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“Seventeen Going Under”

One of my favorite contemporary sinnger/songwriters is Sam Fender, a Geordie kid from the northeast of England. Although I refer to him as a “kid” (He’s 28.), Fender possesses worldly wisdom and insight that belie his tender years. He is often compared with a young Springsteen regarding his working class youth and anthemic songs that capture the angst of youth and the cognitively dissonant juxtaposition of the love of home and hometown with the burning need to get the hell out that same home/hometown. Every teenager’s dilemma.

His most recent album, Seventeen Going Under, is a masterwork in what’s often described as “roots-oriented rock,” which, to me, means hard-driving guitars, keyboards, and a saxophone. Although there isn’t a sub-par song on the album, it’s the title song that rocked my world when I heard it and that remains in constant play on my devices. I believe the song speaks to me for a couple reasons. One is my belief, often shared, that for many of us, in one way or another, there’s a piece of us that stays seventeen for our entire lives. The first time experiences and emotions from that period are so new and raw that they burn themselves deeply into our psyches. Secondly, I’ve spent the majority of my life in the company of seventeen-year-olds, reliving my own highs and lows vicariously; therefore, I’m a sucker for any song that accurately taps into the messy-wonderfrul world of adolescence.

This live version captures the intensity of Fender’s song and lived experience.

The song captures the angst, anger, adventures, first forays into sex and love, heartbreaks, inter and intra-personal conflicts, struggles with self-definition, and the recognition of one’s parents, not as superhuman but as being buffeted and often defeated by all-too-human struggles with family, health issues, and financial stability. According to Ethan Shanfield, writing for Pitchfork, “[Fender’s] words conjure both angst and beauty, holding your attention from start to finish.” I couldn’t agree more.

Some of the lyrics can be difficult to make out for an American listener, but it’s well worth the effort.

As an English teacher, I am often granted the privilege of peering into my students’ lives outside of school through the various personal essays they write. Trust me, I often regret having that privilege. At “seventeen,” many of them are truly “going under,” exposed to and drowning in situations no one should be made to face at that age. Stories of abuse, neglect, poverty, hopelessness, depression, suicidal aspirations, and recklessness with sexuality, drugs, and alcohol are not uncommon. It’s understandable, but I think many adults who do not come into frequent contact with seventeen-year-old young adults and especially those who were fortunate to experience a more idyllic adolescence of their own, perhaps, during less complicated eras, are fairly clueless regarding the challenges faced by today’s seventeen-year olds. I often marvel at these kids’ ability to even show up to school when their personal lives are in such disarray. On any given day, the shit some of them are dealing with renders ridiculous any lesson in literature or composition I might be teaching, for those are the luxuries of stability, safety, and a promising tomorrow.

My ability to do much of anything to ameliorate their suffering and sadness is limited, but I try — I really try — to keep them from “going under” in the only way I know how: by sharing stories from literature and life that show them that they are not the first to experience whatever hardship they are facing and they are not alone. They too, like the heroes in the stories I teach, can — if nothing else — keep their heads above the waters of despair and defeat.

However, don’t let the somber tenor of this essay fool you. The vast majority of these seventeen-year-olds whom I teach are driven, resilient, and beautiful, and like Fender sings in my favorite song of his “Getting Started”: “I’m only getting started // Don’t mean to be disheartened // Felt like giving up so many times before // But I’m still here grinding.”

These kids are better than alright. They’re only “getting started” and they’re “still here grinding.”

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, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Hazing or Horseplay?

Few experiences can deflate a young person like cruel hazing rituals.

In the past week, two different high school hazing incidents have been prominently reported in the news, one locally and one in Pennsylvania. Both incidents involved members of the respective schools’ football teams and are remarkably similar. The school district in Pennsylvania went so far as to cancel their entire season. I can’t say, however, that I was surprised by the stories. Despite the negative attention fraternities and various athletic teams have received in recent years, including reports of deaths and criminal charges as the result of extreme hazing rituals, the practice has simply gone underground and typically unreported. The unfortunate truth is that it is far from being eliminated.

One of the more controversial scenes in my new novel, Belfast, Ohio, involves a hazing incident perpetrated against the main character and his fellow freshmen by members of his high school crew team. Like many hazing practices, the ritual involves humiliation, violence, and strong sexual undertones. As a side note, it’s both interesting and sad how often and how much those three qualities are conflated in hazing practices, mostly by males, nor is it coincidental that the majority of brutalistic hazing rituals are the products of the hypersexualized minds of high school and college-aged boys.

Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels.com

I have to admit that I’ve been a bit caught off guard by the surprised reactions that have been shared with me by readers as if hazing were a past practice of more brutalistic, bygone days. The scene I share in the novel is not wholly a product of my own twisted imagination. In fact, it is closely based on an incident found in the autobiography of Lance Rentzel, the one time NFL wide receiver. In his autobiography, When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow, Rentzel describes an initiation ritual he endured while a football player at Oklahoma University in the sixties. (You’ll have to read my or his book to find out more.) Interestingly and perhaps not coincidentally, as an adult Rentzel would be arrested on indecent exposure charges. Who can say how much his suffering of sexual trauma as a teenager warped his adult sexuality?

Although I was never victimized myself, I vividly remember watching terrified as several fellow sophomores on my high school football team were brutalized by upperclassmen. Most likely, I was spared the abuse due to having a sister in the senior class who was friends with my older teammates. Piling on a kid and “dry humping” him from behind was not an uncommon occurrence nor was the infliction of extreme “wedgies,” the wrapping of genitals with athletic tape, and being pissed on in the showers. There may have been worse; these are just the ones I witnessed and remember. At the time, I’d been somehow brainwashed into classifying all of it as normal “horseplay.” It was only in retrospect that I realized the abusive, sexual, and even homoerotic nature of these hazing incidents. We all just accepted the practice as normal and took it. The thought never crossed our minds to report these assaults to coaches, school officials, or especially our parents. Of course and sadly, anyone familiar with the psychology of sexual assault victims knows that not reporting one’s violation is the norm for fear of public exposure and the additional accompanying humiliation. 

What’s not surprising at all is that the guys in my class who suffered the most from these sadistic acts became the most avid practitioners of those very same behaviors when we became upperclassmen. Such is the cycle of abuse.

I know some will argue that such behavior amounts to no more than “boys being boys,” and there are those who will insist that hazing rituals are an effective means of team building. And there are still those who will insist that the punishment of those who inflict the hazing is an overreach by those in authority and that those who call for such accountability are contributing to the “wussification” of our kids, especially our young males.

I beg to differ.

There are few things I find more repulsive than deliberate cruelty. I don’t claim to have been or to be a saint. I’m sure I’ve behaved in a manner that came off as cruel to others at various points in my life. However, if I have, those incidents were the results of immaturity, ignorance, or misunderstanding, not deliberate cruelty, which is exactly and only what hazing amounts to.

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, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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What’s It About?

“What’s it about?” is the question I typically receive — often in a whiny voice — from my literature students when introducing them to a new story. Although they phrase the question in this way, what they are actually enquiring to know is “What happens?” In other words, their focus is primarily on plot rather than theme. To an English teacher, however, stories are not so much about what happens but about what “what happens” means. What universal truths and themes does it reveal and confirm?

This is also the question posed in a slightly different way in one of the most underrated songs from any film score: Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song “What’s It All About, Alfie?”, written for the 1966 movie Alfie.

Although the Dionne Warwick-sung version had the most chart success, for my money the Cilia Black rendition, which was featured in the film, remains the seminal performance. Perhaps, it is the somewhat unusual and childish-sounding name of “Alfie” that has caused many people to undervalue the song; however, it is actually quite complex musically and profound lyrically. After all, there is no more important or meaningful question to ask regarding one’s plac in the world than “What’s it all about?”

“What’s it about?” is also the most common question asked of me and the most difficult for me to answer after a novel’s release. It’s a common sense question, and I really should have an “elevator pitch” ready at all times, a thirty to sixty second summary to answer the dreaded question. However, it’s so difficult to condense a 75,000-word novel into such a limited reply that I tend to deflect the question rather than answer it. Like trying to explain what the meaning to one’s life is, it’s too expansive of an answer for a brief synopsis.

However, another question, posed by David’s lyrics to the Alfie character, nicely applies to the main character, eighteen-year old Gal Lafferty, in Belfast, Ohio, my latest novel. The lines begin, “Is it just for the moment we live? // What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? // Are we meant to take more than we give?” My answer and my novel’s reply to the final question in that series is, “No, we are challenged to give more than we take.”

