Welcome aboard. Get comfortable. Let the time pass without watching the clock. Set sail, let the wind drive your course.

We delight in those we meet along the way

Friday, January 18, 2013

On the Merits of a Midlife Crisis

Wives are often the first to notice the telltale signs of someone in the throes of a midlife crisis. The process often begins with the little noticed differences in affect, the not-so-obvious cries for help expressed in weird unseemly behavior which can no longer be written off as simply quirky or eccentric. Often times it is the wife who is the first to hear the deeply repressed cries for help, the almost child-like calls for attention that often accompany a full-blown outbreak of the affliction.  I must admit here, my wife Kay would be one of the first to notice such things. She’s more observant than most.  But even so, before long, it’s difficult to keep others out of the fray.  Things start to become more noticeable.  They did for her.
At first, others look askance long before they start to raise eyebrows or shyly begin to inquire.  Their questions often start out with well-intended timidity:   “Say, have you noticed that…?  Or I’m only asking you because I care deeply.” I remember asking myself these same questions at a certain point.

Some guys come home with the keys to a brand-new vanity car.  Others start changing up their wardrobe, getting their hair cut slightly differently to hide the receding hairline, obscure the increasing shades of white and grey.  Still others take to drinking, or exhibit a sudden rise in libido that marks a heretofore-inhibited interest in other women.  Spouses all have different reactions. Some understand, and are more than willing to simply shrug off the sudden lapses in judgment with a laugh, and write off the reckless flights of fancy.  Others bolt. 
I guess I’m not sure if you know you’re in the middle of a midlife crisis precisely when you are—who’s to say?  For some, it makes absolute sense to drive a sporty 2-seater after years of schlepping around now-grown children in a mini-van.  Nothing amiss in that. Sometimes there’s a precipitating event—with guys this often involves the prostate or some other health-induced cautionary flag, after a series of similarly humility-raising medical tests or procedures. 

I remember when my crisis first began.  It was about 15 years ago.  I can remember it almost exactly to the day.  If a dozen others had witnessed the incident that Kay did, they would have started asking more questions.  It was on a Sunday morning in the middle of March, the 13th of March as it turned out, to be exact.  I asked Kay if I could take our 7 year old son Will down to a service at a neighborhood church in the middle of Detroit.  She scarcely raised a concern.  In the years since, there have been countless other signs pointing to the fact that something wasn’t quite right. 
But more recently, my behavior became more pronounced, the potential cause for alarm clearly on the ascent.  I came home one day after a week on the road and suggested that we get rid of half of our possessions, toss them, or give them away, since we no longer found much use for most of them.  After doing so, I suggested we sell our home, yes; the one we built over 20 years ago on the most perfect plot of land in the middle of the most perfect Midwestern college town.  In the kind of neighborhood anyone of middle age and middle income dreams of driving through in a Volvo or Subaru wagon or SUV dropping off various kids in carpool. Yes, the house with the kitchen wall that could never be painted because it was etched with the heights of each of our two boys from the year they turned 2 until the year they headed off to high school.  Yes, the house we built in Ann Arbor, my perfect dream location after college, right down the street from the most perfect down-to-earth country club where much like the bar in Cheers years ago, “everyone knows our name.” Yes, that house. 

More to the point, after selling said house, I suggested we leave the idyllic splendor of our quiet suburban neighborhood, filled as it was to capacity with fun-loving and similarly situated friends and family.  Get rid of that house, and all the safe, comfortable serenity that accompanied it.  Yes, that life and all the stuff inside. I suggested we pick up and move.
Yes, I could justify asking her to do this.  After all, just months earlier, I had just taken a new job with a company that allowed me the latitude of a number of different possibilities for re-location.  The new company was based in San Diego California, so there was that.  Or Fort Worth Texas, or Chicago, or Cincinnati, or Boston or Atlanta, any number of these places having offices where my newfound work colleagues already resided.  Yes, any of these choices represented realistic options.

But instead of proposing any of these as my first choice, now that our boys were grown and on their own, more or less, and we really didn’t need to stick around town for any particular reason other than that we were comfortable and happy, and didn’t need to live here to attend all the home football games in the Big House, I went down an entirely different path. 
No instead, I asked her to move to downtown Detroit. 

