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The Thrill of the Chase (Will)

What follows below is an email interview I conducted with horror-fiction writer Chase Will inspired by the recent release of his novel Moving Through. I was interested in corresponding with Chase because I thought our genres were so different, and because I am, in general, averse to the horror genre be it in fiction or film. I hoped to gain insight into what exactly it was about that genre that so attracted and inspired him to use his storytelling talents writing horror. I was not disappointed in the result. By the end of our “conversation,” Chase had politely educated me on how wrong I was and on the personal and societal value of the horror genre.

Author Chase Will

Whether you’re a fan of the horror genre or not, I promise that if you read the entire interview, you will become a fan of Chase Will. He is truly both a gifted writer and a brilliant critic. I encourage you to follow him on social media and to read anything of his you can get your hands on.

Who is Chase Will both personally and professionally?

First and foremost, I strive to be empathetic. Whether I’m meeting someone for the first time in real life or doing a brief character sketch on paper, empathy is something I treasure. It seems to be in short supply in today’s political climate. The world is far more interesting when you try understand what makes others who they currently are, and empathy comes with the understanding that we’re always evolving as individuals and doing the best we know how. I travel the country for work, and the people I meet on the road have been very influential on how I tell character-driven stories. I’ve come to appreciate there’s no such thing as “purely bad” or even “purely good,” and one of the easiest ways to fail as a writer is to assume anyone you’re writing about falls into either box. 

What/who sparked your love for reading and writing? 

My parents. When I was a kid I’d always see my mom with a book in her hand, and my dad always had a Stephen King in front of him before falling asleep at night. They told me I couldn’t read these books because they’re “too scary for little kids,” which made me just want to read them more. I would sneak into my parents’ room when I was four or five, flip to a random page in one of these books expecting monsters to pop out at me, and I was underwhelmed by them. With the sort of arrogance only a five-year-old can master, I thought, “I can do this way better than that Stephen King guy! He’s not scary. I’ll show them ‘scary’!” So, at school, I’d practice telling stories to my classmates during recess, reveling in the attention I garnered and the way I could have my classmates asking, “What comes next? Do you know the next part of the story yet?” Of course, I got into trouble over a story that was particularly gross, and my parents were shocked to hear about the stories I was telling when my teacher showed them handwritten copies at a parent-teacher conference. Totally worth it. 

Chase at a recent book event.

Talk about your writing process. 

My writing process has pretty much never changes. Since I was fourteen or so, my process has involved writing at least two handwritten pages every day, and my handwriting is very small and neat. After finishing a handwritten draft, which almost always reads like an outline, I type everything out, print it, and re-read the printed pages. Then I go through what I’ve written and start making a mess with a red pen, circling and starring problematic areas and writing in the margins how I’d like to change sentences and sometimes full chapters. I rearrange things. I write from a different character’s viewpoint. Sometimes I trash the whole draft and start completely over. I learned this method from a writer named Darren Shan, who lives overseas in London and who I’d correspond with sometimes via air mail. He told me the most important thing is to just get the first draft done quickly and worry about correcting mistakes later, and that writing with momentum prevents you from losing interest in your own work or getting distracted from other story ideas. He also inspired the way I look at subsequent drafts, since he does eight or nine drafts per book, something I’ve heard others call “overkill.” It’s a slow way of finishing a book but, as Shan taught me, it’s better to put each draft aside for a month or so and work on it with fresh eyes each time. I know people who only write two drafts of their books in quick succession, and their work is almost always lousy with errors and bad writing. 

What is it about the horror genre that so appeals to your reading and writing tastes? 

One thing I appreciate about horror is its ability to show you something meaningful in an abstract way involving all manner of strange things. Nothing is every black and white in horror, at least not in good horror. Monsters are typically victims of circumstance and never really “evil.” Take the film adaptation of Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, two of my all-time favorite films: the monster struggles to fit in with society after being given life by a mad scientist, but no matter what he does or how inherently innocent he is, he’s outcast from society and hunted just for being different. In Stephen King’s novel Cujo, the beloved neighborhood dog isn’t “evil,” he’s just a confused animal who got bitten by a rabid bat, another victim of circumstance. I would even go as far as to say that the creatures in Japanese horror films like Ju-on: The Grudge aren’t truly evil; most of the time they’re victims of a curse that’s supposed to represent societal expectations and the true evils of the world. It goes back to empathy. 

More often than not, in both films and in literature, mankind is objectively more “evil” than the monsters they create, and although we deny the beasts within ourselves, horror has a way of spotlighting them and showing us where our darkest desires and rage-filled thoughts can take us if left unchecked once too often. 

Other than “Don’t read it,” how might you respond to someone, like myself, who is put off by the misogyny, sadism, and excessive violence found in many works of horror? 

I’d argue that horror doesn’t inherently include these elements, at least not the horror I’m typically drawn to. Sure, there are always movies like “Saw” and “Hostel,” where the violence is front-and-center and oftentimes overtakes the plot and character development. But, more often than not, horror is more about atmosphere and pacing. Horror is about making the reader/viewer “horrified,” and that’s a very subjective feeling. What’s disgusting to one person is another person’s nightmare. For instance, I’m deathly afraid of spiders. Some people might call me a bit of a wuss…but those people might also be afraid of clowns, which I think is downright soft of them and hilarious. 

When you pick up a horror book or movie, you’re agreeing to be offended to some degree, and that’s just part and parcel to feeling horrified. The only “innocent” horror movies I can think of are those lame “found footage” films that people seem to be pretty fond of, and these movies almost always include demonic possession or ghosts, which I would call “vanilla horror.” It’s just lame. These works are rarely challenging to the reader/viewer, especially in film format. However, there’s a book by author Paul Tremblay called “Head Full of Ghosts” that turns the demonic possession and found footage tropes on their heads by focusing more on the characters and their own secrets. I won’t spoil anything about the book, but mental illness and broken family dynamics are the true horrors here. I highly recommend it. 

Going back to movies like “Saw” and “Hostel,” works that I’d say fall under the “splatterpunk” umbrella, I’d argue the violence serves a purpose in these works. In the “Saw” franchise, for instance, much like in the movie “Seven,” the killer is making a statement about societal evils and the monsters we’ve allowed ourselves to become in terms of how we view people who are different from us or who don’t fall perfectly into the boxes we’ve created for them. 

Splatterpunk, as a subgenre of horror, is all about using elements of disgust and violence as metaphors for larger issues and presenting an author’s thesis in an unexpected way. David Cronenberg is a master at this. Cronenberg’s works are heavy with sexuality, and some might call movies like “Videodrome” misogynistic at times, but you have to look past the surface level and ask yourself why the artist chose to include these elements and how they aid the story. Quite simply, there’s more to it than just overt violence, nihilism, and misogyny. The only movies I write off completely are in the same vein as “I Spit on Your Grave,” where rape and violence against women is what drives whatever passes as “story.” These movies are garbage. If a writer spends more time describing a rape than they do describing the emotional fallout and societal repercussions of the assault, the writer has failed, and they’re a total hack. 

We have the internet nowadays, so finding a horror book or movie that challenges you to a comfortable degree while not overtly disgusting you is pretty easy. I’d recommend giving horror a chance and avoiding the urge to write off the entire genre because of a few bad experiences. I’ve seen absolutely terrible romantic comedies…but I can’t write off that entire genre, can I? Don’t shy away from being offended. In complacency lies boredom and jadedness. 

