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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve performing the National Anthem. Nobody does it better.

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

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

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

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

Steve on the far right.

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Clubs (and male strippers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Broadway Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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The King of Wishful Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grown up kids minus Lori.

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

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

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

The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall

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

My Mom and Dad on My Wedding Day

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

A Recent Birthday Celebration.

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

Mom and Her Great-Granddaughter Quinn

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

Aunt Paulette, Aunt Ann, and Mom

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

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

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Autumn

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

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-

eves run;

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

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set the budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

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

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

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

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

My favorite tree and memento mori.

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

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

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

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On Boredom

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

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

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

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

So boring it’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that.

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

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This Used to be My Ballfield, This Used to be My Field of Dreams

In the soundtrack for the movie A League of Their Own, Madonna sings, “This Used to be My Playground. This used to be my childhood dream.” This lyric popped into my head a few Saturdays past when my wife and I walked much of the new Sandusky Bay Pathway on Sandusky’s west end. We marveled with pride at the progress that has been made and at the access to bay front scenery it provides. In fact, we were thrilled for much of the journey – until we arrived at the section that runs behind what used to be my ballfield, my field of dreams: Amvets Park.

This is what was once the Amvets Senior League Ball Field.

I say “my,” but those parks, the joy they inspired and the dreams they engendered belonged to many boys in Sandusky, and I say “boy” with apologies to the few brave girls who challenged unequal gender assignments long before it was cool to do so. I’m looking at you Julie Cairelli. I honestly believe that my interest in feminist causes began with you even if I couldn’t put words to it at the time.

So many great ball players slid into those bases and toed the rubber at Amvets Park – most gloriously under the lights installed in the early seventies that made small town kids feel like big leaguers. From my era, I remember guys like Brad Gilchrist, Mark Pfanner, Paul Moore, Tracy Steele, Dana Newell, Shaun Powell, and Alvin Lee. All were sandlot legends before they’d even reached their teens.

As much as I think of these Bennie “The Rocket”-like teammates and opponents from my own little league years, talented players like them will almost always be found and room be made for them on some eager-to-win manager’s roster. It’s the average to below-average players I worry about, the ones who played hard just to be a serviceable player but were able to reap many of the same valuable life lessons from participation in the sport as the stars of their teams. I worry about the ones who played their two innings while picking dandelions in right field and got their turn at bat but who also, in their own free-spirited way, showed us sports and winning-obsessed kids that there was another, less intense, more chill way of seeing and being in the world. How many times did the loudest roar from the fans erupt not when the star roped another line drive off of the fence but when Two-inning Tommy actually put the bat on the ball, trickled one down the line, and somehow managed to beat the throw to first base – on which he proudly stood as if it were his own Mount Everest – and he smiled as if he were The Mighty Casey on a better day?

And, I think of all of the adults who gave so much of their time and energy to umpire, to run the concession stand, and most importantly, to coach. They all provided a living example of serving the children of one’s community: Ken Steffenhagen, Diane Marcus, Butch Wagner, Tom Link, Mark Fogg, and the others too many to list. Merely typing those names, I shrink in shame at my own lack of volunteerism.

I loved my pinstriped Holzaepfel’s Uniform! Note the wood bat.

Prior to this most recent visit, I had not been to Amvets Park since I watched my youngest brother play there nearly thirty-five  years ago. He was the last of six of us brothers to participate in the Sandusky Amvets Little League. The dilapidated condition of the ballfields broke my heart, but it serves as the perfect metaphor for the state of community-based youth sports in America today.

Whenever I fly, my eyes automatically seek out the ball diamonds below. There’s just something beautiful about their symmetry. I wonder the disrepair of ours communicates to folks flying over Sandusky. I think our diamonds need some burnishing.

As a white kid growing up in the largely-segregated Sandusky of the sixties and seventies and attending Catholic school, sadly, the city’s baseball programs from Eagles Atom League through the Babe Ruth League provided me my only opportunity to meet and play with African-American children. And, although it was a burden for my mother to provide the transportation, practicing at the various ball fields around town (Farwell Park; Cliff Schirg Park; Elm Street Park, Sprau Park, the sandlots at Mills, Ontario, and Campbell School, even Central Park and that tiny sandlot by Union Chain/Tsubaki) allowed me to see and be in parts of the city I never would have visited had it not been for Little League baseball. Like most of those fields, our commitment to children other than our own has gone to seed, and conscious outreach to those in neighborhoods unlike the ones in which we live has all but disappeared. We have managed to gerrymander our lives in a manner that must even impress legislators in the Ohio State House.

This is me, recently out of college, umpiring at the Amvets Senior League Park. I don’t remember the mullet.

I know, as Billy Joel correctly sings, that “The good old days weren’t always good,” but there is something very wrong when the only way a child can compete in a highly-competitive athletic environment these days is if he/she can afford to pay exorbitant membership fees to a travel team and to pay for food and housing while playing in out-of-town tournaments nearly every spring, summer, and fall weekend. This is before including the cost of personal bats, helmets, a glove, and all of the accoutrements deemed necessary by the modern ball player. All of which can easily add up to well north of five hundred dollars. Like too many things in American society, organized baseball at the youth level is becoming a luxury a poor kid’s family cannot afford.

Some of my very best memories of youth are from playing ball at Jaycee Park for Post 83, an opportunity I would never have had without having learned the game on Sandusky’s fields of dreams. The hair remains the same.

It leads me to wonder how many Sandusky kids who may have the aptitude to be outstanding ball players never gain the ability to do so for the simple lack of opportunity. Much worse, it makes me wonder how the lack of community-based athletic leagues denies those same children the opportunity to interact with others from different neighborhoods, races, socioeconomic strata, etc. and how this exacerbates the construction of the invisible but all-too-real walls that seem to increasingly divide us as a people of a community. Worst of all, I wonder, without youth sports, how many kids will never experience the thrills so poignantly experienced and never learn the life lessons so effectively taught through participation in sports or feel the pride found in wearing a uniform and belonging to something larger than oneself: a team.

My favorite baseball movie of all time is The Natural, based on the novel of the same name by the great Bernard Malamud. I quote from it often. Late in the film when a poor choice from Roy Hobbs’ catches up to him, he wisely states, “[S]ome mistakes you never stop paying for.” I shudder to think of the price communities are already beginning to pay for making the mistake of letting their ball fields and little leagues vanish.

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

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“The End of the World as We Know It, And I Feel Fine” – REM

I thought I’d share an excerpt from Island No. 6. The scene that follows occurs about halfway through the novel. A group of recently-graduated med school students are on island celebrating their residency assignments when the island is blockaded by Navy, Coast Guard, and Border Patrol vessels. Quarantined inside a dormitory for island workers and with full knowledge of the likely tragic outcome of their situation, they’ve decided to party like it’s the end of the world rather than wallow in worry and woe.

Clothes were strewn all over the lobby. Over the weekend while I was sick, the Chief had dropped off boxes of unclaimed clothes from last summer’s lost and found for the Booze Cruisers and others who’d crashed in the dorm. He had also used the Police Department’s credit card to darn near empty out the souvenir stores, beach shops, and boutiques of much of their adult-sized clothing. Unclaimed T-shirts, board shorts, and bikini tops, bottoms, and cover-ups littered the lobby.

  The music rose from the basement, making it the logical place to begin. It was an open communal area with lounge furniture, big screen televisions, a karaoke/disc jockey station, a tile dance floor, pool and foosball tables, and vending machines, which had already been ransacked. Twenty to thirty bathing-suited bodies were sprawled all over the room.

            The Chief stepped over body after contorted body. He made his way to the sound system, pulled its several plugs, and put an official end to the rave. The basement looked like Jonestown meets Spring Break.

            “Hey! Who shut off the music,” the voice came from the top of the basement stairs.

            “It’s the Chief of Police.”

            A young man slowly materialized from toes to head: a pair of flip-flops; red and white floral board shorts; a shirtless, lean, angular torso with perfectly-manicured chest hair; a face with two day’s stubble and Mediterranean features; and dark curly hair spilling from a backwards Cleveland Indians ball cap. Although there weren’t even any windows in the basement to allow in sunlight, he wore a pair of mirrored Aviator sunglasses. “Sorry, bro,” he said. “Didn’t know it was you.”

            “What happened here?” With a nod of his head, the Chief indicated his concern for the lifeless bodies littering the basement.

            “Oh, they aren’t dead, Chief. They’re just sleeping or drunk or both. A bunch of us decided to throw an end of the world party – at least until the alcohol runs out. We’ve got a fully-stocked cafeteria and a few dudes made a beer run.”

            “And who exactly are you?”

            “I’m Giovanni Dioneo; my friends call me Geo.”

            “Where you from, Geo?” The Chief asked.

            “Cleveland. East side. Murray Hill neighborhood in Little Italy. You know it?”

            “No. I’m afraid not.”

            “Came over on the Booze Cruise with a bunch of college friends.”

            “Are you in charge?”

            “Me? In charge? Nah. Nobody’s in charge here.”

            “Look, Geo. We’re here to collect any weapons and to locate anyone who is sick and in need of our help.”

            “That’s cool.”

            I don’t suppose you’ve noticed if any of these,” the Chief scanned the passed out bodies, “friends of yours were carrying any weapons, did you?”

            “Nah. No way. We had to pass through a metal detector on the dock back in Sandusky even to get on the boat or ship or whatever. There aren’t any weapons here.”

            “Good. I’m going to take your word for it. Could you do us a favor and rouse these folks while my partner and I do a sweep of the rest of the dorm? Make sure they’re all just hung over and not sick?”

            “No problem.”

            “Is there anything I can do or get for you guys?” the Chief asked.

            “We’re good, Chief. Like I said, plenty of food and drink, at least enough to last for . . . well, you know.”

            “Don’t be so morbid, Geo. We had a town hall meeting of sorts at the ball field this morning. I think that, if we work together, we can beat it.”

            “Maybe. Maybe not. We talked about it, and we think otherwise. These kids may not look like it, but most of them are really smart.” He nodded to the scattered bodies.

            Neither the Chief nor I were convinced.

            “Pardon my language, but our consensus is that we’re fucked. Tommy there, in the plaid shorts, he was a biochemistry major. Karen, over there in the Cleveland Cavaliers shirt: neuropathology. I studied biomedical engineering. Based on that cooling tower to the west, Tommy’s sticking with the radiation event, but I’m not buying that bullshit. Karen’s going with SARS, which would be bad enough. But I’m thinking something avian. What? H5N1 or even H7N1?”

