County Donegal, Ireland
The first day of our trip was an eventful one.
I’m looking out over a beautiful lake through a gigantic window, sitting on an older and somewhat comfortable armchair. My children are all still asleep after our first day on the ground in Ireland. The view is spectacular with snow-capped mountains in the distance that look very much like something out of a Bob Ross painting.
It’s stunning. Breathtaking, even, especially after the rain and ice of yesterday.
And I can’t wait to get the hell out of this place.
We landed just about twenty-four hours ago after a relatively uneventful flight. We got our luggage and rental car without too much hassle. Originally, they put our family of five in a sedan which couldn’t hold our luggage, much less five adult sized travelers, but we worked it out, moving into a decently sized SUV.
My wife insisted on the full insurance. That’s kind of significant, as while I am sitting in the lovely cottage with uncertain heating, almost no food, and a Wi-Fi password that doesn’t work, our rental car is stuck in a ditch about two kilometers down a treacherous country path.
So yeah, we’ve had a pretty eventful start to our Irish holiday.
We booked this home exchange in an effort to be somewhat close to the family that we are still hoping to visit, though as it turns out, it’s nowhere near them and in fact, as I can assure you from my hike through the frozen rain last night, (there’s wasn’t room for the Boyo and I on the neighbor’s tractor until he kindly dropped my wife and daughters off at the lovely cottage), it is literally the middle of nowhere.
Our host had mentioned that the road to the house might be a challenge and in fact, he kindly met us in town and had us follow him up the hill, where we both got stuck, and through a series of misadventures that I won’t elaborate on at this time, our SUV, with my wife and kids inside, landed in said ditch, where it remains, drivable, but stuck as I write this.
I just took a picture of a rainbow, lingering near the larger of the Bob Ross snow-capped mountains. It’s truly lovely. But I can’t wait to see it from the rearview mirror.
Last night is the coldest I have been in my life since the Eagles Super Bowl parade and it wasn’t raining then. I thought I was going to lose a toe. The walk to the house was freezing, with sleet and rain pelting us, our feet struggling to find purchase on the country path. The neighbor with the tractor was kind and helpful, as was another neighbor who drove past and offered to take our bags in their little sedan that had no trouble on the path, for some reason. Just the bags, of course.
Everyone was miserable. Everyone was wet. It was dark and Boyo and I had trouble knowing which way to go in the dark until the neighbor with the tractor came back for us.
But I remain deeply impressed with my family’s resilience. With the rain picking up and seeming to come from all sides, my son turned to me and said, almost with a smile, “Well, Dad-now you’ve got something to write about. It can be a story about how people use home exchanges to lure tourists to their deaths in the middle of Ireland.”
Not sure I’m going to take that on, but I appreciated the thought.
Once we were all together at the lovely cottage, with the view we couldn’t see yet because it was pitch black and pouring rain, people began to warm up. I no longer worried I would lose that pinky toe, and we began to do what we so often do when our family invariably faces a challenge:
We close ranks, we take stock, and we figure it out.
Thank God we stopped and picked up a few items of food at the local gas station. It’s called “Emo” for some reason but is essentially the Irish 7-11. Had we not stopped there, the only food and beverage we would have had on hand would have been the bottle of Jameson’s and half the Toblerone we got at Duty Free and four cans of baked beans that represent what our host described as “a few staples.”
Honestly, a night of beans, whiskey and Toblerone sounds like the beginning of a great story that might be set in my college days, but less appealing as a family holiday as we get ready for our eldest twins to head off to college next year. Oh, and it’s almost Christmas.
But we managed and within an hour or so we were huddled under blankets (I’m done trying to figure out the heat, and with the luck we’ve had so far, I’m not chancing the fireplace) and enjoying the “Shawn the Sheep” holiday episode. And Jameson’s. Thank God for Jameson’s.
And thank God for everything else too. For the fact that no one was hurt, the car appears to be overall fine, I hope, the fact that we’re all together, and for the kindness of a neighbor with a tractor who came out to help. And for the kindness of my Irish family, who I can’t wait to see tomorrow, (he said hopefully). Thank God for all that, and for the fact that the kids are safe and asleep and looking forward to moving on from this lovely house on the lake.
I can hear my grandmother’s voice in my head as I look out at the far green country, rolling hills and billowy clouds saying, “Well, you’ve gotten all of the ex-O-tic events out of the way on this trip. Now you can have some fun.”
I’m looking forward to it, to be certain.
I've shared different versions of this reflection over the years. Today, on the anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole, I share this most recently updated version that I featured in last years' AN ALMOST TOLERABLE PERSON, a memoir that would have been quite incomplete without this chapter about Pat.
I think of him every day. His photo hangs on a wall in my classroom. Today I'm thinking of his family and many friends all over the world. He was an amazing young man who continues to teach me on a regular basis.
In the fall of 2000, I was teaching and coaching at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in North Jersey and attending graduate school full-time at Seton Hall University. I’d spent the previous four years as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, theater director, nighttime security guy, and Dean of Students at The Storm King School, an independent boarding school in the scenic Hudson Valley of New York.
October 12, 2000. The United States Navy Destroyer USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers at the Port of Aden, in Yemen. It was a Thursday.
When I first heard about the attack on the news, I was sad to hear about it. It was bad news on what I recall was a day of bad news stories, but something about the report bothered me. It was like a slight buzzing on the edges of my mind that I had no explanation for. I remember shaking my head and returning to whatever it was that I’d been doing.