What, if anything, do you bring to the genre that separates your contributions to the horror genre from other authors? 

Again, I’ll go back to empathy. I love my characters far more than I love my stories, and whenever terrible things are happening to them, I’m not rooting for a bloodbath. Just the opposite. I want to see these characters fight tooth and nail to survive and thrive, and I want to see them win. They’re all going through different struggles, and I try to refrain from making any two of my characters completely similar, so as I’m doing my research and going through various drafts, I’m becoming more aware of societal issues and the impact they’ve had on these characters. Sure, I’m the guy holding the pen or sitting at the keyboard, but the characters really drive what happens to them and how they handle the scenarios I throw them in. 

Take, for instance, my latest effort Moving Through. This isn’t strictly a horror book, and I would be reaching to say it even falls into any one subgenre. It’s a coming-of-age novel about a group of teens mourning the death of a mentor they wholeheartedly loved and understood. This mentor was one of the only people who truly worked to understand them and accept them for what they were, so with him gone, emotional horror and existential dread comes into play. There’s a scene midway through the book that I would call “horrifying,” in that the main character is struggling to accept his friend’s death. As someone who recently lost a beloved family member, there was an intense feeling of intimacy with what this character was going through, and all the emotional monsters came out to play with both of us. Part of me was afraid to even delve into these things because they can be very painful to dredge up…but horror author Jack Ketchum taught us all “Don’t look away.” Looking away from that sort of emotional intimacy makes dishonest writing and flat characters. I wanted my characters to be real as possible, so I went there with them with, embraced empathy, and wrote everything they were feeling after their devastating loss. 

I’m not saying this is a new thing, and I’m certainly not the only writer to “go there” with his characters, but I think this trait separates me from a large number of authors who seem to say “yeah, whatever, let’s get back to describing the blood spatter and the monster’s ‘impossibly sharp’ teeth!” Some of their stuff is ‘impossibly bad’ writing, which is something I personally dread. 

I know that you are a horror film buff as well. What influence, if any, do you think horror cinema has on your fiction? 

I think horror cinema has helped me appreciate the intimacy prose offers. When you’re watching a film, you’re typically watching events unfold from the perspective of a fly on the wall, and you often only know what a character’s emotions from what they say, how they say it, and how they move. There are limits here that simply aren’t present in prose. In prose, you have a much larger toolbox to craft your story with, and you can typically do so without as much clumsiness as in film. We’ve all seen movies that have on-the-nose dialogue and corny moments that are inserted simply for exposition. A benefit of writing prose is having many, many paths to chose from in showing your characters’ struggles rather than telling about them. Some might say I’m off the mark here, or even that I’ve got it backward, and maybe that’s been their experience. 

I’ve also been told by readers that my books tend to read like movies in the reader’s mind. Descriptions are usually vivid, the action is fast-paced, and the readers are working in tandem with my writing to see what I see. That’s one of the greatest compliments, knowing that readers are working with me rather than just passively reading description after description and just passively taking the journey, page after page. 

Who are your favorite authors and works of horror fiction that you would recommend? 

Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel Suttree is one I would recommend to anyone who wants to see what good writing can really do. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is another. And then there are books like Off Season by Jack Ketchum that are more visceral and rawer, sometimes hard to read due to the violence being depicted but never boring or repetitive. Anything by Jeff Strand is good, and he’s able to blend humor into his horror without ever taking away from either of these elements, something I wish I could do even half as well. Kristopher Triana is a writer I found out about recently, and he hasn’t let me down yet; he has a way with words that any aspiring writer should envy, and while his horror is of the “bloody and disgusting” variety, he makes me care about the characters to a surprising degree, which I think separates him from many of his splatterpunk peers. 

When you’re not reading in the horror genre, what others do you enjoy? 

I really enjoy classic literature. One of my reading goals this year is to finish Moby Dick and Don Quixote. I’m also reading David Foster Wallace’s epic and sometimes-controversial novel Infinite Jest, which has been a delightful experience so far…though it’s over a thousand pages and sometimes drags to the point where I set it down and read something else for a few days. I average somewhere around a book every two days, and I spend most nights reading, so I try to mix in a little bit of everything. I’ve even tried reading books I’ve been instructed to hate, like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. I didn’t enjoy these books, mostly due to the poor writing quality, but I can see merit in them and their contribution to enticing audiences to give reading a chance. Plenty of objectively “bad” fiction has been a launching point for lifetime readers. 

Give a one or two sentence synopsis of Moving Through and your best pitch to a prospective buyer/reader. 

A group of high school Seniors mourn the death of their mentor while inciting a school-wide rebellion. 

What’s next in the writing que or Chase Will? 

I’m currently polishing up my next novel, Parasitic Host, which is about a post-college identity crisis and includes a monster trying its hardest to be human. This was loosely inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and also by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it has a comedic tone in the first half that I’m embracing after the emotional toll of working on Moving Through for several years. I think people will really enjoy this one and embrace the change. 

I’m also signed on as a vendor at Scares That Care in Williamsburg, VA at the end of July, which I’m over the moon about. There are so many great people in the horror industry, and the time they spend finding ways to raise money for charity is often overlooked in favor of the “sexy” side of the horror industry. What are the best ways for someone who’s interested in your work to get their hands on it? 

My books are all available on Amazon. However; if you’re averse to making Jeff Bezos richer and would like to purchase these books directly from me, you can find them at www.ChaseWill.com

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Reluctance and High School Reunions: Why Am I Such an Ass?

In case you’re playing “Where’s Waldo?” I’m in the 5th row, 3rd from the right with the afro.

I do not believe that anyone does anything without a reason. We may not want to admit to the reason out of shame or embarrassment, or the reason for our behavior may be so buried in our subconscious that we are not even aware of our motivation and therefore unable to give voice to it. But trust me, there is always a reason for the things we do or do not do.

It is possible that the reason may be absurd and completely unjustifiable to even ourselves as in the case of Brenda Ann Spencer, the rare female school shooter, who when asked why she carried out her assault, which killed two adults and wounded eight children, flippantly replied, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

That shooting occurred in January of 1979 on an elementary school playground in San Diego. In the summer that followed, which was the summer before my senior year — perhaps the greatest summer of my life — the Irish new wave band The Boomtown Rats released the chilling song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” It reached number #1 on the UK charts but topped out at #73 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. For some odd reason, however, it was hugely popular with me and a number of my friends. Remember: this was in 1979! Long before school shootings became endemic in America.

Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats

It is also the case that when asked why they performed some mischievous deed, a child will sometimes say, “Because I felt like it,” but that is hardly evidence to the contrary of my claim. It is more of an admonition from the child to mind your own business than an attempt to explain or justify their actions.

Although I’m no expert in psychology, I do know a bit about storytelling, and I’m absolutely positive and I insist to my students that in that realm “Because I felt like it” is an unacceptable explanation for a character’s behavior. Unless, of course, the character is a complete sociopath. Astute readers demand that a character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are clear, consistent, and credible. In fact, it is often the case that, when any of these three conditions are not met, a reader quits on a story, finding it beyond their ability to suspend their disbelief in order to continue.

