John Donne was wrong.

John Donne was wrong. I am an island

I read all of John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee novels more than 40 years ago. Magee describes life as an island in a river. People are born on the downstream end of the island. As the baby grows, the river erodes the upstream end and builds up the downstream end. This has the effect of moving the baby from the downstream end to being an adult in the middle of the island.

As the island erodes, people at the edges fall into the river and are washed out of the life of the baby, the child or the man.

Ultimately an old man stands at the point of the upstream end. When the river wears away the upstream end, the old man falls into the river and is carried away.

Magee’s explanation caught my imagination and stuck with me. I have returned to it when trying to understand some aspect of life that’s bothering me. It has become especially pertinent since I started teaching at Mansfield University.

I taught high school for five years and left to go to grad school. After finishing grad school in Utah, I moved to Virginia. I taught high school theater arts for three years and then got a temporary job teaching journalism at Lynchburg College. I filled in for three semesters while they searched for someone with a Ph.D. I went from there to Central Virginia Community College, where I taught “Developmental” English as a full-time adjunct.

I moved around a lot. Every three to five years I either went back to school or changed jobs and locations. When I got to Mansfield University, I knew I had found a home for the rest of my life. I was happy. I had terrific colleagues in my department and around campus. I taught exciting and excited students. I advised the Flashlight, the student-owned, student-run newspaper. I have had good staffs and great staffs, but they are always an exciting, dynamic group of students who make a difference.

I am finishing my 17th year at Mansfield University. As I was starting my 8th year, I was starting to feel uncomfortably comfortable. I couldn’t put my finger on my dissatisfaction. I was seeking something different to read to get my mind off my troubles. Digging through a box of books, I ran across an old Travis Magee novel and read it in a day. I was reminded of Magee’s island metaphor for life and thought I had identified the source of my ennui.

I was an island. I was the island. I was a rock in a river. My students were the river. They came into my classroom for a semester or a year or four years if I was lucky. Some came to the Flashlight office and I got to work with them in a less formal though more intense atmosphere for one, two, three or four years. After four years, they were washed from my life. I was the one standing still and they were flowing downstream to jobs with newspapers or public relations companies or television or radio stations.

I didn’t like the image of being a rock in their stream. I didn’t want to feel like an obstruction. It took me several years, but I have modified Magee’s metaphor.

Anyone who knows me will tell you what an athletic supporter I am, so it’s not unusual for me to pick a sports metaphor.

I am not an island in a stream of students. I am part pit crew and part cheerleader. When students come into my class, I help them learn what they will need to know when they graduate. For four years I help them pick the right tires, adjust their fan belts, buckle their seat belts and fine tune their pistons. At the end of four years I can hear their motors roaring as they get ready to leave my life.

That’s when I pick up my pompoms and put on my pleated skirt. Actually, I put on an academic robe and a mortarboard. I walk solemnly into the gym, though what I want to do is dance on the furniture and scream, “Go! GO! GO!”

I don’t mind eating the dust. The lion’s share of my job is done. I may write a letter of reference or answer an emailed question, but they are doing what I helped them learn how to do. I keep track of some of them. Some of them keep in touch.

I am a teacher. My students are the change I make in the world.

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Chia Obama

Dear Editor,
I have enjoyed the last two Mallard Fillmore cartoons depicting President Obama as a Chia pet. I have to disagree with the people who think this is a racist cartoon.
I get it. Black people have curly hair. President Obama is only half white, so his hair might not be as curly as someone who is black on both sides of his family. Chia Pets have straight green grass instead of hair.
It’s hilarious and not racist at all to depict America’s first African American president, the most powerful man in the world, as a Chia Pet because of his hair.
When I saw the followup this morning, with all the people who got Chia Obamas for the solstice returning them, I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “there’s nothing racist about that.” That’s what I said. I said, “There’s nothing racist about that,” and that’s the truth or I wouldn’t have said it.
Thank you for publishing such a funny and not racist at all cartoon. I hope you get some more non-racist Chia humor in the new year.

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Women are mean.

I have been on a British/Irish author binge recently. I stumbled across Rob Johnson’s “Lifting the Lid” a couple months ago and enjoyed it. It’s a comedy-detective novel. It was more detective than comedy, but I had no complaints.

I started the sequel “Heads You Lose” last week. The set up was long but last night the Boss kicked me out of bed. Things started coming together in the story and I couldn’t stop laughing and I couldn’t put the book down.

