Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Citizen Mom

Within our communities are those who serve, without whom, our lives and communities would be significantly different. Usually their names aren’t on plaques, and their service doesn’t receive recognition, but incrementally their work makes all of our lives better, whether we notice their work or not.

When my mom was a young mother in the late Sixties, my father was a salesman for several tech companies, and one of his jobs required a move to Florida. It seemed to my mother to be a great opportunity, at least for my dad, but as both my younger and older brother had Down syndrome, and the educational system in Fort Lauderdale in the early Sixties was primitive to say the least (my sister and older brother actually attended a one room schoolhouse), my mother insisted that my father find another job back in their home town of Chicago. He didn’t find one there, but he did find one in the suburbs of Chicago, so we moved back to Illinois .

We moved to Streamwood, Illinois where yet another sprawling farm had recently been turned into a cookie cutter subdivision. The developer at the time enticed a lot of young families by promising to build a library in the center of the subdivision, right on the end of our street, Library Lane. But that promise wasn’t exactly in writing, other than the brochures they used to sell the lots which aren't exactly legally binding. So after the last house sold, the developer moved on, and the end of my block instead had small field of Queen Anne’s lace where a library was supposed to be. But my mother and several other of the moms in the area didn’t accept that broken promise. Instead they organized to put a petition on the ballot to sell bonds and create a library district along with several other adjoining communities. And it failed. But they also didn’t accept the defeat and re-wrote the referendum, and campaigned harder the second time, going door to door to extol the obvious benefits a library system could provide to the community’s families. And the second time it was on the ballot, it passed. So the Poplar Creek Library District was born. That library that grew out of that field of weeds was where I spent a good portion of my childhood and adolescence, and it is probably one of the primary reasons I’ve spent my entire life devoted to books.

My mother’s service wasn’t limited to the creation of the Poplar Creek Library District. She also worked with the school district to help set-up some of the first special education programs in our local schools. And for over twenty-five years she served on the Hanover Township Youth Commission which created programs for troubled and at-risk youth in our community. Sure, a lot of what she did she hoped would ensure that my brothers would receive the services that their disabilities required, but she was also influential in bringing mainstreaming to the school district, so that kids with disabilities weren’t segregated from the rest of the kids, and both populations could learn from each other. The kids with disabilities learned important social skills, and the rest of the students learned tolerance and acceptance of those with disabilities.

Having two brothers with Down syndrome taught me that every kid with a disability, like the rest of us, is different, and their potential shouldn’t be defined by their disability. But my brothers broke a lot of stereotypes about people with disabilities, and I think that’s as much a testament to my mom as it is to them. My brothers both held full time jobs, lived together independently,  and my younger brother has been both married and divorced. They have lived on their own since graduating high school. They both even have drivers licenses, though rarely drive. That they have built this life for themselves is probably related to their living together and taking care of each other, but it’s also in no small measure related to my mother’s insistence from the very beginning that they would learn the basic life skills necessary to be independent. Yes, they received support from the ARC and Easter Seals in the form of weekly visits and some job coaches, but those ended decades ago. It was my mother’s insistence that they learn to shop, pay their bills, cook, clean their house, and keep a job, that they have achieved what by most standards is an extraordinarily independent life for people with Down syndrome. My younger brother still lives on his own, and if it weren’t for Alzheimer's and stroke, I suspect my older brother would be too. They, and a lot of people back in our home town benefited greatly from a strong and independent woman who didn’t listen to doctors who recommended institutionalization, who pushed school boards to accept and serve all of our citizens, who volunteered to run boring bi-weekly meetings about setting-up budgets for services for the most vulnerable among us.

She was an extraordinary woman, who did amazing things. And now she’s gone. My mom passed a couple of weeks ago, and while it has broken my heart, I think more of the thousands of people whose lives she improved with her quiet, boring, determined, bureaucratic, patient insistence that we all deserve a better life. That we all deserve a fair shake. Her work clearly made my brother’s lives better, but I’ve written this for the others who even today benefit from her work. Those who use the Poplar Creek Library, and the shelters for runaways her budgets created, and the special education programs she helped develop. Her anonymous, voluntary legacy that made the place I grew up a better place for everyone. Thanks, Mom. I miss you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


After twenty-five years of living in the same community, I’m finally leaving. Yeah, I know. It’s a little weird, to say the least. Community has always been important to me and I’ve invested a lot in this one. I’ve lived in only two different houses while I’ve been here; one an old one room schoolhouse where I lived for thirteen years, and this larger, more traditional house where we live now with our two kids. And I've had only two jobs, working at the Press and running the bookstore. Because of the transitory nature of the population, living in a university community has made it hard to say I still have friends who I met in those first few years who I will miss. I don’t really. Almost all of my closest friends over the years have already moved away themselves. It seems it’s just part of the DNA of a university community, especially a rural one. And everything’s changed about the place, though not everything looks different.