All of which brings me, of course, to my Hamlet-like indecisiveness regarding whether or not to attend an upcoming high school reunion. Ever since receiving the informal invitation, I have been debating the prospect, bouncing back and forth between confirming my intention to attend and ignoring the invite entirely. As is, I do not feel inspired to go, and be assured that I have no delusion that my presence or absence would have any impact whatsoever on anyone else’s enjoyment of the day. I just wish I could identify and clearly explain to myself for self-actualization purposes the reason(s) for my reluctance to attend.

My 40th reunion should have occurred during the Covid-19 summer of 2020. For obvious reasons, it did not take place. Currently, however, several of my former classmates are attempting to rectify the omission by offering to host a sort of makeup occasion this summer, which is wonderfully magnanimous of them. Despite my appreciation for their efforts, however, I can’t quite convince myself to commit to attending, and despite the assertion with which I began this essay that there is always a reason for the things we do or do not do, I cannot put my finger on exactly what the reason(s) is for my hesitation.

I’ve long held that no one ever really graduates from high school. I mean, obviously, we receive a diploma and move on with our lives, but psychologically and emotionally we walk those locker-lined hallways inside our psyches for the rest of our lives. Some do so nostalgically, believing those were their best days. Others do so wistfully as if in a nightmare from which they cannot awake. Still others, among them myself, walk those fancied halls in a perpetual state of ambivalence, neither wallowing in those glory days nor desperate to escape them.

Me on my graduation day.

I also have a much-less-than-indisputable theory on the type of person who enthusiastically organizes and/or attends high school reunions. I believe they are typically the type of person who was consistently kind to and respectful of all of their classmates, and I love them for that. I am especially impressed by those who were the victims of bullying or social marginalization while in high school but have chosen forgiveness over continued hurtfulness. In either case and regardless of their high school status, THEY ARE THE COOL KIDS even if, in their classmates’ immaturity, it went unappreciated at the time or still goes unappreciated today. I truly admire them.

My best attempt at self-psychoanalysis has conjured the following as the most likely explanations (mostly petty) for my aversion to reunions.

  • My academic and athletic mediocrity left little impression on the school, my classmates, or myself. Therefore there seems little reason to revisit those days or the people I shared them with.
  • I was never particularly popular nor unpopular in high school. I have no close friends from that era who have remained present in my life, nor did I have to contend with any bullies or tormentors to whom I’d like to say, “Look at me now!”
  • Regret, knowing I could have and should have been such a better person/student/athlete/friend/boyfriend then than I was.
  • Disappointment regarding my lack of a wildly interesting or impressive life story post-graduation to dazzle my classmates with.
  • The stark realization of just how much time has passed since we were in high school and how little remains ahead of us.
  • Knowing there is nothing I can do to change the past, I’ve long tried to live my life without a rearview mirror, preferring to keep my eyes focused on what’s next rather than on what lies in my wake.
  • Because of the lack of significant time spent with my classmates over the years, I cannot imagine any interaction beyond surface-level niceties, which will be awkward and of little substantive value.
  • Similar to New Years Eve parties, the inorganic nature of a reunion renders it difficult to have a sincerely-good time.
  • I may just be an ass.

I’m currently leaning towards that final reason.

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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Postpartum Thoughts on Another School Year Delivered

What follows is a reflection on issues facing teachers on a national scale, not so much a response to my local district, which (cross my fingers) has been remarkably-supportive of teachers and levelheaded regarding the aforementioned “issues.”

I recently completed my thirty-seventh year in the classroom. As has always been the case for me and with my apologies to actual mothers, I’ve been left with a feeling metaphorically-akin to postpartum. I know I should be happy to have put another year behind me and excited for the summer months that lie ahead, but I’m not, and this year I’m feeling particularly concerned regarding the job expectations for the remaining years of my career and my willingness to abide by them.

This is my most recent school photo. Trust me and as you can see they don’t get much better than when you were a student.

Partially due to the disruption of the traditional school day model during the two years of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; a sudden parental, politically-motivated interest in school curriculum (Where have you been for the past thirty-seven years of parent-teacher conferences and school board meetings?); the continued proliferation of school shootings; and the desire of some to gloss over actual American history; for the first time, I’m questioning my continued devotion to the only profession I’ve ever seriously pursued or loved.

It could be that I’ve become a relic of the past, one schooled during the more liberal-minded decades of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. In fact, most teachers my age have already retired. I entered the profession when teachers were trusted, if not always revered. We were similar to independent contractors, experts in our chosen fields of study and instruction and free from the burden of teaching to tests and onerous evaluations of competence that do more to disillusion teachers and to stifle the art of teaching than to effectively measure it.

My point being that the remainder of this essay may be the ramblings of an out-of-touch-with-reality, late stage baby boomer, who simply needs to ride off into whatever utopian-mirage of a sunset that remains. With that admission behind me, however, I’d like to make a few things clear regarding my future days in the classroom. If you choose to read on, please read to the very end.

  • Should any student of mine choose to remain seated during the recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance” or during the playing of the National Anthem, I will respect their First Amendment rights but only with the caveat that they explain to me their motivation for doing so and that their refusal to participate is not merely an act of laziness rather than subversion.
  • I will continue to respect my students’ right to identify as any gender they choose, and I will refer to them by the pronoun which best suits their gender identification. This is not a concession to political correctness. Rather, it is simply being what my mother taught me to be: nice and respectful of the feelings of others.
  • I will say “gay” in the identification of the not small number of canonical gay authors from whose catalogs I teach and with respect for and total acceptance of my brothers and sisters of the LGBTQ community.
  • I will continue to teach from as many banned books as I can slip into my syllabus, ranging from the Bible to Beloved. My primary responsibilities as a teacher of literature include to inspire students to become readers for the joy and personal edification found in reading, to inspire them to think for themselves, to encourage them to grapple with what it means to be human in a grossly imperfect world, to help them find meaning and purpose for their existence, and to convince them to question the status quo so as to retain the good and wash out the bad. The books that regularly appear on lists of banned books are the ones that most effectively achieve those goals.
I’m sitting next to Ellen Hopkins, a brilliant YA novelist whose books are commonly targeted for banning.
  • I will never whitewash or bowdlerize American or World History in order to protect anyone’s feelings. This is especially true regarding America’s shameful treatment of Native Peoples; Africans kidnapped from their homes and enslaved here; the descendants of those Africans, subjected to heinous and often insurmountable levels of systemic racism; Japanese-Americans interred by their own government during WWII, the long line of immigrants from which every one of us is descended, and the list goes on. None of this is political. It is factual.
  • I will NEVER carry a gun into my classroom (or anywhere else for that matter). I can’t even believe I need to declare this.
One of my proudest moments as an American citizen occurred when my son, Taylor, my wife, and I participated in the original March for Our Lives in NYC. Sadly, little good has come from it thus far, but I’m hoping after Uvalde, “This time it’s different.”

With all of this said, be assured that I respect and encourage students of differing opinions to express their views freely in both discussion and compositions. I do not “indoctrinate” students in any purposeful way, shape, or form. In fact, I often stray far from my personal opinions to give voice to authors and thinkers of opposite worldviews, and some of my favorite students over the many years have been those with whom I most ardently disagree and with whom I’ve had the most interesting and personal position challenging conversations.