She usually likes it when I read to her, but she doesn’t like random snippets of books she’s not being read when she’s trying to go to sleep. She gets mean when I wake her up to share something, even if it’s especially juicy.

I can’t figure women out.

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A Book with One of those Covers

One of Those FacesA Man With One of Those Faces by Caimh McDonnell is a book with one of those covers.

Yes, I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but who among us can honestly say we don’t do that. We see a gorgeous man or woman, a sleek sports car or an electronic gadget that looks sexy and think, “Don’t know what that is, but I gotta have it!”

This book was the opposite of that. It turned up in my To be read pile and I had no idea where it had come from or why it was there. The title was uninspiring. I didn’t recognize the author’s name and what’s with that weird H at the end? I was about to toss it aside for the next book in the pile when I looked at the back cover. It said, “A brilliant comedic crime thriller.” It said, “…whip-smart and funny.”

I knew it was illegal in Ireland to lie on the backs of books, so I thought I’d give it a chance.

I was hooked by the end of the first page. Clever writing. Funny plot. Good characters. Terrific idea for a crime thriller.

The funny and the clever stayed for the whole book, but the terrific idea for the crime thriller—a guy with “one of those faces,” a face that everyone mistakes for someone else—rather disappeared. After the first couple pages it played little role in the story.

Paul Mulchrone, the man who looks like everyone else, accidentally doesn’t learn a deadly secret, but someone’s trying to kill him, just in case. Nurse Brigit, who persuaded him to talk to the dying man, has read a lot of detective books and wants to help Paul figure out why anyone wants to kill him. Bunny McGarry is a hurling coach and a police detective. He never bluffs, and he’d like to atone for something he did to Paul many years ago, though he’s too mean to even think it.

With the help of some of New Scotland Yard’s finest, Paul has to solve one of Ireland’s most notorious crimes while running from the police and the Irish mob.

I learned many years ago that Irish bulls are always pregnant. When I started this book and was delighted by the clever writing and humor, I sought the author on Facebook and told him how much I was enjoying his book. As an aside, because of that odd H at the end of his name, I asked how his name was pronounced. He told me “The phonetic spelling of Caimh is “Qweeve.” No really. It’s Irish.”

I have decided that I’m going to change the spelling of my name to Qweeve, but I going to still pronounce it “Dan.” I going to explain to anyone who asks that, “I’m Irish.”

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Inappropriate touching

We got our kitchen remodeled last summer. With the recent cold weather, our new dishwasher stopped working. I called the contractor to ask if he had any ideas. He came and thawed the drain, rerouted it a little and added some insulation.
I am not prejudiced against any silliness. I want to be left alone, but what people do on their own time is none of my business. The contractor and his wife made their religious leanings clear during the six weeks they worked on our kitchen. They were always doing something for their church or dashing off to a prayer meeting or something. We ignored it.
I have been suffering through the flu for the past couple weeks. The greatest manifestation had been a horrible cough.I was alone in the house when the contractor came to see about the dishwasher. He’s a nice enough guy, 10-15 years older than I am. He did a great job on the kitchen. He was happy to fix the problem with the dishwasher. When it was solved, he came to me in the dining room, where I was sipping some hot tea and asked a favor. Bells flashed in my head and lights sounded, but I asked him what I could do for him. “Can I pray for you?” he said.
I like this guy. He did a good job on my wife’s kitchen. My wife and his wife worked happily together on the design. I didn’t want to vomit or shout at him, much as I wanted to vomit and shout at him. The situation made me feel ookie. Suddenly I thought I knew what a woman who was being propositioned by the town pervert felt like. “I have to get a load of laundry done,” I said. I think I hunkered for the first time, hugging my steaming mug of tea.
“It will only take a second,” he said.
“I think we can both find a better way to spend our time,” I said.
“I’m only talking about fifteen seconds,” he said, but he backed off.
He’s going to do a little more work on the kitchen. I’m not sure I want to be alone with him.

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New authors are a treasure worth seeking

Burning BrightI am always excited when I discover a new author.

About ten years ago my brother-in-law handed me Lee Child’s Killing Floor and I read my first Jack Reacher adventure. I was hooked. I read the dozen or so Reacher books that were available then started reading each one as it became available. Between my brother, my brothers-in-law, my son and my nephews, I only had to buy a couple. The rest passed my way as they made their way through the family.