As Belfast, Ohio, opens, a bright future awaits Gal, a good student in the bliss-filled throes of his first love relationship. However, the events of the novel will ask him to sacrifice everything he has going for himself in order to serve a greater good than his own happiness. It’s not sexy, but sacrifice as a path that leads to redemption is a theme that runs throughout the novel. It’s a path that a number of major characters in the novel must choose either to walk or to take the easier route that provides less resistance but no redemption.

“What’s It All About, Alfie” also challenges the eponymous character’s budding nihilism when it asserts, “I know there’s something much more // Something even non-believers can believe in.” As a young adult trying to figure out his place in the world and trying to make sense of his existence beyond what others have told him to accept as right, true, and good, Gal is experiencing what the sixteenth century poet St. John of the Cross described as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” Despite his attendance in Catholic schools or maybe because of it, he has been growing increasingly agnostic and skeptical of his religious training, but he will be forced to pause and reconsider his spiritual backsliding when he witnesses a string of potentially supernatural occurrences, which seem to confirm for Gal that he — like the Blues Brothers — may actually be on a “mission from God.”

Perhaps, we all are.

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, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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OhGo and Help Somebody

I’ve been wanting to write and share this post for some time; however, I have sat on it for fear of it coming off as self-promoting, which diminishes whatever grace I might earn in volunteering in the first place. Actually, it is the last thing I want anyone to take from it. My measly six hours a month of volunteerism with OhGo is an embarrassingly small act of community service. There are sooooooo many others who do sooooooo much more and who are deserving of effusive praise and appreciation for their extensive efforts to serve our community, both through OhGo and other organizations. Besides, the old adage that the far greater reward is in the giving rather than in the receiving has been proven true to me tenfold in my experiences with OhGo.

What has prompted me to finally write this post was a conversation (Okay. Lecture.) I had/gave in my composition classes, during which I shared the characteristics of a well-told story. I pointed to the importance of inspiring empathy in the reader, which led to a discussion of the difference between sympathy and empathy. I pointed out that empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is far superior to sympathy, which merely involves feeling bad (Yes, “bad” is correct, not badly.) for others.

I proceeded to climb into my imaginary pulpit and all but preach on the relatively worthless nature of sympathy in general, especially self-pity. Having had to learn to fight my own lifelong proclivity to feel sorry for myself, I spoke from experience on the self-defeating and unattractive nature of that tendency. I shared with them the famous lines from the Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem “Solitude,” which rightly professes, “Laugh and the world laughs with you; // Weep and you weep alone.” For it is true that most people’s pity for others comes with a soon-to-be-reached expiration date. Contrarily, empathy never goes away.

Growing increasingly dramatic, I encouraged my students — rather than feeling sympathy for others who are in sad or desperate straits — to do something to mitigate those folks’ suffering. For sympathy has never fed an empty belly, clothed the naked, or provided shelter for the homeless. All of which leads me back to OhGo and the title of this post.

For years, my wife had been encouraging me to join her in volunteering for a local service organization. However, I continuously balked, claiming to have enough on my plate already and dragging out that old, tired saw that “charity begins at home.” Eventually, she began volunteering on her own for OhGo, a multi-faceted, Sandusky area community organization.

Evntually, after employing my own sense of empathy while reflecting on a brief period during my college years when I was homeless and often hungry (a situation that resulted from my own choices and which I’ve shared here before,) for the past year or so, I have joined my wife in aiding OhGo with its bi-monthly, mobile food pantry, which travels to and sets up shop in three different locations in Sandusky. It has proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime. I’m positive that my wife would echo that statemnt. The volunteers we “work” with are some of the most humble, kind, and generous people I have ever known, and even though I don’t even know most of their last names, I count them among my dearest friends and favorite people in the world. And the clients we serve are genuinely thankful and gracious.

I’d encourage anyone who reads this who isn’t already volunteering their time to community outreach programs to consider doing so. Without question, financial contributions are great and needed, but unless you are like the poor woman in the Gospel who offered up her last two coins to God, such generosity is of limited reward to the giver’s own sense of contribution to the greater good.

At the end of the day, I hate telling anyone how they should spend their time or live, but if you should be so inclined as to support my personal favorite community organization, OhGo is sponsoring a fundraiser in early October. Trust me. Your contribution will go to a deserving cause and be wisely spent. My wife has attended several of these Empty Bowls with her girlfriends and had a marvelous time every time.

For a complete description of the outreach provided by OhGo, click on the link below.

https://www.ohgoreach.org/

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What You Wear

I spent the Labor Day weekend on Kelleys Island with my family celebrating my birthday. Saturday also happened to be week one of the college football season. As has become a bit of a trend, a whole host of Ohio State Buckeye fans descended on the island in full Buckeye regalia to watch their game versus Notre Dame.

As it would happen, I’m not a Buckeye fan. I was raised in a Catholic family rooting for Notre Dame. I vividly remember watching the Notre Dame replay show with Lindsey Nelson on Sunday mornings in the fall after church with my dad and brothers. I don’t remember the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry being that important in our house. We were expected to be Notre Dame fans. When my oldest brother enrolled at Michigan, however, the rest of us siblings became quasi-Wolverine fans mostly because he would occasionally bring home UM swag (stickers, pencils, t-shirts, etc.) and because some of us were able to actually visit the campus in Ann Arbor. In those less-tribal days, our Michigan fandom really didn’t seem like that big of a deal, and whenever I was called out for being a supporter of “that team up North,” it was a lighthearted sort of teasing.

As you might suspect, I took my “traitorous” fandom with me into adulthood, and just as I rooted for Notre Dame as a child mostly because my dad did, two of my three boys chose to be Wolverine fans like their dad. My cheering for Michigan never rose to a hatred for Ohio State. Actually, as an Ohio high school football coach, I was happy to see the team with a large number of Ohio high school football players excel, and despite good-natured ribbing with many Buckeye fans, I still root for them with the exception of one game each fall.

Somewhere and sadly, however, the rivalry turned ugly.

This was never made so clear to me as this past Saturday on the island. As he is wont to do on days that Michigan is playing, my oldest son wore a Michigan football t-shirt while we were gathered in our condo to watch the Michigan vs. Colorado State game at noon. At one point, my wife needed lime juice from the store in order to finish her salsa. Without putting much mind to what he was wearing, my son volunteered to make the short walk to the general store. During his journey, two Buckeye fans threatened to “kick his ass” and two others menacingly informed him that he was a “brave man for wearing that shirt.”

Let me emphasize that: FOR WEARING A T-SHIRT.

No big deal. My son is and behaves as an adult. He ignored their comments and returned home no worse for the wear. Later that afternoon, however, when he, his wife, his brothers, and sisters-in-law decided to venture out for a beer, I, fearing for his/their safety, advised him that it would be better if he would change out of his Michigan shirt that seemed to so offend those men earlier. Not to worry. He was way ahead of me.

As most things tend to do for my constantly-whirring brain, the entire situation got me to thinking about mothers and fathers whose children can’t so easily remove the attribute for which others seem to hate them for no defensible reason. I thought of the parents of Muslim children, who in simply adhering to their faith, send their daughters out into the world wearing hijabs. Similarly, I thought of the parents of Jewish boys, who send their sons out into the world wearing yamulkes. I thought of the parents of LGBTQ children who send their sons and daughters out into the world knowing their orientations may lead to violent reactions from insecure homophobes. Most poignantly of all, I thought of Asian and African-American parents, whose children cannot simply remove an item of clothing or adjust their behavior to avoid the predictable prejudices and discriminatory practices inherent in a systemically-racist society.

Photo by Leandro Valentino on Pexels.com

Obviously, the fear I felt for my son wasn’t one-millionth of that which the parents I mentioned in the previous paragraph must experience daily. However, that one-millionth shook me to my core. It was MY son being threatened for simply adopting MY favorite team as his own when he was a daddy-pleasing little boy.

Whether it pertains to rivalries between sports teams or the acceptance of one another for our diversity, I’d like to think that we can do and we can be better by adopting a more appropriate perspective toward what ultimately remain games and by celebrating our differences rather than villainizing them.

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, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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The Fourth Quarter

It’s a fairly common practice among players and coaches on many high school football teams to hold up four fingers prior to the onset of the fourth quarter. The gesture is meant to be a simple reminder to themselves and one another that they are about to begin what is often the time period when the outcome of the game will be decided, so they’d better knuckle down and give their all because there is no fifth quarter.