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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The Braver Choice

Every once in a while, I come across an author whose work speaks to me in ways that few others have or do. It’s as if they have read my mind and are sharing my thoughts but with an eloquence I do not possess. I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience, if not with literature, perhaps with a song.

Recently, while I was researching the decline of the postmodernism age for my American Literature course, I came across an article titled “Postmodernism is Dead,” by Edward Docx, an English essayist, novelist, and journalist, whose earlier novel Pravda was longlisted for the prestigious Man-Booker Prize. Docx’s insight, erudition, and intellectualism blew me away along with his ability to render complex notions comprehensible. 

I was so impressed and inspired by the essay that I immediately ordered his most recent novel, Let Go My Hand. The subsequent binge reading of which has been one of the most rewarding and personal ethos-affirming experiences in my lifetime. One reviewer, Ian Kelly, described the novel in this way: “If art is the holding in balance of the powers of love, sex and death, then this is a truly supreme work of art.” I think that is an accurate encapsulation of what all great art does.

Reduced to its simplest summation, Let Go My Hand is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Instead of three daughters, however, the father, who, like Lear, is not long for this world, has three sons, who are accompanying him to Switzerland, where assisted death is legal.

Rather than provide my own inadequate summary, I’ve included a link below to Docx’s web page for a brief summary of the novel.

The most simple explanation for my newfound affinity for Docx’s prose is that he “gets me” as an individual in the same way Shakespeare understood humanity as a whole. In the novel, Docx also identifies John Steinbeck – another of my favorite authors – as perhaps the only other author with a similar comprehension of the experience of being human.

I originally intended to include a bulleted list of passages from the novel that I found to be true, meaningful, and affirming to my own life’s journey and to share a few of the conclusions/lessons I’ve arrived at along the way that are mirrored in Let Go My Hand but better expressed than I could ever paraphrase. However, that list grew far too long.

Instead, I’ve chosen a single excerpt taken from the father’s final words of advice to his sons, delivered much in a similar manner as Polonius delivered his famous words of wisdom to his son, Laertes, in Hamlet:

A reliable gauge of a person is how much soul they put into their lives – their capacity for offering and responding to deeper feelings and thoughts and desires. There’s a world of difference between the people who think and feel and enquire; and the people who set themselves against enquiry and thought. The people whose hearts are open and generous and the people whose hearts are closed and calloused . . . Apart from that, be sure to feast on nature’s great beauty and humanity’s great genius. Treasure your friends, read as much as you can and take the braver choice when there is one.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to live their life, but sage advice is to be found in these words. There’s a George Strait song in which he sings, “There’s a difference between living and living well.” I think the preceding quotation from Let Go My Hand, lucidly distinguishes that difference.

I want more than anything to “put soul into [my] life.” I want to share “my deeper feelings, thoughts, and desires” and be privy to those of others. I want to “feel and enquire.” I want to be aware of “nature’s great beauty and humanity’s great genius.” I want to “treasure [my] friends,” “read as much as [I] can,” and make “the braver choice.”

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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Fairness vs. Forgiveness

I hate to hear the four-letter F-word used, especially by young people. The F-word I’m referring to, however, is probably not the one you’re most likely thinking of. The F-word that rankles me is “fair,” as in the commonly uttered, “That’s not fair!” It’s such a childish complaint, voiced only by children or fools. The former I can excuse, the latter not so much.

I’ve been thinking about fairness a lot lately, especially in connection with the conversation surrounding the student loan debt crisis, which brings me to another F-word I’d like to discuss in conjunction with the first one: forgiveness. I completely understand those who insist on their “pound of flesh” and who wholeheartedly disagree with the different proposals being offered to forgive various amounts of college loan debt. I too was steeped in debt when I graduated from college as were two of my children, yet we all managed to pay them off, so why shouldn’t those currently in debt be expected to do the same? And if these “freeloaders” are to be forgiven, what precedent does it set? And shouldn’t those of us who honored our debts be given some sort of refund? I mean, it’s only (gulp) fair.”

Well, maybe.

Respectfully, I have questions for those who are insistent on these borrowers repaying their loans:

  • What is the true motivation for your insistence? Is it a genuine devotion to the virtues of fairness and accountability that is driving your insistence, or is it envy or possibly schadenfreude (the joy derived from another’s suffering)?
  • How are you, in any way, hurt by these folks’ good fortune if they do, in fact, have their debt reduced or forgiven entirely? 
  • Why can’t you just be happy for them?
  • Are you unaware of how reducing these folks’ debt will benefit the wider economy and, therefore, you individually?

A friend and mentor of mine, Carey Clum, is a possessor of an encyclopedic collection of homespun, practical wisdom. Many years ago, Coach Clum enlightened me with the knowledge that treating everyone fairly does not necessarily mean treating everyone the same. Individual life stories and extenuating circumstances must always be taken into consideration when determining what is fair. In that spirit, I would not argue for a blanket forgiveness but a selective one that takes into account those extenuating circumstances.

A certain amount of cognitive dissonance (the cognitive ability to recognize and accept that two polar opposite claims can both be true) is necessary in this conundrum that sets fairness and forgiveness in opposition to one another. However, one must set aside their “either/or” thinking and recognize that demanding full payment of student loan debt is a good, but so is the forgiveness of said debt.The scales of justice appear to be balanced and noncommital on the point. For me, however, what tips the scale toward the side of forgiveness is the general concept of forgiveness itself.

I’m in no way a Bible thumper; however, for those steeped in the teachings of Jesus, forgiveness is an expectation, not an option. In the Gospel, when Peter asks how many times a man must forgive one who has sinned against him, Jesus replies “70 x 7,” which was his figurative way of saying “always.” In this case, these mostly young folks drowning in college debt are not “sinners”; rather, I’d argue that many of them are the sinned-against victims. Many of them were first-generation college students, who, despite guidance counselors’ best efforts, had little understanding of the college financial aid racket and lacked the parental guidance to help them make sound financial choices. Even more pernicious is the fact that many of these students who were provided these loans were borderline college-qualified students in the first place. But universities have freshmen dorm rooms and stadiums to fill, so these students are accepted in order to become the fodder to feed the beast only to be shat out later with exorbitant debt and little else to show for it when they are incapable of handling the academic rigors of college.

The poorly-kept secret is that, according to Forbes.com, “[E]ven after six years, less than 60% of students at four-year colleges have earned a Bachelor’s degree.” My point is that even as universities concoct “too-good-to-be-true” financial aid packages for prospective students, which are typically loaded with an array of student loans, they know – Iet me reiterate – they know that the majority of the students who take out those loans will never receive a diploma or obtain employment with a salary that will allow them to repay their loans in a reasonable manner and time frame. If you ask me, these universities and the government and lending institutions that offer these loans are the sinners and the ones who should be seeking forgiveness.

Surely, as a society, it’s reasonable to offer some degree of forgiveness to those who, many of whom were teenagers at the time, were poorly or completely unadvised or, even worse, duped into unwisely borrowing what they could never afford to pay back and for which, in reality, they should never have been considered qualified. If we are willing to bailout financial institutions, the auto industry, and farmers, we can find a way to alleviate at least some of the financial burden of ordinary, good-intentioned people.