The next evening, the wife and I had dinner at the Dublin Pub in Morristown, NJ and a went to see movie that I don’t recall. Returning home, as we often did, we checked the answering machine. (Remember, this is before cell phones were really a thing) After a few messages for the wife from work, there was one from Billy, my good friend who was still at Storm King. I was just walking into the room and greeting our black lab, Gracie, as Billy’s normally bombastic voice dolefully resounded through the tinny speaker.
“Kugs…I don’t know if you’ve heard, but, that ship that got hit out there, in Yemen, well, I don’t know how to say this, but Pat was on it. It looks like they can’t find him…call me.”
I remember falling backwards, just catching the edge of the bed as that buzzing in the back of my head grew louder with sudden understanding. Gracie came up and laid her head on my lap and I scratched her head. I remember saying “I just knew…” Then, I cried a lot.
Pat Roy was the kind of student that makes me miss teaching English. He was not a spectacular student, but a good one who worked very hard and was surprisingly creative in his approach to language and literature. In the few years I knew him, he gave me some of the best moments I’ve ever had as a teacher, a coach, and really, just as a human being.
He was also the kind of athlete that makes me miss coaching. I was the assistant lacrosse coach, mostly because I was pals with the head coach and we wanted to hang out. I learned the game in order to do the job and Pat was helpful to me in those efforts. He was not an amazing athlete but he worked really hard at that as well. He really loved lacrosse and was a coach’s kind of player, selfless, team-oriented, fearless, and fun to be around. I remember hearing the head coach say, “Kugs…give me a team full of kids like Pat. That would be a fun team” on more than one occasion.
Pat was a student of the game, throwing himself into his position as a defenseman. He was the kind of player that you knew would make a great coach in the future. I remember well the times that he simply willed our team on to victory with his infectious enthusiasm or times when he simply had a better idea than everyone else. There were also times that he simply threw himself in front of the ball as it was shot towards our goaltender. I kept all the game statistics and he asked me early in one season to track blocked shots for him. “Like they do in hockey, Kugs.” I told him he could easily track it himself by counting the bruises on his body, but he grinned and said “Come on, Kugs,” and I agreed. I was happy to do it, since Pat had asked. He blocked a lot of shots.
Pat made some mistakes on campus early in his time at school, including an incident where my car was shaving-creamed and the air was let out of all four tires. I was in my early twenties and not as mature as I should have been, as I look back on those days. I was living in the dormitory at the time and that type of close living can lend itself to hard feelings and small worlds in which to express them. Initially, I was angry and offended at what had been done to my car. I’m embarrased now at the way that I overreacted. I wanted justice and was intolerable for days until Pat came to talk to me. While no one else from the offending group stepped up, Pat did. He was sorry, and he made that clear. He looked me in the eye and apologized. He also made mention of the fact that no real damage had been done. Eventually, I was able to write the whole thing off as a goof, because of Pat.
There were other times during his tenure at school where I saw him behave in a manner that was way beyond his years, not just with his immature teachers, but with his classmates and dormmates. A lot of those stories are wildly entertaining and not really appropriate for this setting, but rest assured, those stories are told and shared and cherished by those who knew him, but there are a few that I can share.
I was trying to teach Hamlet to a group of seniors that had little interest and less motivation to study Shakespeare. Pat was in the class as we were trying to read aloud the “Folger Library’s” excellent translation. It was not going well. At all.
After we’d slogged through another tremendously unproductive class, Pat stayed behind for a moment, I believed because the young lady he was dating was in my next class. While he waited, he was quite comfortable telling me: “Kugs…this reading aloud thing is not gonna work for everybody. Like it is NOT working.”
He was right, of course. I was trying to teach a play in a dead and overly artistic language to students who came from wildly disparate academic backgrounds and in some cases, countries. Everyone was amazingly uncomfortable and the last few days where I’d tried to have them read the play aloud had been a colossal waste of time.
“Well, you got any ideas?” I asked. He did. He always seemed to.
He thought that the class would be able to understand what was going on if they were able to follow along in their Folger editions as they watched it onscreen. I remember his saying: “If everyone can see what’s happening, I think they’d get it.” I checked out the fabulous Kenneth Branagh version of the play and it turns out that Pat was right. Everything clicked and that unit with that group of seniors is among my favorite memories of teaching. I never taught Shakespeare the same way again. Pat forced me to think differently as a teacher and I did for the rest of my career. That was a fun group, especially once we were all on the same page, thanks to Pat.
I think my favorite memory of him might be the words he spoke at halftime of the championship match at the Harvey School during his senior season. The team was playing poorly and starting to get down on itself, as we were losing for the first time all season.
It was a crisp and clear afternoon. The field sat atop a hill surrounded by trees and I can still see Pat in my mind there, leaning on his longstick, as the Coach asked him if he had anything to add before we went back out for the second half. He said “Guys, I’m going to be on a ship somewhere in a year, and I don’t think they’ll let me bring my stick, so this is like my last game ever. I’d rather remember going out there with my friends and having fun playing lacrosse and leaving it all out there on the field.”
And they did. We still lost that game, but the way the team performed in the second half was genuinely satisfying. Despite the loss, I remember Pat smiling at least a little on the bus ride home.
There was another time when a group of students had pulled some kind of prank on me, which again was not uncommon in those days. I overacted again, which I’m embarrassed to say was also not that uncommon in those days. I decided who was at fault and lashed out at the group. They lashed back and that led to several uncomfortable days for all of us since these were young men in my classes, in my dorm, and on my team. It was Pat that sought me out, and told me, “Kugs-I’m not going to tell you who pulled that prank on you, but I will tell you that it wasn’t the guys you flipped out on.”