Yes, the city that I grew up in for the first decade of my life, for sure, but that bore little resemblance to the heterogeneous hodgepodge of ethnic enclaves I remember vividly from my childhood.  The city that had lost nearly a quarter of its entire population in the past decade.  Yes, that city.  The one that was still known by many as the murder capital of the world, even though larger and more populous cities had statistically edged ahead of it in that particular performance category.  Yes, that city.  The one that currently graduates less than a quarter of its students from high school, unless they’re incarcerated for a capital crime, in which case their chances for graduating rise substantially.
Yes, the city that on the brink of fiscal receivership deposed its mayor in a sex scandal only to learn that he’d also been under surveillance by the police for extortion, money laundering and employing his father simultaneously as political mentor and bagman. Yes, the same city that simultaneously uncovered corruption in its Police force and accepted the resignation of its Chief of Police because of a sex scandal with a woman on the force, who in turn had succeeded a Chief of Police who had been deposed by a sex scandal with the same woman employed on the same Police force, not terribly long after learning that the force itself, had corrupted most of its own DNA and forensic evidence for much of its incarcerated population. 

Yes, that Detroit.   
Okay, so here’s the kicker.  Within days I had mapped out a half dozen different possibilities after extensive research.  (I’m not arguing that it wasn’t an unusual decision on my part, just suggesting it was well-thought). Then Kay got into a car with me the next weekend.  We drove down to Detroit. And just like she did 26 years earlier, when I first approached her on bended knee (I could do that back then) at our favorite restaurant in Roanoke Virginia, Alexander’s, arriving ring in hand and asked her to marry me, Kay said YES, emphatically so!  Let’s do it. 

Let’s sell our home in Ann Arbor and move to Detroit. 
So, after all this, here we are now. In midtown Detroit in a loft formerly home to the accounts payable department of a Good House Keeping small appliance store.  It overlooks the public library with the world’s largest archive of automotive repair manuals, across from the empty parking lot once home to the largest retail department store in the world, several blocks from the global headquarters of the world’s once largest automotive company in the world next to another empty parking lot currently under construction, and across the street from Woodward Avenue.

Woodward, the granddaddy of all downtown shopping boulevards in its hey-day, and now hey-what-its endlessly interesting amalgam of wig stores, blighted abandoned buildings, reclaimed residences, and crumbling cornices.  It’s where we can spend 75 cents to take the People Mover over to the restaurants in Greektown, or spend $5 walking there after paying homage to the area’s frequent pan-handlers, grifters, destitute prostitutes and drifters.   
And so I guess the obvious question then is this:  Whose midlife crisis is this anyway? I’m thinking it’s anyone’s guess at this point.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

In Loving memory of Len Heinle, A Special Spartan

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Len Heinle, Susan's beloved cousin and our "Uncle Leonard," passed away quietly after suffering a severe stroke earlier in the week.  Len was a brilliant man, who graduated from Michigan State with honors at the age of 20 and went on to distinguish himself in his career at Ford Motor Company as a vice president in the credit division.

But most memorable will be Len's infectious laugh, his devotion to a good time, his provocative sense of humor, his interest and willingness to prod others to a retort, and his generous affable spirit.  Susan and I visited with him on Thursday, and after teasing Susan about maintaining her status as his favorite cousin, he was quick to remember his beloved Spartans.  When told that Dan had sent him a Sparty Beer Glass, he laughed, and said, "That Dan!"  How prophetic those turned out to be his last words to us.  Shortly after visiting with his son Biff, who had driven in from DC, he lapsed into repose from whence he began his final transition.

Watching my dad Geno, Father Bill and Len share their September birthdays together was a sight to behold.  The 3 of them all knew with the benefit of humor and age just how to needle each other perfectly.  Will we ever see a more hilarious scene than Bill and Len discussing politics-- Bill the liberation theologist priest, and Len, the free market Reaganite?  Bill, we will have to count on you and you alone now to carry the torch of free and unfettered speech. 

Len left in a flash this week, after time visiting with his children for Thanksgiving.  We've been blessed and spoiled to have him around for party's, dinners and family gatherings these past few years after Joanie and Geno were gone.  

I suspect Len would expect the spirited back and forth to continue flowing like well-made Manhattans.  Wearing his favorite tie, the one with the dogs playing poker, and his MSU fighting hat, I can see him still in the background raising his glass and howling, "Sparty on!"

