Moving On From the Surgery

I don’t think I can write about other stuff until I write about my surgery. I’m 99% better, so I think it’s time to share and move on. Each photo has a caption that you can see if you click on the small letter ‘i’.

A few photos of my first major surgery

There’s so much more I could say — about high health care costs, monstrous total costs, great doctors, my poor reaction to the anesthetic drugs, Judy’s support, throwing up, steady improvement, fluid collecting, going back to emergency, medication change, numbness, poor sleeps, pleased to have the growth out, scar healing well — but you don’t want to hear all of that.

Continuing to Re-Learn

Lisa Genova wrote the movie, Still Alice, several years ago. In her recent TED talk called “What you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s,” she concludes that continuing to learn throughout life seems to be very important in preventing Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes sense intuitively as well because if I am always learning, I stay fresh and current…like a constantly sharpened pencil never getting dull.

For me, though, it’s more like learn, learn, forget, re-learn, re-learn.

Another short, four-day writing camp ends and I have learned many things — I hope the students came away with something, too. For at least ten summers, I have taught teens in the summer at the Red Cedar Writing Project’s Spartan Writing Camps. For years, I led a camp called “Digital Writing,” but more recently I have been widening the focus to “Creative Writing.” I like the flexibility that such a class affords and often I include some digital writing as part of the camp.

One techie thing I re-learned was how fun and useful Storybird can be. It’s a great tool for sharing longform stories, picture books, and poems. I also was reminded that their notion of a poem is something you create with the words they provide (like refrigerator magnets); choose “picture book” to share a previously written poem and you can add photos to go along with the poem. And who did I learn all of this from? A teen named Elaina. Seeing her enthusiasm for the website, I asked her to teach the camp about it with a 10 minute introduction. She jumped right up and did an amazing job. Five more students were using it in minutes and ended up presenting their final project with it. This bright 13 year old even inspired me to create the following haiku on Storybird.

On the last day of camp, I was able to get Lansing’s new Poet Laureate, Dennis Hinrichsen, to visit our camp. That simple act re-taught me a couple things to start: it doesn’t hurt to ask and even relatively short notice is sometimes enough notice. Dennis did a marvelous job explaining the context of a couple poems and reading them. He answered students’ questions for quite awhile and in a very genuine, personable manner.

At the end of his talk, Dennis said he was willing to work with someone on their draft in front of the group. None of the 35 students or two other teachers took him up on his offer. So, I went to the computer, found two of my pieces of poetry, and was reminded of that exciting, queasy feeling called risk. He spent over 20 minutes workshoping them (for free) and both poems were markedly better. I enjoyed watching him talk through his suggestions and questions, while engaging and challenging the students.

NOTE: Dennis would like to talk about poetry in classrooms around the tri-county area in the fall. If you are a K-12 teacher in the Lansing area, shoot him an email at I highly recommend him for his rapport with young people and his insights into poetry.

I also learned what it means to power through. I had surgery to remove a benign growth on my parotid gland (near my right ear) on the Wednesday before the Monday camp began. My four days to recover were shortened since I needed to stay overnight in the hospital due to the mass being infected and surgery lasting five hours (instead of 2-3 as expected). I also had an extra trip to the ER on Sunday due to inflammation and swelling. All of which is to say that I was in less-than-favorable condition to lead 11 sixth-eighth graders in much of anything.

Here’s what I looked like when I came home from the hospital

The stitch started at the top-front section in front of my ear, went under and behind my ear, and then petered out on my neck. I’m not sure if I grew my beard so I wouldn’t have to shave or to hide the gruesomeness of it all.

I, of course, used the surgery as an example of taking life and turning it into creative writing: “What if instead of just taking out the growth, they put in a tracker or made me bionic in some way?” That inspired at least one story. Fortunately, I had wonderfully creative and cooperative 6th-8th graders. They jumped on everything on the camp agenda and cut me some slack when I needed to relax a bit. When you throw in that it didn’t rain, we all got ice cream, and they actually pay me to lead the camp, leading this camp felt like a success (thanks to regular pain meds and a bunch of antibiotics).