A concept similar to forgiveness is mercy. For those readers more given to secular reasoning, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, he tells us that mercy is “twice blessed // It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Both Jesus and Shakespeare assert that the one who forgives is – at the least – an equal beneficiary of the act. Therefore, you’d think we would be quick to forgive others’ debts, financial or otherwise, as to be obedient to the teaching of two of the world’s greatest teachers and to be made better ourselves by doing so.

Forgiveness cannot be mandated; it is always a choice. It is a practice that appeals to and reveals the “better angels” of humanity, for it is highly unnatural. That is the beauty of it. Magnanimity is a trait revealed by being great of mind and heart. In recent years and especially within our body politic, both forgiveness and magnanimity have been devalued in preference for retaliation and small-minded pettiness. Perhaps, it’s time to restore them both through an act of communal forgiveness by the easing of the student debt burden that is crippling so many in our society.

As I’ve said, I understand the accountability side of the issue. I really do. And my intention is not to ignite a debate here. Rather, I’m just asking for consideration of this side, my side, of the argument.

For the second blog post in a row, I’ll finish with words of wisdom from Don Henley. This time from his song “Heart of the Matter”:

These times are so uncertain

There’s a yearning undefined

People filled with rage

We all need a little tenderness

How can love survive in such a graceless age?

Ah, the trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness

They’re the very things we kill, I guess . . .

But I think it’s about forgiveness

Forgiveness.

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Suspension of Disbelief

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” which is generally defined as the intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic. Many works of fiction – be it in drama, television, cinema, or text – demand that the partaker of such fiction be willing to exercise this practice or else the entertainment at hand would seem silly and too unrealistic to be taken seriously.

Last Saturday in the juxtaposition of a theatrical performance of To Kill a Mockingbird five hours after a mass shooting in a Buffalo supermarket, I learned that, whereas such suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary in the theater, in real life, it may get you killed.

This lesson was driven home when, shortly after the play resumed following intermission, the imaginary fourth wall came crashing to the stage, landing between a cast of terrified actors subsumed by their roles and a confused audience in the thrall of their suspension of disbelief. I’ll never forget the transformation on the face of the actor Richard Thomas, playing the lead role of Atticus Finch, as he broke character and feared for his actual life.

The theatrical version of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin, has been met with rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences since it debuted on Broadway in 2018. Although the novel was published in 1960 and set in the thirties, the play’s themes of prejudice, racism, and bigotry have resonated loudly with modern playgoers as America continues to struggle with how to expiate itself for its original sin, a sin that many on the extreme right – unlike the play itself – would simply prefer to sweep under the rug by denying its lingering infection of our culture rather than face atonement.

On Saturday night, in the Connor Palace Theater in Cleveland, in the midst of a highly-charged courtroom scene, the play screeched to a halt, and the actors became the audience as something out-of-the-ordinary occurred in the orchestra seating section. A patron called out something that sounded like “fight” or “knife.” I’m not sure. As my seat was in the balcony and my view of whatever was occurring below was obstructed, it was unclear for a moment if the commotion was a part of the play or something menacing. I could only interpret the actors’ facial reactions to what they were witnessing and then watch as they dropped character and fled in a panic offstage in all directions.

Remember, this was all occurring during an epidemic of mass shootings in this country and only five hours after the racially-motivated gunning down of unarmed and innocent grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York, a mere three hours’ drive from where I sat, during the performance of a drama that calls America onto the carpet for its systemic racism. Maybe it was my own prejudice towards right wing extremists coming to the fore, but I turned to my wife and mouthed, “MAGA.” I had immediately assumed that someone sympathetic to white supremacist ideologies had taken offense at the play’s anti-racist theme and was, at the least, going to protest the play’s message, or, at the worst, they were intent on causing a mass casualty event.

Photo Credit: The Guardian

After an agonizing ten minutes or so, a bodiless voice announced that what had occurred was just some sort of medical emergency and the play would resume once the actors and audience had the opportunity to compose themselves and return to the fantasy world of theater.

In retrospect, it strikes me as both telling and sad that such massacres have become so common that my first thought went there, yet in real time, my reaction was to sit where I was. Neither I nor many of those in the balcony thought to flee for their lives. A mass shooting of theatergoers seemed to make no sense; however, neither does the mass shooting of first graders, high school students, country concertgoers, churchgoers, or shoppers make any fucking sense.

One reason for this hesitancy to run is that we had no idea what we may have been running into and, unlike those unfortunate ones below, we were relatively safe from attack. It’s only as I write this, however, that I’ve remembered the 2015 massacre inside a Parisian theater during a rock concert in which 130 attendees were killed. With the exit doors chained shut by the terrorists, no one in the Bataclan Theater that night was safe regardless of their seating assignment.

My other takeaway from that night’s false alarm is that my “suspension of disbelief” could have got me killed. Lost in its throes while watching a play and despite all of the atrocities and senseless mass killings that seem to take place constantly in the “real world” outside of the theater, such events still naively strike me as illogical. Therefore, I don’t run when a character appears on stage with a weapon, but nor did I think to run or to even accept the notion that someone in the audience, in the school, in the church, or in the grocery store could be weaponized and my life in danger.

Photo Credit: Brainy Quote

It’s a frightening America we’ve created. An America in which one’s suspension of disbelief may just cost you your life. In the words of Don Henley, “Offer up your best defense // But this is the end of the innocence.”

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. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Then They Came for Teachers

“Don’t mistake dissent for disloyalty.”

from the song “The American in Me” by Michael McDermott

Early in the first semester of my upper-level literature courses, I warn my students that my job is to challenge them to question everything they’ve ever held as “right, true, or good.” I go on to say that if I do not offend them at some point during the course, I will have failed as their teacher.

My purpose is NOT and I DO NOT attempt to tell them what they should believe or where they should put their faith, and I certainly DO NOT try to foist any of my personal beliefs upon them. That is what demagogues and pedagogue’s do, not teachers – at least not the good ones. Rather, my purpose is for my students to try their beliefs in the crucibles of reason, common sense, and historicity. More often than not, the result is that their belief systems are actually strengthened as – for what is for many of them the first time – they are being asked to consider earnestly and to defend the legitimacy of what they’ve been more-or-less programmed to accept as fact.

In today’s political climate, teachers like me, who subscribe to independent thinking and thrive on thought-provoking dialogue with students, are being threatened by politicians looking to score quick points in their own “Wag-the-Dog” culture wars. These same politicians are recruiting well-intentioned but illiberal-minded parents and school board members across the country to join in their crusade against anything that runs counter to their typically ultra-conservative worldview or that may force our young children to confront notions and historical truths that may make them uncomfortable. God forbid.

George Orwell’s novel 1984 is far too often invoked as a knee-jerk accusation aimed at those who make even the slightest attempt at governmental oversight. Today, however, I feel justified in alluding to Orwell and his seminal work in response to the establishment of an online “tip-sheet” by the newly-inaugurated Republican governor of Virginia, Ralph Youngkin.The tip sheet is designed not only to allow but to encourage students and parents to inform on any teacher who engages in what he calls “divisive” teaching. I can’t help but point out that the teachings of Jesus were considered “divisive” by both Roman and Jewish authorities of his day. Had such a tip-sheet existed in his time, Judas may have been a user.

