Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Space reflections

A couple of weeks ago when Cindy & I were returning from Staci Pepitone’s funeral in Baton Rouge, we found ourselves back in our car at the Columbus airport about midnight with the hour-long drive back to Dayton still ahead of us. We hadn’t had dinner, but didn’t really want to stop. We just wanted to get home.

So as I tooled our car onto westbound I-70, still reflecting on Staci’s remarkable memorial, I started enumerating for Cindy Lou what kinds of cool stuff I would mention about her life in the horrible case of my having to assemble a eulogy following her passing. Among other things, I mentioned her love for our grandkids, her passion for doing right by her students during her teaching career, her magical ability -- from my perspective -- of making music on violin, her support and companionship throughout our relationship, and her concerned tending of her mother and father at the end of their lives.

Then I asked her, if she didn’t mind, to tick off a few things about me she might mention at my funeral. My question caught her off guard a bit, but she warmed up to the idea. She mentioned good stuff about my being a dad and grandfather, my love for birds and Hog Island, my poetry, and my willingness to join in volunteer causes. As nice as all she said sounded, none surprised me too much. Then she mentioned my love of space and space travel. That one caught me a little by surprise.

But in a larger sense, her space comment seemed to be the one I was waiting for. It wasn’t the space idea so much, but an observation from my best friend and confidant about me that I wouldn’t have come up with myself. What beautiful priority in my life did she see that perhaps I didn’t quite so clearly? It was a warm a-ha moment.

As a kid of 1950 vintage, I was seven years-old when the nasty old Russians were the first to launch a satellite into space. The United States -- the best country in the world -- was one-upped by the communist bad guys who we all knew had only one thing on their minds: our destruction. So when the US got into the space race in January 1958 with the launch of Explorer I, I was immediately hooked. Then came space cowboy Alan Shepherd’s suborbital flight in 1961 followed by Ohio hero John Glenn’s three orbits in 1962. I can still remember listening to these momentous historical events over the public address system at school. The classroom was absolutely quiet as we did desk work and listened to the reporting of a real live person going into outer space. Dude. Very cool stuff.

I’ve been an avid NASA tv watcher now for about three years. Some of the constantly repeated programming is a bit too much for me at times, but when it comes to launches, NASA tv turns into the ultimate reality show. They broadcast extensive crew interviews, press conferences by ground managers, and hour by hour coverage of the launch and subsequent work days in space. It’s not redundant when I say again, very cool stuff.

So it wasn’t any kind of a stretch for me yesterday to invite grandkids Alex and Ellie, who are on spring break this week, to go with Grammy and me to the Museum of the United States Air Force here in Dayton to see the newest IMAX movie they offer, Hubble. Oh, my.

I know human interaction with space is all big stuff, but what the Hubble Space Telescope has accomplished in it’s twenty year run is absolutely extraordinary. One astronaut thought that 500 years from now when historians reassess the impact of space on humanity, Hubble will be remembered as one of the most important projects ever launched. I mean, this space-based observatory can actually see to the end of the universe. The light it collects on it’s mirror was generated so far away that it started it’s journey this direction millions of years ago. Excuse me, but like God, that idea is just a little too hard for me to comprehend.

But I love wondering about it. And I love exciting kids with it. When I asked seventh grade Alex what he was thinking about as a career choice, he mentioned aeronautical engineering. He’s loved aircraft all his life. Space is never too far from his mind, either. Again, it’s not redundant to say, very cool indeed.

Today’s elder idea: Life, forever dying to be born afresh, for ever young and eager, will presently stand upon this Earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.

H. G. Wells (1920)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health care & 60

I’m one of those guys who has been playing disc jockey over the years by creating his own music mixes. In the beginning, it was on reel to reel tape. Then it went to cassettes that I could play in the car. I still have a bunch of both stored in closets, but I rarely play them. With the advent of CD recording, both tape recorders have been relegated to dark places in the basement. iTunes has surely made the practice much easier.

Most of these collections have a theme, like Western highway, Earth magic, Beautiful, and pisces & aries. Finding ‘theming’ music too much of a reach at times, about five years ago I began the practice of assembling a collection of songs to be completed twice a year, one about the time of my birthday at the beginning of spring, the other six months later. What to include? Well, whatever I find interesting in the moment. Some new, some classic, some just fun. It’s become a bit of a passion of mine. And for titling, I just number ‘em.

I mention this today because last fall when I finished my 59.5 collection, I included an oldie grandson Noah found somehow, maybe on Guitar Hero. It was ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,’ the 1969 classic from The Hollies. On the liner notes, I dedicated its inclusion to ‘the new health care bill that should help make more Americans healthier.’ I signed off on the dedication with the Fiddler’s Le chaim! I assumed passage of the bill was imminent last fall.

And here we are on March 23, my 60th birthday, with President Obama signing America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. Finally.

It would seem lots of folks aren’t happy about it. Even in an unscientific MSNBC internet poll I looked at showed 65% against. I was part of the 27% in favor. Still, as I listened to progressive pundits debate content and comment on the furor the bill has caused, I distinctly remember hearing them say that the majority of Americans were in favor of it. Where did they all go?