If you see me walking around this weekend holding four fingers in the air, it is because this Sunday will be my 60th birthday. Therefore, if I’m fortunate enough to match my father’s eighty years lived, I’m about to begin my personal fourth quarter, and I want to make sure that my final minutes do not tick away without my knuckling down and making the most of every second. And with so little time to spend with them, I especially want to make sure I make the most of my limited years with my three current grandbabies and hopefully more. There are so many experiences I want to share with them and memories I want to make with them before my scoreboard clock reaches 00:00.

I can say with certainty that I’m not having some sort of three-fourths life crisis. I have no inclination to purchase a sports car, climb a mountain, or join a gym. And although I regret the times I may have behaved inappropriately or hurt the feelings of others, I do not feel the need to go on some Twelve-Step apology tour. Nor am I sad or morose about death in general or the sapping of energy, the reduced functioning of body, or the clouding of the mind that will progressively occur prior to it. I just want to be as fully engaged in and appreciative of as many of the moments that remain as possible.

One of my best friends died of colon cancer at the age of 46. During his last months, as it became increasingly obvious that his demise was inevitable, I ignored the advice of Howard Jones, who once sang, “Don’t try to live your life in one day.” As you would expect at such a relatively young age, my friend Bob was nowhere near ready to die. I reminded him that time is relative and suggested he try to imagine each day as a lifetime itself. As much as it were possible through the pain and the meds that dulled his senses, I encouraged him to live in every breath with an acute awareness of the people, the art, the dreams that filled his sleep, and whatever pleasures were still possible for him to experience. Looking back, I realize how pedantic I must have sounded, and of course, such advice is much easier to give than to follow. However, I still feel my advice was sound. At that time, Bob’s death was closer to twenty weeks away than the twenty years I optimistically hope remain for me, but even though I know that the trappings and mundanities of daily life will often swallow my best intentions, I want to live the 7,300 days in what remains of those fourscore years with such a laser-focused awareness of how good it really is to be alive that it will make each day feel as if it were a lifetime.

Bob with one of my babies.

In recent years, I’ve begun to sign my books and to close much of my correspondence with the phrase “Always Love.” The two-word phrase is a reminder to myself and wishful advice to the receiver to consciously choose to love. In this context, I’m not defining “love” in some hippy-dippy, Beatlesesque “All You Need Is Love” manner but love as it manifests through displays of kindness, empathy, and forgiveness. Rather than hate, love. Rather than anger, love. Rather than vengeance, love. Rather than indifference, love. Rather than envy, love. The former in each of these pairs is by far the easier option, but it’s the choice to love that reveals our better angels as members of the human species, which far too often of late seems to be sinking to its basest nature. I’m far from a holy roller or a Bible thumper, but I’ve always held dear the second of the only two commandments it is reported that Jesus ever delineated: “Love thy neighbor.”

So if you see my four fingers flying, know that one represents my desire to be engaged, a second to be appreciative of the blessings in my life, a third to stay in the moments, and the last to choose love during this fourth quarter of my life.

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, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Printer’s Ink

The first essay I assign in my composition classes is to write a personal literary narrative. The purpose of which is for my students to explore and to share their unique history/relationship with the written word. In other words, I want them to share whatever it was that sparked or, sadly too often, squelched their interest in reading and/or writing. Although I’ve assigned this essay several times, I, ironically, had never deeply considered from where my love for reading and writing emanates. Only recently, however, have I climbed into the “Wayback Machine” to pinpoint its genesis.

Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. You’d have to be of a certain age to recognize this allusion.

For many, such a love begins in early childhood listening to books being read at bedtime or while sitting on the laps of their parents, or it was the mere presence of plentiful books in the household that ignited their interest. However, none of these scenarios explain my relationship with the written word. With eight children, my folks had little time beyond that required to complete the necessities of maintaining a household, much less for storytime. And even though my mom subscribed to Highlights, the children’s magazine, more than it was ever read, that magazine was re-purposed to be the bases for our games of pickle in the front room, just as wax apples and oranges became wiffle balls, metal hangers became basketball hoops, and couches became end zones. My poor mother.

In my recent reflections, I’ve decided it was at Roth Printing, my extended family’s business that spanned three generations, where my love of the written word began by it literally soaking into my senses. It was seeing pallets stacked with paper that reeked of possibility with their blankness waiting to be filled in. It was the crystal cave that was the dark room, where the appropriate mixture of agitated chemicals converted nothing into something. It was the ink of rubber stamp pads being absorbed into my fingertips, the sound of the whistled melodies of my Uncle Ronnie over the ka-chunk, ka-chunk of the presses, the sight of my aunts and uncles at their various work stations, and most impressively, the smell of the ink — the singular smell of my childhood — wafting into my nostrils that instigated my lifelong obsession with the process of ink becoming letters that become words that become sentences that become paragraphs that become chapters that become entire books.

My Roth aunts and uncles all worked in some capacity, full or part-time, at Roth Printing. From Lt. to Rt. Ted, Bea (Powell). Mary Ellen (Link), Butch, Ronnie, and Tom (my father).

It’s fair to say that Johan Gutenberg’s invention of the modern printing press in the fifteenth century was the single most world-changing invention of the second millenium, not rivaled in significance until the introduction and proliferation of the Internet. I wouldn’t suggest that, as a child, I understood the role that the ancestors of those printing presses in the Roth Printing building on the corner of Scott and Perry Streets (always referred to as “The Shop”) played in changing the world by advancing the democratization of knowledge, but I think I did intuit the power inherent in those inked figures on paper and I wanted access to that power.

I don’t believe in magic, at least not in the kind featured on television and stage. I admit that there are certainly impressive, even awe-inspiring, sleight-of-hand feats performed, illusions created, and tricks played by skilled magicians, but that is exactly what they are, meaning tricks. To my mind, the greatest magic that has ever been done is the act of converting synapses of thought into the sounds represented by letters into typically black symbols on a white sheet of paper that recreate those synapses of thought or imagination in the mind of a reader who will most likely never meet the author in whose mind those synapses of thought originally fired.

That, my friends, is truly magic.

So you can keep your Merlin, your Gandalf, your Harry Potter. You will never conince me that the greatest white magic wielding wizards the world’s ever seen weren’t my grandfather, aunts and uncles, and father, or that the most powerful magic wand in the world is not a pen.

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, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Belfast, Ohio: The Story Behind the Story

After nearly fourteen years and several iterations, Belfast, Ohio, my fourth novel, is now available for online purchase. The original version was actually my second attempt at novel writing. At the time, the process of securing publication was a bit more onerous and a bit less saturated with aspiring authors than today. Nearly all agent queries and manuscript submissions were completed through the postal service, meaning actual printed letters and manuscripts. The process was time consuming and required large up front investments in copies and postage.

My agent queries for that initial version inspired several requests for full manuscripts but ultimately no offers of representation. One literary agent, however, saw promise in my writing and encouraged me to try again. My next effort resulted in So Shelly, which was purchased by Random House. Carelessly, I lost my only printed copy of that second novel, and the computer on which it was composed crashed like Humpty Dumpty beyond repair.

Approximately a year into the Covid-19 pandemic and a year after the release of my novel Island No. 6, I grew restless to begin another project. Even though a dozen years had passed since the original version of Belfast, Ohio — then with a different title — had been written, I never stopped thinking about the story and believing that there was a seed of something worth returning to and nurturing back to life but with the benefit of over a decade of lived wisdom and writing experience to add to the novel’s reconstitution.

As the synopsis on the back of the book’s cover promises, Belfast, Ohio is set in the heavily-Irish West Side of Cleveland, and its plot mixes elements of magic realism, Irish mysticism and history, Catholicism, and Arthurian Romance to weave an intricate and, I hope, compelling plot that highlights the themes of sacrifice and redemption, which I’d suggest are the requisites of true heroism. This is my first novel that travels beyond the confines of my hometown and its immediate vicinity, but it doesn’t wander far. I love Cleveland and frequently spend time there, especially on the West Side, which one of the characters in the novel refers to as “Belfast, Ohio,” ergo, the title.

As I mentioned above, there are four central motifs that run throughout the novel: magic realism, Irish mysticism and history, Catholicism, and Arthurian Romance.

Magic realism is a literary style that demands the reader’s exercise of cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold in one’s mind as true two opposite contentions) by combining a realistic narrative with surreal elements of dream or fantasy. This technique is reflective of my own admittedly paradoxical worldview that is primarily marked by pragmatism, rationalism, and skepticism but leaves the door open just a crack for the possiblility of the metaphysical/supernatural. As I said: cognitive dissonance. Galahad (Gal) Lafferty, the novel’s protagonist, is forced to wrestle with his own demons of doubt and disbelief and, perhaps, even a real one, demon that is.