Of course, Youngkin’s stated purpose is in line with the political Right’s ongoing manipulation of its base by ginning up its moral indignation and leading a crusade against a straw man named Critical Race Theory, which is an approach to teaching history and contemporary reality with a sensitivity to the historical truth of the damage done by systemic racism in this country. The rub of it is, however, that the number of teachers utilizing CRT in the classroom is statistically nearly nil and the number of people who actually understand CRT – teachers and politicians included – is nearly just as low. Even more frightening is the Republican governor’s goal of rooting out “divisive practices” within his state’s schools. If that doesn’t chill you to your American soul, you might want to brush up on your Constitution.

What type of America are we living in when students and their parents are being asked to inform on their teachers through an anonymous tip-sheet? If horrific images of one of communist Russia, China, and Cuba’s worst practices do not flash through your mind, you’re either ignorant of those dystopian worlds, you’re not paying attention, or you have swallowed so much of your own ideologically-poisoned Kool-Aid that common sense and indignation at the proper threats to our democracy and children are beyond your ability to perceive. In fact, such an insidious practice of anonymous naming has already occurred in America in the time of the Red Scare and the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the era of McCarthyism in the 1950’s. 

America is without question the longest-sustained, large-scale liberal democracy the world has ever seen, and it is arguably the greatest country to have ever existed, but that greatness was built on the diversity of its citizenship, its allowance of a diversity of thought and beliefs, and a willingness to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes and self-inflicted atrocities. The greatest threat to America’s continuation is any group’s insistence (Right or Left leaning) on unanimous adherence to a monolithic worldview, a teaching of a jingoistic version of its history, and the denial of its national sins. Just as it is appropriate and necessary to teach of the glories of America, it is equally imperative to teach of its shame.

In the movie Wall Street in his defense of capitalism, Gordon Gecko, somewhat surprisingly and certainly against the most basic of Christian values, asserts that “Greed is good.” I’d invoke the spirit of his ironic claim by suggesting that “Guilt is good.” As a lifelong Catholic, the notion has certainly been deeply ingrained in my psyche, and I can attest to its role in helping me to avoid repeating past sins.

We should not be sheltering our children from the inherited guilt of our American sins, namely the abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans, the once explicitly-stated and implemented policy of the extermination of indiginous peoples, the internment of our fellow Americans of Japanese descent, the subjugation of women to second class status, the abuse of our labor class, the demonization of the LGBTQ+ community, the aforementioned Red Scare, and our occasional war of specious justification. Just as my guilt and shame over my own sins help me to avoid repeating them, as a nation, we need to own our sins in order to become even better as a people and to be a true and worthwhile exemplar of liberal democracy on the international stage.

Trigger Warning for the “snowflakes” like Youngkin and his ilk: In the past, I have taught; in the present, I do teach; and in the future, I will teach such texts as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn,The Jungle, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Awakening, It Can’t Happen Here, MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Things They Carried, Beloved, and “woke” (That ought to piss off a few folks.) short stories too many to count.

I will continue to teach these seminal texts until shortsighted alarmists (notice my avoidance of referring to them as fascists) like Youngkin and their “thought police” break down my classroom door. At which point, America will have been reduced to a failed experiment and teachers to propagandists. In the words of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, that fictional American subversive, “I’d prefer not to” teach at all.

Whoever believes, as the character played by Ali McGraw says in the movie Love Story, that “Love [or Patriotism] means never having to say ‘you’re sorry,’” has either never been in love or they are a complete narcissistic moron.

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(giving) for Nothing!

This is a re-posting, with some updating and minor edits, of an essay I shared a few months back. It seems fitting for the Thanksgiving holiday, so I thought I’d resurrect it for those who may have missed it the first time. I hope you enjoy and that it provides some “food for thought” to go along with the “food for food’s sake” we all plan to enjoy this holiday.

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 some theoretical day in the future 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’m beyond grateful that they exist, and I applaud those who provide them, but I will not have my Thanksgiving meal in some church or school cafeteria because I’m not homeless and I’m able to provide one for myself and loved ones.
  • 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 87 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.
  • My grown children did not complain to me of jobs or relationships they would rather not be in, for each has been blessed with careers and significant others they love.
  • 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 Thanksgiving 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 a few days, 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 86,000 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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Your Least Happy Child

Stay with me.

Solipsism is a word one doesn’t use every day unless you happen to be a professor of epistemological philosophy. The word, which refers to the belief that the self is all that can be known to exist, often receives a bad rap in modern parlance as its fundamental meaning gets connotatively twisted to be synonymous with such words as narcissism, self-absorption, and egocentricity. 

I suggest to my students that, despite these negative connotations, solipsism is a worthy life strategy while they are young and single. During that post-childhood, pre-full-blown adulthood period prior to the eventual partnering which most will choose, it’s appropriate to live with a degree of selfish self-absorption. We should all chase dreams, chase skirts, chase wild geese, whatever it is we feel the need to chase during that largely-unencumbered time; however, once we choose to marry into a committed relationship, we must leave our solipsism behind and no longer place ourselves at the center of our own lives.

Me in my solipsistic youth. Nice afro (all natural)and tux.

Notice my phraseology in the previous sentence: “once we choose to marry.” Most people tend to associate marriage not with “choosing” but with “falling,” as in “I fell in love,” with the expected end being marriage. My problem with this notion is that one should never “fall” into a marriage. Fall in love by all means! Love is, ultimately, what makes life worth living. I encourage everyone to fall in love early and often, but marriage should be a choice based largely on reason and entered into with deliberation. And, loving someone is NOT a good enough reason to marry them. We have all loved a few people in our lifetimes whom we could never have actually lived with — nor them us.

Think about it. How often does the act of falling end well? We fall and hurt ourselves. The stock market falls, and the Great Depression ensues. Rome falls and Europe is thrown into the Dark Ages. Even when used as a noun to indicate the autumn of the year, the fall season literally and symbolically marks the ending of things and the onset of winter and death. So why would anyone want to “fall” into a marriage. They shouldn’t. It should, in fact, be a choice.

The tree outside my classroom that each fall reminds me of the beauty but also of the brevity of life.

Some couples are fortunate. They mutually choose to marry the same person they fell in love with. I feel I’m one such lucky guy. Admittedly, rationally choosing to marry someone is not sexy. Hollywood will never make a rom-com based on someone’s choosing to love and/or marry. No love song will ever be written or played on one’s wedding day that extols the virtues of choosing to love and/or marry. Still, if sustained happiness and longevity of the relationship is the goal, choosing to love/marry is much more likely to bring about the desired long term and healthy relationship than falling “Accidentally in Love,” as my favorite band of all-time, The Counting Crows, extol in a song of that exact title.

Are you still there?

All of this, finally, brings me to the title of this post. Once we choose to marry, we also must choose to set aside our solipsistic youth and to place ourselves second in importance to our partner. Our own happiness should become entirely dependent on that of our partner’s. That’s what love is. If children should follow, our own happiness becomes even less of our own making and even more out of our control. Therefore, the title. A truism, which my wife and I have come to accept, is that, as parents, we are only capable of being “as happy as our least happy child.” It’s a truism that applies no matter how young or old your children are, and for us, it has been extended to include daughter-in-laws and grandchildren.