I’d like to give a special shout-out to Hannah Schulte. She pinch hit for me on Tuesday morning when I had a doctor’s appointment. She’s a recent, Spartan graduate looking for a teaching job. She was in my class regularly a couple years ago and I was very impressed. May the Force be with her.

Memories of France and Italy

I’m sorry, but “What was your favorite city?” is not a fair question. Yes, I have answered it, but if you have traveled much at all (and I hope you have), you know that it’s unlikely that one particular place rose above the rest of the amazing places.

Though I do understand the impetus of the question. You want me to relate the highlights of a 24 day get-away in a succint and helpful manner. You want to know, quickly, which place you may want to go on your trip someday (or maybe you’re just being polite). The problem is that visiting new places is very experiential. It happens, it’s awesome, and then you move on to the next amazing place. Unless one takes a video of the whole experience (which I’ve seen others do) — and even that isn’t the same — being there is really the only way to get across the enormity of the cathedral, the brilliant colors of the 15th century fresco, or the thrill of being 12,600 feet up in the mountains and seeing three countries at once. Words don’t do these experiences justice…so I should just stop writing….

Since I appreciate you taking the time to read this blog entry, however, here are my top seven favorite memories from our recent trip to France and Italy:

1. The greater Paris area speaks to me. The Metro is so useful and relatively cheap. The train (which is different from the Metro) helped us get to Giverny quickly and enjoy Monet’s gardens. We found ourselves at the top of places, searching for more stunning viewpoints (ie., Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and our 4th floor Airbnb, up one of many circular stairways). We enjoyed a riverboat cruise on the Seine River on the first night, too (Judy reaches to touch a bridge, below…click on the photo to enlarge it).

2. Beaune was memorable for the wine tastings, the food, and Daniele (our Airbnb host) and her generosity. I was surprised that the wine tastings were in the cellars of the winery; we snaked through over a mile of tunnels lined with wine barrels and stopped occasionally to drink a small quantity of various, delicious wines.

3. Mont Blanc took my breath away. That is, the views were gorgeous and we were so high up (12,600 feet) that I had some trouble breathing. We were in the French Alps at Chamonix, France, and found it charming and welcoming. We took the gondola up to Aiguille du Midi, an observation platform to view Mont Blanc; Rick Steves was there last year and made a short, informational video. Judy was in her glory with mountain views in every direction. We stayed at a beautiful, rustic hotel on the Arve River called the Hotel d’Arve And ‘stepped into the void’ for a dramatic photo.

4. The Amalfi Coast is gorgeous. We stepped into the Mediterranean Sea on some black, slippery stones in Positano. Then, later we stayed in a wonderful family hotel on a hill near Sorrento that overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea and Naples and Mt. Vesuvius in the distance.

5. We were only in Venice for a couple days and in that short time we glimpsed the integral and complex place that diverse boats play there. We were on water taxis, a gondola, a water subway, a car ferry, and a regular ferry on our way out to the island of Lido to get to our hotel. And we found ourselves up high again to get a new perspective.

6. Staying at the Grand Hotel on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy with the Alps on the horizon was incredibly picturesque and the hotel’s lasagna was the lightest, most delicious of the trip. It was a resort area with a very relaxing vibe and I would go back in a nano-second.

7. Judy and I had a remarkable dinner experience in the Tuscany region outside of Florence at the Villa Machiavelli — excellent food (I had a T-bone steak), serenaded by a talented singer and guitar player, some impromptu dancing with Alissa (our travel director) and Preston (a new friend from Massachusetts with an artistic, fun sense), intersting conversation…and several local varieties of wine!

I would return to all of those spots. And many more. (I would have to win the Lotto to do it again soon…if you’re thinking about doing a similar trip and want to talk about costs for such a trip, email me at and we’ll talk over coffee.) Traveling is almost always costly, but it is always worth it, in my experience. I find that if I spend too long in my safe, predictable space, I forget about the rest of the world. I don’t think about people speeding along at 180 miles per hour on bullet trains or people who feel they need to pickpocket or palm bills upon payment in order to survive. I forget that there are other, interesting things to eat for breakfast, that even ice cream can blow your mind (as in…gelato), and that lemons (super-huge lemon skins) can be turned into tasty Limoncello. Travel spices up life by reminding us of the diversity of people and cultures. I can’t wait until we plan another get-away.