And I believed him, because it was Pat. I found those guys and apologized. They were less than enthusiastic about my efforts and actually got kind of snarfy about my even approaching them. It was Pat, again, who said, “Let it go guys-he stepped up and said he was wrong. Let it go.”
And we all let it go. Because of Pat.
Yes, I may have been the adult here, but those lines get very blurred in a boarding school environment like SKS. I was young and impulsive and so were most of the kids I dealt with. It made for some interesting times and interesting dynamics.
I remember the last time I saw Pat Roy. He visited school after graduation in his uniform, before he shipped out on his first tour of duty, on the Cole. He didn’t look different to me, except for the uniform. I already thought he was a pretty solid young man by that point but the gravitas that his uniform afforded him suited him. I shook his hand as he was leaving, and told him to take care and to keep in touch. I was proud that I’d been the Dean for his class and prouder still that I’d gotten to know him. I knew he was destined to make a difference with his life and I looked forward to seeing what he did with it.
When Pat was killed, I remember feeling that my life as a teacher had just grown less magical. I’d never lost a student before, much less one that I thought as highly of as Pat Roy. I remember showing up at Pope John that next Monday having missed a morning department meeting. My boss at the time found me just before classes started and voiced her displeasure at my absence. I had only been there a few months and didn’t really know anyone that well. I remember standing in the hall just outside my classroom thinking that there was no way I was going to get through the day. I asked her if she’d seen the story about the sailors who’d been killed on the USS Cole. She said that she had. I replied, “One of my students was on that ship. I just lost one of the best I ever taught…” I wanted to go home and crawl into bed with the dog and try to wake up in a world where the attack hadn’t happened, but I made it through the day. Returning to my duty seemed like the better tribute to Pat. So that’s what I did.
They held a memorial service for Pat at Storm King a few weeks later and I went up and spent the weekend on campus. It was a very strange weekend since I was definitely an outsider returning. The staff had changed and the kids had changed too. The weekend went by in a bit of a blur. I remember standing on the field where they planted a tree for him. This was the field that Pat had roamed as a defenseman and even run balls for me when I coached the soccer team. It was a beautiful day and a lot of the old crew returned to campus to honor him. There was laughter and pranks on Kugs remembered. It was a fitting way to remember him. Pat’s family attended and to this day, I remain genuinely moved by their grace and humility.
Before I left campus, I took a picture of Pat’s tree. It was small, with brilliantly bright yellow leaves that reminded me of that time he dyed his hair, and it looked out on the sports fields and the Hudson Valley from atop Storm King Mountain. I displayed it in my classroom and later in my offices when I moved into full-time administrative positions. When I left education, I brought it home, where it sits on a shelf in my living room as I write this.
Over the years, I would look at that picture, seeing that little yellow tree and it would seem to impart just the right message at just the right time. Perhaps I was dealing with a really tough discipline problem and seeing Pat’s tree would remind me to be fair and to hear the whole story. And not to overreact. I have other memories of times when the students were driving me out of my mind and looking at that tree would remind me that whatever my current crop of students were doing, it would pale in comparison to some of the stuff Pat and his pals pulled back in the day. That would make me laugh every time. Other times, I would see it and it would make me sad for the loss of a beautiful young life, so full of promise and talent and humor, to such a senseless act of violence. No parent should have to bury their child. I am sad to think of his family, his younger brother in particular, who lost far more than I did, having to move on without him. I still have an image of Pat coming into my office at the end of his senior year with his brother on his shoulders, saying, “Kugs-this is my little brother,” and flashing a proud smile. It was one of the happiest I’d ever seen him. It still makes my heart hurt.
But then, I think of Pat and something he said to me as I, in one of my heavier stages, was running laps with the lacrosse team. I was exhausted and ready to give up after a few laps and I’m sure I looked every bit the “old guy trying to keep up.” I can still see his smiling face as he turned, jogging backwards with an easy grace so he could see me as he called out, “Suck it up, Kugs! You gotta dig DEEP!” That makes me laugh, even now, all these years later. I’ve tried to do just that.
I’m a far better, far more tolerable person for having known Pat Roy. It’s a poorer world, for certain, without him.
Excerpt borrowed from AN ALMOST TOLERABLE PERSON, published 2021 by Four Leaf Publishing
In the Spring of 1997, I was twenty-three years old, teaching English, Theater, and Spanish (for some reason) at the Storm King School in New York’s picturesque Hudson Valley. It was my second year out of college and I was already on my second school, having mutually parted ways with a school outside of Philly the year before.
The Headmaster who hired me had decided to leave SKS and a new leadership team had been selected from the now defunct New York Military Academy, just down the street. I’d had what I felt was a pretty good first year at the school, coaching soccer, living in the dorm, helping to run the theater department, among other tasks that get assigned at a boarding school when you happen to be the guy in the room when someone needs to take something on, like teach Spanish (badly). That said, it was made clear that a review of the entire staff would be taking place and the majority, including yours truly, were told that they should not count on being retained.
I sent resumes out and had a few interviews, but as Spring arrived, I was still in limbo. My then future-wife advised me to control what I could control and so, I kept working hard with my classes, trying to make myself as indispensable to the school as I could. I went to every game, concert, art show and activity the school offered the kids. I took on extra duties on the weekends, and really pushed myself, so much so that I developed what turned out to be a very serious lumbar disc problem that would require major surgery four years later.
I know we are heavy on the backstory here in a reflection that’s not really about me, but trust me, the context matters here.