With that understanding, for a few precious days recently, Julie and I have been very happy. A month ago, our son Travis and our daughter-in-law Mallory had their second healthy child. Last week, our eldest son, Taylor, coached his Hiram College basketball team to a tournament championship. And this week, our youngest son, Tanner, passed the written portion of his paramedic’s exam on his first attempt. If you look at the pictures below, you’ll see happiness written all over their faces.

If you think they’re happy, look at their mom and dad.

Who knows what the near future holds — or even the next ten minutes — but for today anyway, we feel happy.

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. 14 – Rick Dominick

There’s never been a truer hometown sports fan than Rick Dominick.

As I grow older, I’m gaining an appreciation for old friends, not friends who are old — which is also increasingly the case — and not those who were friends long ago, but constant friends with whom I’ve shared a lifetime. For me one of the most constant of friends has been Rick Dominick. However, even as I claim my stake of friendship with Rick, I know he has an inner circle of devoted friends even longer enduring and more intimate than that which he and I share, and I’m only a little bit jealous.

Rob, Phil, Rick, and Mike. Lifelong Friends.

Other than our college years, Rick and I have traveled in the same orbits for the majority of our lifetimes. He was a year ahead of me at St. Mary Elementary. In high school, after working under him as a sports editor, I succeeded Rick as editor-in-chief of the high school yearbook. After college, Rick was instrumental in bringing me back to our alma mater as an English teacher and coach, positions I held for ten years, and a year after I accepted a teaching position in Port Clinton, Rick finally followed me. Therefore, forty-seven of the forty-eight years I’ve spent in schools, as either a student or as an educator, Rick has been in the same building.

In an age when self-promotion is not only the norm but, in many cases, the expectation, Rick remains humble and most happy basking in the glow of others’ successes. His tenure as athletic director at PCHS has been marked by one accomplishment after another (upgraded facilities, unprecedented success among our sports teams, hosting numerous prestigious events, and playing a key role in conference realignment are a few amongst many others), yet not once, have I witnessed Rick seek recognition, much less credit, for his efforts.

Rick has always been a glutton for punishment as he has consistently sought out jobs that, if he’s lucky, he might please half of the people involved: coaching, officiating, guidance counselor, and athletic director. Despite regular criticism from those who believe they know better but have no idea of the many strings attached to the difficult decisions his jobs require, Rick remains not only unperturbed by but also affable toward his critics. The ultimate criterion for his decision making has always been the answer to the question “What is best for kids, the school, and the community.” Trust me, it is never “What is best for Rick Dominick.” He has always been and remains a consummate professional.

Unlike his volatile, heart-on-his-sleeve-wearing friend and longtime co-worker, meaning me, Rick has the patience of a saint and an even-keeled temperament that serves him well in his various positions. Far from rare are the phone calls from irate parents of both students and athletes, the teachers/coaches storming his office to address some misperceived slight or slip-up, the student made distraught by academic and teenage stresses, and the administrator asking for the nearly impossible. Yet, much more-often-than-not, they all leave his office with an assurance that their concerns will be addressed and all will be okay.

While wearing any of his hats, Rick has always known and modeled the truism that treating everyone fairly doesn’t necessarily mean treating them the same. As a result, he is often faced with disgruntled constituents whose displeasure he absorbs with remarkable grace, which is an increasingly rare talent in our current age of rage.

The number of students and athletes whose lives have been made better by Rick’s guidance and example are numerous. It’s a multitude that includes my oldest son, Taylor, who had the great fortune of playing freshman basketball for Coach Dominick. Taylor is now the head college basketball coach at Hiram College and living his dream while emulating many of the behaviors he witnessed under Rick’s tutelage. He will be the first to tell you of Coach Dominick’s influence on his career choice and his coaching style.

Coach Dominick with Port Clinton’s State Runner-Up Team

I picture Rick Dominick as a blend of the actors Tom Hanks and Alan Alda. He’s an everyman who rarely stands out in the crowd but without whose presence the crowd would be incapable of coalescing into a functional group. I think of him as the point guard on the basketball team who’d rather pass than shoot and who runs with his head down back to the defensive end of the court while the shooter raises his three fingers in celebration of the basket, which he never would have scored had the point guard not set him up for success.

Perhaps, the only hat Rick wears better than those already mentioned, including friend, is husband and father. Rarely have I met a man more devoted to his wife, Sherri, and his son, Cody, who is a math teacher following in many of his father’s footsteps as an educator and coach.

Rick and Family

Although I never thought about it this way before, I can’t imagine my life without Rick Dominick in it.

Our Saturday Morning Coffee Group

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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St. Nevercome’s Day

In Catholic school, we regularly celebrated various saints’ feast days, but in the entirety of my Catholic education, I never heard of St. Nevercome. That is until I read Bertolt Brecht’s brilliant play The Good Woman of Setzuan in which a disgruntled-with-life character by the name of Yang Sun sings “The Song of St. Nevercome.” By the way, Bertoldt’s play also provides insightful commentary on gender politics.

You might think of the fictional St. Nevercome as the patron saint of unfulfilled dreams, wishes, fantasies, goals, promises, etc. The expectation is that on St. Nevercome’s Day all of our unfulfilled longings will come true. Yang Sun’s greatest desire is to be a pilot. In the communistic system under which he lives, however, the quota for pilots is already at its maximum. Therefore, he is unable to live his dream, so he languishes in self-pity as he awaits St. Nevercome’s Day.

In the song that Yang Sun sarcastically sings, there’s an Edenic wish expressed for a day when basic human virtue will be universally rewarded and evil punished and when everyone’s needs will be met, not just those of the wealthy few: “Oh, hooray, hooray! That day goodness will pay! // That day badness will cost you your head! // And merit and money will smile and be funny // While exchanging salt and bread.”

The problem with St. Nevercome’s Day, of course, is that it never comes.

In many of our personal lives, we’ve been passively waiting for so long for St. Nevercome’s Day that we’re forced reluctantly to accept that it’s too late for us to ever see its arrival. Our ship of dreams never came in, and it isn’t drawing near on the horizon. On the societal level, some of us have sincerely tried to, as Gandhi implored, to “Be the change [we] wish to see in the world,” but we’ve been so beaten down by other people’s skepticism, negativity, and outright rejection that we’ve grown disillusioned, sullen, indifferent, and worst of all, we’ve stopped trying.

Lately, like Yang Sun, I’ve found myself saddened by and disgruntled with myself, other people, and the state of the world in general. My once youthful, naive dreams of personal achievement and societal betterment are disappearing at an alarming rate. Each day, each news cycle, I find myself slipping towards lassitude, surrender, and withdrawal rather than meaningful engagement in professional, social, or political arenas. Darkness beckons.

I’m hoping it’s — and it probably is — just a phase, a period from which I will soon emerge full of optimism regarding the world and my place in it. But as for today, I’m feeling forced to reckon with the grim realities that Camelot never existed, the cavalry ain’t coming, and in the words of Our Lady Peace, “Superman’s Dead.”