I must admit that in the process of listening to the ugliness re: the health care bill, I lost interest in personally participating in government. I’ve never been very involved anyway, but I do watch the news, read the paper daily, and walk the neighborhood during presidential elections passing out literature for the Democrats. I came to the conclusion recently that if duly elected government officials can’t decide on what’s best for their constituents, to hell with the process.

What in heaven’s name is wrong with reforming health care? Insurance companies are making big money with our premiums and seem to feel free to drop coverage on folks who need it most because they file claims when they are sick. It seems to me that one doesn’t need to be a rocket science major to see that something had to change.

Still, there they were: every -- and I mean EVERY -- Republican opposing changes. Even after Nancy Polosi, Harry Reid, and friends included ideas brought to the health care table over the years by Republicans, like end-of-life counseling, nada. Some in the GOP even called such counseling ‘death panels’ that will doom grandma, trying to scare the pants off of us. Now that the the bill is law, some in the GOP are talking repeal.

First, I just don’t get it. War is okay, I suppose, but not help for Americans. I love my Republican brother, but I have concluded that he, like many of his GOP brethren, hate to see anybody get anything they didn’t earn. Get a job, dammit. Second, I am disgusted with the hate and fear that has boiled out of this debate. I mean, for pete’s sake, we’re trying to help America be a healthier place.

I know money is an issue. Still, some stuff just costs money. And to me, some stuff is just worth it. Streets. Clean water. Bank regulations. National security. Civil rights. Health care. They all seem targets for the role of a government by the people and for the people.

I had this thought yesterday: Name me three well-heard conservative radio hosts. Shouldn’t be a problem. Now name me three well-heard progressive radio types. Can’t do it, can you?

Expanding it to television, one could name three progressives. But there’s always the ubiquitous Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck -- all with huge media reach. I wonder how much of their fear and vitriol spewed on the air waves has brought many Americans to fear any kind of health care reform. And how much of the nonsense was funded by health insurance lobbyists?

As Rachel Maddow said Monday night, which parts of the bill do the repealers now want to strip away? Continue to exclude newborns with asthma because of a pre-existing condition? Going back to dropping coverage for people with a recurrence of cancer because they have exceeded limits? Have seniors decide if they can eat this week or buy their meds?

I don’t get it. We live in a democracy where we work for the aim of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For all. Health care seems to be a step in that direction. All I can thank today are Democrats who did their best to make it work.


PS: March 23, in fact, does make me 60 this year. And this blog entry, oddly enough, is Back Porch blog #60. Having the President sign the bill this very day makes me damn proud. Gotta' love the syzygy!

PS2: Care to hear any of the music collections? Let me know.

Today’s elder idea: ‘A big f---ing deal.’ Indeed.

Vice president Joe Biden.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Death struck down another good one last week. Staci Ann Pepitone, a lovely young woman of 43. Cancer. Her mom, Brenda, is an English department colleague of mine from Wayne High School. We’re both retired now, but Brenda and I have been buddies for years.

Staci took a job at Louisiana State University back in the mid-90s working with kids at the student union, using skills honed at her prior gig at Wright State. She later moved into the finance and administration office at LSU, but often still found herself working with students. Nine former student body presidents and four vice-presidents made it back to Baton Rouge to celebrate Staci’s life and career at her memorial on Tuesday, March 16. That statistic alone, I suspect, speaks reams about her positive impact on students and student life at LSU.

Lots of tears were shed that day as you might imagine. Lots of good memories retold. Quite a bit of laughter. A real N’awlins jazz funeral procession led the way. Such a celebration of a life!

For me, the most hopeful yet painful part was the dedication of Staci’s Southern live oak on the campus Parade Ground. For those of us Buckeyes who don’t know the LSU campus, the Parade Ground is a large green common area where students play frisbee, study under the sun on blankets, and engender that deep Tiger love for LSU. It was a place where Staci helped stage many student events.

LSU endows the Southern live oaks on campus as a way to preserve and protect these beautiful People of nature. All of the oaks surrounding the Parade Ground had been endowed over the years, save one. That one now will bear the memory of Staci Pepitone.

I think I had such a hard time at the dedication partly because I think remembering a daughter, friend, and colleague with another living being is a poignant practice. I hope my family can find a good place to plant, or dedicate, a tree to my memory when the time comes.

But more than that, I think, as the event directly following the memorial mass, Staci’s oak dedication brought her mother one step closer to saying her final goodbye.

I just don’t know how a parent can bear to bury a child. Brenda and I talked about this a month or so ago over lunch. With two grown daughters of my own, three grandkids, and three step-grandgirls, I wonder how I would deal with what Brenda now must. Children bury parents, not the other way around. It is the kids who are to grow up and away, giving moms and dads stories to crow about with friends over dinner. Staci was in mid-career and had so much more to offer. LSU and the world can now only wonder what those things would have been. And Brenda is left to live her life without her daughter and confidant.

I know Staci’s memory will go on in the presence of the tree and in the hearts of those who knew and loved her. But at the end of the day, a mother has been deprived of her own pride and joy long before the time she thought she had. I can’t imagine how that feels.