He was loved and will be missed dearly. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thankful beyond words


Before you get offended that you weren’t one of the friends or family members included in the photos above, be thankful.  The most recent picture of you that was handy was not one you’d be happy I shared with others. 

In fact, get ready for a chorus of other things we can agree upon for which to be thankful. I am thankful for many things this year

… for the blessings of another year of wellness and good health; of dear friends and family
… for coming so close in the World Series that I could taste it outside my doorstep (literally)
… that the Wolverines are finishing their regular schedule next week with a reasonably good season
… that Michigan is finishing with a season that’s markedly less disappointing than Michigan State
… that this Michigan team has at least a reasonable shot at beating Ohio State (more on Monday)
… that the Wolverines were the ones cheering at the end of the Northwestern game this year
… that I didn’t require cardiac care after that game

Thankful we go home daily to a warm home with plenty of food, and all our reasonable material needs adequately addressed.  Thankful for a whole host of cool eateries in the D where we get to meet up with long lost friends, and new ones, without the prospect of dirty dishes afterwards.  Thankful we can look forward to many more of you calling or texting last minute to connect with us in the D for a drink or meal, which has been absolutely fantastic already (text us for dinner in the D@ 248.921.9153).

Thankful for having my wife Kay in the same city after three years of living in a foreign country (Columbus Ohio).  Thankful we’re now in the same building working together, and thankful she gets behind the wheel most days on the way home which ensures our safe arrival at our new place.  Thankful our boys are both doing well—that they are not only striving in college, but thriving in their own interesting and independent lives.  Thankful our parents, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends and all their kids are each doing pretty well. 

We’ve lost a few good souls to cancer so far this year— and a few who are fighting and as yet spared.  Thankful those passed are in a better place and that their suffering is over, and their memory and good deeds will most assuredly live well past them.

Thankful for an exciting election season, and even more thankful that’s its over for the next few weeks.  Thankful that Colbert and Stewart keep us engaged on topics of national interest, and that Saturday Night Live still manages to have at least one good skit each week, thankful that the evening news provides enough additional material to cover any gaps.    

Thankful that we occupy a loft in Detroit which daily reminds us that we live more abundantly than most of those around us, and if we look beyond our neighborhood, our community, our state, our country, our hemisphere and beyond—no matter the geography, this still holds largely true.  And when you consider we are ultimately neighbors with almost 5 billion others on this planet, that’s a pretty bold claim for which I’m thankful.

Thankful that the movie season has started out so strong with Argo, Searching for Sugarman (in our own backyard in Detroit) and Lincoln.  Thankful that we got to hear Sixto Rodriguez live (see above). His guitar and singing artistry remind us that we all have the capacity to be rich in spirit, if not in material wealth.  And thankful that Hudson On Hyde and a host of other big films are yet to follow in short order.

I am thankful I got to see great friends in DC last week, who in turn reminded me that I have so many long-standing friends in many places where work takes me.  I am thankful that the work we do at ed2go actually makes a difference to others.  I am thankful that ed2go “our little e-learning engine that could” has launched a career online high school that is lifting up adult learners who’ve not had the chance to benefit from a high school diploma previously.  And I’m thankful for Howard (see above) and the team with whom we work who remind me daily that we can do well by doing some good first, and have the amazing talent to make it look easy, even when it most assuredly is not. 

Friends always laugh at all the interesting people I meet on the road, and my last trip was no exception.  I had the good fortune to run into our esteemed US congressman, John Dingell, on the way home from Washington DC last week.  He was waiting to board our flight when I struck up a conversation with him.  He asked me how are you?  “My wife and I just moved to Detroit and we’re loving it!” and you?

John said, “I’m thankful I woke up smiling again today, and get to do the people’s work.”  No small feat wearing the shoes he’s worn in the House for almost 57 years.

Kay and I went shopping the next day in the D, and were thankful more shops are moving downtown for the holidays, and helping the revitalization efforts inch along.  At the same time, I’m thankful to be celebrating a holiday that doesn’t require any gifts, and will have a parade, which I can watch outside my living room and bedroom windows, and won’t require me to dress up, and will just be about food, friends and family.

When we got together with friends later that day, we found ourselves debating John Dingell’s actual age ad nauseum until we googled the answer:  John Dingell is 86, and in June will be the longest-standing member of the US House in American history.  Thankful for the reminder that there’s still a lot more to be done, which we can get started doing, god willing, if we all set the same pace as John, on two good legs still standing doing a whole lot more still smiling.

