Tough Mudders, Better Friends

Kent, Pat, Del. Danny (kneeling), Me, Doc, Marshall, and Seth

Kent, Pat, Del. Danny (kneeling), Me, Doc, Marshall, and Seth

Much of what I’ve done in my life has been done for one of two reasons: 1) to impress a girl, or 2) because my friends were doing it. The former source of motivation goes back as far as junior high and remains my prime motivator today. However, the latter dates back even further to when I was five and my cousin Sheldon thought it would be fun if we flushed my big brother’s collection of miniature statues of the presidents of the United States down the toilet. I remember explaining to my mom that it was Sheldon’s idea and her saying – as she would many more times throughout my childhood – “If Sheldon jumped in the lake, would you too?” I’m pretty sure I answered, “Yes.” My mom thought I was just egging her on and being a smart ass; however, even then I think I understood the value of jumping into lakes (or running across them) with friends.

This past weekend, I completed a Tough Mudder with the group of friends in the photograph above. If you don’t know, a Tough Mudder is a ten-mile run through and over rugged and very muddy terrain with various physically-challenging obstacles to be conquered near each mile marker. Injuries are not uncommon during this event, and in at least one tragic case, a competitor drowned. I was disappointed to learn, however, that many participants greatly reduce the difficulty of the course by simply walking from one obstacle to another or skipping some of them altogether. When anyone asked why I would enter such an event, I thought of my two primary behavioral motivations mentioned above and concluded that after twenty-seven years of marriage, my girl is more impressed by feats of laundry than feats of daring; therefore, my reason for entering the Tough Mudder was clearly because my friends were doing it, and I can’t think of a better reason.

Although I enjoy Facebook, my friends are not people I “follow;” my friends are people I DO stuff with – even when that stuff is not convenient are entirely sane. In recent years, I’ve kayaked and hiked mountains through bear country in the Adirondacks, completed numerous races including a half-Ironman, whitewater rafted a river considered one of the most treacherous in North America – twice, and ran to Put-in-Bay across three miles of ice on Lake Erie. The only adventure I’ve begged off on is when several of my buddies went skydiving – even friendship has its limits. Before we do whatever “It” is, we talk about It and, sometimes, try to talk ourselves out of It. Next, we do It, and It’s usually not as bad as we convinced ourselves It would be. Finally, we talk about It and tell the same stories over and over every time we’re together and, somehow, IT becomes even scarier and more bad ass than we built it up to be in the first place because that’s the way guys are.

Some of those guys in that picture I’ve been friends with for years, and I love them like brothers. Although, if you asked my actual brothers, they wouldn’t think that much of a benefit. A few I’ve grown closer to in recent adventures, and one I met for the first time this past weekend. Some I work with. One’s my boss. Of the other two, one is a wildlife biologist and the other is an M.D. When we’re paddling like mad, tramping over the ice, or slogging through mud, however, we’re just big boys playing like the kids we once were and forging and cementing friendships that will last our lifetimes because we did shit – sometimes scary shit – together.

Now go find some friends and go jump in the lake.

Ty is the author of SO SHELLY and GOODNESS FALLS:

SO SHELLY, On Suicide

so-shelly-thumb
In the wake of Robin William’s suicide, I’ve resisted to weigh in with my thoughts because, really, who cares what I think. I often feel that the need to express such thoughts are little more than creeping on the grief of others anyway. No offense. The tragedy did, however, call to my mind a passage near the end of my first novel, SO SHELLY, which I thought I might share here.

I ask you to remember that this is a work of fiction. The conversation that takes place fit the characters and the context. It does not necessarily reflect my personal thoughts on the subject, but it does present a more unorthodox and controversial perspective on the issue of suicide. At the time of the novel’s publication, I thought I’d receive some blow back for this scene, but I never really did.

The scene occurs near the end of the novel when Keats and Gordon are near to fulfilling their promise to their shared best friend, Shelly, to spread her ashes at a place beloved by her.

