2020: THE YEAR OF W.T.H. (PG VERSION)

It goes without saying that 2020 has been quite the year.  Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on – and anyone who knows me knows where I stand –  you really need to wear a mask, stay six feet away and wash your hands.  Also try to avoid large gatherings and/or being with people you haven’t seen in a while, which is easier said than done. It’s a slippery slope and except for the first three precautions, everyone must deal with it in their own way, depending upon their needs and life choices.  Here is a short video of my cat Peabody playing with a toy, because well, cats and the internet and he’s just so darned cute despite sometimes being an a-hole.

On a more personal level, I have moved to Florida.  Lakewood Ranch to be exact, which is somewhere between Bradenton (or Bradentucky, which some locals call it) and Sarasota. It’s like Ohio, only with more monster trucks and palm trees. And no snow. And an ocean. And a bunch of older people, who like me, are pretty independent. I really love it here, although I miss my family and some of my friends (you know who you are).  If this is indeed God’s waiting room, I’ll take it, although my immediate neighborhood represents quite a mix of races and ages. And most people are friendly and I find myself considerably less grumpy.  How can you stay pissed if you’re driving past a body of gorgeous water sparkling in the sunshine?

I will also get to know my new home more journalistically, having just signed a book contract from Pineapple Press/Rowman to write THREE RING(LING) CIRCUS:  THE CIRCUS, THE RINGLING BROTHERS AND SARASOTA.  Fortunately, it doesn’t come out until 2023, so hopefully the worst of the pandemic/political freakshow will be in the rear-view mirror so I can concentrate on writing about this one.  Also, while I attempt to dodge the ‘rona, I’m working on a new novel, DOING HARD TIMES IN GEEZERVILLE which will (obviously) keep me closer to home. It’s actually a satire on The Villages and represents a total stretch and challenge, as unlike my last two novels, the setting and characters are pretty unfamiliar. But, given these grim times, we need more fun and humor, so I will do my best to represent. At some point I’ll also return to LIFE DURING WARTIME, a memoir about my late son Alex’s addiction and possibly my book on Presidential Libraries, the first 44, anyway.

To quote Looney Tunes (and this certainly does place me in a particular age bracket):  “That’s All, Folks!”  Let’s hope for a more placid rest of 2020, although my winning the lottery’s not likely to happen, either.

50TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE 1969-70 COLLEGE PROTESTS AND KENT STATE/JACKSON STATE TRAGEDIES: BEING SCHOOLED FROM THE PAST

Pre-order/order THE PIPE DREAMERS:

Forty-nine years ago on May 4, four students were killed at Kent State and nine others injured during a protest against the war in Vietnam. Today it might seem like just another school shooting — back then it rocked the world. For many years I worked to keep awareness of that time period alive through my books and other articles, but like a lot of us I got sidetracked. But the May 2019 republication of my novel THE PIPE DREAMERS again woke me to the fact that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it, especially in light of today’s divisive society.

When THE PIPE DREAMERS was initially published in early autumn 2001, 9/11 happened, hardly a promising environment for a novel that cast a less-than-flattering light on America. Everyone, including myself, was deeply affected by the events of September 11.

So when my publisher, Tony Acree, and I first discussed reissuing THE PIPE DREAMERS in honor of this 50th anniversary, I had mixed feelings. Caught in a whirlwind of my own projects and dealing with my son Alex’s recent death, the thought of revisiting my first novel about youthful mishaps during the Vietnam protests after a nearly 20-year hiatus was disconcerting, to say the least.

As I started to reread THE PIPE DREAMERS, I wondered, would it come across as sophomoric and overwrought? I was hardly the same person who had written it, a process that, in itself, had taken over 20 years. Divorce after a long-term marriage; my son Alex’s accidental overdose on January, 1, 2017 after an eight-year struggle with addiction — an Army Reserve MP, he had been in a car accident while on active duty and had been given opioids for back pain — and a spate of other “adulting” life challenges had irrevocably changed me. How could I possibly still relate to those innocent, idealistic characters who were convinced they could change the world?

I was in for a surprise. Not only was I just as in love with the characters as I had been when I first wrote the book, but the history and the details immediately took me back to that often magical, sometimes frightening and confusing time and place.

Yet when I mention the 1960s and ‘70s, people often say things like, “I don’t want to think about that time.” “It was in the past and unpleasant.” But now more than ever, we should look back. School shootings, random violence, bullying, Internet trolls, guns…the list goes on. Party politics are even more bitter and vile than they were in 1969, when Part One took place. And in a sense, it’s the same old, same old. One side doesn’t really listen to the other.

So I invite readers of all generations to experience a time and place that was unique and almost mystical in its idealism and simplicity. And I invite everyone to sit down and have a dialogue about what is going on in this country today and why — “rap” like we did in the 1960s and 70s — before smart phones, streaming TV and social media.

Decide for yourself whether the hippies were right or if they really messed up. Hopefully it will be enlightening, entertaining and re-open lines of communication.