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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Talking Race in the Classroom

For the first time in thirty-seven years of teaching, this week I felt the need to inform my bosses of the material I would be sharing in my classroom. I wasn’t seeking permission as much as providing them with a warning that the topic of the readings in the upcoming unit in my college composition course was a “hot button” issue: reckoning with America’s overtly-racist past and the insidious persistence of systemic racism in modern American institutions.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when only the most delusional of White supremacists would have raised an eyebrow at such an acknowledgement of a blatantly-obvious truth, but sadly, today some folks have concluded that patriotism means never having to say, “We’re sorry” or “We were wrong.” These same folks tend to be vocal and to stir up controversy where none need exist and run for school boards.

“What changed?” you may ask.

One explanation is that a number of people, either uncomfortable with their guilt — individual or collective — or ignorant of the truth — willful or unintentional — were recently provided a scapegoat for their insecurities in the form of three words: Critical Race Theory. If you ask the majority of those whose white cotton panties are in a bunch about it to explain CRT, they could not, at least not in any way true to the scholarship and movement, which, by the way, has been in existence for nearly fifty years, but it is an easy-to-remember-and-repeat phrase and a convenient target on which to aim their laughable rage at largely disenfranchised and powerless groups in order to score political points or to paint their own racist notions in patriotism, which can’t help but call to mind the wit and wisdom of Samuel Johnson, who famously and correctly said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Although CRT is never mentioned in the aforementioned readings, they challenge me and my students to explore and to consider such notions as white guilt and privilege, the re-naming of buildings and removal of statues that honor historical figures of questionable personal morality, affirmative action, and systemic racism with an open mind. None of it is being promoted or indoctrinated despite what those opposed to teaching the historical facts of racial injustice in America might want you to believe.

I believe that some of the misunderstanding regarding this issue stems from some folks’ inability or unwillingness to wrap their brains around the cognitive dissonance a healthy attitude towards America’s history with race requires. Cognitive dissonance demands that one can simultaneously hold as true two polar opposite realities. In this case, America has both much to be ashamed of regarding public policy and private prejudices in race relations and much to be proud of in championing civil rights. To deny either is to be willfully dishonest and unnecessarily divisive.

They would never admit it, but many of those opposed to preserving an honest accounting of our country’s past sins, desire to whitewash a deserved and healthy national guilt. I’m Catholic, trust me, I know much about guilt, and as much as I often feel angry at my church for foisting so much actual guilt or the mere fear of future guilt upon me, I also realize how valuable it has been as a means of correcting bad behavior or avoiding it altogether. I have a door in my house that many years ago I put my fist through in a fit of anger. Every time I pass it, I’m struck with guilt and shame. My wife frequently requests that I hang a new door; however, I refuse to because it reminds me of what an idiot I can be if I let my temper get away from me. I haven’t punched anything since. An adult admits their mistakes, apologizes, atones, and tries to do better going forward. Only a child denies their guilt when caught with a red hand in the cookie jar. To take anything but a full and honest accounting of the history and lingering effects of racism in America would be akin to my hanging a new door without repairing the hole.

Similarly, for anyone to deny that the majority of our institutions are slanted in favor of White people, especially White men, is to be disingenuous. The damage done by four hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism can’t be erased in the real world with the stroke of a legislative pen or simply because we may wish it to be. In the words of Bruce Hornsby, “The law don’t change another’s mind / when all it sees at the hiring time / is the line on the color bar.”

It disappoints me to see candidates for local school board positions claim to be opposed to CRT being taught in their school systems, where, in fact, it is already NOT being taught. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of teachers couldn’t provide an accurate definition of CRT if it were demanded of them; therefore, I doubt that they are promulgating it in their classrooms. These candidates have built a straw man of the issue in order to ignite racial fears and insecurities. It’s the oft-used-by Republicans Southern Strategy, and it’s reprehensible and shameful. To be clear, I have nothing against Republicans; I have much against anyone who stokes the flames of reverse racism where none exists then claiming to be opposed to the teaching of “CRT or other racially divisive material.” Give me a break. They know the dog whistle they’re blowing.

To paraphrase Jason Isbell’s song “White Man’s World,” I’m a White man teaching in a White man’s school. Percentagewise, the population of African Americans in my district is somewhere in the low single digits. My students have had very little exposure to African American culture or to the challenges faced by African Americans or to the obstacles placed in their way. The conversations I have with them regarding the history and contemporary state of race relations in America are vital to their intellectual growth and preparation for the larger, more diverse world they are about to enter.

Admittedly, my own experience with African American culture is limited, I have in my lifetime, however, been one of two white boys attending a dance sponsored by the African American fraternity. I have been the only white boy sitting in a pew in an African Methodist Episcopal Church. If you’ve never been the only white boy in the room, I highly recommend you experience it. Perhaps, if you combine the experience with an honest reading of American history, you will gain a perspective a bit more receptive to empathy and a bit less smug in your Whiteness.

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. #3: A Good Day

Lately, I’ve been experiencing a bit of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in many areas of my life, including the value of continuing this blog. It may be an act of neurotic self-pity or simply be a part of reaching a certain age and taking a measure of myself and my accomplishments or lack thereof. I don’t know. But I had a very cool and personally-rewarding experience in my English 12/British Literature class recently that came along just when I needed it and that, at least minimally, restored a bit of my faith in young adult readers and in myself.

The class is composed mostly of — if I’m being honest — less-than-highly-motivated scholars. A handful of them are college bound, and I imagine a couple of those will actually survive the rigors of university-level academia, but I don’t believe any of them plan on being English majors; in fact, the vast majority are simply wanting to earn their final English credit and to graduate in May.

They’re all sweet kids, and I truly appreciate and enjoy all of them, but their interest in my lectures and in the readings I assign them is limited. Despite all of my desperate histrionics and pleas for them to “think” and to “read along,” their attention is very difficult to hold. Clearly, they would much rather be staring into their phones, out the window, at each other, or just about anywhere but at me or the texts I place in front of them.

Trust me; I get it. I understand their indifference. The vast majority of what I make them read was written by old white men about old white men’s problems and experiences. We’ve been in class for two months, and we’re still trudging through texts written around a thousand years ago, and I’ll be lucky if I can share something written by an English woman by sometime in the second semester, and I’ll really have to stretch the traditional English canon if I want to include anything by a minority author.

Their indifference is not their fault.

In order to address my students’ lack of enthusiasm for reading in general and in line with my school district’s push for increased literacy and installing a love of reading in our students, this year I planned to incorporate an independent reading period of twenty to thirty minutes into my Wednesday class sessions. On the Wednesday morning of our first such reading period, however, I woke up and realized I had forgotten to inform my students of the plan or to assign them to come to class with something of their own choosing to read for pleasure rather than classwork.

In a panic, I remembered that I had enough copies of my second novel, Goodness Falls, for each member of the class, so I brought the books with me to school. (As a side note, I have never before used my own books in school or even suggested to my students that they should read them. I’m pretty sure that most of them don’t even know, and much less care, that I’ve written any.) When I distributed them to the class, I asked the kids just to read from my novel for the time remaining in the period and, if they wished, they could continue in it the following week or bring in something of their own choosing. They would not hurt my feelings.

I was shocked and beyond validated when, for the next twenty minutes, they read with a rapt attention I had not seen them apply all semester. When the bell rang to end the period, it was like an alarm going off to pull them back into the real world. Several of them even expressed their excitement about continuing to read from Goodness Falls the following week.

It may have been the greatest compliment I have ever received as a writer, and as it is wont to do, the universe smiled on me just when I needed it most.

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 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

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