My interest in Irish mysticism is derived from my love of the poems of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and from my own genetic and cultural link to Ireland. Yeats once said, “The mystical life is at the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” I incorporate several lines of Yeats’ poetry as epigraphs in the novel. As for Irish history, a few years back, I learned of the extent of my own Irishness from two sources: genetic data from an ancestry service and a conversation with my mother, who shared that her paternal grandmother was named Lafferty and an immigrant from Ireland, most likely the North. I was previously unaware of both of these connections, but I’d long been drawn to Irish culture, especially its music, poetry, and fiction. My Irishness had long lived in my collective unconscious, that part of the mind that is derived from ancestral memory and experience. It was as if I always knew I was part Irish, but I didn’t have the evidence of it. Although I find all of Ireland’s history fascinating, it is the recent period known as “The Troubles” that has most intrigued me. In Belfast Ohio, “The Troubles,” the three-decade civil war between nationalists (mainly self-identified as Irish or Roman Catholic) and unionists (mainly self-identified as British or Protestant) and primarily waged on the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is reignited and exported to modern day Cleveland.

The Irish Republican Flag

Having been baptized Catholic and then attending or teaching in a Catholic school for twenty-six years, Catholicism has probably done more to define me than anything outside of my family. Like many Catholics, my association with the Church has become a complicated one in light of its many scandals and abuses and its clinging to arcane rules and practices that I feel are out of step with the modern world. The truth is that today I consider myself more of a cultural Catholic than a theological one, but there is no denying that it has informed my personality and psyche profoundly. What I continue to value from my Catholic upbringing and education is its emphasis on sacrifice and redemption, which are best revealed through the stories of the crucifixion and ressurrection. Gal, who is a senior at St. John of Bath’s Jesuit High School, is experiencing his own crisis of faith, but the events of the novel cause him to embrace both of these Catholic tenets despite his emerging agnosticism.

Catholicism and its themes of Sacrifice and Redemption play a significant role in Belfast, Ohio. Photo by Em Hopper on Pexels.com

My interest in Arthurian Romance is mostly the byproduct of my many years of teaching Anglo-Irish Literature. Its tenets of service, chivalry, and courtly love play a central motivational role for the two main characters of the novel: Gal and his “lady love” Maeve Donnelly. Perhaps the most loved tale of Arthurian Romance is that of the search for The Holy Grail and its supposed powers. In the story, Gal and Maeve are unexpectedly drawn into The Grail quest when they learn it is hidden — of all places — in a salt mine two thousand feet below Lake Erie.

The inclusion of The Grail Quest serves to tie these four major motifs together: magic realism, Irish Mysticism (many scholars believe the story’s roots are in pre-Christian Celtic folklore), Catholicism, and Arthurian Romance and to tell what I hope is a fast-paced story that illuminates its major themes of sacrifice and redemption.

One rendering of the Holy Grail.

I really don’t consider myself a novelist as much as a storyteller. The goal for every story I write is to provide readers with an engaging plot that primarily entertains but that might also teach a few things and reinforce what William Faulkner called “the old universal truths – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

If you have found any of this description appealing, I hope you’ll give Belfast, Ohio a read, and I especially hope I don’t disappoint.

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To New Teachers

When I began my career as a high school teacher, I don’t remember being showered with much learned wisdom from veteran teachers other than the proverbial “Don’t smile until after Christmas break”: a bit of advice not without some merit.

When it comes to collegiality, most teachers, especially on the high school level, tend to be of the “teach and let teach” mindset. Like infants tossed into deep water with the expectation that they will either sink or quickly figure out how to swim, first-year teachers are still more-or-less thrown into their classrooms with the hope that they’ll keep their heads above the water and the belief that, if they drown in the expectations and demands of the classroom, they probably weren’t cut out for it in the first place. I think some of us veterans even gain a small bit of perverse pleasure in watching those first-years thrashing about while remembering our own struggles as nascent teachers. At the same time, however, I’ve never been turned away by a colleague or administrator from whom I sought help or advice. You just need to ask, or we’ll assume you’re doing just fine. Believe it or not, we veterans are often like those ducks that seem so calm and relaxed on the surface, but underneath, we’re paddling like crazy to make it look so. Just keep paddling.

The look of veteran teachers. Photo by Petr Ganaj on Pexels.com

Although there are certainly improvements that could be made in preparing future teachers for the exigencies of the classroom, teaching remains, like most, a profession best learned by doing. One’s first classroom is the crucible that either confirms one’s choice in entering the profession or sends a rookie scurrying into a career more amenable to their personality and less populated by often needy, rambunctious, and worst-of-all indifferent to whatever it is you’re trying to teach children and young adults.

I, however, believe a teacher’s approach to their career should mirror that of a wise investor. Just as investment portfolios rise and fall, there are good years in teaching and not-so-good years. (Notice I didn’t say “bad” years.). In recent years, I’ve witnessed too many gifted teachers give up on what was their well-chosen career path too soon. Wise investors stay the course, and when the time is right, they are rewarded. Wise teachers don’t overreact to a not-so-good year; instead, they ride it out with stubborn determination to make whatever positive difference in the lives of their students they can, and in the end, they typically find their investment paying off to an inestimable degree of student improvement and personal job satisfaction.

The offshoot of all of this is I thought I’d share just a nugget or two of the most important survival tips I’ve learned in my career.

The typical school year in Ohio includes 180 days of classroom instruction. Allowing for the few days I’ve missed for sick or personal days, that means in my thirty-seven years as a classroom teacher I’ve been in front of students responsible for their behavior and learning approximately 6,600 times. How many individual class periods that amounts to is anyone’s guess as I’ve taught on master schedules ranging anywhere from three instructional periods a day to eight. It’s important to remember that, if you let it, one crappy period will utterly destroy an otherwise wonderful day, but sadly, the reverse is rarely the case. Anyway, I can assure you that not on a single morning of those 6,600 days did I wake up without butterflies in my belly in nervous anticipation of facing those students, but, brother, when that first bell sounds, I somehow transform into Mike Tyson entering the ring (at least on most days).

Bring on the day! Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

In his song, “It Gets Easier,” Jason Isbell advises that “It gets easier, but it never gets easy.” Isbell’s admonition is directed toward recovering alcoholics; however, I think his words also reveal a truism that every teacher, especially those new to the profession, should embrace. If the preparation, instruction, and asssessment required of an effective teacher does get easy, let me suggest that either you’ve gotten a bit lazy or you may be in the wrong profession. The job is what the job is. Either do it to the best of your abilities or go sell insurance or something. As Isbell sings, it will get easier but it will never get easy.

One of the most frustrating yet simultneously exciting aspects of being a classroom teacher is its unpredictability. Go ahead and plan meticulously. In fact, the best teachers I know actually overplan, knowing that the most disruptive, even dangerous, thing to allow students to possess in the classroom isn’t a cell phone but free time. However, I can count on two hands the number of class sessions that went exactly the way I pictured or planned they would. My best class sessions are often the ones in which I never even get to my actual lesson plan, or they’re the ones that went spiraling away from my original plan when my and/or my students’ imagination(s) were piqued by something only indirectly related to the lesson but of high interest to us and relevant to life outside of the classroom.

One of the lessons it took me the longest to learn was that of humility. I had to learn that it wasn’t my but our classroom. I had to learn to deescalate potential discipline issues, knowing that my next response would have repercussions, for the better or worse, that would impact the remainder of not only my relationship with that misbehaving student but with the entire class for the rest of the school year and even beyond. I had to learn to enforce the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. Most importantly, I’ve had to learn that whatever is causing a student to act out or to be disengaged, it probably has nothing to do with me. I don’t need to feel insulted or disrespected.

With that said, it’s important that as a classroom instructor you have that one thing on which you never compromise. For me, that one thing is I never allow or tolerate a student putting their head down while I’m providing instruction. I establish that line in the sand early, and I never compromise. I think that, by extension, my students know not to push me on other minor violations of classroom etiquette as well.

Finally, it’s vital that teachers are demonstrably passionate about what/who they teaching. I’ve never taught elementary school, but I have mad appreciation for the job they do. I know I could not do their job. From my inexpert viewpoint, I feel that elementary teachers must love two things the most and model that love to the children in their charge: the love for the children themselves and a love for learning in general. Meanwhile high school teachers must be enthusiastic lovers and promoters of the material they teach. In my case, I don’t read and write because I’m a teacher; I teach because I love to read and write. I think my students sense my intense interest in my subject matter, which, at least for some, sparks their interest in discovering the reason for my interest. Middle school teachers may have the most difficult job of all as they must be the best of both school worlds between which they are sandwiched.