“You know, I didn’t think she had the balls to go through with it,” Gordon said as he commenced blazing the trail.
“Go through with what?” I asked, sincerely clueless.
“This!” He stopped and nodded toward the urn upraised in his hands, then spun slowly around, indicating the entire island.
“What do you mean?” I asked, as a really bad feeling began to gurgle up from the well of my ignored gut feelings.
“Killing herself.”
“You mean . . . I thought you said . . .?”
“Yeah, I knew about it. She told me her plan.”
“Wait . . . What? ‘Killing herself?’ You knew about it? And, you didn’t do anything to stop her!” I was incredulous. I was an accomplice. I was the one who passed on Shelly’s message of needing to speak with him. This was the result.
“What’d you want me to do, Keats? Sit with her 24/7?”
“Gee, I don’t know, talk her out of it, maybe?! Christ, at least tell somebody!”
“She made me promise not to. Her father would have put her in a nuthouse, which would have killed her anyway. Besides, I didn’t think she was serious. You know how she was.”
“Oh, that explains it. She made you promise not to. What? Did you pinkie swear?”
“Look. It’s what she wanted. Who was I to tell her what to do with her life anyway? If she was so unhappy that dying seemed a relief, then why should I deny her that? We have no choice in when or to what asshole parents we come into this world. At least, shouldn’t we be able to decide for ourselves when to leave it?”
“You were supposed to be her friend, you selfish prick!” I shouted as I gave him the most ineffectual shove in the history of chivalry.
“I’m selfish?” He’d grabbed my arm at the wrist and twisted until I was bent over again and, this time, in excruciating pain. “You think I should have convinced her to go on living miserably so that your feelings wouldn’t be hurt? Don’t give me that bullshit about the selfishness of suicide. What’s selfish is insisting that she continue in her misery so you won’t have to feel sad or guilty.”
“Guilty? Why should I feel guilty?”
“She told me about the poetry books, dude. What’d you think she was doing? Organizing for a garage sale?”
He released me from the submission hold and sent me reeling, as if on drunken legs, until I stumbled off the path and onto the razor sharp leaves of the now pissed-off plant growing in the sandy soil. The boom box catapulted from my hand.
“I . . . I didn’t think . . .” I said, still planted on from my ass.
“Yeah, that’s right. You didn’t think. Because, just maybe, deep down you knew what she was doing too, and you didn’t want to interfere either because in that deep down place you understood that it was what she wanted. So keep your self-righteous bullshit to yourself. I don’t need it.”

http://www.tyrothbooks.com/so-shelly.php

Eighteen and Life

Eighteen
Perhaps no one has ever captured the angst of being 18 better than when Alice Cooper sang, “I’m Eighteen and I don’t know what I want.” Not even Taylor Swift, who explored being “15” and being “22,” has had the audacity to take on Alice and “18.” A wise decision, Taylor.

As reflected by my many years teaching seniors and by my choice of main characters for my novels, I’m clearly a big fan of the age. Eighteen is a time fraught with conflicts and change and the drama they inspire. It’s an age when the typical teenager believes she knows a whole hell of a lot more than she actually does. However, only experience can teach her otherwise or, in some cases, actually validate her belief and demonstrate the often wrongheaded thinking of much-older adults. In either case, these experiences make for great storytelling.

At eighteen, a person is still more the product of her parents’, teachers’, and often church’s thinking than she is of her own. But as she goes off to college or moves away from home, she can start unpacking and sorting through all that these others have crammed into her suitcase and determining what to keep and what to discard. At eighteen, especially if she moves far away, she has the rare opportunity to free herself from whatever reputation she has acquired and re-invent herself in a place where few, if anybody, knows her name. At eighteen, life still holds more potential than disappointment. At eighteen, life is lived more urgently and love is felt more deeply than it will ever be again. There are still first experiences waiting to be had and last nights of beautiful agony to endure. The pains of life and love are greater, but their joys far sweeter. The flesh is electric. The brain is fertile, And the heart is open.