A few rules or guidelines we tried to live by while we were there:
1. Use a rest room whenever you have the chance because you may not see one again for awhile (or you may have to pay for it…some public rest rooms in Italy cost .50 euro – 1 euro to use).
2. Use the language of the country if possible. People seemed to appreciate it if we said Hello, Thank you, You’re welcome, and other phrases in the language of the country…although I think I said Parle vouz anglais? (Do you speak, English?) more than any other phrase.
3. If you hear English being spoken by others, assume they are tourists and engage them in conversation. That connection with strangers in a foreign place is like finding a surprise, temporary relative. We met people from many states (FL, CA, PA, NY, TX…) that way, as well as interesting blokes from England and Australia.
4. Wear your money belt (with credit cards, passport, and some euros) almost all the time you are in a public place. With exceptions like the hotel restaurant and the pool, we felt safer with our valuables under one layer of clothes. We still had a few bills and some change accessible in pockets, but not the more valuable items.
5. If your feet are happy, you’ll be happy. We both had amazing shoes with us — I wore my Keen hiking boots and Judy wore a Keen sandal with a closed toe most of the time. These shoes had plenty of support, some breathing space, decent comfort, and weren’t excessively heavy.
6. Write down what you did every day because it’s tough to remember later on. Judy was great at this.
7. Take some photos, but don’t go crazy with it…enjoy the moment. That may be hard to believe, if you follow the link to the photo album I put together. However, I could have filmed the whole trip…it was that amazing…so finding your own balance is necessary. You’ll see people who go overboard — don’t be that person.
8. Look up…and down. The ceilings are often the most impressive part of the view. Frescos cover many ceilings and multi-colored marble and granite show up when you least expect it. Ditto on the floors.
9. Let somebody who knows the area do the driving. We used the Metro in Paris, our Eurail passes several times crossing France and then, in Italy, let the bus driver get us places (we took the Best of Italy bus tour with Trafalgar, which we highly recommend; we also recommend Affordable Tours to book the tour). It lowered our stress-levels significantly to trust others to get us places and not try to figure it out — especially since we hadn’t been to most of the places we visited. It was more expensive, but I was so glad we had made that choice. And I still remembered how to drive when we returned…so yeah.
10. Rick Steves is usually right, so don’t doubt him.

Here are some of our photos and videos for your enjoyment. Let me know if you want a personal explanation of any or all of them:

France and some of Italy

More of Italy

The Cascade du Dard (waterfall) near Chamonix, France video

Alissa tells Odysseus/Sirens story on the road to Positano, Italy, video

Limericks to Help Us Cope

Enjoy these three topical limericks. The first I’ve ever shared.

There once was a group from SNL
They noticed an unusual media swell
Focused their skits on party gaffs
Poking fun, inducing laughs
Helped a nation collectively say “What the hell?”


A liberal Democrat named Keene
Discouraged by the race of 2016
Reconciled to hope
Or at least not to mope
By mulling over what might have been.


A lame, cocky billionaire named Rump
With the intellect of Forrest Gump
Distorted the facts
Obnoxious to the max
And somehow still got over the hump.

Poetry and Politics

Here’s a poem I wrote this month. Happy National Poetry Month!

In a Democrat’s Car

I’m at a red light
That hasn’t changed in months.
And I can’t see around the edge
Of the light
To see what the moving traffic sees.

My guiding word for this year is

So, I’m sitting at this red light
Watching traffic
Zip by.

I’m listening.

The silence is damn deafening

Until I hear a verse from the Bible
In my head.

“’This is the day the Lord has made
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Though the reception was a bit fuzzy.
And I thought I heard

This is the conflict the Lord has made
Let us rejoice and deal with it.

Hmm. That’s odd.

Oh, the light is changing.
It’s caution.


I’m also writing for a blog called Letters2Trump. Today’s post is mine and I get to write about once a month. I recommend reading them as often as you can stand thinking about the fact that Trump is really our President.