            “You’re the winner, Geo, but let’s keep it between us.”

            “Then they all owe me a beer, and now I’m even more convinced that we’re fucked.”

            “You really think this is your best option then? Locking yourselves away and partying?”

             “What’s the other choice? Sit scared in some room like those bird lovers at the hotel waiting to die?”

            “Or maybe, to live,” the Chief said.

            “That’s not an option, Chief. That’s a fairy tale. There’s a reason they have us caged up on this island. This bug is a nasty one, and they can’t afford to let it loose on the mainland. We both know that. We’re being amputated like a frostbitten finger.”

            “You’re a smart guy, Geo, but I think you’re being too pessimistic. I’d like you and your friends to join the community and put some of that brainpower to work, but suit yourselves.”

            “I’ll run it past them when they ‘wake up,’ but I wouldn’t expect much. We’re a pretty disillusioned bunch. For eight fucking years, we watched our liberal arts and business school buddies party and live it up while we studied our asses off because we were going into medicine to make the big money and laugh the last laugh, then this shit happens,” Geo paused in his reflection. “Oh well, what are you going to do? We’ve got a lot of making up to do and short time to do it in.”

            “You’re sure there isn’t anything you need?”

            “No. Like I said, we’re good. You know, Carpe Diem and all that. We’ll just keep the doors locked and eat, drink, and be merry – if that’s all right with you. Who knows? Maybe you’re right, and we’ll all get lucky and ride it out.”

            “Okay, Geo.”

            “Come to think of it, Chief, there is one thing you could get for us.”

            “What’s that?”

            “Condoms. I mean, between you and me, what’s the difference? But smart as they are, not all of these chicks do their math so good.”

            “I’ll see what I can do,” the Chief said.

            “Thanks, Chief.”

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Some of the People in My Life, Vol. 3, Gary Kelley

What follows is an updated draft of a speech I gave a few years back as part of Gary Kelley’s induction into the Sandusky Central Catholic Hall of Fame. It was one of the greatest privileges of my lifetime. For those of you who, like me, had the good fortune of being one of his students, nothing that follows will be revelatory. In fact, I’m sure it will be old news that falls far short of capturing the full measure of the impact he had on our lives. For all other readers, I’d encourage you to recall that teacher or mentor who first made you truly believe you were special and far more capable than you ever imagined yourself to be. For Port Clinton grads, think Mrs. Quayle.

I want to thank Mr. Kelley for conferring upon me the honor of speaking at his induction. As his, not former, but forever student, I’m humbled by his faith in me. Although I long ago graduated to calling Mr. Kelley by his first name, to the several thousand students whose hearts and minds he touched, he will always be Mr. Kelley. Therefore, as I stand here as their proxy and attempt to give voice to the gratitude and love we wish to share with him today, I will use that title, which was and still is spoken with reverence and affection.

I knew OF Mr. Kelley long before I actually knew Mr. Kelley. When he was only in his twenties and I was still in elementary school, Gary and Linda used to play cards with my Grandma Benkey and my Great Aunts Else and Tec, who were at least in their seventies at the time. I thought it odd, but you had to know my Grandma and her sisters, and once I came to know the Kelleys, it made perfect sense. They were all east siders, they were all Saints Peter and Paul parishioners, and they all loved people, especially young people, or at least people who were young at heart. I also knew of Mr. Kelley because when I was still in elementary school, I would often hear my high school-aged siblings, cousins, and their friends talk of him as that most confusing of breeds: the cool teacher. Remember, this was the early to mid-1970s, when many of the teachers at St. Mary were still nuns and priests. It was also at a time when the generation gap between teens and adults was wide. Roger Daltry of the Who had not too much earlier defiantly sung, “I hope I die before I get old,” and Jack Weinberg, an activist in San Francisco, said those in the movement “didn’t trust anyone over 30.”

I’m guessing the seventies or eighties.

When I entered high school myself, I was surprised to learn that this Mr. Kelley was a longish-haired, mustachioed, bell bottom-wearing, borderline hippie who was also the make-up man for school plays. On the surface, he appeared to be nothing like the male role models I’d known up to that point, all of whom were short on words, long on toughness, and often downright scary. Over time, however, I learned that this make-up man was as tough as and, when necessary, could be just as no nonsense-allowing and even intimidating as the most macho of those others. But those instances were rare. In fact, Mr. Kelley would become the first person I knew to actually model the word “gentle” in gentleman.

When I finally stepped inside his classroom for senior English, I sensed immediately that his room was different than any I’d ever been in: somehow warmer, somehow safer. It was clear that it didn’t matter who your parents were or if you were a star football player or a cheerleader or the class valedictorian or the class stoner or clown, you were going to be treated like everyone else. For those forty-two minutes, in Mr. Kelley’s room, every one of us were one of the cool kids.

Mr. Kelley commanded my respect and attention not by instilling fear but by engaging me intellectually. He fascinated, not frightened me. He taught with a passion that was genuine and incendiary and made me take seriously every word he read or spoke. He made me feel that my thoughts and opinions actually mattered. Whether it was in regards to my behavior or my academic performance, he made me want to please him and never to disappoint him. I began that year in his class as the “too-cool-for-school” kid slouching in the back row, but I ended it on the edge of my seat with this absurd notion of becoming an English major, a teacher, and a writer. Who ever said dreams don’t come true?

Mr. Kelley and Mr. Kohler could actually sing. I just had a cool “Cosby” sweater.

Other than my parents and my wife, Mr. Kelley has had more impact on my life than anyone else – not only as I pursued a career in education and a writing avocation, but also as I became a husband, a father, and, a mentor myself to others. When I have been at my best as an adult, I have been the most like Mr. Kelley. It is when I’m channeling the examples he set for me and the wisdom he shared with me that I most like myself and I know I’m getting it right.

After thirty years in Catholic education, Mr. Kelley began a second career as a sales rep., a job from which he only recently retired. Over the past decade, Gary has also immersed himself in his other artistic love: watercolor painting of local landmarks. I point this out because it is another lesson that, I believe, Mr. Kelley is modeling for us all but especially for me. Because, probably like all of his students, I always thought he was talking especially to me. Gary Kelley is no Gary Cooper, you will never watch him ride off into the sunset.

This is one of my favorites of Gary’s water colors.

So, if you will humor me, I’d like to close with the final stanza of a poem that Mr. Kelley and I have long shared as one of our favorites. It speaks to his larger-than-life persona and his indomitable spirit. The poem is “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the earlier stanzas, Ulysses complains that after living a life of adventure amongst gods and heroes, he has returned to his home in Ithaca and become “an idle king” with little to do but to wait for “that eternal silence.” But here in the final stanza, he determines to set out once more with his men, to “drink life to the lees,” and to live until he dies:

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Gary Kelley – my teacher, my mentor, my friend – is one of the most special of people in 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 any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Playing the WWJD Card

The letters WWJD form a popular acronym among many Christians. It is often found on bracelets and wristbands and signifies the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” and reminds the wearer to imitate Christ in all things. It’s a pretty high bar.

I was reminded of this motivational technique as I was driving to Rochester, N.Y., this past weekend and decided to take a detour into Buffalo to sample a chili dog at Ted’s Hot Dogs, an iconic restaurant in Western New York. I can report that the chili dog was amazing. I mean, what’s not to like about a footlong of hot dog, chili, cheese, and onion. This post, however, has nothing to do with Ted’s.

As I drove, I passed a church with a sign out front proclaiming, “Jesus Does not Social Distance,” which clearly implies that one should follow whatever can be reasonably assumed would be what Jesus would do were he walking the Earth in the time of Covid-19. Now, I’m typically as impressed by church signage wit as I am with greeting card poetry, but I couldn’t get that proclamation out of my mind the entire weekend.

What I’ve concluded is that if you’re going to play the WWJD card, you can’t think of it as a wild card that can change its face value from one hand to the next. It is, arguably, the highest card in the deck, and it should only be laid with the greatest of respect for what it represents.

I’d like to believe that the pastor and congregation, represented by the declaration on the sign, apply their aversion to social distancing in all situations, not just the ones that may fit a political view or a need to fill pews and collection baskets. I hope the example from the Gospel to which they allude is that of Christ going among and serving lepers, the poor, Samaritans, and sinners.

I’d also like to assume that said pastor and congregation also find the following forms of social distancing equally abominable and in opposition to Christ-like behavior: 1) Closing borders to refugees, fleeing oppression and poverty in their home countries and seeking succor in America; 2) establishing policies and practices, both informal and institutionalized, that prevent minorities and low-income families from moving into their preferred neighborhoods; 3) constructing and reinforcing glass ceilings that hinder or prevent women from entering board rooms, the halls of power, and every other venue men walk freely in and out of; 4) refusing service to and respect for our LGBT-Q brothers and sisters; 5) pursuing xenophobic agendas that encourage isolationism and ignore our responsibilities to the people of less fortunate nations; 6) passing laws that disenfranchise former felons and following hiring practices that make employment for those who have paid their debt nearly impossible; 7) criminalizing and senselessly harassing the homeless and indigent.

I could go on, but I think, if you’ve read this far, you’ve got the point. The WWJD card is an admirable card to possess but risky to play. It cannot rightly only be played when it fits nicely into one’s political philosophy or worldview. At least it can’t be played in a manner that engenders respect and promotes a Christlike model for human behavior.

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

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Pastiche Makes Perfect

I’m often asked where the ideas for my novels come from. Typically, they are inspired by existing stories: those I teach and those I’ve enjoyed. My most recent effort, Island No. 6, can best be described as a Patchwork Pastiche of some of those stories. In literature, a pastiche is a text that celebrates another work through imitation. If you’ve read Island No. 6, you may recognize how each of the following stories intertwine to help form my own.

The original work being riffed on in Island No. 6 is the 17th century quasi-novel A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, which provided me with the name of my main character (Danny Foe) and the notion of telling the story in a journalistic style. Defoe’s narrative is set in the time of England’s King Charles II (island mayor, Charles King II, in my story), who reigned during the devastating plague outbreak of 1666.

The second major source is Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. This 1969 techno-thriller sparked my longtime and ongoing love affair with plague stories. In Crichton’s novel, a comet crashes into the earth and unleashes a literal alien virus that spawns a devastating pandemic. A similar but true-to-life story is told in the grippingly terrifying, Richard Preston medical-thriller The Hot Zone, which tells the story of an Ebola outbreak in Africa in the early nineties that came frightfully close to being loosed on the American public.

