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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony and Peggy’s wedding day.

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

Tony is on the right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dogged

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

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

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

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

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

They’d ask, “Dogs?”

“Allergic,” I’d answer.

“Cats?”

“Allergic.”

“Hamster?”

“Allergic.”

“Goldfish?”

“Allergic.”

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

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

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

Who am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

My boys.

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

Excuse me. I may go have that cry now.

I love you, Dad.

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“Can You See Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is anybody alive out there?”

“Can you see me?”

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

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Summer “Vacation?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more recent photo of me in my writing space.

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

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

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NYC vs. Chicago

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

NYC in the background looking north from near Hudson Yards.

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

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

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

photo credit: Laugh at First Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Learning to Fly” Over the Political Divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s Your Pronoun?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas Kennedy

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

Lucas Coaching Football.

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

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

Annie, Kerri, and Lucas.

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

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

BOBBY GOOD

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

A Face Made for HGTV.

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

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

The Beautiful Family of Bobby Good.

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

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

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

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

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Special Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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