Greetings from Kansas City, where in the span of a few weeks, my wife Robin and I have experienced some significant life changes.
It all began a few months ago, when we decided it was time to sell our suburban KC home. We’re here only a few months a year, and between taxes, utilities, and upkeep, it will be more reasonable to rent a place when we come back from Florida each year to see family and friends.
Our house sold in one day.
Great, but our plans were to stay in town through September. On July 13, our third grandchild, Milo Matthew was born, and we want to get to know him, so we decided to rent a furnished home or apartment for a couple months. One thing led to another, and we are spending August and September in a tiny loft apartment in Kansas City’s garment district. Maybe you’ve seen this kind of place. Exposed brick and huge windows. Kitchen and living room combined into one tiny space that is separated from the bedroom by a partial wall. It’s cool and hip and close to everything. We’re not cool or hip, but we’ve decided to learn.
So here we go.
Saturday evening, our first night downtown, we hopped on KC’s beautiful streetcar for our maiden voyage. We felt cool and hip. There was a jazz and rock festival in the street below our loft. We listened from our IKEA sofa… until ten-thirty, when it was time to go to bed and the jazz and rock continued to make the walls vibrate.
We’ve decided that we can only be cool and hip until ten pm.
There’s a learning curve involved with being hip loft-dwellers. First, you have to give up your privacy if you want any natural light. The ten-foot high windows of our loft overlook a narrow street of similar buildings. Some tenants keep their shades pulled, while others go about their day unconcerned that their every move can be seen by scores of other people. We’ve watched people iron their clothes, play with their dogs, and become engrossed in their phones and laptops. Some will see us looking and wave. Others pull the shades. Most don’t care.
And then, there’s my morning walk, four or five miles most days. Out in the suburbs or in our Florida neighborhood, I don’t have to worry about traffic lights or the rush of oncoming traffic. The surroundings blend into the background.
Not so in downtown. This morning, I dodged a bus and a tow-truck, tripped numerous times over crumbling curbs, and nearly caved in to the tempting smells of cinnamon rolls from a street bakery. I passed abandoned storefronts, hookah bars, and a place with a bright sign screaming TOTALLY NUDE. Also on my route was a secluded building that serves as a retreat for cancer victims and their caregivers, and a half-dozen homeless people. I’m making light of life in the city, but there’s no humor in cancer or sleeping on a bench in a dog park. You see homeless people differently when you pass within three feet of them and they say hello, especially when you’ve had someone close to you experience life on the street.
Like most hipsters, Robin and I work from home. The problem now is, there’s only room for one desk. Robin gets that. My writing desk, a beautiful antique that belonged to my grandfather, is temporarily in storage. My new workspace is the Kansas City Public Library. Today is my first day working from the library’s second floor. I felt cool and hip as I walked the four blocks to the library this morning. It’s a grand facility, as you can see from the photo, but I have to confess that it’s hard to get anything done with all those books around. Hipsters are good at multitasking, though, so I’ll persevere until it’s time to go home and decide which hip restaurant we want to blow our diets on.
Oh yeah, we don’t have cable TV anymore. Like most hipsters, we cut the cord. I felt pretty good about it, until I realized that Jeopardy isn’t available from Hulu or Netflix. There’s also the issue that I don’t really know how to turn the cord-cut TV on or off. When Robin goes to China for work in a few weeks, I’ll be limited to books and the movie theater around the corner.
We don’t have a washer and dryer anymore, either. There is a coin-laundry in the building, where people dump their clothes and leave them for hours on end. I’ll never do that. The thought of someone rummaging through my laundry makes me squeamish, so I’ll probably sit nearby while our stuff agitates and spins. Maybe I can use that time to figure out which cool, hip new play to see at one of the nearby theaters. Or perhaps I’ll run to Jimmy John’s for an Italian sub. Jimmy John’s might not be hip and cool, but they’re freaky fast.
Well, that’s about all for now. It’s time to go home. We need to go to the grocery store, as Robin wants to make cabbage soup. I’m wondering how our neighbors will feel about the smell of cooked cabbage. It doesn’t sound cool or hip, and if I encounter someone in the hallway complaining about the smell, I’ll probably just commiserate with them and never mention that the cabbage is ours.