I was at a party recently and something happened there to me that happens a lot. Someone there recognized me but couldn’t remember from where. I said two words and it all came back to them: Svoboda’s Books. Less than a year after I arrived in the area I went to work for Svoboda’s Scholarly Books and I would end up working there for the next ten years. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life and is probably at the root of some of my most vehement opinions. I would end up becoming a co-owner of the store, and eventually, the decision as to whether to close the community’s only independent bookstore, and an academic bookstore to boot, fell on me, and I closed it. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the only rational one I could make. When that happened I have to admit I was a little mad at the community. How could they have let that happen? What kind of people choose price and convenience over the health and welfare of their intellectual community? Looking back at it, of course I blamed them, the only other explanation was that it was my fault. I think I better understand now that it was a result of what’s commonly referred to as “disruption” and it probably wasn’t either of our faults, but it still hurts. And you can still kind of see the bruise it left.

The other strange part of this is related to the shame a lot of us now feel about the horrors that happened here right under our noses. Horrors that seem to have been going on for a long period of time, yet almost all of us hadn’t a clue. I’ve seen a lot of good people leave since November, 2011, and while I don’t think this exodus from the university is directly a result of the scandal, I suspect it’s a factor. The place has a shadow over it that is going to be here for a while. Maybe forever. This is one of the most bucolic settings I’ve ever seen in my life, the very definition of a pastoral paradise, and yet now, when the words “Happy Valley” are mentioned anywhere in the country, only the most horrific thoughts come to mind. I do not think I will regret walking out from under this dark cloud, but I am clearly not as strong and loyal as those I leave behind.

That said, I will very much miss this place. I actually do love this university, in spite of its catastrophic failings. We do very good work here, and I really believe we make the rest of the world a better place. And this place is just drop-dead gorgeous. I’ll really miss the redtail hawks and the blue herons, the morels that come up in the spring and the miyataki that come up in the fall, the colts and calves, the fresh eggs and milk with cream on top, the old church on the corner with gravestones older than the university, the black walnuts and sumac lemonade, the mantids, cecropia and saturniid moths, Spring Creek which cuts through our little town, and the stone walls covered in moss that define its boundaries—the fertile though rocky land here that gives rise to all of the beauty at the center of this black-soiled soul of the earth. It’s tearing out a part of me to leave.

On the other hand, the place we’re moving to is also really pretty wonderful. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I expect there to be a few bumps in the transition. We’ve been dedicated to a rural lifestyle for quite a while, and we’re moving to a city, an actual city, a metropolis of 2 million. Columbus, Ohio is the 15th largest city in the country, larger than Seattle, Denver, and even Boston.  And we’ll be right in the heart of the city. We’ll have to start locking our doors, and think a bit more about safety, and we’ll have to get used to being among crowds and stuck in traffic. But as cities go, Columbus seems exceptional. I think we’ll get along. Its downtown has experienced an extraordinary renaissance, and as the largest city in Ohio (yes, it’s bigger than Cleveland and Cincinnati) it’s remarkably well-planned, other than needing some light rail and a few more bike lanes, but I think they’re on it. Being the home of both the capital and one of the largest public universities in the world, the city is filled with incredible cultural resources. We’ll be living within walking distance of the Columbus Art Museum, the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens will be around the corner, and I’ll be working on a campus that hosts one of the most amazing art laboratories in the world: The Wexner Center for the Arts. And you might have heard, they have a zoo. I’m also very excited to be working for Ohio State and the Press. I’ve been really impressed by the press’ staff, and I'm greatly encouraged by the administration's interest in investing in the Press, and growing its program. It’s kind of small in comparison to similar state or CIC presses, considering the size of the parent institution. I think they’re interested in changing that. I also think I'm the right guy for this opportunity. I’ve been doing this publishing thing for a while and I’m rather eager to put some of my knowledge and experience to work in a more direct way. With what I’ve learned about the Press, the University, and the city so far, I really can’t wait to get there and get started as the new director.

So on December 4th, we’ll get in the car and drive out of Happy Valley and into Ohio Country. While I doubt I will forget the many people and places I’ve experienced and learned from here in Pennsylvania, I’m very excited about the place I’m going to, and the people I’m about to learn more about. As the great Columbus writer, James Thurber, once said, “Love is what you've been through with somebody” to which I might add, or with some place.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ode to a lost bookstore

What I miss most is of course the books, and the people, and conversations,
and drama, and beer, and more books, and returns, and coffee, and homeless Ed,
and fish on paper plates, and wine, and more books, and textbooks, and dogs,
and office hours, and learning, and poetry, and jokes, and laughs, and kids,
and cigarettes, and cigars, and whiskey and mint, and more books, and ideas,
and scholars, and plants in the window, and greeting cards, and rock stars,
and arguments, and magazines, and students, and more books, and discovery,
and authors, and community, and champagne, and receipts, and computers,

and then the Internet, and returns, and discounts, and final sales... and then the books were gone.