Help When We Need It

I was looking for encouragement, browsing through the books in my office (instead of cleaning it). Here’s a poem I happened upon from a book called Poems To Live By In Uncertain Times:

May 1915

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where the
wounded trees
Wait, with their old wise patience for the
heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun. And even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please,
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit today with their great Dead, hands in
their hands, eyes in their eyes,
At one with love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered
things and changing skies.

By Charlotte Mew

Being naturally curious, I wanted to know more about this poet who was new to me. Her biography is quite interesting.
You can learn about the World War I context of the poem, hear the poem read aloud, and read an analysis of the poem at this website. I’m sorry to say that I could not capture the exact form of this poem due to the odd formatting of this edublogs editor.

Something about that poem spoke to me. Maybe it was the hopefulness. The repetitive reminder that even in dark times (winter’s cold darkness, 45 and the gang, climate change…), Spring exists around the corner. Deep in the midst of our crazy lives, we need that reassurance sometimes — I do, anyway.

Singing also fills me with hope. Many times, I have willed myself to go to choir rehearsal. Even though the choir members and conductor are like a second family, sometimes I’m not in the mood to rehearse. However, I’m always filled up by singing. I always come out of rehearsal with my spirits filled and a song on my lips and heart. I sing with the Earl Nelson Singers and we sing this Saturday, February 18 at Bethel Seventh Day Adventist Church, which is 4817 Bristol Road (off Reo Road near the corner of Jolly and MLK) in Lansing. We are singing what I think is a very uplifting lineup of spirituals and gospel music:











I BELIEVE (From the Gospel Mass)



Feel free to join us that morning!

Verna Holley, our director, just produced a new CD entitled “In a Time of Trouble” which is very comforting. It is made up of 15 hymn arrangements and is just beautiful. She may have some copies with her on Saturday.

Trying To Be Civil, Instructive, & Still Pissed

If you know me and you follow the link, below, you’ll know I wrote this letter. It’s theoretically to President Trump. I’d be happy if he read it and took it to heart. It’s what I would say to him if I met him. I don’t really believe he’s going to read it, so it’s really for you and for other people to read. It’s more of a reasonable approach than everything I mumble to myself about how the guy is ruining our country and there aren’t enough brave, insightful Republicans in Congress to stand up to him. Yes, I’m ticked. However, if I was standing in front of the guy, I’m not sure I could bring myself to show my true anger. Writing this first letter helped me re-learn civility. It has its place. I hope to write a letter a month for this new blog. And I suggest you read the amazing other letters on the website.

Here’s a link to my letter at Letters2trump

Strange Days, Indeed

I forced myself to watch Trump’s Inaugural address today. It was possibly the longest 17 minutes of my life. And (possibly) the first time I had heard Trump use complete sentences. I didn’t believe that much of it was sincere or realistic or coherent; however, it dawned on me that in the midst of this insane historical period, Trump has indeed benefited us in some ways:

* Putting his offending perspective in a place of power has spurred a large percentage of the U.S. populace into action. Many people that were not interested or involved in the governance of our country have been outraged just enough to get them to notice and act. The tremendous turnouts at all the inspiring Women’s Marches around the country and world are the most recent example. Many of the women and men that marched were new ‘marchers.’ This renewed energy in addressing and demanding our civil rights is a refreshing, hopeful sign, despite the cause. It’s already building community where it didn’t exist before.

* Somewhat related is the fact that people’s concern over what Trump will do to our nation has inspired more financial giving to causes. Time magazine reports that the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have received almost 80,000 donations since November. Other groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have seen rises in volunteers and donations as citizens bolster their resources against potential anti-Muslim acts by Trump (according to the Atlantic). It’s unfortunate that our apathy or indifference waits until times like these, but it’s also encouraging that there still is a line that can be crossed; a line where we take matters into our own hands and act.

* Trump has made the office of President attainable for most anyone…with money. While it’s scary at the same time, his ascent to power points out the fact that most any (con) man can get there. It’s a call to (mostly white) (mostly male) hucksters to raise their bars. In a recent Miami Herald article, Carl Hiaasen addressed this issue head on. He wrote that “The surprise triumph of the Big Orange Trumpster is very much a story of hope. The message is simple: These days, anybody — absolutely anybody — can become president. You don’t need facts. You don’t need experience. You just need a good act.” (If you have the stomach for it, this is also the link where I watched Trump’s speech)

* Trump continues to be excellent fodder for Saturday Night Live (find their You Tube page and subscribe). We will need to laugh — often and to excess — if we are to survive the next four years. As long as Alec Balwin stays healthy, I plan on using SNL as my drug of choice. Trump may privately have stock in NBC…why else would he continually put his foot in his mouth so that the SNL writers have an easy job?