You could combine all the principals, superintendents, counselors, curriculum directors, lunch ladies, school board members, and librarians into one dynamic, high-paid, superhuman and they still wouldn’t have the impact of a single great teacher.
Deep down, I’ve always known this. When graduates visit their alma mater, it’s never to see the superintendent or the curriculum director; it’s that favorite teacher or coach. I’ve watched fifty-year-olds become children again in the presence of their favorite teachers. Even some of the most successful folks in the world, powerful people who are on a first-name basis with other powerful people, can’t bring themselves to call their beloved fourth-grade teacher by her first name.
How do they do it?
How, in a world full of good teachers, do a few impact so many?
Well, I think I know how they do it. They don’t just teach kids, they reach kids. They’re also a little bit crazy.
Mr. Lake was the first teacher I loved. He taught fifth grade. Prior to Mr. Lake, my teachers had all been female, white, and mostly old. They were kindly, except for one who could be as mean as a snake. I liked them well enough, but Mr. Lake was different. Obviously, he was male. At that time, other than the principal and the custodian, the educators in my little world were female. Mr. Lake was also African-American. Fifth grade was the year our country school integrated, and Mr. Lake was the first black educator I encountered. Unlike the matronly teachers I’d had before, he was also a stylish dresser who wore bright socks and white shoes. He shot hoops at recess and spun Marvin Gaye and Fifth Dimension 45's on the school’s phonograph. Once, just before Christmas, we shoved the desks out of the way and danced.
But none of that would’ve mattered had Mr. Lake not pulled my desk alongside his when he realized I couldn’t see the board. Because of the extra help he gave me, I started getting B’s instead of C’s. By Christmas, I didn’t like Mr. Lake anymore. I loved him. I wanted to be him. I got white shoes for Christmas so I could look like him. I became Mr. Lake's shrimpy, pale, white-shoe wearing, visually-impaired Mini-Me.
Fortunately, in high school and college there were more great ones. Mr. Carrier treated us like adults instead of kids. Dr. Boles sat on his desk with his legs folded lotus-style and cracked jokes while he taught management. On the first day of class, Dr. Lovett said grades didn’t matter, so she was giving everyone an A, provided we showed up prepared to discuss the topics. Because of them, I developed an idea of the kind of teacher I wanted to become.
And remember, I said those special teachers are also a little bit crazy. Crazy helps. Years ago, Richard Mulligan played an escaped mental patient who becomes a school’s outstanding teacher. Here’s a clip from the movie, aptly titled, Teachers.
But crazy, doesn’t mean they do crazy things. I had a teacher who called himself Space Turkey. He walked on desks and said outrageous things. He was crazy, but he was a terrible teacher. By crazy, I mean the willingness to step out and try new things, or try old things in new ways. I’m talking about the high school teacher who turned me on to chess, then turned me on to poetry. I’m talking about people like my friend Tom, a shop teacher who would fire up his BBQ grill on Wednesday nights and invite kids to come work on projects and eat hot dogs. Soon, kids were enrolled in shop who would’ve never been there before. I’m talking about Bob, an art teacher who never turned away a student, even when his classes had forty kids or more. Once he had them, he always found a way to make them love art. I’m talking about Mike, an auto body teacher who allowed his best students to drive the hot rods he restored as a hobby. I’m talking about colleagues I would’ve paid to watch teach, like Robin, Sheryl, Deb, Norma, Jimmy, Susan, Greg, and Janie. Though I don’t get to see them teach, I hope I’m talking about my kids, Cody, Lynnea, Alison, and Kelcy.
It’s Teacher Appreciation Day. Is there a crazy educator in your past who made the difference? A hero who reached you? Who made you feel you could do anything? Feel free to share your stories below or on my Facebook page.
Thanks for reading!
A few weeks ago, my brother Jeff and our childhood buddy, Scott flew down for an extended weekend. Though I regularly see my brother and occasionally visit Scott, it was our first extended get-together since we were teenagers. We took in a Baltimore Orioles spring training game, went fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and ate a lot of good food.
While at dinner the first night, we were talking about stuff we did as kids, when out of the blue, Jeff asked Scott if he remembered his childhood bicycle. Scott did. I did too. I remembered because Scott’s bike was very cool. It was bright green and had “French Handlebars.” We reminisced for a bit before Scott thought to ask why Jeff was interested in his bike.
“Because I found it in the woods.”
I didn’t want a dog.