Since I was a child, when some un-remembered babysitter unadvisedly allowed me to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie, The Birds, based on the short story of the same name by Daphne de Maurier (Americanized as Daphne Moyer in my story), I’ve kept a wary eye on the sky, phone lines, and trees, while half-expecting a crow to divebomb me and to peck away at my eyes. This association led me to choose the bird flu as my source of viral contagion.

My all-time favorite movie, which might surprise some folks, is the Spielberg classic, Jaws, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name. Like the movie, my novel is set on an island that is a tourist hotspot. In both cases, those on the island are under siege while being led by a triad of heroes, including an island chief of police (Brody/Sarter) and an off-island scientist (Hooper/Bentham), who fight desperately to save them. The islanders’ terroristic enemy in one is a giant, man-eating shark. In the other, a microscopic virus, along with the federal government, serves as their home invader.

The majority of us were made to read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies at some point in high school. If not, I’d be so bold as to say you were shortchanged in your literary education. Another story set on an island, LofF imagines a group of teenagers forced to return to a “state-of-nature,” a hypothetical condition imagined by many philosophers, in which people exist in a pre-social contract state and are driven by their most primal motives and modes of operation. Two of the most famous of these philosophers are Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, both of whom appear in my novel as Tom Hobbs, the owner of the island’s general store, and Captain Russo, who operates a ferry line. I’ll return to this allegorical level of the novel in a forthcoming blog post.

Finally, one of my favorite recent novels is Max Brooks’s World War Z as I am a total sucker for a good zombie narrative. When a victim of the bird flu virus that strikes Island No. 6 reaches the final stages of their affliction, they fall under a compulsion to walk, perhaps as a last ditch, futile attempt to escape Death. As a result, in their zombiefied condition, they become a horrific danger to any still-healthy person they approach.

If Benjamin Franklin was correct and “Originality is the art of concealing your sources,” I have just grievously betrayed my lack of it. However, Shakespeare is said to have only written a single completely original play. Although, I claim no company with Shakespeare, like him, I never met a character, setting, plot, or theme that I was unwilling to borrow, and I’m pretty sure I’ve missed a few.

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

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Some of the People in My Life,Volume 2: Julie Roth

Whenever I tell my wife, Julie, that I’ve sent a another Letter to the Editor, posted a blog article, or published a new novel, a slight, involuntary gasp escapes from between her lips. It is a nearly imperceptible gasp, yet it teems with meaning. “Oh, God, who do I need to warn or avoid this time?” it asks. Yet, not once, has she ever asked me not to share whatever it was I felt compelled to write and share.

Despite the innumerable hours I spend holed up alone in my writing space and inside of my own head, which often leaves me distant in both space and in attentiveness to her needs and to my domestic responsibilities, Julie has never done anything but encourage me to write. Perhaps, she has intuited correctly that my teaching and writing have saved us thousands of what otherwise would have been spent on counseling and anti-depressants in order to keep me out of my dark place.

Julie couldn’t care less about the Red Wings except for the fact that I do. I think that’s love.

Why Julie ever chose to spend her life with me will forever be a mystery. When we met, I was a first-year teacher and coach in a private high school with an income not too far north of the federally-defined poverty line nor were my prospects for future affluence especially impressive. In fact, at the time, I was so low on funds, my roommate and I couldn’t afford a phone line in our apartment. In order to ask her out, I had to leave a handwritten note jammed between the wiper blade and windshield of her car. These should have been her first signs that a life with me would never be featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. To potentially make matters worse, I loved my job and had no intention of ever leaving education for greener pastures. She occasionally still reminds me that all I brought to our marriage was college loan debt and an alarm clock with an 8-track player.

Quinn is the only woman who rivals Julie for my affection.

Trust me that none of this speaks to my charm or irresistibility. Rather, it illustrates Julie’s fundamental goodness as a person. I love that she is never impressed or intimidated by anyone’s popularity or personal wealth. Instead, I have always found her to be healthily suspicious of such surface-level attributes and searching for characteristics of more substance before letting those people inside of her walls. Fittingly, I have never known anyone who could so accurately size up someone’s character on a first meeting, and I have learned to trust her judgement implicitly in nearly all matters.

A longtime teacher herself, there is no one’s opinion of my own classroom efforts and performance that matters more to me. I teach my students that there can be no love where there is not respect, and I can say unequivocally that there is no one for whom I have greater respect than Julie. She modelled diligence in the pursuit of excellence in the classroom to a degree I have rarely seen matched in any profession and that I still strive to equal myself.

Our favorite splurge: Broadway!

If anyone who didn’t know Julie were to be shown two photographs of her – one from when we first met and one from today – and they were asked in which one is she more beautiful, I have no doubt that the majority would quickly point to the twenty-three year old version. I, however, would choose the latter without hesitation. If there is magic in the world, I believe its clearest manifestation is in this phenomenon. As a young man, I remember wondering how any two long-married people could stay in love and attracted to one another for so many years and through the ravages of aging, but this magic that renders my wife more beautiful to me every day and will continue to do so for as long as we’re on this Earth has answered my shallow musings of youth.

It would require volumes for me to express my appreciation and love for Julie. As brief as it is, I’m pretty sure that she is going to hate this post; she is the most attention-averse person I have ever known. However, she is not just “one of the people in my life,” she is the most important person in my life. There is nothing in this world within my capabilities that I wouldn’t do for her, and there is nothing I wouldn’t stop doing should she ask.

There’s no one I’d rather walk through this world with (And she has great legs!).

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

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The Sandusky Sixteen (or So)

Two massive LEFT thumbs up to the sixteen or so Sandusky-area residents, who, in line with America’s storied history of civil protest, marched into a local Kroger store this past week to protest face mask mandates. In so doing, they heroically braved potential confrontations with teenage bag boys and price gun-wielding shelf-stockers, while storming past the yellow floor barricades warning, “Wet Floor.” Because, you know . . . “Don’t tread on me.”

Armed Shop assistant using price gun.

The intentions of this heroic display of noncompliance was to demand their rights 1) to ignore sound science and medical advice and 2) to flaunt the onerous request by public health officials and by the store itself (In April, one of its employees tested positive for the Corona virus) to politely wear a mask while strolling the aisles of their preferred grocery store. The unintended outcome of their action is the possible spread of a virus already responsible for killing nearly 200,000 of their fellow citizens and predicted to cause over 200,000 more by January 1 in a study recently released by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The study also warns that the number of dead could be as high as 620,000 should current restrictions (including mask wearing) be eased. Because, you know . . . Science.

For some, the bold display of civil disobedience by the Sandusky 16 (or So) may call to mind the Civil Rights protesters of the sixties, who faced down water cannons in an effort to exercise their equal rights under the law, or the “Bloody Sunday” marchers in Selma, Alabama, or the current protesters in Hong Kong demanding freedom from Chinese governmental oppression. Because, you know . . . which of these pictures below doesn’t belong with the others?

For others, this act of defiance may be reminiscent of a four-year old who refuses to eat his broccoli because, although it’s good for him, he doesn’t like it, and besides, “You’re not the boss of me!” But what do rule followers know? There’s not a word about common courtesy, much less common sense, in the U.S. Constitution. It says nothing about decency, compassion, or the temporary sacrifice of one’s personal level of comfort for the well-being of others during a global pandemic. But you know . . . Not everything is about you and your rights.

Masks are hot, uncomfortable, hard to breathe through, and difficult to match with one’s outfits. You know . . . like Ventilators . . . and Graves.

Sometimes, this shit just writes itself.

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 “Home” link above, scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere’s There Signs

The next line to the 5-Man Electrical Band song, alluded to in the title, goes, “Fucking up the scenery, breaking my mind.” I’m starting to feel their pain.

‘Tis the season that yard signs in support of various candidates for political office begin popping up in folks’ yards like dandelions. It may be the contentious times in American politics in which we find ourselves, or it may just be me, but the act of planting one this election season seems much more aggressive, even risky, than it once did. What was once a relatively meek show of support for one’s preferred candidate has morphed into what feels like a full-blown act of belligerent, in-your-face aggression. I have even found myself ridiculously altering my running and/or driving routes just to avoid certain homes and their garish signs.

I mean, “Get a grip, Ty! they’re just signs.”

Although, I’m fairly open regarding my politics, steadfast in my support for policies consistent with them, and more-than-willing to discuss them in the proper forum, I’m just not a yard sign kind of guy. I prefer not to wear my politics on my sleeve, (or on my head, in my car, on my bumper, etc.) especially when remembering that the origin of the quote is the poisonous tongue of one of Shakespeare’s most villainous characters: Iago from Othello. I do, however, recognize and respect everyone else’s prerogative to do so.

I don’t think this is necessarily true. I just think it’s funny.

A yard sign allows for no dialogue. It has more in common with a “Keep off the Grass!” sign than it does a “Welcome” mat. I can’t discuss the merits of the candidate or his/her policies with the sign’s namesake or its owner as I zoom past. It feels like the sign’s owner is merely shouting a name in my face, which, based on how many modern voters view political support as a devotion to a cult of party-line-towing zombies or to a venom-spitting demagogue, that may be exactly what it’s doing, as if the values, policies, and goals of the promoted candidate are either irrelevant to the sign planter’s support or just too much work to bother parsing for oneself. It’s easier to just shout a name or to flip a finger as one passes.

I, like most people, tend to believe nostalgically that there was a simpler, more wholesome time in America, when a candidate’s yard sign on the lawn was more of a proud display of support, not a less-than-subtle “F-you” to those who oppose the said candidate. Again, maybe I’m just being super-sensitive and misinterpreting the intent. I can only speak to how it feels to me.

Even funnier, yet somehow sadder.

It has been a fairly common experience in recent years for folks to become alienated from neighbors, friends (both on and offline), and even family members over who one or both of them support politically. Although I’m pretty sure a yard sign would never cost me any close friends or family, the ties that unite neighbor to neighbor are not typically so ironclad as those of friends and family. And I really like my neighbors, and there are a few I’d still like to know better. I do not agree with all of their politics or the politicians they promote, but I want to keep living harmoniously with them and attending the occasional, impromptu “blocktail” party with them.

So, you go ahead and drive those signs into the ground. As for me, I’m going to keep looking for the ground that is common.

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 “Home” link above, scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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Some of the People in My Life: Del Culver

This is the first post in what I plan to have as a regular feature on my blog. The idea was inspired while running, searching for an idea for a blog post, and listening to the Genesis album Duke. The song “Turn it on Again,” poured through my ear buds, and Phil Collins declared, “I can show you some of the people in my life,” and I thought, “I have so many interesting, talented, and cool people in my life, I should share them,” and a feature was born. In addition to introducing you to these special individuals in my life, I hope you will realize that your life is similarly peopled and that they and you too are fascinating and worthy of celebration.