Feel free to file all of this away in the “For What It’s Worth” drawer. I wish good luck and good teaching to all of my fellow teachers. We are members of a truly honorable and vital profession. At the start of each day, chase away those butterlies and dive into your classroom loving who and what you teach.

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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Confessions of an Independent Author

Since I began writing novels over fifteen years ago, much has changed regarding the options available for artists’ to share their work with the world. This is not only true for writers but also for musicians, comedians, photographers, painters, film makers, etc. No longer do artists require the representation of a connected agent or manager nor is a golden ticket from an a editor or an A and R man necessary to share one’s work in the public domain. This newfound freedom is, however, a double-edged sword for both the artist and the public. The good and bad news is that the amount of available artistic content has exploded. Some of this content is very good; much is not. All of which makes it difficult for the consumer to locate that which is worth their time to read, view, listen to, etc.

The greatest benefit for the independent artist is the near total control they possess over their project. For example, when my first novel, So Shelly, was published in the traditional manner with Random House, it became their property and within their rights to ask for numerous edits, including cutting nearly forty pages from the original manuscript, that, as the writer, I wish would have remained in the story. Random’s purpose was completely understandable and honorable: to create the highest quality and marketable finished product possible. As an independent author, such drastic edits can be avoided and the manuscript remains true to the author’s vision rather than the editor’s.

Contrarily, a major drawback faced by an independent author– but one that is rapidly diminishing in significance — is the loss of prestige that accommpanies being signed to a major publishing house. Independent authors’ books are often pejoratively referred to as “vanity” projects, an assigntion that, I must admit, does possess some ring of truth. After Shelly’s release I was invited to a number of prestigious national and regional book fairs, and I’ll never forget the “cool kids” clique of traditionally-published authors in which I was included due to my affiliation with Random House, nor will I forget the overt, meanspirited attitude the members of that clique displayed toward the independent writers in attendance. Their hardheld belief was that independent authors didn’t deserve to be there or to be published at all. Their disdain was palpable. I probably acted and felt just as resentful and arrogant as my fellow “mean girl” authors. Middle school had nothing on that experience. It may be a simple matter of semantics or maybe even hypocrisy, but I now like to think that what some call “vanity” may just as easily be considered conviction and belief in oneself and one’s art.

For what it’s worth, however, I have to admit that I still get a charge out of receiving emails and royalty statements from what is now Penguin-Random House. I’m beyond flattered that they still include me in their stable of authors, and if my current circumstances were different, I would prefer to pursue the traditional route to publication. My affiliation with Penguin-Random House remains the greatest professional honor of my life.

Home of Penguin-Random House on Broadway in Manhattan.

Perhaps, an even greater and more practical negative of publishing independently is the loss of a large publisher’s deep pocketbooks for upfront advances, pre and post publication promotion, and their ability to place their books in brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries on a national, even international, scale. For example, the rights to So Shelly were sold to publishers in both Mexico and Brazil, and it appeared in the libraries of several English-speaking countries. Such expansive reach is lost by the independent author.

So Shelly in the Spanish language version re-titled letras de amor y muerte (translated as love and death lyrics)

It is true that some originally independent titles have been picked up by mainstream publishers and met with tremendous success: Andy Weir’s The Martian, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey to name a few. Even a number of classic texts by such canonical authors as Stephen Crane, E.E. Cummings, and Marcel Proust were originally independently published. The dream of being embraced and legitimized by the publishing establishment is cherished by most independent authors. The fact remains, however, that such authors/books are the rare exceptions to the general rule of relative obscurity faced by independent authors, and I have no delusions of adoption by a mainstream publisher, achievement of bestseller status, or of reaping a financial boon.

So, with the understanding that, in a perfect world, I’d have never left the realm of traditional publishing, why did I bypass that route and choose independent publishing for my soon-to-be-available novel Belfast, Ohio? Let me list the reasons:

  • As already explained, I have complete artistic control. Whether the novel is positively or negatively received, I have no one to credit or blame but myself.
  • I own complete rights to my work.
  • Acceleration to the market. The majority of works of fiction take anywhere from eighteen to twenty four months to make it to publication and/or a bookstore shelf. And that is after spending God-only-knows how much time an author devotes to querying agents in pursuit of representation. At my current stage of life and career, that’s too much time.
  • I am not pressured to squeeze my novel into a partiular genre for marketing purposes. In my experience, the best works of art are often those that defy such easy categorization, and I prefer to cast as wide of a net as possible for readership.
  • Sixty-year old, white, male authors are not exactly a hot commodity in contemporary publishing trends. Trust me, I’m not complaining. Writers of my demographics have had more than their fair share of opportunities. If the pendulum for signing and publishing authors has swung in the direction of those from underrepresented groups, I’m all for it.
  • Another strike against me with agents and publishers is that, with So Shelly, I already had my chance, my cup of coffee in the big leagues. The novel earned some critical praise and award nominations, but it didn’t come close to being profitable for Random House. Therefore, my sales record does not inspire much faith in me from publishers. All things being equal, they would prefer to take a chance on a debut author. Again, I understand their thinking. I like to console myself by comparing myself to Bill Abernathie, a player for the Cleveland Indians who on September 27th, 1959, played in one major league game. Although it was just one day in the big leagues, it is one day more than most authors/ballplayers ever experience, and it was magnificent.
  • Just as I’ve come to accept that I’ll never be a bestselling author, I’ve also accepted the liklihood that my audience will most likely remain regional and relatively small. My stories are all set in northern Ohio and appeal especially to that unique audience of fellow Buckeyes. It’s a niche I’m comfortable in and proud to represent.

Since so few readers are aware of the “inside baseball” of the publishing industry, I thought it might be of interest and helpful for me to share my knowledge and experiences with that world and important that I be as up front as possible regarding the publication of Belfast, Ohio. If you feel its independent origins disqualify it from being worthy of your time, effort, and twenty bucks, I understand. For my part, I believe it represents my best work, and I am extremely proud of the finished product.

Belfast, Ohio will soom be available for purchase from your preferred online bookstore.

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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Teachers Who Do

The saying that “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach,” used to grind my gears like nothing else. I would think of the job demands placed on teachers’ time outside of school –coaching, advising, committees, preparing lessons and assessing student work — all while working toward mandatory advanced degrees and/or re-licensing and most of us were also trying to raise a family, and while many of us were holding down second and third jobs just to make ends meet. There was precious little time to “do” anything but the teaching job and much less to contribute anything original to our fields of expertise.

The now-deceased Frank McCourt authored the bestselling memoirs Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis. Prior to his literary accomplishments, McCourt taught public school in New York City. for thirty years. Angela’s Ashes was published when McCourt was 69 years old and recently retired. When a journalist, who was either ignorant or dismissive of the demands placed on a teacher’s time and energy, asked what took him so long to publish his first book, McCourt replied, “I was teaching, that’s what took me so long . . . When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.”

Brilliant!

I can relate to McCourt’s late entry into the world of professional letters. When I began writing novels, I was in my mid-forties and had already been teaching for over twenty years. The writing required me to give up coaching and to devote as much of my “spare” time that wasn’t already being spent preparing for class, grading essays, and being present as a husband and father at home. Most of my writing time was carved out late at night after everyone else went to bed, on weekends, during school vacations, and throughout the summer months. To find writing time, I had to eschew other diversions, mainly television. I ain’t whining; I’m just saying. For most teachers, especially those with children of their own, it’s all we can do just to stay ahead of the next class period.

Anyway, in addition to my teaching, I’ve been able to “do” to the tune of three novels with a fourth (Belfast, Ohio) being released this month. I’ve also written for Lake Erie Living Magazine, and I regularly publish personal essays here on my blog.

I’m not alone, however. In fact, there are a number of teachers in the Port Clinton City Schools who not only teach but do in their chosen field.

From our physical education and health department, Del Culver and Seth Benner do not just preach the importance of fitness and maintaining a healthy diet, they model it. Over the years, they have both been active in a variety of exercise, including running, swimming, cycling, volleyball, softball, hiking, endurance races, and any number of water sports. In addition, they both remain remarkably fit with BMIs still in line with their days as high school athletes.

Adam Murray and Bruno Bush from the music department are actively involved in the arts outside of their excessively-demanding, school-year schedule of concerts, musicals, and various performances throughout the school year. This summer, Adam performed with the Kaboom Collective, an orchestra comprised of some of the Cleveland area’s finest young musicians. The Collective recorded a brilliant album with the critically-acclaimed trio The Accidentals.