I know that many, if not most, would disagree with me, but if I could be one age forever, it would be eighteen. For my money, there’s no better age to be alive, but I’ll just have to settle for writing about it.

I Want My MTV!

MTV
The video-centric MTV that debuted in 1981 when I was still a teenager was a far cry from today’s MTV, which is dominated by reality shows and original sitcoms, dramas, documentaries, and movies. As a result, the majority of my generation has long ago turned its back on MTV programming, a choice which, I believe, is a huge mistake, especially for parents, grandparents, educators, and anyone who works closely with young people.

Teenagers are notoriously leery of adults, including their own parents. It is extraordinarily difficult for adults to gain the trust of teens and to convince them to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interests, and dreams. We may not like it, for we forever want to see ourselves as young and hip, but there is a natural generation gap that exists between teenagers and adults. Once we cross that chasm from the former to the latter, there is no going back, but that does not mean that we must lose touch completely with those still on the other side. There are ways available to glimpse into the teenage mind and world of today without acting like a fool experiencing a mid-life crisis, without alienating the teens in your life through badgering, and without creeping on their social networking sites or searching their rooms. For me, one of the most effective means of gaining this valuable insight has been through watching MTV. Albeit, sometimes the viewing is painful (“The Jersey Shore” and “My Super Sweet 16″ to name a couple of the most insipid); oftentimes, the programs are quite entertaining, intelligently-done, and insightful. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed and have learned much about the teenage mindset from watching such programs as “Teen Wolf,” “Wait Til Next Year,” “Skins,” and “True Life.”

It is so easy, as adults, to forget the experience of being so young yet also being expected to assume adult responsibilities and behaviors. It truly is a tough age. We forget that we were once as hypersensitive, intense, overly-dramatic, love-struck, frightened, rebellious, stubborn, “dazed and confused” as them. In fact, many of us still are. We often become unfairly judgmental of and insensitive to the ways of today’s teenagers, forgetting that we weren’t that much different.

As a writer, MTV is an invaluable source for me in terms of viewing teenagers’ fashions, language, behaviors, interests, problems etc. As a teacher, by watching MTV and occasionally alluding to shows I’ve seen there, I’m able to build a footbridge between my middle-aged world and theirs. As a parent, it provides valuable insight into the stresses and pressures faced by my kids. As a human being, it keeps me in some kind of touch with a huge segment of the population and reminds me that life is meant to be lived passionately and energetically and with a sense of wonder and of the better days that lie ahead.

BREWSTER by Mark Slouka: A Review and Recommendation

Brewster
Mark Slouka’s widely-acclaimed novel BREWSTER (2013) is an engrossing read. Although I found little originality in the material, Slouka’s utilization of that material is nearly flawless. Slouka’s adeptness with detail, imagery, figurative language, characterization, and the building of suspense is exquisite and helps to bring both setting and characters to life and to establish a plot that moves along at a sprinter’s pace.

The story is set in the upstate New York town of Brewster during the tumultuous final years of the sixties. As in many small town stories featuring young adult characters, the town acts as a malevolent force that imprisons its sorry inhabitants and offers little hope of better days, especially for its children who find escape nearly impossible and remaining unbearable.

The novel tells the story of the high school years of four misfits who temporarily find something worth living for in their bonds of friendship. Readers will recognize each of the four as types they’ve encountered before. The narrator is a slightly-built, underachieving academic whose running prowess is discovered and nurtured by a world-wise coach; his best friend Ray is a Byronic street tough who possesses a surprising tenderness for his baby brother, the narrator, and the third and only female member of the group, Karen, who is the child of better-off parents and a recent move-in to Brewster. Although both the narrator and Ray fall for Karen, she only has romantic eyes for the bad boy Ray. The fourth member of the group is Frank, the devoted son of devout Catholic parents. He temporarily summons the courage to run with the more rebellious others, but ultimately, he is a conformist and adult pleaser who returns to the familiar comfort of his faith and family. As said, there is little unique or original about any of these characters; however, Slouka successfully forges emotional bonds between the characters and the reader so that the reader invests in and roots for each of them.