As a point of clarification, I do not interview the subjects of the post, but I do ask for their permission to be featured, and, if they don’t trust me, I do share the post with them before publishing, giving them full power to edit the content of the post. So, with no further delay, allow me to introduce you to one of the people in my life: Del Culver, whom many of you already know.

I often joke that at Del’s wake, at least fifty people will speak and identify Del as having been their best friend – and each one of them will be correct. He will be the first one to tell you he’s far from perfect, but he possesses one of the most capacious hearts I’ve ever encountered, meaning there’s room and love in there for just about everyone and especially for living life to the fullest. Metaphorically, in any of his many friend groups, he’s the hub of the wheel through which all of the spokes run, or he’s the glue that holds everything and everyone together

I met Del when he took a job as a phys. ed. teacher and coach in Port Clinton. He and I soon became neighbors and friends during what was a very low point in my career: the tail end of an extraordinarily unsuccessful attempt at coaching football at Port Clinton High School.

Del is in the top row, all the way to the left.

I had taken up psycho-emotional residence in what I refer to as my “Dark Place,” but Del helped me to find new meaning and purpose by introducing me to fitness challenges and by convincing me to say, “Yes,” to just about anything. I frequently kid that I want ‘WWDD” tattooed on my wrist (“What Would Del Do”). For a few years, we were Port Clinton’s Hall and Oates: a tall, good-looking, multi-talented blond guy and his short, dark-haired, nappy-headed, less-talented but super-determined partner. By the photos, I’m pretty sure you can tell who is Hall and who is Oates.

Me (Oates), Pat, and Del (Hall) in the Adirondacks.

Over the years, we ran a number of races, culminating in a marathon. At mile 16, a bad case of tendinitis flared up in my knee. Although he was running strong, Del all-but-carried me another 7 miles until I just couldn’t take another step. He then waited with me until a first aid vehicle picked me up before finishing his race. The coolest (pun intended) run we ever did together, however, was a January run across the ice from Catawba to Put-in-Bay with eight other runner-friends/borderline crazies. It was a fairly stupid thing to do, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Del is the tall one in black. You can see Perry’s Monument in the background.

He also talked me into a Tough Mudder endurance race with another collection of adrenaline junkies, but the best evidence of Del’s inordinate sway over my decision making was his convincing me that I could be triathlete, when I didn’t even own a bike and couldn’t even swim. We shared several near-death incidents on our bikes, and I nearly drowned in five feet of water during a sprint triathlon, but our ultimate shared fitness challenge was a Half Ironman, which just about killed us both.

Me, wearing Del’s helmet, in the first triathlon I let him talk me into.

Del and I have also completed several outdoors adventures; although, in general, I hate the outdoors. Whenever we’ve whitewater rafted, kayaked, got a bit reckless on his Jet-Skis, hiked up mountains, run across open ice – again with various other friends – I’ve always participated with one non-negotiable rule: Del had to be in my raft or right behind me because I knew if I fell in, out, or over, Del would never let me go in, out, or over alone. I’m pretty sure everyone in the raft, on the mountain or ice, felt the exact same way about Del. The only adventure Del has been unable to convince me to share with him – yet – is jumping out of a plane. There are limits to friendship and to peer pressure.

Del on his Jet-Ski. The boy could ride!

Thirteen years ago, I vacationed in Hawaii. It was incredible on many levels, but one of my takeaways was that I hoped Del would never take a trip there himself because, if he did, I knew he might never come home. To my great misfortune, however, he did make that trip, he did fall in love with Hawaii, and last year he decided to leave his teaching job, countless friends, and his family behind, and with his lovely life partner, Melinda, he moved to Oahu. I mean, WHO DOES THAT?! Many of us say such things. But nobody actually follows through. My dad threatened to move to Canada nearly every hot summer’s day of my childhood, but I knew he was never moving to Canada. The first time Del shared that he was thinking of re-locating to Hawaii, I knew it was all but a fete accompli. I hated him for it. I loved him for it.

Before Del left for Hawaii, a group of us got together to toast Del and Mel, to say our goodbyes, and to present him with a gift certificate to a surf shop on Oahu, where he could purchase a surf board. The dude was born to be a beach god/surfer. He was scheduled to begin a drive across country with his dog, Boris, the next day before catching a flight out of L.A. I was brokenhearted, but I knew it was something he had to do for himself, and my responsibility to him as a friend was to support him in his move. Unashamedly, I told Del I loved him, and I thanked him for being my friend and for, in some way, saving my life all those years ago when I most needed saving.

I miss Del every stinking day, but I’m happy for him and Mel and especially happy for not having to resist the pressure to jump out of a perfectly-good airplane.

That’s just a glimpse into Del Culver: One of the People in My Life.”

Surf on, Brother! And aloha!

This is Del in Hawaii. Aloha, Bruddha!

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 “Home” link above, scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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High Hopes

As I was making the final edits to the syllabuses for my College Composition and my College British Literature courses today, I was drawn to the sad appropriateness and intertextuality of the classes’ primary texts. For Composition, the text of readings for discussion and student essays for modeling is titled America Now. For British Literature, I use Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Other.

If one studies the arc of American history from the long view, it is certainly fair to say and encouraging to believe that we have made giant strides in regard to inclusiveness and Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” We should not lose sight of that truth. However, In America Now, many of us seem to want to define ourselves not so much by who we are but by who we are not, not by that which we have in common but by that which sends us off to our opposite corners. Many of us seem to have a desperate need to point out The Other as the cause of our difficulties and shortcomings as individuals and as a nation.

We have allowed ourselves to be divided into blue and red states. Some of us hide inside of our homogeneous circles of friends and neighbors. Some of us insist on their supremacy of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Some argue over whose lives matter. Some of us have risen to positions of great power and influence by doing little more than stoking fear and distrust of The Other. It’s fair to argue that Hector St. Michael Crevecoeur’s once-vaunted metaphor that compared America to a melting pot is obsolete in America Now.

What lifts my spirits and bolsters my optimism for the future is the students with whom I will be engaging in civil dialogue regarding these two texts this semester. I will look out (from behind my plexiglass shield) upon white, African-American, and mixed-race students. I will see young adults from several categories of LGBTQ(IA+); although, some of them won’t even completely know it yet themselves. I will engage with highly-“churched” individuals, the religiously-indifferent, the agnostic, and the atheistic. I will have students who live in gated communities and those who have spent their entire lives in public housing sitting side by side (but six feet apart), and it will not be difficult to tell which is which. I will treat them each as legitimate and worthwhile in whatever category Nature or their own choices have placed them. All of which makes me believe that, perhaps, if the melting pot metaphor still has relevance, its greatest applicability may be in our public schools and that the seeds of division – being spread in America now by too many adults all across the political spectrum – will be left to wither by the young people of today when they set forth to harvest the fruits of the previous generation’s planting.

In my white bread existence, I will admit I’m far from a multicultural warrior, but I will continue to encourage my students to overcome their fear and distrust of “the other” by actively seeking out that which makes them uncomfortable. In my own experiences, my greatest growth spurts of empathy and tolerance have occurred when I actively did so myself by, in college, going to dances sponsored by the African-American fraternity, by attending services at a Baptist church, by un-ironically patronizing a gay bar, by living in urban public housing (Admittedly, this was inspired more by poverty than outreach.), even by open-mindedly watching or reading right-leaning news and opinion outlets that run counter to my own leftist views.

My College “Others”: Bob from inner-city Rochester, NY; Frank from Dublin, Ireland; Chris from Skokie, IL; and Me.

I want to believe that, in our American Future, we will be less focused on what divides us into “We” and “They” and more willing to embrace our diversity and to celebrate what makes us unique. I hope to teach my students that it is possible to be proud of one’s own group affiliations without being suspicious, intolerant, or hateful of “the other.”

Call me a Pollyanna, a romantic, a liberal. The antonyms for these are defeatist, unromantic, and narrow-minded respectively. I’ll gladly align myself with the former terms whether they be of derision or endearment.

One of my all-time favorite songs was written by Nick Lowe and sung by Elvis Costello. The title and refrain of which asks, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” I think it an appropriate question for America Now.

If we ever hope to bridge the divides between ourselves and The Other, the answer is 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 “Home” link above, scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well. – Thanks, Ty

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A Bad Romance: The Story Behind the Story of Island No. 6

Over the course of writing three novels, I have found it surprising how many readers are as interested in how the story came to be written as they are with the story itself. Due to the timeliness of its plot, this has been especially true with my latest novel, Island No. 6.

Because the central conflict of the plot is a battle to prevent the spread of a highly-contagious virus, many readers assume I had “ripped the story from the headlines” and rushed it to publication. This notion could not be further from the truth, as I actually typed the first sentence of the novel in 2011 – nearly nine years before the current Covid-19 pandemic – and finished it in 2018. So, why the two-year delay?

Island No. 6 was an designation for Kelleys Island used by early cartographers.

Humor me as I begin at the beginning. After the publication of my first novel, So Shelly, I was struggling to deliver to Random House a second novel. Somewhere, I picked up the advice to write the kind of story I like to read. Therefore, having long been a sucker for a good pandemic story (Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain is one of my all-time favorites.), I decided to take a stab at writing one of my own. However, after several fits, starts, and tens of thousands of words, I was not happy with my efforts and abandoned the project. Several years passed, I published a second novel, Goodness Falls, returned to my pandemic novel, and completed a massive rewrite with which I was very happy – honestly believing it to be the best writing I had ever done.

In the meantime, my original literary agent left the business. Like a recent widower, I was forced to get back out there and start the wooing/pitching process all over. I found what I thought to be the perfect rebound match, a veritable Prince Charming, the agent-of-my-dreams. I loved everything about him. It was as if the gods of publishing had fashioned him just for me. He flattered my writing and seemed to show sincere interest in me and Island No. 6. Desperate for representation, I concluded he was the only agent for me, and I devoted myself to winning his affection. I had fallen in love.

Sadly, he had not.

In his defense, I should say that this agent had continually warned me that we were not exclusive. He even encouraged me to continue to seek alternative representation. He had not “put a ring on it.” But I was deaf to his admonitions and determined to make our relationship work.

After exchanging a year of flirtatious emails, turning away serious interest from another agent, and committing entirely to this man, the agent jilted me at the metaphorical altar.