So, it was there that I found myself waking up one morning in the Spring of 1997 with my back so inflamed that I could not stand up straight. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but I could usually force myself upright and limp up the hill from McConnel Hall to my classroom to teach. That morning, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get past a 45-degree angle. But my seniors had a test on the Beat Generation coming up and we hadn’t yet covered Kerouac and Ginsberg, so I managed to limp to my car, a snazzy 1996 Mercury Tracer, drove a tenth of a mile up the hill and parked outside the English building and limped to my room, promptly flopping flat onto the floor, throwing my legs up on a chair, and preparing to introduce Allen Ginsberg to a group of seniors who were posting the number of school days left on my ancient chalkboard on a daily basis.
The class knew I had a bad back, so while they rolled their eyes and said, “you should really just give us the day off, Kugs,” we got started and made good progress. I was making what I’m sure was an un-brilliant point about Ginsberg’s “Howl,” when I noticed that one of my seniors was nodding his head towards the classroom door. I looked up and saw a group of unfamiliar men in suits and ties staring at me.
This, I soon learned, was the new Headmaster and his team. They were making their first visit as a team to SKS and had decided to tour the class buildings as classes were in session. I waved, and they moved away and I went back to teaching. It wasn’t uncommon for board members to visit from time to time or leaders from other schools, or people the school wanted to ask for money, so I didn’t think much of it in the moment.
The story, as I heard it later went something like this: as they walked away from my classroom, a member of that leadership team, who I will leave nameless in this reflection, commented, “Well, there’s one we can lose.”
There were chuckles, and I imagine a scribbling of notes on a pad before another voice chimed in with, “well, maybe let’s find out why he was teaching on the floor first?”
That other voice, so often the voice of reason, the voice of inspiration and comfort, the clear voice of leadership, friendship and kindness, was that of the man that became my dear friend and mentor, Steve Mandell. It was a voice that I have heard in my head many times over the years and I know I will continue to as I move forward in life. I never heard that voice in anger, never in belittlement or thoughtlessness. It was always a patient voice that dripped with concern for others, showed interest in others, support for others and was always used for the sole purpose of lifting others up.
And it is a voice that has sadly gone silent now.
The world has become a little less magical now that my friend, my mentor, and in many ways, my role model, has died.
When I was finally given the news that I was being kept on staff for another year, it was a great relief. I’d grown to like the school and the town and, absent any other options at the time, and there weren’t any, I’d grown to appreciate the job and a place to live. Steve came on as the Dean of Students, a position essentially charged with running the day-to-day operations of the school as it related to student life and activities. As a young man, teacher, and coach, I’d had a good working relationship with his predecessor, and so I was hopeful we’d get along.
I don’t exactly remember the first time I officially met Steve, but I imagine it was in the dining hall at SKS, where we both had an affinity for that first table, just as you entered the room, closest to the kitchen. It was there that we’d spend countless meals with Janiak, Shovan, Cerone, and any others, and with Steve’s amazing wife Beth and kids Adam and Lily, who were little in those years.
The earliest interaction of real substance that I remember with Steve was in his corner office in the administration building, an office that I would later occupy myself as Dean of Students for a time. It was the Fall of 1997 and he’d seen me walking by and called me in to chat for the first time. His son, Adam, was with him, playfully jumping off the small couch in the corner, right next to where I was sitting. Over and over, Adam was jumping off the couch and crying “TA-DA!” each time he landed. I don’t remember the substance of our talk that day, but I do remember Steve’s proud smile and easy demeanor as he smiled as he nodded towards his son and said, “Kugs…that’s what it’s all about, right there.”
Heidi and I were on the road to engagement and marriage and family, but we weren’t there yet. My father died when I was seventeen, and I found Steve’s easy manner and “big brother” vibe immediately appealing. I didn’t have many examples to follow as a teacher or as a man in those days, but I remember leaving his office quite some time later thinking, “Yeah, that’s a guy I could follow.”
And I did.
Growing up near Princeton University, which was in its glory years as a lacrosse superpower in those days, I was a fan of the game, which I never played. Despite that fact, Steve invited me to be his assistant coach for the SKS Boys’ Varsity team, in which the school had invested heavily. That first year, the school brought in three amazing young men from British Columbia to play lacrosse and revitalize the program. Those young men played soccer for me in the fall, were part of the theater program, which I’d taken over that year, and otherwise genuinely distinguished themselves in many ways on campus. It was the school’s signature big move, led by the school’s most popular and dynamic leader, and he chose me to lead them alongside him, for some reason.
When he asked me, I was honored, but confused. I remember saying, “Um, you know I’ve never played lacrosse, right?”
He replied, “Who cares? You’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out. Plus, it means we get to hang out and get paid for it. Plus, I’m going to give you a book.”
He knew I was a book guy, and so in order to get me up to speed, he gave me his personal copy of Bob Scott’s iconic Lacrosse, which I read cover to cover several times. It remains among my treasured volumes. We would later go to several lacrosse conventions together, not to mention winter break camps with the team in Cocoa Beach, Florida as we embraced our mutual love of the game, our teams, and just hanging out together. Over those three all-too-brief years that we shared at SKS, Steve and I traveled to Boston, Philly, and beyond for private school employment conferences, lacrosse events, and more. He taught me to drive “stick shift” on a trip to Boston when he got tired.
“Dude, I have no idea how to drive stick…” I said, “and we’re on the highway?”
“You’re a smart guy, and I’m a good teacher,” he replied, yawning, as we pulled onto the side of the road somewhere in Connecticut and he talked me through the basics of navigating the Headmaster’s Range Rover, which he had donated to the school for official school use. The Rover had served him well in Africa when he was stationed there, and that night, it was tasked with my amateur piloting on the mean streets of I-84.