NEW BOOK! 111 PLACES IN COLUMBUS THAT YOU MUST NOT MISS

I have just signed a contract for my latest book 111
PLACES IN COLUMBUS THAT YOU MUST NOT MISS (Emons) to come out later in 2019. From
“Cowtown” to the biggest town in Ohio, Columbus has always been an incubator
for new ideas and products. As home of The Ohio State University (yes, the
“The” is capitalized) it is a college football crazy city with an intellectual
flair and a test market for everything from brews (Starbucks) to burgers
(McDonald’s, White Castle headquarters) to beer (BrewDog) to ice cream (Jeni’s,
founded here). The intellectual firepower
of some 50 colleges and universities combined with research powerhouses such as
Battelle and Chemical Abstracts draw great minds from all over the world.

This book will cover the well-trod and not-so-much: from Thurber House and Greenlawn Cemetery to lesser-known spots like the Butter Cow and Aubergine Dining Club — the biggest/smallest, unique views, haunted/abandoned places, romantic spots and more.  More information about the 111 Places guidebooks.

CHECK THIS ONE OFF: ADVENTURES IN CATSITTING AND “MIDSOMER MURDERS”

Me in "Causton" --Midsomer Murders

(Reprinted from Housesitmatch.com)
There are those who claim to be world travelers. They may have cruised to the most exotic and far-away destinations, while shuddering at the poverty, unrest and harsh (to First Worlders) living conditions. While monied (or having saved their money) such travelers only skim the surface. They are unwilling or perhaps afraid to look under the hood and experience what people and places are like firsthand.

This brings to mind a dear but wealthy friend. She complains about the beggars and “gross-smelling” streets of many of the world’s most amazing places. By doing this she fails to recognize that 99.9 percent of the 7.5 billion humans inhabiting this planet aren’t Masters of their Universes but live limited resources. They are doing the best they can with what little they have.

Yet to be honest, I could have been like that, but for personal circumstances and a lifestyle which enables me to look at the world differently. Not cushioned by a husband, demographically similar, like-minded friends or even the extra cash which affords conventional travel. However, once opened to different options, the mind can be incredibly inventive. Enter pet and house sitting.

While I had heard horror stories from people who had tried it while they were in college or did it as a favor for a friend or acquaintance, services such as Housesitmatch.com take away much of the guesswork, from what under less carefully curated circumstances might easily fall into the category of “from hell.”

With the right people, places and or even animals, house sitting enables travel and can lift the lid from a culture, allowing you to inhale the essence and beauty of being out of place and even time.

Such was my recent experience in Ilford near London. A middle/working class stewpot of Asians, Middle Easterners and some Eastern Europeans. As a white American Midwesterner I was definitely a minority. Yet, I loved it.

The people I met, including my petsitting hosts, were honest, open and kind to me as I navigated unfamiliar territory. I constantly lost my way trying to figure out the location of cash machines or restaurants that were open on Sunday. From the Asian lady who balanced my nails – she barely spoke English – to the Indian family who made sure I found the right (unmarked) bus stop.

And even when meeting the Muslim shop owners I felt welcome. They patiently allowed me to try on dozens of sparkly bracelets, finding bigger sizes to accommodate my larger American knuckles. In this way my days were full of reminders, that despite our physical and cultural differences, we humans mostly share the same desires – to be needed, respected and heard.

My feline charges included Kitsy, a female tortoiseshell, Sparkle, another female and Sir Phineas a larger male ginger, who expected me to open the kitchen door for him. Yet he was perfectly capable of using the automated cat door.

They were outdoor cats, which I was unused to, and Sparkle had a proclivity for bringing in mice. I hadn’t experienced this before (nor did I want to), since my own cats had always been inside. But one of the advantages of house sitting to travel is that it allows you to grow in unexpected ways. So I went from staying up half the night worrying about the kitties if it was raining or cold, to waking up and finding them all sleeping in the same room with me.

I stayed downstairs since the cats weren’t allowed upstairs and everything I needed was on the first floor, including a comfortable couch. Frankly, I was exhausted and fell asleep right away since every day was an adventure and even going to the greengrocers to buy fresh fruits and vegetables could be a challenge and a journey.

And when Sparkle brought in the inevitable first mouse, thankfully alive, I quickly surrounded it with wine bottles. Using a large cup and a piece of paper, I trapped it by sliding the paper under the glass and carrying it outside to be released. The poor little thing was more scared than I was and was kind of cute. Hopefully I didn’t give it a heart attack…and I didn’t even have to ask the neighbor for help! I was ridiculously proud of myself.

Occasionally it was lonely. And there was one especially scary moment when after enjoying the delightful West End play “Motown: The Musical” I trusted Google maps instead of my host’s recommendations (she works for London transport) to get me home. I took the tube (subway), per Google’s recommendation, to Barking, a rough, abandoned, and dangerous neighborhood at night.

If you ever get to London, they are always working on the tube and recommending alternative routes, which should be explored in more depth before blindly accepting GPS/app suggestions.