I was devastated. I swore I’d never write again.

Then Covid-19 hit, and I had this super-relevant novel gathering dust on my laptop. Against my better judgement, my heart light began to glow once more. But the traditional route to publication is a one-to-two year process. I was afraid that by the time Island No. 6 was made available to the public, interest in pandemic stories would have waned. I decided I didn’t need a man (er . . . agent) and to make an end run around traditional publishers.

Therefore, I submitted the novel to what is known as a hybrid publisher. In doing so, I surrendered 1) any possibility of an advance, 2) an exhaustive content and copy edit (which I still feel it needed), 3) the aid of a publicist, 4) shelving in the few brick-and-mortar bookstore chains remaining, and 5) the national reach and prestige of a Big-5 publisher.

Conversely, what I gained was 1) total rights to my novel, 2) official registration of the book, 3) an expeditious journey to market, 4) titling control and nearly complete artistic freedom, and 5) a higher share of royalties on sales.

One of the greatest rewards for any novelist is to see their book on display on a bookstore shelf.

In the final analysis, I believe it was a worthwhile trade-off. There is little-to-no-chance of Island No. 6 being a national bestseller (Recommendations to fellow readers and Amazon reviews wouldn’t hurt.), but there was not much chance of that happening with a traditional publisher anyway. Barely two percent of books sell more than 5,000 copies, which is the number that must be sold in a week to earn “bestseller” status. Locally, sales have far exceeded my expectations, and I regularly receive positive reviews from readers. I can more than live with that.

Most importantly, I picked up the pieces of my writer’s broken heart and put myself and my work out there once more. Who knows? Maybe Mr. or Mrs. Right Agent is still out there. If so, I’m willing to put the bad romance behind me and to learn to love again.

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 “Home” link above, scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well.

Thanks, Ty

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36th Year – To Teach or Not to Teach

Next week, I will begin my thirty-sixth year as a classroom teacher. It will certainly be the most bizarre of school years and likely the most challenging. For the majority of teachers who began their career the same year I did, this marks their first year of retirement. And I must admit that, over these summer months, there have been moments when the thought of retiring myself flickered across my mind.

1985 my first year as a teacher at SMCC.

I wondered, “Would it be worth the risk of returning? Am I capable of mastering all of the technology required to teach simultaneously in the classroom and remotely? Can I teach a 90-minute block without having to use the restroom?” These were a few of the questions I pondered, but the most important one was “With what is now a forty year age separation between my students and myself, can I still be relevant and able to empathize with teenagers whose world hardly resembles mine at the same age?” I will have been teaching for twice as many years as they’ve been alive!

Truth be told, my moments of doubt were short-lived, and I determined to, in the words of Jim Harbaugh, “Attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” It’s a bit hyperbolic, but you get the point. These past six months have left me discombobulated. Without a classroom and a roster full of students, I’m not totally sure who I am. I certainly need them as much, if not more, than they need me. Therefore, Monday, August 31, will find me introducing myself to a classroom full of teenagers not exactly breathlessly waiting to dive into English Literature or to learn the finer points of academic writing.

My first year teaching at PCMS in 1995.

At the end of the day, it’s not the content I teach that I hope my students take with them. Rather, it’s the life lessons, which I try so desperately to connect with the content, such as:

  1. Life is not fair. Only children and fools expect it to be.
  2. There are few mindsets more debilitating, worthless, or unattractive than self-pity. Get over it.
  3. Fear is the biggest obstacle to achievement and growth you will have to overcome. Take solace in knowing that everyone is just as afraid as you are. Tuck your chin, broaden your shoulders, gird your loins (That is so weird.) and be bold – even if you have to fake it – for the world loves a confident woman/man.
  4. Question everything that you’ve been told is right, true, or good. If after careful discernment you still feel that way, great! If not, it’s time to figure out what is.
  5. You can dislike another’s ideas without disliking them.
  6. Feelings are more delicate than thoughts. Never tell someone how they should feel, especially because it makes you uncomfortable.
  7. At some point, you have to stop blaming others for whatever shortcomings you possess or predicaments you face. However, you also need to realize that some people are born on third base and act like they hit a triple, while others have to scratch and claw just to get an opportunity to have an at-bat. Be sympathetic and lend a hand to the latter.
  8. The harder you work, the luckier you’ll get.
  9. The things most worth having rarely come easily.
  10. Always, always, always forgive and always choose love.

So with hands sanitized, masked, and from behind a Plexiglass screen, I’ll be returning for year thirty-six.

I can’t wait!

Teaching from my virtual classroom Spring of 2020.

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 “Home” link above, scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the “Home” page as well.

Thanks, Ty

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On Happiness

I read an article recently in which an NBC News survey was referenced as reporting that only 14% of Americans described themselves as “very happy.” The writer of the article seemed surprised by this low percentage. Knowing the fragile nature of happiness and the high bar most people set for achieving it, I was not.

Our grand-baby, Quinn, is an endless source of joy.

Anyone’s state of mind, including their position on the happiness continuum, is little more than an ever-fluctuating moment in time, a mere snapshot. Should that same self-professed “very happy” person be asked to rate their happiness a mere quarter of an hour later, they may give an entirely different response, depending on what did or did not take place or what news they received in the intervening fifteen minutes.

Because happiness is an emotion, I’ve never believed happiness to be an achievable goal, not, at least, as a constant condition. Emotions are by their nature short-lived and impossible to sustain. This is not to suggest, however, that moments of happiness should not be pursued and savored.

More good friends than I deserve make me happy.

In order to prove the transient nature of happiness to my students, I will ask them, “Have you ever been happy?”

They invariably reply, “Yes, of course.”

“Then why didn’t you just stay happy?” I ask.

Dumbfounded expressions typically follow.

I then ask them of a contrasting situation: “Have you ever been insanely angry at someone?” Again, they respond with a yes. “Then, why did you stop being angry?” The answer is that anger, like happiness, is an emotion that too is unsustainable.

FAMIlY makes me happy (most of the time).

Further limiting our ability to maintain happiness is the fact that life gets in the way. We or our significant others often fall short of our expectations and/or hopes for them, leaving us disappointed. In addition, dispiriting events, completely outside of our hoped for outcomes and even our ability to control, occur that impact us profoundly, leaving us saddened, angry, hurt, etc.

So, why do we, Romantics all, continually accept Thomas Jefferson’s challenge to endlessly pursue happiness? Why do we people, even in the bleakest of circumstances, in the throes of desperation, sometimes at the very nadir of our existence, believe that happiness is real and attainable?

Broadway makes me happy!

My best guess is that a single moment of pure happiness is like a well-struck drive on the first tee or like achieving the perfect rise when following your grandmother’s coffee cake recipe. If you did it once, you can do it again. Those all-too-rare moments of unadulterated happiness truly are the stuff of life. Anyone who accumulates even a handful in the span of a lifetime and transforms those moments into memories can boast of a life well-lived.

“I’ve always believed in savoring the moments. In the end, they are the only things we have.” Anna Godberson

In what I think of as the early autumn of my life, I am trying to turn over any of my ever-withering leaves that in the past have tended towards negativity or pessimism. Instead, I intend to aggressively pursue, even manufacture, as many moments of joy as possible – no matter how fleeting – and to choose to be happy – even if I have to fake it.

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

Thanks, Ty

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On Children Leaving Home

In Act I, Scene iii of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius delivers an abundance of last minute advice to his son Laertes as the young man sets off on his return trip to the university. Included in his fatherly valediction is the famous adage “To thine own self be true.” Polonius’ somewhat bumbling attempt to impart his own cache of hard-earned wisdom to his son is often interpreted in two completely dialectical ways. Some find his words to be timely and sage; others think them too little, too late and platitudinous.

I’ve been thinking of this scene a lot lately as I’ve watched friends and family send their own college age children back to various universities. In this spirit of imparting “words to live by,” I thought I’d share some of the thoughts I, in partnership with my wife, tried to impress on our sons as they left home for the first time. Much of what appears below appeared in an actual letter.

Tanner hates this picture. Not long after, he became a die hard Buckeye.

As you read this, you are at the beginning of what will be, thus far, your longest separation from home in both time and space. Trust us, as difficult as this transition is for you, it is equally so for us, but we firmly believe that it is vital to your growth as a person that you deepen your well of experiences and that you widen your encounters with different types of people in order to further define yourself in ways that are difficult to do while staying comfortable at home.

There is so much more yet to be discovered and shared with the world than you’ve been able to unearth here. We so much want you to expand the intellectual and soulful person you already are and to round yourself as a unique individual of diverse interests among the beautiful panoply of the human race. Should you do so, the universe will unveil herself to you in ways you never could have imagined and in ways that will serve to vastly enrich your unique journey through life.

The looks I typically get when imparting wisdom.

It is important that you know that we don’t want you to be anything but you. We have no image of what you should be now or in the future. One of the most exciting opportunities in life is having the power to define oneself for oneself. We just want you to search under every stone and behind every curtain for the life experiences that will bring the most joy and meaning to your life.

Know that our love for you is such that there is nothing you must do to earn or strengthen it. Know that there is nothing you could do to make our love more profound. Know that there is nothing you could do to diminish it. 

Travis’s Wedding Rehearsal

You have been such a gift to us. We remember your day of birth as if it were yesterday. We had never felt so proud and so sure of our own purpose in life or of a god in heaven as we did that day. Likewise, we know that soon we will wake up and our own remaining days be precious and few. Time passes so quickly and quietly. When we married all those years ago, the one unvoiced promise we made to each other was that, no matter how much we may occasionally disagree as a husband and wife, at the end of the day, we would always be there for one another. We made you that same promise when you were born: that when you woke up in the morning, we would be there, and when you went to bed at night, we would be there. That promise holds true today, even if “being there” is at the other end of a text message, phone call, or FaceTime. And wherever your life choices take you – and they are your life choices from here on out – for as long as we live, we will be here waiting for you to call or to come on home.

We wish we could share the secret of a life well-lived, with you but that secret is closely guarded in the confines of your own heart. We found ours in careers that challenged our minds and allowed us to impress the minds of those we taught. We found ours in the appreciation of time, and we make the most of it in our own ways. No one has ever gone to their grave wishing for more money, but far too many die wishing for more time. Most significantly, we found our shared secret to a life well-lived in home and family.

Plus Mallory

If we could give you one piece of advice that was guaranteed to stick, it would be to measure your wealth in family and friends and to measure your success by the good you do for others.