* Theoretically, Trump is inviting us to be involved in his presidency. Something called “We the People Petitions” are up on the White House website. We can each create a petition on the White House website on an issue that’s important to us. If your petition gets over 100,000 signatures from others concerned about the same issue, then the White House will “respond.” I’m not sure how they will respond or if it will have an affect on anything, but it’s something. The first petition to reach 100,000 signatures had to do with Trump needing to release his tax returns so the American people will know the extent of foreign influence on him due to his financial interests.

I worked hard to come up with those benefits of Trump’s existence in our lives. The costs are a bit easier to see:

* The President is often seen as a role model for our youth and Trump is a terrible role model. He works hard to characterize himself as an egotistical bully. That sort of person doesn’t respect others or listen to others. That’s not the role model we need in office.

* Trump is a foreign relations nightmare. His insistence that the Mexican government will be paying for a wall between us is ridiculous and demeaning, as is his suggestion that we may withdraw from NAFTA (I believe its pros outweigh its cons). He’s not a welcoming presence in the world and most newspapers around the world reacted to his inauguration speech with a defensive shock which included reminding him that he’s the son of an immigrant.

* He acts like facts don’t exist…when they really do. Even since he became President, his staff is already attempting to spread this mis-information virus. They couldn’t even agree with estimated numbers from his inauguration. I loved that Dan Rather spoke up about this, calling on the media and Republicans to defend fact-based news. Rather said

“So here is what I think everyone in the press must do. If you are interviewing a Paul Ryan, a Mitch McConnell, or any other GOP elected official, the first question must be “what will you do to combat the lying from the White House?” If they dodge and weave, keep with the follow ups. And if they refuse to give a satisfactory answer, end the interview.”

I’ll be curious to see if the press answers his challenge. It’s way past time to call Trump on his insistence to invent his own reality. Somebody has to stand up and shout that the emperor has no clothes.

Here’s a visual that may help in fighting fake news. It helped me. Some news is reputable, some is skewed, some just isn’t reputable.

Fight Fake news. Know who is reputable. 

* Trump has surrounded himself (if/when his Cabinet nominations go through) with an out-of-touch, billionaire club that will probably not help him “see” situations more clearly. While the advisory role of the Cabinet is a bit out-dated, picking experienced, fair-minded folks would seem prudent.

* ____________ (I’ve left room here for you to fill in your own “cost of having Trump as President.” Enjoy.)

I wrote the following poem a couple days ago. It gets at the shock and anger I’m feeling these days.

Since November

So this is how history happens —
Complete shock
Unable to take it all in,
I am a witness
To the downfall
Of the United States of America.

One tweet at a time
The dominoes fall
In an unbelievable series
Of unexpected events

That keep hitting me.
That bat just keeps hitting me.
Everyday I wake up to
A bat hitting me in the face
With the reality that
Our country has been
Dumbed down
From the top.

We have been hijacked
By terrorists from within,
Holding sanity hostage,

Holding logic for ransom,
Without a timeline
Without a clue
As to the ramifications
Of a vote
An untruth
A garble of nonsense
Coming from the POTUS
Of a minority sect
Who lounge in their idiocy.

This new America
Guided by a ring leader
Of mis-information
Can’t see the rabbit hole
Or understand the allusion
Or grasp the big picture
Of Mother Earth
Living the Scream painting.

We’ve kicked our own feet
Out from under us.
We’re falling and
It’s a


P.S. Here are two more gems that fit the topic. First, Taylor Mali performs his latest poem. For me, it speaks to the mood of our time and the way language has been altered/perverted to get around facts and convictions. Also, here’s a classic from John Lennon — “Nobody Told Me” which speaks to the mirrors that are being used these days to present false realities. “Nobody told me there’d be days like these…Strange days, indeed!”