BREWSTER also utilizes absent, emotionally-distant, tyrannical, and even violent adults – both as teachers and as parents – with whom the main characters struggle heroically to earn validation and/or release. With these easily identifiable villains, the novel delivers a salient and powerful theme regarding the damage that such adults inflict upon the children in their charge.

Although, it is not classified as such – for reasons that escape me – BREWSTER is as fine of an example of a literary YA novel I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to both young adult and adult readers.

“Say What You Need To Say”

swear words
“Nothing [is] good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

By the inclusion of the occasional “bad” word in my novels, I have willfully hamstrung my potential sales in the education market. Schools are very sensitive to parental/community overreaction to their children coming across curse words in school-assigned texts; therefore, they are reluctant to purchase books that make use of them. This is true even when the words are accurately reflective of reality. Not long ago, a local school district came under fire for teaching Walter Dean Meyer’s novel FALLEN ANGELS, a modern classic set “in country” during the Vietnam War, because the mostly-teenaged soldiers occasionally use the “F-word.” I somehow doubt those “grunts” said “Darn!” or “Fudge!” or “Poop!” very often. And when they said “Shoot,” it was in an entirely different context.

Father Flanagan, the priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage, is famous for saying, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” I’m not sure that I totally agree with Fr. Flanagan. It seems to me that some people are simply born evil, but the relationship between nature vs. nurture in personality development has nothing to do with this article. Instead, I’m going to share how I have long used Flanagan’s motto to make the similarly-contentious point that there is no such thing as a bad WORD; only words used in inappropriate environments and due to inappropriate training/example/thinking.

To begin with, I’ve never been a Grammar Nazi who corrects every double negative, incorrect use of “who” or “whom,” or the confusion between “can” and “may” or “I” and “me.” In fact, I find such people pedantic and annoying. Sure, I have a few pet peeves, but for the most part, I try not to nag. I especially believe that there is far more room for loose grammar and blue language in the spoken word than in the written one. But in either case, words are intended to facilitate communication, and as long as a speaker’s words are understood, I believe she is communicating appropriately.

“But what about curse words?” Some would ask. I believe that even curse words are appropriate in the correct environment and context. For example, despite a fairly-extensive vocabulary, I swear like a sailor when I’m with my buddies, but I don’t believe I have ever used a swear word in my mother’s company or in front of children. Another example of the contextual appropriateness of curse words occurs in movies that have been edited for television. In these the curse words have often been dubbed so that a word like “shit” becomes a garbled “shoot.” The replacement word typically doesn’t fit the situation or the character and completely ruins the scene by rendering it laughable. Even the “F-bomb” is acceptable in the proper environment. I’m thinking of that Maroon 5 song “Payphone.” In the unedited version, in utter disgust, Adam Levine sings, “One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick,” and it has punch. On the radio-friendly version, he sings, “One more stupid love song, I’ll be sick,” and it just lacks something. As an extreme example, dirty talk between the sheets would become clinical, un-sexy, and pathetic without the use of so-called curse words (I’ll let you imagine a few lines for yourself.).

The most extreme use of words that are generally deemed inappropriate for public consumption occurs when utilizing those terms that are charged with venomous disrespect for a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I would argue, however, that even these – more so for the writer than the speaker – can be used appropriately. The best example, of course, being Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I’ve tried to read censored versions in which the n-word (I can’t even type it; I find it so distasteful.) has been changed to “slave.” The conversion ruins the story and lessens Twain’s intended satire regarding the wrongheadedness of racism. And although I do not like the “C-word,” I watched a character in HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS use it in reference to a female rival, and it stung in a way that the “B-word” never could. As a child, I was sometimes chided for using the word “hate.” Adults would say, “Hate is a strong word.” I always thought, “Yeah, that’s why I use it.”