After ten years I am finally able to return the favor, at least in a small way.

I browse the books in the supermarket. I saw Nick Petrie’s Burning Bright and read the first chapter before the manager asked me for the third time if everything was okay.

Burning Bright was the second Petrie book. The writing was clever and tight. The story was interesting and unexpected. It was good enough that I wanted to read Petrie’s first before I went any further in his second. As soon as I got home I ordered The Drifter from Amazon and read it when it arrived 48 hours later.

Burning BrightI’ve read enough books that I don’t often get caught up in a book and have to finish it before I turn off the light. I did with The Drifter. I finished it in one reading.

Peter Ash is an ex-USMC lieutenant. He suffers from PTSD. His friend commits suicide while Ash is in the mountains dealing with his own problems. When Ash learned of the suicide, he tried to help his friend’s family only to find out that there was more to the suicide than there seemed at first.

Peter Ash is not the sleeping giant that Jack Reacher is. Ash is just a guy trying to deal with the things he went through in the Middle East and the way those things changed him.

Petrie idealizes veterans a little, but he also shows some of the things veterans have to deal with while serving and after serving their country. He does this while telling a gripping story.

Ash meets some memorable characters who turn out differently than any I have read in other books. Some of the good guys turn out to be not so good. Some of the bad guys are pretty damned bad, but in unexpected ways. Petrie surprised and pleased me with his handling of both the good guys and the bad guys.

I took a short break then read Burning Bright. Peter Ash uses the skills he learned as a Marine and, with the help of some of his veteran friends, takes an out-of-control private contractor out of the game. Burning Bright is full of great characters, tomorrow’s technology and some men and women who aren’t what they seem at first blush.

Anyone can write a first novel. It takes a writer to write a second novel. Nick Petrie is a writer.

I can now balance the scales with my brother-in-law. I can turn him on to a series we can share. On the one hand, I’m glad I found Petrie first. On the other hand, I’m sorry I found him when he’d only written two books. I am looking forward to reading more of Peter Ash’s adventures. I’ve read lots of stories. It takes something new to surprise me. Petrie surprised me in both his first and second novels. He won’t get by me next time. I’ll be ready and waiting.

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Traveling is not for amateurs

French-Toast-01Our Parisian adventure began when we got off our Delta flight and met our French Uber driver Qamar Hussain wearing a Yankees baseball cap. It was 8 a.m. local time. We hadn’t eaten since our snack of Corn Flakes and Cheerios several hours earlier.

Qamar led us to his Toyota Corolla, loaded our luggage and drove us to the nearest Denny’s where we got some authentic French toast and some terrible coffee.

A brief but terrifying two-hour drive convinced me that France was full of terrorists and they were all on the road that morning.

We checked into our hotel. The mademoiselle who checked us in assured us that there was a fan in our room because the extreme heat was overwhelming the air conditioning. The fan, she promised us in the cutest French accent, would keep us comfortable. It didn’t, but we were in Paris, so we didn’t care.

We left the hotel looking for lunch. We could see Norte Dame from the front of the hotel. We walked toward the magnificent old cathedral, eager to for a French lunch in her shadow. We didn’t have to look far. We found a Subway with a view of the bell tower. I got turkey. My wife got Italian. We joked about hearing Quasimodo playing the bells while we enjoyed our sandwiches. Paris can’t help being romantic.

Satisfied with our sojourn into French cuisine, we headed for adventure. We made a bee line for the nearest souvenir shop. We bought berets for our heads, post cards for our friends and snow globes for our kids.

We bought some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the ice cream shoppe next door.

I found a Calvin and Hobbs collection I hadn’t read in years in a book store that sold only books in English.

We walked at least a kilometer. That’s a thousand meters. I don’t know how many that is in miles, but I’m sure it’s at least ten.

We finished our day with a “Whop-aire” from a typically French McDonalds. I tried to order Le Quartre Kilogrammer, but the high school student behind the counter seemed to be afflicted with some condition that required her to giggle whenever I spoke French. Her manager had more control and served us our “Whop-aires” and, I swear, fried apples. They tasted like fried potatoes, but she called them “pommes” (apples) “frites” (fried).

Tired but happy we staggered back to the hotel in time to enjoy The Daily Show in English with French subtitles, la fin perfect to the first day of our French vacation.

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