We made it to Boston alive and the vehicle still worked enough for the ride home. He was, as he’d said, a good teacher.
It has been very difficult for me to think of Steve in the past tense.
He called me about a week before he died and we spoke for hours. He’d been fighting cancer for years and while he’d gotten some good news on one front, he shared with me that another cancer had developed and that his doctors were unsure about the path forward.
It didn’t feel like a goodbye call at the time. I’ve experienced that call before with my father before he died when I was in high school. Steve and I laughed and talked about memories and about our kids and had every bit of the kinds of conversations that we’d always had. We caught up, we talked about the old days, and we talked about what was next. He asked me to keep checking in with his son. I was all too happy to agree to that, and he said how much he was hoping to see me at his son’s wedding next year.
I thought there was going to be more time. We always think that, but I really thought that this time.
I was wrong.
As I reflect on it, that makes the call that he and his wife graced me with so, so much more important to me. I am honored to have been among the people that they wanted to talk to. I walk forward into this less magical world, one in which my friend and mentor no longer walks, far more prepared as a result of our long friendship and his courage, kindness, and grace at the end of his life.
Steve Mandell knew that his time among us was coming to an end, but he continued to do what he always seemed to do: think about how things were going for everyone else. In that last talk, he asked about my son’s high jumping at the state meet. He asked about my eldest daughters’ art and her girl scout gold award was going. He asked about how my youngest daughter was doing in track and with art, and was impressed with how she’d handled some drama at school earlier in the year. That in particular meant a lot.
We talked about the Canadians, and about Shovan, and Cerone, and Baly and Janiak, and about young Parker, who is doing amazing community work in NYC. We talked about what Lily and Adam are doing, and we laughed about moments that we shared with them back in the day. We talked about Bartch, and Quirk, and “Big Tites” and so many other things that only those of us that were there would know, and we laughed.
And we talked about Pat Roy. Steve and I talked of him every time we spoke and I don’t mean only after Pat was tragically killed aboard the USS Cole. Steve and I talked about Pat when he was our student, our player, our coaches captain, and beyond. He was an amazing young person, one of many we had the chance to work with in our days at SKS together and beyond, and Pat and his family were in our thoughts and conversation during that last talk.
I didn’t know it would be the last talk, but having lost my eldest sister when I was just born, my father at seventeen, and others along the way, I’ve always had a sense that one should never leave things unsaid. It’s just a thing about myself that I have learned to accept, so I said it all.
I told him everything he’s meant to me, which is a lot.
I told him that I love him and his family.
I told him a lot of other things that I’m not going to share with you just now, but they were good, and we laughed, and when we hung up, I smiled and laughed for a few minutes.
And then, I lost it, because I knew that that was maybe the last time I would talk to my friend, my mentor, my role model.
I didn’t have anyone in my life to teach me how to be a father, a husband, a leader. I just didn’t at that time, and Steve was that for me. Watching him look at Adam as he jumped off the couch, and the way he cradled him in his arms a year later when Adam took a misstep off the stage while performing in the theater; it was the kind of moment that resonated with me as someone that really wanted to be a good dad, and a good teacher, and a good school leader, and a good husband, none of which I was at that time.
Those years at SKS were challenging, but whenever I wasn’t sure what to do, I went to Steve. And to Beth. They were my role models and I was honored to have Steve as one of my groomsmen in my wedding in 1999.
So, moving forward in that slightly less magical world is a challenge.
But I have a few ideas about how I might approach it:
I think I’m going to honor my friend by trying to approach my life as a parent and my life as an educator, newly returned to the fold in that regard, with Steve Mandell in mind in the following ways:
When I inducted Steve into the SKS Hall of Fame, I called him the “Shaman of Seeing People.” It was a real gift of his, the ability to connect and see where a person was coming from, going, and otherwise all about. I meant it when I said it and it was never more apparent to me than in his last days. He was still thinking of others. He was thinking about his amazing wife, his amazing kids, the legacy he was leaving behind.
But, for some reason, he was also thinking of me.
He was thinking about how I was going to be, navigating a world without him. We didn’t talk all the time, but it always mattered when we did. When we got together, it always mattered. When he’d call in the middle of the day to double check my address, I knew that something cool was coming my way from an auction at the school he was leading, like the Mike Schmidt bobble head that just arrived one day, and the MANDELBAUM shirt that arrived out of nowhere.
As his life was ending, I was among the people he wanted to talk to. I’m honored by that. I think he knew that if I didn’t get that last talk with him, I’d have been grumpy about it, and so yeah, there’s another moment where my friend just got me.
I will miss him.
I miss him already.
But I’ll honor him for all the days until we meet again, if such a thing is a thing, by loving my family every day. I’ll honor him by loving his family every day. I’ll honor him by trying to laugh and have some kind of fun every day.
And, I’ll honor him by doing the actual work of being a father; being a husband; being a teacher; being a leader.
By just being a good human being.
I’ll do the work.
I think that’s how I’ll honor my friend, my mentor, my brother. The Shaman of Seeing People. I’ll honor him by doing the work.
Steve Mandell was the only one that bothered to wonder why I was teaching my class while laying on the floor that day.
He saw something in me when everyone else wanted to pass.
He changed my life and the lives of many others.
I know that I am a far, far better person for having known, learned from, been befriended by, and having been mentored by Steve Mandell.
If I’m anywhere near a tolerable person today, well, Steve’s not the only one you should thank, but he’s really high up there. He’d deflect the praise, as he always did, but he’d know deep down inside that he’d helped.
It’s what he always, always, always endeavored to do.
I’ll try to do that too.