Adam is one of the violinists. You get a good view of him around the 3:19 mark. He’s to the far left.

Meanwhile, Bruno served as the musical director for The Wizard of Oz and Cabaret for the Sandstone Summer Theater in Lorain County, northeast Ohio’s premier community theater and nonprofit teaching theater. In addition, Bruno composes orginal music and performs with Zero to Sixty, an a cappella group who perform in northeast Ohio.

Bruno dedicated this beautiful performance to his late stepfather.

Good on ya, boys!

Matthew from the New Testament is often given credit for coining the phrase to “practice what you preach.” In fact, the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus composed the line, “Practice yourself what you preach” two centuries prior to the writing of Matthew’s gospel. Anyway, I say, “Hats off!” to all teachers who find the time and energy to put into practice in their lives, what they “preach” in their classrooms.

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Where’d That Name Come From?

As large families, both extended and nuclear, have become increasingly rare, my Gen Z students marvel at the fact that I am one of 50+ blood-related, first cousins. Included in that number are myself and my seven siblings. As unusual as those numbers seem today, when I was a kid attending Catholic schools, they were not such anomalies. In addition to the Roths, there were many such families: the Smiths, Guendelsbergers, Kromers, Seilers, Opfers, just to name a few.

While my dad spent most of his days at work and despite already having eight children of her own in a three bedroom, one bath house, my mom had a knack for taking in “strays,” people, not pets, including neighborhood kids; Eli, the Amish house painter; the autistic child of the African American crossing guard who was stationed on the corner outside our house; my brother Aaron’s imaginary friend; any of our actual childhood friends, who’d appear quite frequently, usually uninvited but always welcome; cousins, some of whom I thought were siblings for a number of years until I realized they didn’t actually live with us; college roommates; teammates from our many sports teams; her ex-son-in-law’s child from a previous relationship; pretty much anyone who showed up and wanted to stay. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.

The Eight of us, oldest to youngest from left to right. Photo is circa 1981.

In addition to our house on the corner of Fifth and Marlboro Streets serving as a quasi-Boys and Girls Club/YMCA, what else is unusual about my immediate family and often of great interest to others when they learn of it is the manner by which my siblings and I were named. I, for example, am regularly asked where the name “Ty” came from. Most assume that it is a diminuitive of Tyler or Tyson or Tyrone, but it is not. I’m just Ty. The name was chosen for its ability to continue a pattern that required my name to consist of only two letters.

It’ll be easier to show you than to explain it, so what follows is a listing of my parents’ names followed by their children from oldest to youngest:

  • Barbara
  • Thomas
  • Kevin
  • Lori
  • Amy
  • Ty
  • J

That would have been the logical ending to my parents’ family building; however, because they were practicing Catholics, the list continues with a return to the top:

  • Aaron
  • Troy
  • Yon

My sister Lori jokes that it is a tribute to my parents and a minor miracle that none of us children ended up in jail with the caveat of the youngest (see below), and, in fact, that we’ve all managed to be relatively-productive, even accomplished, members of our communities. I think all of us siblings would say that our most important contributions to the world have been our children. With that said, however, I’ve provided a very brief bio of each of our professional lives below:

Kevin is the typical, high-achieving, impossible-for-the-rest-of-us-to-live-up-to firstborn. He is a Stanford Medical School graduate with an MD & PhD. After stints a Wash U. in St. Louis and UAB in Birmingham, AL, he is currently the Chief Pathologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Professor and Chair of the Columbia University Department of Pathology and Cell Biology. Would it have killed him to set the bar just a bit lower?

Lori is retired. While still in her twenties she became the owner and president of the Roth Printing Company, a business begun by our grandfather that served Sandusky proudly for over 75 years. At that time, Lori was a groundbreaker as a rare female serving in those capacities.

Amy only recently retired after working for over forty years as a registered nurse in the Sandusky community, including many as an oncology nurse. If I had a dime for every time someone shared with me how wonderful Amy had been as their nurse or for one of their loved ones during one of the most trying periods of their lives, I’d have a lot of dimes.

Ty – Enough about me.

J has been an educator in Florida for over thirty years: first as an elementary classroom teacher; then as a much-honored and beloved building principal mostly in underserved communities with large, migrant populations; and most recently as a supervisor/consultant for other principals. J also authored the book Classroom Management for Successful Instruction. Poor J has suffered the most for my parent’s (mostly Dad’s) naming formula. Many bureaucracies that demand identification refuse to believe that his name is “just” J and give him the most difficult of times.

Aaron has taught high school business courses for thirty years, and he was a highly-successful basketball coach for many of those years. If you ask anyone who saw him play in high school, they’d probably tell you that he was one of the most electrfying point guards they’d ever seen on that level. His talents took him to the University of Findlay, where he earned All-American honors and where he is a member of the athletic hall of fame.

Troy is another (1 of 5) who pursued a career in education. After a few years in various teaching and coaching roles, he became a high school principal. Eventually, he rose to the position of assistant superintendent for Findlay Schools before becoming that district’s superintendent. Currently, he serves as the superintendent for Bellevue Schools.

Yon is the only OSU grad and fan among the bunch of us. In high school, he earned first-team All-Ohio recognition in football. Since graduation from college, he has been a corrections officer at the Erie County Jail, where he is a legend.

This is a recent photo of from left-to-right: Kevin, Yon, J, Troy, Amy, Me, Mom, and Aaron, minus Dad and Lori.

From our dad, I think we all learned the necessity and value of hard work and being devoted to our jobs. Among many other things, from our mom, we learned not to be so judgmental of others and to accept them for who and where they are in their lives with an open mind and heart.

Being one of eight children certainly had its drawbacks. As a child, I was sometimes envious of my friends with few or no siblings, especially of all the space and time to themselves they had, but today, I realize how fortunate I was, and it makes me a little sad to think that the manner in which I grew up is all but a thing of the past. There’s no doubt in my mind that the benefits I reaped of being one of eight far outweigh any of those drawbacks, even if the “Did you tie your own tie, Ty” jokes did get a little old in high school.

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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“Did You Really Need to Cry?”

The band Dawes recently released a very cool song, titled “Everything is Permanent.” I love everything about the song’s melody and lyrics, but the last line of the song is a refrain that has been stuck in my head for days now. In that line, the lead singer, Taylor Goldsmith, who happens to be married to Mandy Moore of This is Us fame, repeatedly asks, “Did you really need to cry or [to] be seen crying?” (at 7:45 of the video below).

At its root, the question drills down into one’s true motivations for crying, and I think the answer to the question “Did you really need to cry?” is a simple “Yes.” In other words, sometimes we cry for the emotional catharsis that crying provides (the “need to cry”), and at other times, we cry because we need to share with others whatever has been the cause for our crying (the need to “be seen crying”) because they have been too blind, self-absorbed, or just plain stupid to see the cause for themselves. I know I’ve been guilty of all three of those catalysts for another’s tears.

The question also forces us to consider the role of the observer of another’s crying. I would suggest that it is a supreme honor to be welcomed to witness the emotional nakedness of another, similar to the honor of witnessing another’s physical nakedness. The trust that either situation of extreme vulnerability places in the observer’s eyes is enormous and should be considered both flattering and sacred. However, it is true that there are those who need “to be seen crying” in order to garner favors, forgiveness, or sympathy from a gullable audience.

The mistake we typically make in relation to the tears of another who “really needs to cry” is to insist that the crier “Don’t cry.” This response, however, is actually a selfish one inspired by the observer’s own discomfort rather than by compassion or consideration for what is best for the one crying. Tears are one of the body’s autonomic responses, meaning they occur involuntarily. Rarely does somebody cry because they want to but because their body, heart, and/or soul require it. The attempt to disallow tears from oneself or others is unnatural and unhealthy. Perhaps, Hootie and the Blowfish expressed this phenomenon best in their song “Let Her Cry.”

As is common for an overthinker like myself, the question the Dawes’ song poses has also led me down another avenue of thought, which is to question my motivations for and the sincerity of many of the things I do or do not do and to ask if my behaviors are genuine or have they merely been poses I’ve taken to gain attention and/or to gain the approval of others.

To that end, I’ve been substituting various verbs in the place of “cry”:

  • Did you really need to shout or be seen shouting?
  • Did you really need to laugh or be seen laughing?
  • Did you really need to pray or be seen praying?
  • Did you really need to hate or be seen hating?
  • Did you really need to believe or be seen believing?

You get the idea. Feel free to substitute your own verbs.

