deliver
An arrow drawn from her quiver 
To my heart again.
Who hasn’t known or been a “Lucy” at some point in the past?

The ultimate test of any performance artist occurs the moment the house lights extinguish and the spotlight illumines. As evidenced in the videos I’ve shared, Dan’s voice is nothing-short-of-angelic live. It is truly a blessed experience to attend one of his shows in-person or, as has been often necessitated lately, online. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve attended. In fact, I’ve been in the audience at more of Dan’s shows than any other artist, and I will be in front of my best computer screen next Friday night at 8:00 for another livestreamed performance. For those in the Philly area, however, a live audience at the Sellersville Theater, appropriately distanced, will be admitted. I’d like to invite you to join me – either in-person or online – for this night of absolute bliss. I don’t invite you for my benefit or for Dan’s but for your own edification. Just click the link below for advance tickets.

https://www.danmaycd.com/shows?fbclid=IwAR1dlyBbaylYsOoX0b_EPNa7MuYhdiBT3ZGfxGHrCw-CQkF-8UsvJUzFilc

In this post, I’ve shared several of my personal favorites from among Dan’s songs, all of which reflect my tastes, but believe me when I say that it was exceedingly difficult to choose just those few, and trust me that Dan’s catalog is large and eclectic with something for everyone’s musical preferences. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t share my wife’s favorite: “The Gift.” It is hands down the finest tribute to one’s parents I’ve ever heard. We are literally moved to tears nearly every time it plays.

Tears.

This post is clearly and unashamedly a love letter to Dan’s music. As in all attempts to express love in language, it falls short of the appreciation I actually feel. I sincerely hope some of you will join me in my love affair.

Thank you, Dan.

Always with gratitude and love,

Ty

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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“Get Yourself to the Grand Canyon”

“Man, get yourself to the Grand Canyon,”

Danny Glover, as Simon, spoken to Kevin Kline, as Mack, in the movie Grand Canyon

Lately, and for good reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about the movie Grand Canyon (1991). It’s a film I’m willing to wager few of you have seen and even fewer remember. The reason I’ve been pondering it of late is that I recently “got myself to the Grand Canyon” while vacationing in Northern Arizona. My motivation for visiting this one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World was recreational; whereas, Mack’s need to go was existential. More on that later in this essay.

For my money, Grand Canyon is a vastly underappreciated film (There’s a link to the trailer below). Although it received mostly positive reviews from critics, including four stars from Roger Ebert, it made only a minor splash in the American zeitgeist. In some ways, I think the film was a tad before its time, and its themes are more resonant today, nearly thirty years after its release. For example, consider the following quotation from Steve Martin’s character, Davis, a disgruntled director of action films who has grown tired of playing to the puerile expectations of moviegoers:

“The point is there’s a gulf in this country; an ever-widening abyss between the people who have stuff, and the people who don’t have shit. It’s like this big hole in the ground, as big as the fucking Grand Canyon, and what’s come pouring out is an eruption of rage, and the rage creates violence, and the violence is real, Mack. Nothing’s gonna make it go away, until someone changes something, which is not going to happen.”

You have to admit that the film’s writers, Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, were seers. They even included a scene in which the police profile as suspicious a Black man jogging in an upscale neighborhood. Sadly, like Cassandra of Greek mythology, their warning has gone largely unheeded and their prediction has come true as the gulf in this country has only widened, not only financially but also politically. Although I wholeheartedly agree with this observation, it is not the focus of this essay. Instead, let me return to Simon’s urging Mack to “get to the Grand Canyon” and his reason for sharing such advice.

Kline’s Mack is a wealthy but unfulfilled entertainment lawyer in L.A., who is forced to reckon with the purposelessness of his existence in the cosmic scheme of things when he mindlessly strays into a rough neighborhood and finds himself on the business end of a handgun being brandished by a Black mugger. Glover’s Simon happens upon the scene and is able to defuse the situation, but Mack has had a Scrooge-like epiphany regarding his meaningless pursuit of wealth and the basic insignificance of his being, as a simple squeeze of a trigger could have ended them both.

Photo by Noelle Otto on Pexels.com

As Mack and Simon sit on a curb and perform a sort of post-game analysis of Mack’s near-death experience and recalculate his future, Simon hits him with some cryptic advice: “Man, get yourself to the Grand Canyon.” Simon’s point is one of perspective. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, one’s problems, which seem so massive and insurmountable in daily life, can’t help but shrink to an infinitesimal smallness in comparison to the wonder that is the Grand Canyon, and coming to grips with the relative insignificance of one’s tiny place and role in the grand scope and time of the universe is a blessing, not a bummer.