Good luck to all parents sending their babies off in these strangest of times. They and we all will get through this and hopefully come out on the other end a bit wiser and with a renewed sense of the priceless value of family, friends, home, and of the brief lives in this magnificent world that we’ve been allotted.

Plus Mary Kate and Quinn

If you enjoy reading my blog posts, perhaps you would also enjoy reading my novels. If interested, click on the “Home” link above to sample and maybe order any or all of them.

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America is a Noun

Although I love my country as much as the next guy, I’m just not the flag waving type. Even on the Fourth of July, I’m not the sort to dress up in red, white, and blue, and if I hear Lee Greenwood proclaim one more time how proud he is to be an American, I might puncture my own ear drums. So, I was a bit surprised when, while out on a morning jog, a man in a pickup truck blew his horn at me and shouted, “America!” as he passed and as if a noun can be a sentence. Out of conditioned politeness, I waved back. While still processing the man’s motivation for honking and hooting at me, I turned to see a Trump/Pence bumper sticker affixed to the truck’s back window. I laughed and thought, “If only he knew.”

Then it suddenly dawned on me that I was wearing a red, white, and blue t-shirt (see photo above) with the word “Americans” across the front in script and that it was what had inspired the man’s assumed bond of fraternity with me as fellow Trump zealots, which I’ll just say I am not and leave it at that. However, the “Americans” on the shirt actually represents the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, not America, the beautiful. I laughed at the misunderstanding and continued my run.

My next realization, however, was a sad one. This stranger had clearly conflated my red, white, and blue Americans t-shirt with his own passion for President Trump, as if anyone of a different political persuasion could not possibly be wearing those colors. In his mind, those colors, Americanism, and a liberal mindset were exclusive to like-minded folk on the right of the political spectrum and off-limits to those on the left.

This realization brought to mind the numerous red, white, and blue flags I’ve seen – emblazoned with the President’s name, image, or a slogan flying from poles attached to homes, trucks, and even boats – and it caused me a measure of chagrin. I’m not sure with whom I was more disappointed: right wingers for co-opting the colors and the notion of American pride or left-leaning folks like me for allowing it to happen.

“Folks like me” love our country just as much as that man in his pickup, and we too believe it to represent mankind’s best stab yet at forming a just body politic. We do not, however, think Her to be above criticism or the need for on-going improvement. America reminds me of my best students, who, although they are already receiving ninety-five percents, we both know they are capable of earning ninety-eights or ninety-nines. I’m equally demanding of them, if not more, as I am of the students earning seventy-five percents. However, I’m much more disappointed in those same “A” students when they fail to live up to their promise. Potential is both a blessing and a curse.

Although America is a noun and cannot be a one-word imperative sentence, the truth is that man in the pickup was correct, even if not for the reason he believed. We are brothers as members of the same American family. It is my responsibility to respect him as a person while not necessarily respecting his ideas or agreeing with his passion for the President and his policies. I can only hope that he would provide me the same measure of what should be common courtesy. Any other response only undermines and weakens the country we both claim to love.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you might enjoy my novels. Click on the “Home” link above to sample and/or order one today! – Thanks, Ty

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Bob’s Life Mattered

I’d argue that there’s an important shade of difference between understanding and knowing. For example, there’s a difference between understanding that pushing a jagged, rock-like obstruction through one’s ureter and urethra might be painful and knowing the torture of actually passing a kidney stone.

I’ve been thinking of this distinction between understanding and knowing lately in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement that has left many white Americans confused, at the least, and downright apoplectic at the worst. A person may be able to understand the challenges faced by African-Americans, but can anyone who isn’t black truly know what it is like to be black in America? If not, how can so many white folks so knowingly denigrate the movement as radical, unnecessary, or un-American? I’d think that never having “walked in another’s shoes” renders one’s opinion on the people actually wearing them relatively meaningless.

Obviously, I have never walked, marched, or been tear gassed in a black person’s shoes, but I did once accompany my African-American friend Bob as a sweet-as-can-be real estate lady showed him properties around Louisville that we slowly came to realize were all located in so-called “black” neighborhoods. Bless her heart. Bob was single and making good money as an on-air television sportscaster for a local station and could have afforded to live in all but the most expensive of neighborhoods, yet he was clearly being steered away from them.

On another occasion after Bob had moved to work in Nashville, he and I were having dinner in some downtown hot spot. He was a good looking local celebrity with a six-figure salary. During the two hours we sat eating our meals, a steady procession of women stopped at our table. By the end of the evening, there was a literal stack of business cards with phone numbers waiting to be dialed. Years deep into marriage and raising children, I opined, “It must be great to be you.”

Without hesitation, he wisely replied, “Ty, I’d give anything to be you.”

I share that seemingly random anecdote because on two separate occasions, Bob telephoned me from whatever large city he was in living in at the time to inform me that he had met HER, the woman he planned to marry. He was finally going to have the life – my life – he so badly wanted. Sadly, however, on each occasion, he was forced to make a follow up call to tell me his relationship had been brought to an end after his white girlfriend’s parents learned he was African-American.

I also remember the many times I walked with Bob into any number of retail stores. Like me, he loved books and could easily while away an afternoon browsing in a bookstore. On those occasions, sales clerks seemed to greet us nearly at the door and all but follow us down the aisles in what I originally thought to be extraordinary customer service but that Bob quietly informed me actually to be surveillance. He was used to the “attention.”

Bob, a city kid from Rochester, New York, was no John Lewis or Louis Farrakhan, but like Mr. Lewis, he treated everyone with respect and expected it in return. He rarely complained about the systemic racism he experienced, and he graciously expressed appreciation for the occasional affirmative action from which he benefited. At times, he was accused by African-American acquaintances of not being “black enough,” but regardless of how hard he tried to live a colorblind existence himself, he was never white enough for full societal inclusion.

Bob passed away twelve years ago from colon cancer; however, over the nearly thirty years of our friendship, he became a member of both the family I was born into and the one I created with my wife. Occasionally, I hear folks complain about the Black Lives Matter movement. They typically make some kind of blanket declaration of the obvious, like “All Lives Matter,” as if to suggest they, as white people, are in similar need of societal validation. I find such glomming onto African-Americans’ justifiable claim to be petty and to miss the point entirely.

In no way am I suggesting that, by merely witnessing just a few of Bob’s day-to-day confrontations with profiling, prejudice, discrimination, and outright racism, I in any way know what it’s like to be a black person in America, but I do better understand its challenges, and I am supportive of the BLM movement. What I do know is that, if only in the way his presence in my families’ lives made all of us just a bit less prone to accept stereotypes and more open to forming relationships with people of all races, Bob’s Life Mattered.

If you enjoy reading my blog posts, you may also enjoy my novels. If interested, click on the “Home” link at the top of this page. There you can sample excerpts from my novels and order through Amazon.

Thanks, Ty

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Thank You, John B.

I have never understood the deeply personal reaction many folks have to the death of a famous person. In no way, however, do I question the sincerity of their grief. I’m just unable to empathize with it. The most obvious recent example is the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. Although, I had mad respect for the man’s basketball talents, I felt no more sorrow for his passing than that of the approximately 150,000 (approximate number of worldwide deaths per day according to the World Health Organization) other people who died that day and whom I also did not know personally. Setting aside family and close friends, the deaths that have instigated the most visceral responses from me have been those of contemporaries from my youth – an occurrence that is becoming all too frequent – especially guys I competed with or against on athletic fields.

Not long ago I unexpectedly came across the obituary for John B. (Those who knew John will also know what the “B.” stands for.). I have not been able to get him or the effect he had on my life out of my head ever since. John was two classes ahead of me in school, so we were not friends, but we were teammates on the football team. I don’t think he ever gave much thought to my existence as I was a smallish sophomore, and he was a senior-captain and QB-1 on a very good team. In my insecure fifteen-year old’s mind, John was everything I wished I could be but wasn’t and, even then, somehow knew I never would be. But, I tried. Man, did I try. I tried to walk like John and to talk like John. I even listened to Springsteen mostly because John did.

In those delusional days, I had aspirations of being QB-1 myself one day, so I tried to throw a football like John as well. With little success, I might add. But glorious were the days when I was able to finagle my way in individual skill sessions to have him as a partner. Again, I’m sure he didn’t notice my finagling nor the expression behind my face mask that belied my awe at being his partner and my determination to impress him. I’m equally sure I never did. I certainly never impressed the coach, who rightly switched me to receiver the following season.

The life lesson John ultimately taught me was, once again, done without his intention or notice and didn’t occur until two years later when he was two years graduated and I was a senior myself. We had just defeated a rival football team that John’s class never seemed to be able to beat, and I had played a significant role in the victory, including scoring a touchdown. John and several other former players from his class had returned home for the game, and as I watched them storm the field after the victory, I thought for sure John was running to hug me and congratulate me and to thank me for finally helping to beat those Huron Tigers for him and his football classmates . . . he wasn’t . . . and he didn’t. Instead, he ran right past my half-outstretched arms for a few of my more talented, more popular teammates. I never felt so alone in a crowd before or since. (I’m No. 18 in the photo above in the actual game against Huron, apparently having missed a tackle.)

But, please, don’t misunderstand me here. John did nothing wrong. How could he have possibly known the extent to which I had idolized him or how much his validation would have meant to me in that moment? In the bigger picture, he inadvertently taught me two life lessons I have never forgotten and have tried to pass on to the young people who have been in my charge: 1) You never know who’s watching you nor the impact your actions have on those observers, and 2) To quote Emerson, “Envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide.” By trying so hard to be John B., I had stifled, if not killed, the unique me that was trying to form itself at that vital and malleable period of personality formation. It’s not like I had an epiphany at that moment of unintentional rejection, but the experience taught me to try my best to be my own person and not to live so much for the approval of others.

I never once spoke to or even ran into John B. in the many years since that night, but he’s never not been with me one day since. I would give much to be able to have one more anonymous catch with him and maybe to tell him what a hero he had been for me. In my mind’s eye, he will forever be the epitome of youth and charisma and cool inside his golden helmet, in the vanguard, leading his teammates on a conditioning run or into the fray on a Saturday night.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you might enjoy my novels. You can click on the “Home” link above to read excerpts from all of them and/or to order them from Amazon.