The French poet, Charles Baudelaire utilized the phrase to “play to the grandstand” in his poem “To The Reader,” published in his collection of poems Flowers of Evil (1857). His point was to emphasize the importance of living genuinely rather than “perform” for those who may be watching and judging our choices and behaviors. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau advised us to live a life of one’s own imagining. Theirs are both wise admonitions but also much easier said than done. I, admittedly, have always been far too concerned with what other’s expect from me and how they might judge me and far too chickenshit not to care.

In the end, the world would be a better place if we could all cry without embarrassment or reservation and experience another’s tears without discomfort or judgement.

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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Sandusky: Embrace Our Diversity

My sixteen-month-old granddaughter Charlee is a slow-to-get-to-know-ya kind of person. She’s suspicious and slow-to-trust anyone with whom she has no previous experiences. This discomfort with strangers is quite natural and common even in adults. It is the byproduct of our social evolution as a species, but it is learning to get past this distrust of others who do not look, act, think, or believe like us that speaks to our better angels and reveals our best selves.

Charlee

I was thinking about this recently after a conversation with an acquaintance of mine who, like my wife and I, has been taking regular advantage of the various concerts occuring weekly in downtown Sandusky, on the Jackson Street Pier, featuring an eclectic selection of musical genres. While discussing the various performers we had witnessed this summer, I mentioned how much we enjoyed the hip-hop concert headlined by The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, especially because the audience was a true representation of the city’s population. He shared that he briefly attended that particular show as well, but it got “too dark” for him. I’m pretty sure you understand that by “dark” he was referring to our fellow concertgoers, not nightfall.

I was so disappointed and saddened by his response. I wanted him to be better than that.

I have not lived within the city limits for over twenty-five years now, but growing up on Sandusky’s east side in the sixties and seventies, my experience was of a very segregated city. Even as a child, I knew which were “white” neighborhoods and which were “black” neighborhoods. Because I attended Catholic school, sports provided my only exposure to African American kids. After getting married, my wife and I started our family in a house also on the east side of town and lived there for ten years; however, when we were selling our home and moving out of town due to a job change, I had a couple neighbors all-but-plead with me not to sell our home to a black family.

I was so disappointed and saddened by their response. I wanted Sandusky to be better than that.

In my life, it has been my experience that my moments of greatest growth as an individual and moments of real connection with my community as a whole have occurred when I stepped outside of my comfort zone — even to the point of actively seeking out groups of people and environments that make me uncomfortable. In college, I regularly attended dances sponsored by the African American Student Association. A friend and I were often the only white boys in the room. Also in college, I befriended a professor who happened to be the pastor at local African Methodist Episcopal church, and I attended several of his charismatic services much unlike the staid Catholic mass I knew. Although I’m a straight man, I’ve gone to gay bars, drag shows, gay parades, and LGBTQ Pride events.

Currently, my wife and I volunteer with OhGo, serving some of the needy of the Sandusky community every other Thursday by helping with OhGo’s mobile food pantry. Although, as I already mentioned, I grew up in Sandusky, the food pantry has taken me into neighborhoods I had never and would never have visited were it not for volunteering.

Each of these situations began awkwardly. I was a stranger to the folks whose comfort zones I was invading. Like Charlee, they were not sure if they could trust me, and I was leery of how they might respond to my presence. The reality with Charlee, however, is if you give her a little bit of time to get used to you, and especially if you keep coming back, she starts to feel comfortable with you and to enjoy your company. The same has been the case for me in each of my taking of social risks.

The still-to-be-fully-tapped-into beauty and strength of the Sandusky community should be its diversity (racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, etc.), but to fully realize that beauty and strength will require the majority of us to be willing to visit places, attend events, and seek out and to welcome folks unlike ourselves with open minds and open hearts. To their great credit, our civic leaders clearly understand and promote this philosophy of inclusiveness, and it has been a primary driver of the renaissance Sandusky is currently experiencing. I only hope that the citizens of the greater Sandusky area will do their part to embrace and be part of the diversity that makes us special.

This very cool video by Kevin Lee Visuals makes my point in pictures better than I can with words.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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You Got To Have a Code!

Image by Quotefancy.

A mentor of mine once advised me that “You got to have a plan. It doesn’t have to be a good plan,” he said, “but you got to have a plan.” In general, I’m a “live and let live” sort of person, but I have a similar philosophy regarding the necessity of having a code to guide one’s life choices. For me that code is a list of behaviors I try to adhere to in matters ranging from the trivial to the vital.

For more serious matters, I tend to turn to my own conscience, my mother’s examples, and the big thinkers of history, including philosphers, poets, playwrights, novelists, and songwriters. What follows here is a list of a few of the more trivial precepts found in my personal code for living. Most of them are arbitrary and some a bit silly, and most I do or don’t do without a whole lot of thought required. Also, I am certainly NOT giving life advice to anyone, but the behaviors found in my code for living might provide a little insight into what makes me me.

My mom and me a few Xmas’s ago. It is her code for living I try my best to emulate in serious matters.

The ordering of the precepts is completely random, not in any order of importance or categorized:

  • I never leave mass until the final note of the final song has been played.
  • I finish every beer that I open. I come from a long line of beer drinkers, BUT I never drink irresponsibly.
  • I’ll give a book 100 pages to engage me. If it hasn’t hooked me by then, either it’s poorly written or I’m just not the right audience for it. However, I often come back to books I’ve set aside based on this rule and find them enjoyable.
  • I never hit skip on a Springsteen song. Never. Ever.
“She’s the One” is my all-time favorite Springsteen song.
  • I always dance to Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down on It.”
  • I don’t line dance, Chicken Dance, Cha-Cha Slide or Electric Slide. No judgement on those who do; I just don’t.
  • I don’t do the wave in arenas/stadiums.
  • I insist on the proper usage of “fewer” to refer to anything countable over the increasingly-common use of “less.” It infuriates me. Strangely enough, other than this, I’m not much of a grammar Nazi.
  • I always hold doors for ladies. I know this is a bit archaic, but I can’t help it. It’s meant to be chivalric, not anti-feminist.
  • I respect other people’s right to be referred to by the name, title, or pronoun of their choosing. I’m not being political, just nice.
  • I (almost) never use the air conditioner or radio in the car if I’m alone.
  • I never wear gear from a sports team that I don’t actually cheer for.
Blame my father.
  • I never swear in front of my mother.
  • I never put ketchup on a hot dog.
  • I always slip dollar bills to homeless people when I’m in a city.
  • I always watch the movies Jaws, A Few Good Men, and Tombstone if I come across them while channel surfing.
  • I never wear sandals or flip-flops. It’s real shoes or barefoot.
  • I always tip at least 20%.
  • “I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it.” Daisy Buchanan speaks this line in The Great Gatsby. It’s my favorite quotation from the greatest American novel. I couldn’t resist including it.
  • I always choose heads.
  • I always give a firm handshake.
  • I apologize when I make a mistake.
  • I forgive.
  • I occasionally break most of the rules found in my code.

I’d love to know some of the rules that make up the code you live by. Please share 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 my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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An Ohio Yankee in King George’s (Strait) Court

Full disclosure: Although I am an occasional listener of the genre, I’m not what anyone would consider a rabid country music fan. In addition, the “feels like” temperature each day was over one hundred degrees. These facts may color my takeaways from my visit to the Capitol of Country Music.

I, however, have nothing but respect for the country music genre. Although it is closely associated with the South, I believe country music appeals to a state of mind rather than any particular state of the Union.

As a final introductory note and caveat, the fact that I visited mid-week rather than over a weekend may have impacted my experience.

Nashville, Tennessee, is a sacred place to country musicians and their fans. It is a common pilgrimage destination for those fans nearly on par with completing a Hajj to Mecca for Muslims. To speak ill of it is a form of apostasy that may bring down the thunder on my head from its devotees; therefore, I fully understand my need to tread carefully with this essay.

Nashville at night looking down 3rd street toward downtown and the Batman Building.

I recently spent three days and nights in Nashville. The changes in the city since my previous visit some twenty-six years ago were stunning. At that time, Bridgestone Arena, the current home of the Predators of the NHL, was still under construction; the Country Music Hall of Fame was yet to open in its current location, and Broadway Street had yet to become the tourist magnet it is today. Although I feel like a bit of an outlier in my impressions of the city and expect many of those who read this to disagree wholeheartedly, I returned home equivocal, at best, regarding my experience with the negatives more or less equaling the positives.