In my classroom, I often compare the words at a writer’s or speaker’s disposal to a handyman’s tools. Although it would be inappropriate and less effective to hammer a nail with a wrench, we wouldn’t label the wrench itself as a “bad” tool. It would simply be being used in an improper context. So don’t let the Grammar Nazis and the language prudes get to you. In the words of John Mayer, “Say What You Need to Say.”

Football’s Proper Place?

Youth Football
Whenever I post a blog article or a Facebook status update pertaining to the dangers of concussions in football, I receive a few “blow back” responses. These rebuttals typically accuse me and my novel GOODNESS FALLS of contributing to the softening of America’s male children. The argument is that contact sports, such as football, are necessary for the toughening up of our kids because the adult world is a difficult place where only the strong survive, and if we continue to coddle our children, they will grow up soft and ill-equipped to prosper in that world. I certainly understand their point; however, I feel it is a position no longer tenable in the modern, technology-based society where brain almost always trumps brawn. What is especially pernicious is the possibility that this argument for the need to “toughen up” our kids is little more than a thin justification to preserve a sport that provides so many of us with not only entertainment but also with such a sense of self-worth – through our identification with our favorite schools and professional teams – that we cant imagine a life without it. “O – H . . .” “Roll Tide!” And, “Go Big Blue!”

Were we still living in an age when proficiency in hand-to-hand combat was not only necessary for survival but a measurement for assigning social status, I might agree; however, we are not living in such barbaric times. Even those who did possess the physical attributes and martial skills conducive to those periods were primarily pawns for those in power. They were tools used either for military gains or for entertainment. Today’s football players and MMA fighters, for example, are not much different than the gladiators of ancient Rome. Like trained circus animals, they prostitute their talents in bloodsports to the aristocracy who, in turn, put them on display for the common people as a means for them to vent anger and frustration that may otherwise be directed at those powerful few. True, for a brief time, some of these gladiator/athletes are well remunerated for their performances. An even smaller number rise to a level of celebrity that lavishes all sorts of excess upon them. However, for the majority, their time in the spotlight is brief. Either they die in or as a result of their time spent in the arena, or they limp back into crowd and are quickly forgotten.

I sometimes question our motives for pressing our kids into participation in such violent games. Even more, I hate to think that our youth and high school football programs are little more than a way to feed the egos of over-involved parents or a way for some of them to relive their pasts; or that they are little more than an important piece of the profit puzzle for the athletic equipment industry; or that youth and high school football programs are little more than feeder programs for successive levels of football in which the stakes – both economically and in terms of injury – grow increasingly higher; or even that they are a little more than a means to teach “toughness” (whatever that is) to our children. But, sometimes, I wonder if these motives are not exactly the case. What I do not “wonder” about is the potential for catastrophic injury still posed by participation in the sport.

I’m willing to bet that if someone conducted a study to identify the number of highly-successful individuals who played football at some point in their youth that number would be substantial. I am, however, just as certain that an equal – if not far greater – number did not play football, yet they somehow had the necessary toughness to excel in a variety of fields. Therefore, the argument that football or other bloodsports are vital in the training of our young men falls apart. Admittedly, it may be useful for some, but it is far from the only method to produce the sort of individual who possesses the necessary qualities for adult achievement. I might even argue that much of the macho skill set learned through participation in football is actually counter-productive to success in the much more subtle and nuanced worlds of business, finance, law, politics, education, and medicine for example. What’s important is that we keep the place of football in its proper perspective. Contrary to much popular belief, it is not an institution fundamental to our survival as a society. However, if properly managed, it can continue to play a positive role in the education of some children.

As I’ve consistently stated, I’m not advocating for the abolition of youth football. All I’m saying is that there are additional measures that can still be taken to safeguard our kids, including baseline testing of cognitive functioning prior to participation; the limiting of full contact drills, the better monitoring of head strikes; and the better instruction of coaches regarding the recognition and treatment of head injuries just to name a few.

Let the blow back begin. I’m happy to face it.