Gangs of youths roamed the darkened streets and I did not want to find out who lurked in the trash-filled alleys as I searched for the right bus stop. After 20 terrifying minutes of waiting I finally got on the right bus. Thanks to the instructions of a driver whose bus was going in the opposite direction I made it back.

Never was I so glad to get home to that cozy, warm flat! I wept with relief when I finally closed the door. But that’s travelling! And even when you’re with a large organised group the unexpected can occur. And travelling is always unsettling, there’s no doubt about that.

But next time Google tried to take me to Barking, I pulled out the tiny map my host gave me and located the much faster (and safer) train to Ilford. And from then on, I went low-tech, peering at the map or asking pointed questions to tube workers, who are more than willing to help find the most efficient and/or convenient route. House sitting enables travel but you need to listen to local advice when you get there.

In addition to my hosts and their cats, and thanks to saving money by house sitting to travel I was also able to visit Wallingford (the original “Causton”), Thame (pronounced “Tame”), Dorchester on Thames and other villages associated with filming the popular TV series “Midsomer Murders” for research.

I had applied for a petsit there with a couple who had two cats. House sitting in Europe appealed to me. Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out, but they graciously invited me to visit anyway. There are unexpected dimensions when house sitting to travel. You make all kinds of friends.

Both my hosts and the region (Oxfordshire) exceeded my expectations. It was one of the most amazing and picturesque places I’ve ever been to. And I even actually got to hang out with the regulars at the village pub, one of who actually was a murder victim in the episode “Bad Tidings.” Talk about living the dream….

And so being a tourist is fun, no doubt about it. But taking that extra step into someone else’s shoes and into their home – and even caring for their animals – is like a fresh wind blowing into your mind, whisking away the cobwebs of rigid thought and self-doubt, a reawakening of the beauty of life and its endless possibilities.

House sitting enables travel by saving you money, it works for me. It can change you from the inside out in a way that far surpasses conventional travel.

Kitsy and Sir Phineas

“LUCK:” OF SACRED COWS AND PROSPERITY ELEPHANTS

schooled by a cowRecently I returned from India, a two-week adventure involving stops at half-a-dozen cities, writing and photographing sites for a major magazine. Unlike most pre-packaged trips where the travel agency takes care of small details like hotels, transportation, food and visits to preordained tourist spots, my friend Bev and I were pretty much on our own, although we used Holidays at India, a boutique travel agency that mostly caters to Europeans, for some tours and hotels. I was also dealing with a cultural tourism representative who helped organize and coordinate contacts and visits to the necessary places. To accommodate our budget, we flew via Air India during the “off” season — April, the beginning of their very hot summer. And steerage was still packed during the 13-hour flight.

When I’d mention the excursion to friends and others, they would say things like, “Lucky you!” But luck had very little to do with it and I knew this when I got the assignment back in February 2015. Rather than go into the ups and down and occasional craziness involved, I’ll cut to the take-away: Keep going. If one thing doesn’t work out, try something else. The motion thing also worked well in terms of the physical demands of the trip itself, which involved climbing steep steps and navigating uneven pavement, walking for miles on end and dragging luggage everywhere. (Hint: Use two equally weighted medium bags, even if you have to run out the day before and buy one. It’s far better than a single heavy suitcase in case you have to schlep the thing up a flight of stairs against a huge mass of people pushing in the opposite direction, like Bev did at the train station in Pune.)

I also came away with a couple of insights about fortune. I met my new BFF Ganesh, which I later learned is the Hindu elephant god of wisdom and learning and remover of obstacles, at a temple, also in Pune. He was so sparkly and colorful that I purchased a mini-version of him and immediately put him in a prominent place in my office. Within a week of my return, I had several pending assignments and a huge contract, which I thought had been closed, suddenly opened up for bidding.

But to mix religious metaphors, on the yin (dark) side, I thought it would be hilarious to “tip” a sacred cow by handing it a rupee note. Cow-tipping being a Midwestern thing as in, on a Saturday night in your one-stoplight hometown, you go into a field where the cows sleep standing up and push them over. Of course I would never do such a thing because it not only is physically dangerous and traumatic for the animal but I would probably try to knock over a bull, which would end badly. But while at the Taj Mahal in Agra, I did come face-to-face with a cow and proffered it a 500-hundred rupee note, after finagling a friendly native to photograph the event for Facebook posterity. Several people saw and warned me not to do this as the cow would eat the equivalent of about $10. So I switched to 20 rupee note. The cow walked away, an annoyed look on its face. Within a couple of hours, bug spray exploded in all over my bag, I stepped in huge pile of cow dung, and upon returning to the hotel, found a major spill inside my makeup bag due to a mysterious distribution of very expensive face cream. I deleted all the pictures of myself with the cow but kept this one photo as a reminder not to mess with Mother Nature and what other people consider holy. Some might call it – groaner alert! – bovine revenge.

Sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself. You may make mistakes, but you might find a “lucky” Ganesh to inspire you try again or at least get moo-ving in the right direction. And if you need any additional motivation or information please check out my updated list of events and conferences for the fall!