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Rolling in American Dirt

It was with great reluctance that I undertook the reading of Jeanine Cummins’ bestselling and controversial novel American Dirt. Several, ultimately-thin reasons fueled my reluctance. Firstly, I possess an English major’s admittedly snobbish and petty aversion to reading “what everyone else is reading.” The more the general reading public likes a novel, the more I am prejudiced against it. Secondly, I am a fan of Don Winslow’s drug war trilogy of novels, and I just didn’t feel there was much, if anything, more to be written about the horrors associated with Central American drug cartels. Thirdly, I am marginally sympathetic to the charge of cultural appropriation levied at Cummins, a white woman-writer living in NYC, telling and profiting greatly from a story so outside of her life experience when similar migration stories have been written by Latinx authors but under-promoted by their publishers and the press. Finally, one of the best bits of reading/writing advice I have ever received comes from a Matt Nathanson song, “The Last Days of Summer in San Francisco,” in which he sings, “No one cares about the stories they’re not in,” and I just could not imagine any way I could generate empathy with the novel’s characters based on my experience living my entirely white bread life in Ohio. Eventually, however, I overcame my hesitance to read American Dirt, and I am glad I did.

The story Cummins tells is harrowing and much more horrific than any tale that has ever spilled from the pen of Stephen King. After miraculously escaping a drug lord’s ordered massacre, which resulted in the deaths of sixteen family members including her reporter-husband, Lydia, with her son Luca, undertakes a terrifying odyssey in the attempt to escape to el norte while in constant danger of being recognized, murdered, or returned to, Javier, the jefe, of the most powerful cartel in Mexico, who ordered the massacre in retaliation for an expose written about him by Lydia’s husband. Along the way, Lydia becomes a surrogate mother to three additional children who are also attempting to escape the horrors of their respective homelands. The plot unfolds at a fast pace only slowed by the weight of sadness that accumulates on the reader in response to the characters’ many misfortunes, the reader’s disgust over the senseless cruelties of men, and the reader’s fear of what atrocity awaits on the succeeding pages. The novel is not perfect. There is a plot device involving a cartel member shadowing the migrant “family” that makes less than perfect sense, and I found the ending a bit too uncomplicated and pandering. These minor complaints, however, take little from what is a compelling and thought-provoking plot.

As for my original objections, firstly, not reading a book simply because many others have read and enjoyed it is pompous and juvenile. Secondly, American Dirt, unlike the other cartel stories I mentioned, provides a unique focus on the innocent victims (women and children) of the drug trade rather than glorifying the macho narco-lifestyle or sensationalizing its violence as a sort of narco-porn; thereby, it rises above the typical narco-narrative. As for cultural appropriation, in this case, the accusation ultimately falls flat. Authors must be free to explore, write about, and expose readers to worlds beyond their own experiences, both the authors’ and the readers’. In Cummins’ case, the amount of research she conducted and effort she put into establishing verisimilitude has been well-documented, and regardless of who told this story or profits from it, many readers are now better educated regarding the god-awful plights of so many Latinx migrants. I can only hope that the novel inspires grassroots support for compassionate policies regarding the victims of drug cartel terror who seek refugee status in the U.S. Finally, as to Matt Nathanson’s notion of “nobody cares for stories they’re not in,” American Dirt became my story too when Lydia describes having been aware of the horrible deeds being perpetrated by the cartels but also having been blissfully oblivious to them as long as they didn’t directly affect her and her family. As long as she had been living a secure middle class life, she felt “anger at the injustice . . . worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling, and when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation.” When I read those words, I felt enormous guilt for the times when I was aware that BLM and PRIDE marches were taking place in my own small town, but I ignored them, deciding it was more important to cut the grass or not to miss weekly coffee with friends. With that passage, Cummins achieved what I think all great literature aims for: self-examination. Reading that passage, I realized I am pre-massacre Lydia. I can empathize with her, for I am sympathetic to a multitude of innocent sufferers but have failed to take much real world action to remedy their suffering. Such sympathy, which fails to inspire action and bring about change, is fairly useless. Cummins has made me realize I can, I have to, do better. Any book that can do that is powerful and well worth the read.

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Who are You Calling a Patriot?

John Dryden, one of my favorite English poets, once wrote that “Never was a patriot yet, but was a fool.” Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest thinkers of the eighteenth century wrote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” While I admit Dryden and Dr. Johnson’s notions may be a bit extreme, in observing recent events in America, I take their points.

It seems to me that patriotism does not possess a one size fits all definition. Rather, it comes in many forms and can be expressed in a variety of quite disparate ways that are all worthy of respect. There is room on the spectrum of American patriots for both Pat Tillman and Colin Kaepernick. I have never believed that being a patriot had much to do with flying a flag or dressing in red, white, and blue. And I have no regard for the blind nationalism and jingoism expressed in such simpleminded statements as “America, love it or leave it!” or “America First!” However, I do respect these folks’ pride in and love of country. On the other hand, I find absolutely nothing patriotic about purposeless rioting and destruction of property (Note the word “purposeless.”) But, as Michael McDermott, a frequent visitor to Port Clinton’s Listening Room, sings, we should not “mistake dissent for disloyalty.” We are a nation founded by subversive patriots who, at great risk to themselves, exercised their right to protest against their English overseers in order to give birth to these United States. In fact, we are a nation with a long history of social movements that have fought at great cost against institutionalized injustice on many fronts and moved us ever forward towards, not a perfect union, but a “more perfect” one.

In my most romantic of visions, I imagine a United States in which we shed our “We vs. They” mindset, both domestically and internationally, while proudly preserving our unique identities as free-thinking individuals and as fellow countrymen. In addition, there is no reason that we cannot simultaneously celebrate our American-ness while also recognizing that we are part of a worldwide citizenry with whom we face common challenges and to whom we have mutual bonds of amity and responsibility.

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Be a Man. Be a Feminist.

I’d like to thank Rep. Ted Yoho (FL), whose recent display of boorishness reminded me of why every school year I proudly proclaim my feminist status to my students. As a male and former football coach, I typically receive many surprised and sidelong looks but also a few appreciative smirks. Regardless of your politics, Yoho’s cowardly name-calling of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) should be a wake up call that reminds us of how chauvinism remains rooted in America, most perniciously among too many male power brokers. Originally, I considered titling this post “Be a Man. Stand up for Women.” However, “Stand up for Women” sounds like a nod to an old fashioned, condescending form of chivalry. It implies some sort of male superiority, not female equality or empowerment. Women, especially AOC, are capable of standing up for themselves as she so gracefully illustrated on the floor of the House in response to Yoho’s non-apology.

I can trace the genesis of my own feminism to an incident when one of my sons suffered some minor scrape, and as he cried, I reflexively ordered him not to be “such a girl.” Thankfully, my wise wife overheard my wrongheaded admonition and correctly shamed me by reminding me that she, my son’s mother, is a girl. Prior to this incident, having grown up in a house with five brothers and spent the majority of my life in locker rooms as a player or coach, I regularly heard and used feminine identifiers as pejoratives without considering the implications of such usage. Since being corrected by my wife, I have not made that mistake again. Similarly, I know of several men who became feminists, even if only tacitly, upon the arrival of daughters and the sudden realization of the uneven playing fields faced by their girls. I think this is great; however, it should not require such an event for men to acknowledge the equal value of women or to acknowledge and fight for women’s rights. After all, without a woman, those fathers of daughters wouldn’t be here at all, and without another one, they wouldn’t have a daughter.

As verified by a witness, Yoho cravenly referred to Ocasio-Cortez as a “fucking bitch,” albeit beneath his breath and while he walked away from her. (I’ll let you judge what kind of person/leader/role model/man that makes him.) It makes me think of the notion that one’s true character is revealed when he/she thinks no one is looking or, in this case, listening. I like to ask my students to identify a term that is the male equivalent of the “b-word.” They search their vocabularies but invariably fail to conjure a term that possesses similarly noxious connotations. I do this thought experiment to make clear the manner in which inequality and misogyny remain inherent in our language and culture.

In all domains that traditional male hegemony has asserted its self-serving dominance, including literature and literary criticism, there exists a need to make up for centuries of denying women equal opportunities and agency. Therefore, in my syllabuses, I integrate numerous texts by feminist writers and many with feminist themes. Warning: Do not equate “feminist writers” with female. There are a large number of canonical male authors who laced their texts with forward-thinking feminist notions, including Chaucer and Shakespeare. Also, as novelist, I am vigilant in trying to create independent, powerful female characters and avoiding the damsel in distress trope.

Although I’m sure some will snicker over my feminist-rantings, call me hysterical (a word of Greek origin meaning “of the womb” and with misogynistic roots), and even question my manliness, I don’t care. I’m of an age when I’d rather be right than be cool. In the end, being a feminist simply means being respectful of others, applying the Golden Rule, insisting on fair play, and doing the right thing. That seems the least I can do.

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Acceptable Loss?

As a high school teacher, I would wholeheartedly return to the classroom on the directive of my superintendent if the return is to be done in full compliance with CDC guidelines. Should, for example, the six-foot distancing be reduced or masks not be required of all, my enthusiasm for a return to normal wanes dramatically. I am sympathetic to the vehement desire of many to get students and teachers back in brick and mortar buildings. However, at this critical juncture, what I most desire from anyone advocating for students and teachers to return to a pre-Covid model of in-class instruction is blunt honesty as to the risks to which they are willing to expose students, teachers, and, by extension, their loved ones at home by returning to school-as-usual.

Statistics are brutal things, and they unequivocally tell us that under such a plan – especially if CDC guidelines are compromised – a number of students, teachers, and support personnel will inevitably contract Covid-19. Contrarily, a hybrid model greatly reduces the number of people in a school building at any one time and concurrently the risk of contagion, while a remote learning model guarantees that schools play no role in the virus’s perpetuation. Therefore, I would like those who insist on a full return, especially those in positions of authority to determine what plan schools will follow, to declare publicly what number of sick and dead they consider to be an acceptable loss in order to get the economy and our American lifestyle back to normal. For under a full return, no matter how many precautions are taken, a number of students, teachers, and support staff will contract and transmit the virus to one another and to those with whom they share living space. Admittedly, most of those who become infected will be asymptomatic; however, some small percentage will suffer a debilitating illness for a relatively short period of time, some will experience long term damage to their health as a result of their struggle with the disease, and some will die. If these “Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead!” philosophers believe strongly in their position, they should have no problem going on the record with a declaration of how many lives they are willing to sacrifice. I would certainly have much more respect for their position should they possess the courage to admit the suffering that will occur as a result of their position and be willing to bear a share of the responsibility for that said suffering.