Robin wanted a dog. The kids wanted a dog.
“I’ll be the one who winds up walking and feeding it,” I protested.
That was twelve years ago. For the most part, I was right. The kids are on their own now. Robin does baths, but I do most of the walking, feeding, and trips to the groomer.
Next week, I’ll take Chloe for our last walk, and I’m choking up as I write this.
Chloe became ours after another family purchased her from the breeder, then returned her. From the beginning, she was different. Her first week with us, she freed herself from her kennel while we were gone. We came home to find her lounging on the sofa, waiting for company. No accidents, no chewed furniture. When the same thing happened two days later, we got rid of the kennel and left Chloe free to roam the house. She never made us regret that decision.
She loves car and airplane trips, our back yard in Kansas City, and Bradenton’s warm weather and birds. She visits our neighbors, Carol and Joe, and devours their cat food when they’re not looking. She breakdances and rolls over for treats, intuits when we’re going to the vet or groomer, and will do anything for a puppy cone at Culver’s. She’ll come running when we say treat and run away when we say bath. She watches TV and barks at animals on the screen, even the cartoon kind.
When Chloe was still young, she loved for us to drop her off at the end of our dead-end street so she could run home. All we had to say was, “You want to run?” and she’d go nuts. Robin used to have a basket on the front of her bike that Chloe rode in. She was a true queen.
We found out last year that Chloe has Cushing’s Disease. Now she sleeps most of the time, has trouble breathing, and struggles to control her bladder. Her tummy is distended and she can’t get enough water. Occasionally, though, the old Chloe will reappear, like last week when she went to her toy pile, pulled out a favorite, and brought it to me. She’s slipping away from us, though, so this morning the decision was made to… well, you know.
The next eight days will be our Chloe Farewell Tour. We have a quick trip planned to Savannah, Georgia. She’ll go along for one more joyous car ride. Robin has replaced dog food with hamburger. We’ll have puppy cones at Culvers, belly-rubs on the couch, walks as long and far as she wants, and lots of time to say good-bye.
Then we’ll make that last trip to the vet.
I guess I wanted a dog after all, because I’m sure going to miss this one.
The fact that you’re here probably means you’re a reader. After all, why else would you check out an author’s blog?
I’m a reader, too, always have been. Fiction is my favorite, but I also love biographies, sports, and true-crime. Television has never had the same allure of books, though I must say that This Is Us comes darn close. Starting when I discovered the Childhood of Famous American series of biographies in the Hurlock Elementary School library, I’ve been hooked on books. Even during the summer, I would be at the corner every other Tuesday when the bookmobile arrived.
There have been so many books, so many good books, over the years, but when it comes to those that rocked my world, the list is small. I’ve narrowed it to five, but could easily include five more. Or ten. Or fifty. My list includes four works of fiction and a self-help book. Four would be considered contemporary, one is a classic. Four were written by men, one by a woman. They cover topics that greatly interest me, including social justice, small-town life, and leadership. You’ll find bits and pieces of them in what I’m writing today.
So, without further ado, my Top Five. If you're interested in learning more, I've linked the cover photos to each book's Amazon page.
In a few minutes, we’re going out to eat with friends, to a local place that is known for great seafood. We’ll eat a lot, talk a lot, and, hopefully, ignore our cellphones.
But that last one – ignoring our cellphones -- is hard, isn’t it?
When did our phones become so essential? Maybe the better question is, why did they become so essential? It’s easy enough to make fun of that group of kids you see at Taco Bell with their noses glued to their phones, but I have to use every bit of willpower to not be just like them.
I’m at my worst when it’s just Robin and me. Say we’re going someplace. A song comes on the radio, maybe Rupert Holmes’ Escape – The Pina Colada Song. Robin, who is driving, might ask, “Did he ever sing anything else?” Boom! Just like that, I’m surfing the web to find out. Yes, by the way, just so you don’t have to look this up yourself, Rupert Holmes’ other Top 40 hits were Him and Answering Machine.
It never stops. We drive past a house with a For Sale sign out front and I’m looking up the details. We’re not even looking to buy a house. Earlier today, I thought of Gene Rayburn, the host of the 1960’s and ‘70’s TV show, Match Game. Is he still alive? Ten seconds later, I knew that he passed away in 1999 from congestive heart failure. R.I.P. Gene.