“When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much. Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It’s a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That’s a piece of time too small to give a name.”

I admit that, at first, this notion can be disconcerting. However, upon further rumination, one should understand that admitting his/her own personal insignificance is freeing. The pressure is off. No one is watching. The truth is most people are too caught up in their own shit to think or care much about anyone else’s; therefore, there’s no need to impress anyone. Nature shrugs her shoulders at our petty problems with the certainty that one day we’ll be gone, not just as individuals but as a species, and she will carry on as before. So, in the big picture, it really doesn’t matter if you get that party invite, that promotion, that raise, that bigger house, that fancier car. It really doesn’t matter if the whole world knows your name.

Ultimately, what matters is that we don’t play to the grandstand as Baudelaire warned and, contrarily, that we do follow Thoreau’s advice and live the life of our own imagining. If that includes that party invite, promotion, raise, bigger house, or fancy car, so be it. Just be sure that you have defined that need for yourself and that you’re not chasing after someone else’s notion of what is important and what is tantamount to success.

If you don’t believe that we are all a nearly-immeasurable speck in a universe expansive beyond our imagination and that it is a truth that only magnifies the need to get life right while we have it, do me a favor and “Get yourself to the Grand Canyon.”

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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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

My wife occasionally accuses me of being the world’s worst compliment taker. It’s an assessment I do not deny, for the second anybody tries to say something nice about me to my face, I go silent or change the subject. The sad irony/petty reality is that there are few things I want more than such recognition for my teaching and writing efforts. It’s a strange paradox that has been further complicated by the world of social media and its currency of “likes,” “hits,” and “follows.”

I don’t believe my aversion to praise is self-deprecation, and I hope it doesn’t come off as false humility. In fact, just writing these sentences is making me uncomfortable as they assume and publicly claim that I actually have achieved something worthy of praise.

An amateurish self-analysis tells me the cause is a lifelong sense that no matter how good I am at anything, I’m never “good enough.” The roots of this discomfort with what the Greeks called kudos branch out in many directions: a difficult-to-please father, so many super-intelligent, athletically-gifted, and accomplished relatives with whom to compare myself unfavorably, natural shortcomings in a number of areas, the knowledge that there are so many people so much better at the things I do than me, and an unhealthy sense that everything is a competition. All of these reasons have left me “staring out at the world from my own little Idaho” as the BoDeans sing. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out their metaphor.)

As I grow a bit wiser in my twilight years, I’m trying to learn to cut myself some slack. I’m trying to lower the bar on my self-expectations in many areas but especially as a writer. My initial goal was not to be just an author but to be a bestselling author. Accepting anything less was anathema to me. That lofty aspiration hasn’t happened yet, and it probably never will. For as a writer, I have come to accept that I possess what is known in baseball jargon as “warning track power”: I can hit it deep but rarely over the fence. Recently, I’ve been trying to convince myself that “almost does count,” and I’ve been turning my mind to the large number of regional artists in a variety of fields whose work has not received widespread acclaim but who go on creating damn good art.

For example, one of my very favorite bands is one that I’m willing to bet most of you have never heard of: the Michigan Rattlers. They’re typically described as a folk-rock group, but they’re so much more than any label could define. Their Midwest-inspired sound and the stories their lyrics tell speak to me in a manner few others do. The sad crying shame, however, is that they may never break out of their marginal regional popularity, which would be a tremendous loss to those who will never have the opportunity to appreciate the Rattlers stellar musicianship and poetry. Please, click on the link below and decide for yourself. I’ll advise you, however, that it may take a few listens to fully appreciate their value. If you give them time, however, you will be greatly rewarded.

I’m learning to be okay with a similar limited level of success: that the good — although not great — is still worth striving for, and that a degree of satisfaction can be found clearing the bar at 6″ even if your competitors are clearing better than 8″. The joy has to be found in the jumping. If I sell hundreds of books rather than thousands, I think I can live with that — at least I’m trying.

As the Michigan Rattlers sing with satisfaction in “Just Good Night,” “There’s a woman at the end of this road who knows my name.” At the end of the day and a life, perhaps it’s such seemingly simple accomplishments as “a woman who knows my name” that matter the most, not the big dreams that fell short or didn’t come true at all. I may never throw a ringer, but I’m going to keep throwing the horseshoes anyway.

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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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

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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

https://tyroth.com/

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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

https://tyroth.com/

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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.

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/