It is important for us to acknowledge that any contraction of Covid-19 and deaths that result from re-opening schools on the traditional model will NOT be the result of an accident. Those who advocate for and those who directly send students, teachers, and staff back into those school buildings will NOT be blameless regarding those who suffer as a result of their position. If they have a number in mind as to what they consider to be an acceptable loss, they are of a different mind frame than me, and I ask them to apply the faces and names of their loved ones who will be in those schools to that number before they put a single child on the bus.

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Followership

One of the overlooked themes in my latest novel, Island No. 6, is the awful burden of leadership. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Those in positions of leadership, both in the novel and in real life, are regularly taxed with making unpopular decisions based on far-less-than-certain data and with wildly unpredictable results in the offing. Thankfully, there are still those men and women who bravely seek out the mantle of leadership despite this burden. In fact, I would argue that most of our current organizations do not suffer so much from a lack of leadership but from a lack of followership. Please, do not mistake my point, healthy debate is always positive, and we should never conflate dissent for disloyalty, but our current lack of trust in our leaders has been so eroded by tribalism and a general unwillingness to follow that consensus and progress have become almost impossible throughout a wide range of societal endeavors.

Books, seminars, courses, entire organizations devoted to teaching leadership skills are ubiquitous in modern America; however, I cannot think of one such forum dedicated to teaching and elevating the role of the follower. It has traditionally been, but increasingly wrongfully assumed, that the masses will naturally muster, fall in line, and willingly accept marching orders from their leaders without having received similar training in how to follow, but those were different days, and I wholly support everyone’s thinking for oneself and calling out authority whenever it acts in opposition to the best interests of the many. In our current milieu, however, too many people’s aversion to leadership appears to be their default position, and it has caused them to assume automatically that any initiative proposed by those in charge is not even worth one’s consideration. I’ve been known to speak out forcefully against authority myself, and I will continue to do so. At the same time, I am proud to consider myself a good soldier when final marching orders are given.

A significant contributor to this modern day problem is the devaluation we have placed on humility. To be a good follower requires one to humbly subordinate his/her own agenda, opinion, ideas, etc. to those in leadership positions. It means sacrificing individual goals and initiatives for the good of the many, and in this egocentric age in which we live, when it is so tempting and easy to broadcast personal thoughts far and wide through any number of social media platforms, selfless acquiescence to leadership is becoming increasingly rare. I cannot reiterate enough that I am NOT promoting blind obedience. I don’t give it, and I don’t expect it in my children or students. The trust necessary to be an effective leader must be earned, but it is also true that those who are to be governed must provide their elected, hired, or promoted leaders with the opportunity to earn that trust.

Just as a shark must continually swim to avoid sinking to the bottom, any organization needs to be constantly moving forward or it will lose its momentum and become stagnant and irrelevant. In order for such progress to occur, there has to come a point at which the debate ends, decisions for the good of the many are made, and the organization moves on to face new challenges. To that end, we must teach, encourage, and reward informed followership and celebrate those whose willingness ultimately to be led makes any group and all progress possible. A delicate balance it is between dissent and acquiescence, but all democratic institutions demand it be struck, for the far-less-attractive alternatives are a chaotic anarchy or a tyrannical autocracy.

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The Daughters of Erietown: A Review

One of the most powerful functions of literature is to challenge readers to step outside of their own demographics and to view the world through the eyes of some other category of person. For example, reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy as a young man provided me a modicum of insight into the African-American experience with racism. Similarly, reading Monica Ali’s post-9/11 novel Brick Lane allowed me to imagine the world as seen through a burka. Likewise, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt has inspired many readers to reconsider their understanding of the plight of Central American immigrants seeking safety and opportunity in el norte. It was in this spirit of vicarious experience that I read Connie Schultz’s The Daughters of Erietown.

As a proud male-feminist, which is not an oxymoron, I read TDoE with the conscious purpose of gaining as much understanding of the cross-generational experience of females – at least as lived in working class Northeast Ohio – as possible. Admittedly, it is an amount of understanding that might fill a thimble. Without going into plot detail, TDoE is a story of women of all ages confronted at nearly every turn with men behaving badly. The range of these men’s sins range from the mere tacit condoning of social institutions designed to “keep women in their place” to the horrors of physical abuse.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the novel as man bashing. It is not that. In fact, there are several examples of male characters who rise heroically in opposition to sexist standards and in support of the novel’s females. It is also made clear that men themselves are also victims of an inherited patriarchal system that at least allows for, if not promotes, chauvinistic boorishness or that locks them into prescribed men’s roles and definitions of manliness. Nor does TDoE seek to play the so-called victim card as is made clear by its final protagonist, Sam (Samantha), managing to overcome the many male-made traps set and barriers built to preclude her free agency and to forge a career and a life of her own defining outside of the conventional wife/mother role.

One of the more intriguing attributes of TDoE is the fictional setting of Erietown. It is the home to mostly blue collar, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial families. Anyone raised in any of the many once-industrial cities along the shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio will recognize Erietown as their own. The setting is so prominent that it rises to the level of character. It is not merely a backdrop against which the story takes place, it is a shaper of the lives of its inhabitants for better or worse, like another parent, coach, or teacher. It may as well have been the place envisioned by LeBron James when he wrote, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” For some, Erietown serves as a place of escape and refuge; for others, that same town is a prison with invisible but unscalable walls surrounding the town.

If forced to criticize for the sake of counter-argument and not to come off as a biased cheerleader for all things Connie Schultz (Which I am.), I would only point out what I thought to be one relatively-weak sub-plot in which Schultz seems to cast her inclusivity net a bit too far by having Sam fall in love with an African-American man. Although the message is a good one, it feels wedged into the plot. Also, at times, the dialogue feels a bit stilted, but the occasional awkwardness of expression is most likely due to much of the story taking place in the past. The diction and syntax of the characters have gone the way of the many Northern Ohio icons Schultz sprinkles lovingly into the text, including Higbee’s Department Store, Lawson’s Convenient Stores, and Stroh’s and Schlitz beers.

The Daughters of Erietown is a novel that will stick with me. It has inspired me to be even more cognizant and appreciative of the extra efforts required of the women in my life, both past and present, just to compete and be appreciated in what is sadly still very much a “man’s” world. More importantly, it is a fictional record and reminder of the many unseen and unheard of acts of courage and will performed every day by women since . . . well . . . forever.

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The Monsters We Deserve

The epigraph for my new novel, Island No. 6, is a line from an Our Lady Peace song that states, “We are all innocent.” The truth of that line applies to the situation in the story and in our world today where Nature has unloosed a novel virus “monster” on the population. Governments’ and individuals’ innocence in relation to the spread of the virus may be a different matter, but that is a debate for another arena. The majority of life’s monsters are, however, of our own creation and often of our own deserving, and that has long been my favorite lesson from the English epic Beowulf.

The epic is one of the most anthologized texts in English Literature textbooks. At its most basic, literal level, it is little more than an archetypal story of good conquering evil. The plot is simple: a heretofore underachieving youth suddenly finds his moral center and begins to live up to his promise and lineage. He achieves a heroic, larger-than-life status through deeds requiring extraordinary bravery and strength that become the stuff of legend. In Beowulf, when the monster Grendel begins terrorizing the Danes, Beowulf, according to the heroes’ code, enthusiastically accepts the challenge of ridding the Danish people of their monster, which he does with relative ease and no injury to himself. Thereby, the champion of the Good battles one of its many foes, achieves victory, and establishes Virtue as the proper model for imitation.

My preferred take on the narrative diverges from the commonly-emphasized theme of Good conquering Evil. In my instruction, I choose to focus on the lesson that “We only get the monster(s) we deserve.” According to the epic, the monster, Grendel, is just one in a long list of forms of punishment that God has unloosed on mankind as a punishment for his sins. It is explained that Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, was the catalyst for the race of monsters that haunt the Earth with Grendel being just one of many. The point being that it was man’s own doing that caused the death and destruction wreaked by Grendel. Mankind and the Danes merely get the monster they deserve.

I like to apply this notion to any number of situations in which I observe people complaining about the figurative monsters in their lives. A tendency of which I am no less guilty. We often do so without the slightest sense of responsibility or, sometimes, even awareness of our own role in those monsters’ creations or continuance: parents of their children, spouses of one another, teachers of their students, students of their bully, addicts of their addiction of choice, and citizens of their political leaders. The monsters are many. In most cases, however, there was a time when these monsters were not monsters at all; rather, they were actually cherished by those who they now terrorize. The point being that many of the monsters we fear and that wreak havoc in our lives were transformed into such by either our own actions or by our passive allowance.

The good news is that anything we create, we can also destroy. Even in the telling of horror stories, we never create a monster without also concocting its antidote, a means by which it can be defeated or even cherished once more. The vampire is destroyed by a stake through the heart or exposure to the sun. A werewolf is slain by silver-tipped weapons. The Wicked Witch of the West melts when doused with water. Unlike Beowulf, however, we are real and not larger-than-life. The overcoming of the monsters we have created and that terrorize us is difficult, and we rarely escape unscathed by our efforts. The first step is to stop playing the victim or blaming others for our monsters’ existence and recognize, like Dr. Frankenstein ultimately does with his creation, that because we created it we are the only ones who can slay it.

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Why Blog?

Generally, I do not like to be introduced as a writer. It’s not there is anything to be embarrassed about. It’s just that writing is something I do; a teacher is who I am – first, foremost, and forever.

It is for this simple fact that I’m publishing this blog. If it draws a few more eyes to my novels, that’s great too, but my primary reason for writing anything has always been to expand my classroom.

As a classroom teacher, I typically have around one hundred students enrolled in my courses each year. After thirty-five years in the classroom, I’ve probably taught upwards of four thousand students. However, I have often had students’ parents, friends, and family members share with me that they wish they could sit in on my class. I always invite them, but no one ever takes me up on the offer.

What I hope to do with this blog is to convert some of my classroom lectures into short essays that very briefly summarize various readings and highlight the main themes to be drawn from them. If you do take the time to read them, remember I try to be as provocative as a lecturer as I can. I always warn my students early in the year that I hope to challenge them to question every thing they have been taught to be “right, true, and/or good.” In order to inspire discernment, I often play devil’s advocate and argue for positions I don’t necessarily believe myself.

Someday, I may organize all of these yet-to-be-written pieces into a book of essays. Who knows? For now, I just hope they bring a few nuggets of wisdom and even a tiny bit of joy into the hearts and minds of those who take a few minutes to read them.

Keep an eye on this site. The first essay will be posted soon. For anyone who took my English Literature course, it’ll be a little refresher on my favorite lesson from Beowulf. Don’t roll your eyes. You’re going to love it!