My smart phone has made me the world’s most inquisitive person. And also one of the rudest. I’ll try hard not to whip it out during dinner, but if our friends want to know how many calories there are in shrimp tacos or when the next high tide is in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ll have to find out for them. That’s my job.
“No school today.”
People in two of the three parts of the country where I’ve spent my life heard those three words this week.
“Dorchester County, Maryland… no school today.”
“Kansas City, Missouri… no school today.”
And here in Bradenton, Florida… well, it’s seventy and sunny, but I didn’t come here to rub it in.
No. School. Today.
Admit it, if you grew up in an area where it snows, those three words trigger something inside you. The little kid in you surfaces, if only for a moment. It’s there.
When I was a kid, we got news of school closings on WCEM radio from their long-time morning announcer, “Curly in the Early” (the inspiration for the radio station owner in my book, The Resurrection of Hucklebuck Jones). For a while, I thought Curly was the person actually in charge of making the decision, never dreaming that someday I’d be that person.
And what did we do when we found out? Go back to bed? No siree. We would pile on the layers and head outside. Galestown, Maryland’s population was 120, and it seemed half were kids. The best snow days were when Galestown’s millpond froze over enough to skate. When the ice was especially thick, our fathers would build a roaring fire to keep everyone warm while they skated (yes, fire on the ice). There could be dozens of people there on any given night. Kids skated. Parents visited. Dogs sniffed.
Fast-forward to college. It was rare for Western Kentucky University to cancel classes, but when they did, look out. Western’s sports teams are the Hilltoppers, and they’re not called that for nothing. The campus is situated 250 feet above the rest of the city. Have you ever sledded down a 250-foot hill with a couple thousand of your best friends? In the dark? On a lunch tray? I broke a tooth during the winter of 1980 doing just that.
About seven years ago, I stopped going to a regular job. I no longer needed suits, ties, business cards, daily commutes, dress shoes, alarm clocks, or planning calendars.
Of all of those, the one I missed least was the planning calendar.
You know the kind I’m talking about. Those big bulky things like the one in the picture above that help you keep track of where you’re going and what you’re supposed to take, say, and do. My planner was as much a part of my daily routine as my socks, and it was with much pleasure back in 2011 that I went home from my last day of work, put the planner in a box, took the box to the attic, and forgot all about it. Even through part-time gigs with Proctor and Gamble, the Kansas City Royals, a local university, and a weekly newspaper, I never felt the need to dig out that planner. I kept track of where I was supposed to be on my iPhone. Things that had to get done went on a to-do list, also on my phone. Easy-peasy.
Fast forward to now.
Writing has become a full-time job. I didn’t expect that when I started back in 2012. My first book took me four years to write, though I have to admit that my routine was pretty loose. I would write a little, Facebook a little, and eat lunch with my buddies a few times a week. With a schedule like that, is it any wonder Harvest of Thorns took so long to finish? Had I continued that pace and lifestyle for another ten years, I would’ve had five-thousand Facebook friends, weighed five-hundred pounds from all the ribs and burnt ends I was putting away… and written two books.
Something had to change.
A question I get a lot from readers of The Resurrection of Hucklebuck Jones is, where did you come up with the name?
There’s a story behind that.
I grew up in rural Maryland, around people who weren’t above a few tall tales and superstitions. Ours was the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, but Dorchester County also birthed the legend of Big Lizz, the ghost of a former slave who, it is said, can be seen near Greenbrier Swamp carrying her dismembered head as she crosses the road.
So, it was with some skepticism that I pursued the real story of Hucklebuck. I first heard of him when I was a boy. He was said to have lived in a shanty in the woods behind Wheatley’s Church, near my home of Galestown.
But was he real? My only reference point was a day many years ago. My friend Billy and I decided to venture into the woods to see if we could find any truth to the story. Sure enough, we came across the remains of an old wood structure fallen in upon itself. We dug through the site, but found little more than an old phonograph record and some rusty cans. That was the first and last time I was there.
Fast forward forty-five years, to last fall. The protagonist for my book needed a name. Naming characters is harder than you might think. Once I decide upon a name, the character becomes real to me. If I mess it up, I’m stuck with a name I dislike or have to change during the editing process. This happened to Adam Overstreet, one of the main characters in my book, Shunned. He was originally named Kyle until it was pointed out that his name was very similar to another of the lead characters, Miles. Thank goodness for Microsoft Office’s Find and Replace feature.