As I finish this, I find his voice inside my head again. It’s not unwelcome and it sounds very much like his voice always has sounded in my head, regardless if we were miles apart or just on the other side of campus.
I feel like he’d say something like, “Don’t worry about me, Kugs. Go be excellent!”
And in that, I hear an echo of everything he ever said to me, which all leads me back to that first real talk that we had in his corner office at SKS, watching Adam jump off the little couch, over and over again. I can still see his smile, and Adam’s too.
I can still remember the way he looked at his son in that moment, and how he looked at the pictures on his desk, of Beth, of Lily and Adam.
As I thought about that office just now, I remembered that if you leaned towards the left and angled the chair in that corner office just right, you could look through that front window and see the playing fields, and the lower crest of the Third Peak of Storm King Mountain.
You could look left and see the gazebo and the admissions building.
You could look straight out and see the Dining Hall and on a clear day, maybe get a sense of the Hudson River in the distance.
But if you pushed the chair back from the desk just right, and leaned a little to the left, you could not only see an amazing kid jumping off a little couch, you could also see a white house with a second story porch, where at that moment, a wife and child were heading out to meet you for dinner in the dining hall.
“Kugs…that’s what it’s all about.”
It was even more true the last time I spoke with him.
Our friends, our mentors, our teachers, our family: they never stop teaching us.
I’ve learned this many times over the years.
They never stop teaching us.
I miss my friend.
I can’t wait to see what he’s going to teach me next.
Until then, I promise to do my best to remember what it’s all about.
I promise to lay as many gigantic eggs as I can, and then stand back and admire them all. Truly.
And I’ll do all the other stuff we talked about too.
God Speed, my friend.
This is part 1 in a series of journals I began keeping in March of 2020, when all this stuff began. It has been interesting to revisit.
March 31, 2020
I hadn’t planned on writing about all this beyond my social media posts and conversations with friends and family, of course with social distancing in place. I really hadn’t, mostly because I don’t presume that my perspective on any of these events will be particularly noteworthy or of interest to anyone.
That said, I am a huge genealogy and family history wonk. I love the stuff. I’ve spent countless hours working on my family tree, and know for a fact, as a result of said obsession (since I was nine) that it is a bit of a family birthright. The men in my family, for at least the last five generations have been wildly obsessed with the same thing: connecting all the dots and finding out who we are as a family and where we all came from.
Trust me, it’s not just me. I’ve renewed my Ancestry membership now that we are stuck at home. My son is quite interested.
That said, and while I love the data, what I miss oftentimes are the stories. I miss the narratives about what life was like. I have some old letters and they shed some light on a few very limited areas, and I have some stories about my ancestors but not nearly enough for my taste. As a writer, I suppose it’s an occupational hazard: I can’t walk away from a story.
For example, I know for a fact that I had family, quite a large contingent of them living in Philadelphia during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I know they were there. I know where they lived. I know who they lived with. But I don’t know who they were and how they faced that crisis, so similar to the one that we are facing now. I don’t know what they were thinking about, scared of, excited by, or anything else. While the evidence suggests none of my ancestors in Philadelphia perished from the Flu Pandemic, I don’t know their stories. For the most part, that part of my history is, like that of many of us, lost to the winds of change and time.
But, apparently, I’m some sort of writer. So, there’s really no reason that I can’t keep some record of what this is all like. This Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be among the most significant events in my children’s lives. At least I hope it is. I’d hate to think about this sort of thing happening every other year for the rest of our lives.
This is going to be a time that everyone remembers. How my children recall it in their advanced years is, of course, something I can’t predict, any more than I can predict how they’ll grow up at all. But I can write about how things are at the moment.
How we all are at the moment.
Who we are in this unique time and place.
Maybe it’ll only matter to my great-great grandson, Robert Allen Kugler the VI, but if that’s even as far as any of these words matter, they’ll have been worth something.
If nothing else, it’s another way for me to put myself on assignment. So, let’s get into it, shall we?
I’m writing today on March 31, 2020. We’ve been on “stay at home” directives since about March 15. The governor of Virginia made it a formal order today, and we are supposed to follow that order until at least June 10.
We’ve all been doing our part to stay at home and keep the virus from spreading, but it’s not the ideal for any of us.
Before this all really started, we had a few family friends over to the house for a small St. Pat’s dinner. None of us hugged or shook hands. Even then we were beginning to socially distance. It was nice and in retrospect, kind of a last hurrah to seeing people other than those who live in our homes.
School was cancelled for the rest of the year not long after, which was a real bummer for all the kids. Boyo and J-Bird and the Bear all connect with their school experience in different ways and for different reasons. Boyo has really taken to the high school track team, earning a varsity letter in the high jump and making it all the way to regionals in winter track. He was excited about the chance to compete in spring, but that’s all cancelled. J-Bird has clubs that she loves and friends she is now missing daily interaction with. Both twins are missing the regular input on their advanced academics. J-Bird, I think is not missing the stress of a few of her classes, like Algebra 2, but the structure for them is a loss.
The Bear is less of a big fan of the “middle school experience,” but has really struggled with the lack of social interaction and the missing of her friends. Like me, she’s an extrovert and has really struggled with having to stay home. Facetime and phone calls help, but there was a recent stretch where, for some reason, she became obsessed with the idea of raising a pair of ducks in both the backyard and her bedroom. I think we’ve moved past that all, but I’m not holding my breath that we’ve heard the last of the quest for ducks. I enlisted my sister last night in an effort to help us move forward, and she was helpful.