My heart goes out to you, Brenda. Know you are loved.

Today’s elder idea: Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Staci’s mantra

Monday, March 8, 2010

Turning the corner on winter

I know there are plenty of really important things to write about today, like health care reform, a new energy plan, the economy, the Academy Awards, and family stuff -- among lots of other things -- but again today I turn my attention to the climate of Ohio. It’s just that it’s springtime here. Spring -- the time of year that gives hope to the hopeless like nothing else I know. And, oh my, is that ever worth writing about.

One of the reasons I really like spring, I think, is because my birthday falls just at its cusp. Although it is so much more than that. This part of the world reaches vernal equinox around March 21 (this year March 20). We have a few weeks to go before we get there, and there is no guarantee we won’t get more snow before we do. We can handle that. We’ve had more than one year when Easter eggs nested in residual snow in the back yard.

But as today’s title states, we have turned the corner on winter because of the last five days we’ve lived through: We’ve had sun. For five straight days. And that even includes a rainy interlude that started last night at dusk that brought us a mildly foggy sunrise. But by mid-morning, fog has dissipated and the sun is back. Oh, my.

One of the hardest things about winter in these parts is the cloud cover. It seems that from Thanksgiving on, we wake to gray skies every single day. And, oh, how that weighs on the psyche. Gray, gray, gray. And the furnace running. Cold. Gray. Depression could ask for no greater logo than a winter day in Ohio.

But with bright sun and high blue skies these past five days, and over a weekend to boot, one can feel in his or her bones that things have changed. At 6:30 pm, evening gloaming is still out there beyond our windows. At Christmas, it’s dark by 5:30. And even for us retired slugs who stay in bed until 7:30 am, sun is now streaming in the bedroom window by then. Oh, what a difference that makes. Daylight savings comes upon us next weekend and we’ll lose that morning edge on the sun for a time, but that also means that 6:30 pm sun will linger until 7:30.

Such could be another definition of hope.

Today’s elder idea:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all...

Emily Dickinson

Thursday, March 4, 2010


As a guy who spent a career as an educator, I’ve had great respect for written pieces that reach print publication. First, everything I ever taught from, be it magazine, paperback novel, or textbook, somehow made it through an editing process before it was introduced into my classroom. I did make plenty of printouts of supplemental articles and stories, but all of those pieces were also published in print first.

To some degree, I suppose, this dates my years in the classroom as a teacher. When I was first set loose in a seventh grade English classroom by myself in fall 1972, all I had to lead my way through the content were the books provided. Students bought spelling workbooks back then. I remember how we had to collect a fee from every kid to pay for their own consumable copy. We had literature anthologies, and a grammar handbook, but no course of study. It was assumed that the teacher’s job was to creatively marshal the content of materials provided into a nine-month sequence of activities that somehow worked. I hate to admit it, but I think many positive evaluations hinged not so much on successful execution of content, but how well teachers got kids to behave. Successful classrooms were often determined to be those where teachers got kids to sit and actually get something done.

Still, however, I took my job damned seriously and was always on the lookout for a project or piece of literature that could bridge the gap between the text and somehow connecting to kids’ learning. During my thirty+ years teaching, as well as my own time as a student, I developed a deep respect for published materials.

These days, of course, things are different. When I left the classroom eight years ago, I still didn’t have a computer in my room. And even if I had, it surely wouldn’t have been hooked up to the outside world yet. We did have a few computer labs then that had T1 lines, and I signed up to use them, but with the internet so new, I spent most of my time having kids use the terminals as word processors. I did get some experience with teaching with technology as a community college instructor, however, and found it both daunting and really cool. The internet has taught us there are other ways to publish these days, and most often it isn’t in print.

So as a retired teacher who is still in love with language, I play with words every day and have found new ways to circulate them. This blog is one case in point. The two websites I shepherd are another: and Currently my biggest problem is learning website software well enough to create sites that are visually and aurally interesting. I’m still working on it.

But, I am proud to say, I have recently seen my first essay make independent print publication. Some of my stuff made print before, but I had a hand in it. This time around, I just wrote it and somebody else thought it was good enough to publish in hard copy. And I don’t mind telling you, such feels mighty good. Here’s a list of the stuff I have written that has been set forth on the world’s readers. I’m afraid you won’t be able to find much of it available out there, but if you ask really nice, I could always make you a copy and send it your way.

List of works published by Tom Schaefer:

‘Home Ground.’ Desert Call. Spiritual Life Institute, Crestone CO. Spring 2010. An essay on the spiritual aspects of travel focusing on Wayne High School’s Geology Field Study/American West program.

The Back Porch Blog. Weekly essays. Began May 2009.

Letters to the World. By Emily’s Boys (James Hughes, David Dominic, Andy Bergeron, and Tom Schaefer). Self-published book at December 2008.

Collection of poetry and original writings.

Nature’s People: Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd as Lovers of Nature. Book in progress. Anticipated publication date: fall 2011.

Across the Narrows. Newsletter of Friends of Hog Island, Maine. Tom Schaefer, editor (c. 2000-03)

Today’s elder idea:

Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man —
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a thing

Emily Dickinson