Anyway, the lead character’s original name was Jocko Jones. I liked the sound of it. One of my oldest and best friends is Dan Jones, and for reasons I cannot remember, I sometimes call him Lucky. Lucky Jones. Jocko Jones sounds like Lucky Jones, so there you go.
Except, it didn’t fit. Jocko Jones sounds like the name of a circus clown, don’t you think? I needed something different. From someplace deep in my memory came Hucklebuck. I used that Find and Replace feature again and Hucklebuck Jones came to life.
“Are you nervous?” my wife Robin asked.
“Should I be?”
She gave me that smile. That all-knowing smile that says, you’re not nervous yet, but you’re going to be.
That was two weeks ago, while driving to my 40th high school class reunion. Now, before going any further, let me share a little background. My classmates and I graduated in 1977. Two months later, I left Maryland for college in Kentucky. Visits home were limited to Christmas breaks and a couple months each summer when I worked on our family farm. Later, when family and job obligations became part of life, the visits were even fewer. Other than attending our 15th class reunion, I haven’t seen more than a couple of my classmates since we marched out of commencement.
Back to Robin’s question. Nervous? Not at all… until we were walking up the steps of the American Legion Hall. That’s when the anxiety started raining down like bricks. I tried to play it off, but Robin sees and knows everything. For the first time in forty years, I was “that kid” again. Doubts I hadn’t felt since high school gnawed at me. Where would we sit? Who would sit with us? Would I fit in?
It was the first day of school all over again.
Perhaps your high school experience was like mine. I never quite fit in, especially the first couple years. I envied those kids who moved through the hallways without a care in the world - the kids with good hair and clear complexions. I was scrawny, my front teeth were busted, and my wavy hair poofed out in every direction except where I wanted it to go. Not exactly a recipe for high school success and popularity.
And I haven’t even gotten to my eyes yet.
My eyes didn’t see like everyone else’s. In those days, I was legally blind. I couldn’t read the assignments on the blackboard. I had to hold textbooks two inches from my face to read the print. I could barely make out faces from more than a few feet. When my classmates were in Drivers’ Education, I was in the library. That’s hard when you’re fifteen.
There were kids who said some pretty cruel things; a couple teachers, too. I did my best to avoid their attention. If a teacher didn’t assign me a seat in the front of the classroom, I sat quietly in the back, doing my best to figure out what all the stuff was on the board. I got D’s in some classes because of it, but that was preferable to asking for help.
But there were also the angels – the kids and teachers who went out of their way to help me fit in, like the popular athlete who chose me for his teams in P.E., saving me the embarrassment of being picked last, and the teacher who slipped me the lecture notes I couldn’t see on the board. I remember you!
Then, in eleventh grade, something clicked. A teacher praised my writing. Another encouraged me to get involved with a school club. I even won a couple awards. These small victories swept in like rain on a dry field. The changes must’ve been evident because the kidding stopped. Classmates I used to avoid became friends. By senior year, I was earning straight-A’s and was in the school play. A pretty and popular classmate went to prom with me. She even drove!
Then we graduated and went our separate ways. I returned for our fifteenth reunion, but it was just so-so. We were still striving back then, trying to be more, climbing our ladders of success. I didn’t go back to another reunion until this year.
And those nerves I felt as we arrived were gone as quickly as they came. We had fun, caught up with one another, and danced a lot. And at the end of the evening, a classmate – a person who I thought had it totally together in high school – mentioned how unhappy senior year was for them. I have a feeling that classmate wasn’t alone.
So, to the North Dorchester High School Class of 1977, it was great to see you! I want to thank you for helping me become the person I am today. I appreciate your kindnesses and apologize for the times you were hurting and I didn’t know it, or knew it and did nothing to help. Back then, I allowed my vision to hold me back. Perhaps you were held back by your skin color or clothing or something even worse that you were dealing with. I want you to know that, in the years since we last met, I’ve tried reaching out to others who were hurting like you reached out to me. I’ve tried to encourage others like you encouraged me. And I’ve laughed some and danced some and tried not let things that don’t matter get in the way of making new friends.
That’s real. And I owe so much of it to you. Blessings to you, North Dorchester Class of ’77. See you in a few years!