The Wife is exclusively working from home now. We moved my old desk from Boyo’s room into the downstairs office space, which I spent last weekend reorganizing and cleaning up so that we could both work here. Whether we can truly share the space is to be determined as I think we are both noisier in our own way than we would like. She’s the breadwinner, so her work is vital.
After eight years, I’ve been furloughed from what I’ve affectionately called my “side hustle,” at Mount Vernon. It’s only two shifts a week, or it was anyway, but it really made a difference in my life and is honestly the job that keeps me sane. I liked making drinks and I miss the people. I had regulars and have been there over eight years. I love Mount Vernon and I’m still dealing with the loss of that place in my life. I wonder if it will ever be the same again. It’s hard to envision what the next normal will be for any of us, but in my heart, I think a place like Mount Vernon, which has existed for hundreds of years will probably find a way to help us all return to some semblance of normal, after all this.
What I wouldn’t give right now for someone to ask me to make a Mojito.
And I hate that drink.
So, we’ve been home. I’ve gone grocery shopping exactly twice so far. Boyo’s Tae Kwon Do studio is doing online classes now and J-Bird’s rock-climbing gym is doing online workouts. Bear’s horse barn is closed up now too and regrettably, there isn’t really a way to do that online. I think I’m going to have to help her get some exercise. Maybe she can lift weights with me tomorrow. I’ve been doing that more, since I have my dad’s fifty-year-old weight set. Maybe I’ll let them try my bike on the indoor trainer.
We’ve taken my 1970 Plymouth Duster out for a few rides to help keep the engine running, even doing a forty-minute Facebook live stream the other day that was fun, but I think those activities are kind of no longer allowed. I’ll keep doing the grocery run and med runs, once a week or maybe we’ll drop to bi-weekly, but I just don’t know.
I started doing “Dad School” with the kids today. Our county is not yet ready for distance learning and they won’t be grading the kids work for the rest of the year anyway. They’ve all had over two weeks where we, since we didn’t know where this was all going, kind of just let them do their own thing. They’ve had all that time to sleep until noon, eat and do whatever they want.
That stopped today.
I got them up at ten this morning, which I thought was still pretty fair, and we did some work. I had them check all their google classrooms and everything else from their teachers and we tried to figure out where they were in their classes. Then, I gave them work; some of it based on what the teachers sent and others I came up with myself. It’ll be two weeks until the school district says they’ll be ready for teachers to start doing online classes and stuff, but I’m getting them ready.
And boy, were they mad at me about it! Somehow, we muddled through and I only had to almost suspend one student. Is that Masters of Education and Principal’s certificate finally paying off? Maybe. Maybe not, but eventually, they seemed to settle into the routine. I only asked them to do about three hours and I fed them, so I think we’re setting up a system that can work. It reminds me of when J-Bird was home following her surgery a few years ago and she used the robot to go to some classes virtually: I didn’t so much care if she got every bit of information, but it was so much more vital that she have something to wake up for and be accountable for. As I think about it now, I wonder if that’s why she sometimes seems a bit more relaxed about all this. She’s done it before.
Maggie the Labrador seems equal parts excited that everyone is home and confused that everyone is home. So, she’s right in her wheelhouse. She’s getting more walks.
Learning today that we are in this form of lockdown for another 60+ days was a gut punch for me today. I don’t mind doing my part and I’ve preached that to the children. We talked a few days ago about Gandalf and Frodo’s exchange in Return of the King.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
It might be time to make the kids watch all those movies. Boyo’s seen them and loves them, but the girls haven’t really. Maybe that’s my own feelings coming up but I think watching Gandalf and some Hobbits fight off the destruction of the world might really be helpful right now. We watched Dunkirk recently and I feel like that added some needed perspective.
So, the short answer is that we are managing, but we are just at the beginning of all this. A friend of mine has already had someone in his life die of this. Heidi’s former Bishop’s wife has died of it. I am not certain that our friend from church didn’t die of this a month ago. And now they are saying that 100,000-200,000 people could die in the USA alone? I’m not great at math in general, but percentages I’m spot on with.
I’m not going to get into the politics of this all right now. It’s exhausting. I hope for the best, regardless.
I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels over the years. It’s a genre that’s fascinated me in large part because it scares me. I’ve read them all: The Passage series, The Road, World War Z, The Ship, the Wool series, Station Eleven, California, all the Hunger Games books, and loads more. I read them because they scared me, and in many ways, that was the fun.
It’s less fun now, although I’m oddly tempted to reread a few of them. Heck, I have a crazy idea about writing one of them myself, based at Mount Vernon. Might be time to storyboard that one.
So, this is largely where we are. I’ll add to this as the story progresses but right now, we are sheltering in place; we are doing our bit to stop the spread; we are grateful for all we have.
We are also occasionally driving one another crazy, but as I reminded the kids earlier today, we do have a hammock in the yard. And a deck. And each other.
We’re all going to be stretched thin by this thing, but we have each other. All the time. That’s a big adjustment in our small house with so many big personalities.
But we will manage.
It’s what we do.
It’s what we’ve always done.
And we will keep doing it tomorrow.
At the moment, it is 57 degrees out as I sit on the couch here in Northern Virginia. It’s lovely out after what I would call a pretty tough and confusing winter.
We had snow.
There was a pandemic.
So, there’s all that.
As I write this, I am in the middle of two different novels, both very different. I have also returned to the classroom, teaching English for real after a twenty-one-year break.
It has been interesting to say the least.
As I continue the work of being a working writer, I occasionally find myself revisiting old projects. Sometimes that can be embarrassing, like the times I come across my first novel The Geography of Home, which has some good chapters, but you will probably never see it. Other times, it’s exciting, like when find the first handwritten words of the book that became The Last Good Day, written in a park on a sunny day in San Francisco.