Because I’d like to finish my review of the city on a high note, I’ll begin with what I consider the Negatives:

  • The commercialization of Broadway Street. Populated by a large number of bar/restaurants named for country music artists – the vast majority of whom have merely licensed their names and rarely, if ever, set a boot in the bar bearing their name – this locus of tourist activities is as authentic as a Dolly Parton impersonator’s boobs. As most New Yorkers avoid Times Square at all costs, you’d be hard pressed to find a native of Nashville on or near Broadway, except for the homeless of which there are many and who seemed a bit more threatening than those I’ve encountered in other large cities across the country.
  • Although the talents of the musicians were obvious and impressive, the lack of original material played in Broadway Street bars was disappointing to me, and although it’s a brilliant song, if I had to hear Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” covered one more time, I may have gone all Oedipal on my ears.
  • The only thing more disappointing regarding Broadway Street than it’s inauthenticity was it’s rancid smell, especially at night, some combination of sweat, spilled alcohol, and garbage that takes your breath away.
  • The constant contrived “Wooooos!” from the incessantly circling pedal bars and party busses. I know. This is a petty complaint.
  • I never complain about paying the various taxes I owe as I consider them my duty as a citizen; however, I found the 7% prepared food tax to be somewhat onerous in restaurants, especially when added to the appropriate 20% server’s tip.
  • This is a personal bugaboo that’s not meant to offend, but I find country and western fashion choices to be so boring and unimaginative for both men and women.
  • A lack of diversity. The several blocks that comprise Broadway Street may comprise the whitest and straightest few blocks among popular tourist hotspots in America. I realize that some may find this quality comforting. I found it disheartening.
My buddy Roy and I at “Blake Shelton’s” bar.

Positives:

  • The trolley tour of major attractions was both entertaining and educational, but most importantly, it served to help us scout out and to choose the locations we hoped to visit during our stay.
  • The willingness of the few locals we encountered to offer suggestions for the best off-Broadway attractions.
  • The Basement, one such off-Broadway venue – literally in a basement – where musicians play original material for small, standing room only crowds. We had the great pleasure of seeing Matt Fowler perform.
  • The moonshine tasting at the Marathon Motor Works. I’m really not much of a drinker, but I’ve long been curious to try moonshine. It wasn’t quite the same as “the sort your cousin Jethro might make in his bathtub,” as our bartender apologized, but it was 120 proof and as strong as the government would allow the distillery to make.
  • The many rooftop bars are cool places to hang out.
  • The availability of eclectic musical genres. If you’re not a fan of country music, there are plentiful options for whatever style of music waves your baton.
  • Hot chicken and waffles!
Matt Fowler performing at The Basement.

Surprises:

  • The lack of prominently-displayed Confederate-pride paraphernalia.
  • The number of baseball caps far outnumbered the cowboy hats.
  • The lack of people — among both workers and visitors —with Southern accents.
  • For better or worse, I didn’t see a single police officer or car in the Broadway area over the three days.
  • Although the youngest in my group was 58 years old, we were regularly carded at the entrance to bars.
  • The surprising number of children who were accompanying their parents in the various bars. At one very popular saloon/dance hall/concert venue, the dance floor was populated almost entirely by line dancing, middle school-aged girls, dressed like the Bradley sisters of Petticoat Junction (I seriously dated myself with that pop culture allusion.).
  • The iconic Bluebird Cafe, a launching pad and frequent stop for a number of country music stars, is located inside a shopping plaza away from downtown and quite small and unimpressive from the outside.

In my final analysis, I would return to Nashville but only if I knew a local resident who could guide me to the best music venues and food stops frequented by the city’s full-time denizens. The carnival that is Broadway Street is worth experiencing once in the way of most popular tourist destinations, but once was more than enough for this Ohio Yankee.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Nashville or on my thoughts on Nashville. If so inclined, leave them below in the comments section.

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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“Beyond Reason & and Reach”

I’ve struggled with deciding whether or not to blog in response to the seemingly endless string of mass shootings that are plaguing our country. I’ve been reluctant to do so because pretty much everything has already been said, and I see no point in piling on. Should I have responded immediately, my essay would have been a futile expression of despair and resignation. Futile because those who feel and argue passionately for unfettered access to guns – even those of military grade – are beyond reason and reach. As Kirk Douglass’ character, Spur, says in the movie The Man from Snowy River, “Don’t throw effort after foolishness.”

After mulling it over, I decided that instead of composing an essay, I would let an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Belfast, Ohio, express some of my thoughts, not just on the issue of school and mass shootings but also my general frustration with mankind’s perpetual and inane choice to turn to violence in the attempt to address its problems, ranging from the smallest of scales to the largest. The excerpt amounts to about three pages approximately two-thirds of the way through the novel.

Surreal is not the right word to describe the scene on Public Square in the minutes following the explosion. What I experienced was all too real and, sadly, kind of expected.

As a child of the eighties and the Cold War, my dad had told me that he and kids of his American generation had grown up with a nuclear cloud over their head. He said they didn’t wonder if a nuclear war would occur, they just wondered when and hoped it wouldn’t happen before they had a chance to be grown-ups and to do grown-up things. He never specified exactly what those “grown-up” things were nor did he stop to think that if their hope came true, they’d be, most likely, leaving the next generation, my generation, in the exact predicament of living with the potential for being denied an adult future.

My mother, on the other hand, was another one of those Irish who overstayed their visas working the bars and restaurants of urban America, a character type quite common on Cleveland’s West Side. In those days, there wasn’t so much trumped up animosity toward illegal immigrants – at least not towards the white ones. To the contrary, there was no shortage of folks willing to help her stay clear of the government’s radar, which, at the time, they weren’t monitoring that closely anyway. Although she denied vehemently that it had anything to do with her and my dad’s relationship, there was even a sort of underground matchmaking organization that fixed up American Irish with home country Irish who were hoping to get married, to obtain their green card, and to stay in America permanently.

The day after she graduated from secondary school and after having practiced her American accent for years by watching American movies on VHS tapes, my mother left for America. Until that day, she had lived her entire eighteen years near the Falls Road in West Belfast during some of the peak years of The Troubles. She was born to staunchly Catholic parents who harbored no hatred toward Protestants and felt the sectarian civil war to be an affront to the teachings of Jesus. Her parents’ neutrality earned the family few friends but much suspicion from republican neighbors, who would hurl the accusation of being “Brit Lovers” in their direction as they walked the streets lined with red-bricked terrace houses. Stones sometimes accompanied the insults.

Unlike my father, she said she had little fear of nuclear annihilation. “That would have been a bloody luxury,” she’d say half seriously. The use of the adjective “bloody” was the one ineradicable colloquialism from her Belfast youth. “A nuclear bomb dropping out of the sky and incinerating everyone in a flash would have been a godsend compared to the slaughter caused by car bombs.” However, as a child and in a similar fashion to my father, she was dubious that she would ever see adulthood.

She was born in 1972, one of the bloodiest years of the internecine war. Shootings and bombings were quite common and real in her world, not hypothetical as in my father’s, and they came from both sides of the dirty guerilla warfare that Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists waged against one another and in which the innocent or those just minding their own business were often collateral damage, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or victims of mistaken identity.

My mother would scoff at native-born Americans and their various wars on terror as if they believed there had been no such thing as terrorism prior to 9/11, as if Americans were its first “bloody victims,” and as if it were a war they could actually win. “You want terrorism?” she’d ask rhetorically. “It was the Irish who taught the modern world terrorism. Your so-called Muslim extremists are copycats when they’re at their best and bloody amateurs when they’re at their worst. To hell with both of them.”

As for me and kids of my generation, we went to school almost every day half-expecting to be killed or blown up. Many of the parents at St. Brigid’s actually bought their girls book bags with Kevlar shields stitched inside. We regularly completed “live shooter” drills with pretend bad guys from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department firing blanks in the halls and chasing us from the building. On one occasion, Sister Mary Higgins played the shooter role. Imagine that.

We didn’t just practice “ducking and covering” under desks like my dad and his classmates. And as for my mom’s living through The Troubles, at least the terrorists she feared had a cause, a side, and even a conscience: so much so that it was not unusual for the bomber to phone in a warning to the police a short time before the detonation in order to give those nearby a heads up. But the school shooters of the nightmares of schoolchildren of my generation were random actors. Half of the time, they didn’t even have a reason for the killing they did other than some petty grievance against those they felt slighted by in some way or another, or they were simply taking out on the world their dissatisfaction with their own shitty lives before ending them entirely.

To the next generation, we leave a planet fast tracking towards inhabitability due to climate change.

As my dad used to say, quoting some pop song from his childhood, “And the beat goes on.”

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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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