I get a lot of feels when I come across that first little notebook and the three others that made up that whole novel, handwritten in its entirety.
I don’t write a whole book longhand anymore. It was a lot of work, but when I come across those early pages, I smile and I feel proud of myself, seeing in those early scribbles the beginnings of what has become a pretty satisfying endeavor.
When the Covid-19 pandemic really hit home in March of 2020, I did what I normally do when stuff happens: I wrote about it. I had this thought that I would write about what things were like for us, for posterity, if nothing else, but with a very clear understanding of the fact that writing is what I do when I don’t know what else to do.
It's always been how I make sense of the world when it makes the least amount of sense.
So, I’ve just re-read the 10,000 words that I wrote, beginning in March of 2020. There are several entries written between March and July.
I don’t think they are my greatest writing.
I’m not certain that they are likely to be interesting to anyone.
But, I’m going to share them. Mostly unedited.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting them as the two-year anniversary of their creation approaches.
As I wrote about extensively in An Almost Tolerable Person, I think there is value in looking back.
I think there is value in reflection.
We are living in unprecedented times.
Things are bananas.
I wrote some words about it all as it was just starting out and I’m going to share them with you soon. I hope that they will prove to be of value, but if nothing else, they are a flashbulb moment of a place and time that we all shared.
So, stay tuned, and as always, stay safe and healthy.
And of course, happy reading.
What started off as a bit of a joke in my household when the pandemic first sent everyone home ended up last 523 days. In the end, it made a very big difference in our life.
When all semblance of normalcy went away in March of 2020, and school shut down, my wife's job turned remote and my side hustle went away, we didn't have a lot of structure. We experimented with "Dad School" and other measures, but the daily reality board was often our only way to measure the suddenly slow passage of time.
Overall, we took our turns and we completed 523 boards. They got 5800 likes over the year and a half and 1119 comments.
The ten most liked boards of the series are posted above. I think it's not really a surprise that most of them are by my wife. She didn't generally spend a lot of time on the art, but she always wanted to impart a positive message and a hopeful perspective. She also liked to celebrate things and honor things that were actually happening in our lives. I think that's why her boards resonated.
I think there's something intriguing about that.
We all challenged ourselves every fifth day and it occasionally got competitive. In the end, it was a good thing that I'm glad we did. We still take turns on the same cycle as to who picks the show we watch as a family that night, but for now, the board is back doing what it was designed for: keeping our calendar.
But for a brief but spectacular time, the board was our daily reality, and it was important.
I might put a book together for the kids for the holidays this year: something they can look back on and remember having done. Someone suggested I try to publish it under Four Leaf Publishing, but the rights paperwork alone for all those characters I don't own would be crippling.
It was a good experience that I'm glad we took on. I'd like to think that the worst of the pandemic that inspired it is behind us, but we do still have a few markers that work should we be called upon to serve again.
Thanks for your support. You can check out all of the older drawings in earlier posts. Perhaps I'll post them all in a slideshow someday, but for now, they are all here.
Hope you and yours are well.
These are the photos that I'll be sharing during the inaugural LAST GOOD DAY-LIVE! Event at 7pm, August 15.
Should be fun!
All good things must come to an end...
As of now, the plan is for my family and I to retire our daily "Reality Board" postings on August 23, when the children return to school. That will give us the nice round number of 523 boards over the last year and a half.
What started out as a jokey response to one of my children asking, "what day is it even?" way back in March of 2020 has turned into something that was at times fun, at times a challenge, but always helped provide a little structure to our day.
This grouping here covers boards 431-510.
I hope you've enjoyed them. I'll have more to say when we share the final ones (and of course, the stats on most-liked, etc, once I compile them all) but I'd love to hear from you in the comments about what you've enjoyed from the series!
More to come as the project wraps up!
After starting my author career and business as a participant in Amazon's Exclusive Kindle Select Program, I have made the decision to take the Avery & Angela series of books "wide."
What that means is that they are no longer part of the Kindle Unlimited program, although if you've downloaded any of the books in the past as a KU member, they'll remain available there.
What that means is that the eBooks of the series will now no longer be exclusive to Amazon, but available everywhere books are sold, including most notably APPLE BOOKS, BARNES & NOBLE, and KOBO, to name a few. The eBooks will also available to your library system, should you have interest in seeking them out in that manner. The paperbacks and eBooks will of course, still be available on AMAZON as well.
UPDATE: The series books are now also available on GOOGLE PLAY! (It took a little longer for them to approve them.)
In addition, THE LAST GOOD DAY is now, and forever, FREE on all available channels. The hope is that people will check out book one, love it and the series, and stick around for the other three series books.
That's the plan anyway, so please, enjoy your free book, share it with your friends and family with impunity, and as always, HAPPY READING!
Today marks day #432 of our daily Reality Board whiteboard series. If you're new here, my family and I have been taking turns using my whiteboard calendar to share a little artwork and a little dose of reality. For example, what day is it!?
I used to use the board for managing our monthly schedules, but haven't had much need for that during a global pandemic.
That said, I have begun thinking about how long we're going to keep going with the project. It's been a long run so far and by all accounts, the kids will be returning to in-person school in the fall and our schedules will likely grow increasingly complex, again.
Looking ahead, if we go all the way up to the first day of school, that would be Board #523. That's not quite as round a number as I'd like to wrap this all up with, but we're beginning to think about such things.
Regardless, here are the boards from the last two months, March 15-May 24. Which ones are your favorites?
Also, if you have requests, send them along anytime!
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