Happy thanksgiving,


P.S. I’m thankful you can receive this message in good cheer from an iPhone, Blackberry, PC, Facebook, or elsewhere and you still don’t need a Groupon or “single sign on” to download the content.

             Dr. Howard Liebman inspires us to do well by doing some good.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Wedding of Troy and Rae Ann

The Wedding Ceremony of Troy Matthew Anderson and Rae Ann Gulley

·      Seating of parents and special guests commences
·      Bridal Party entrance via series of carriages
·      Carriage Entrance of Bride

Josh Radin music commences, “You are my First, my Last, my Everything”
As music is completed, guests all seated; Ron steps forward and begins invocation and welcome.  


Dearly beloved friends and family of Troy and Rae, we are gathered on this magnificent day to bear witness to one of life’s most abundant covenants, as these two young souls, Rae and Troy make their pledge of love and honor to each other in the act of sacred matrimony.  

Let us rejoice, and be glad and get comfortable.  Be it known that Troy and Rae wanted you here to experience their joy and fun together.  And on their own terms.  Everything – every considerable detail of this day—has been given special thought by Rae and Troy.  They chose this special site, and invited us all here to share this moment in accordance with their shared faith and convictions.

Let us celebrate this union of great minds, loving hearts and tender souls and wish them great joy.  As we gather together, we might ask ourselves:  Why on this particular place?  And Why at this particular time?  Have these two young souls decided to join as one?  Important questions.

In answer to this first question – Why on this place?—the answer unfolds in this incredible mountain setting here at Brush Canyon Ranch. I can’t describe the beauty of this place as aptly as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, so I invoke his description of what we find in nature:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.  It will flame out, like
Shining from shook foil.  It gathers to a Greatness like the ooze of oil crushed.

The Poet continues on: 

And yet for all this, Nature is never spent.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
And though the last lights off the black West wing went
Oh Morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world
Broods with Warm Breast and with ah! Bright Wings.

In a glorious setting like this, where ever two or more are gathered in the name of love, the presence of God abides in them. Troy and Rae are both possessed of a fine and formative faith. And while this faith might not be described by any stretch as traditional—witness for example who they’ve chosen up here to officiate—their faith remains a formidable force with which to reckon this world of ours.

Why do I make this claim? Because very early on in their courtship, I found myself on the sidelines bearing witness to their budding friendship and relationship.  What I found most tender and evocative about Rae and Troy was that after their first serendipitous and whirlwind romantic encounter, they chose to wait willfully another six weeks before they bridged the long distance between them—Troy in Michigan and Rae in Colorado.  During that hiatus, they communicated constantly.  And let’s be clear—with all the flurry of multi-media accoutrement, they found ample ways to do this—they texted, they talked on the phone, they skyped and they emailed.  They even wrote each other handwritten letters, sent cards and packages to each other, and composed free verse and poetry.  You can just imagine all the myriad ways they shared their thoughts, and hopes, their interests, views and dreams daily and so abundantly for over a month before they saw each other a second time.  How abundantly you might ask?  Well, as it turns out, Troy packaged all his correspondence for Rae this Valentine’s Day, and in 9 pt type it turned out to be 298 pages long.  As someone who is entranced by the written word, I have to say, what a fantastic way to begin sharing themselves with each other, and what a firm foundation upon which to build their marriage. 

I find this such a quaint and powerful statement about Troy and Rae, forging a relationship that except for the technology toys is as old-fashioned and time honored as great romances are.  When they were re-united a month later, it is no surprise they still had so much more to say to each other.  And so it has been from that day forth. For those who know Troy, and the daily communication he enjoys with his mother, Susan, this comes as no revelation.  But we also know that young men, who honor their mothers, exalt their wives in marriage.  And for those who know Rae, someone so connected to her grand and abundant family, this also makes so much sense.  Rae’s love of family makes a strong statement about how she intends to abide her life with Troy.   

As it turns out, Troy and Rae are here at this particular place and time to celebrate what these influences have meant to them.  Poetically, on April 2th of this year, Rae’s parents Ken and Tina celebrated 30 years of marriage.  This past week, on July 21st, Troy’s parents Larry and Susan celebrated 40 years of marriage.  And on September 12th, Thelma and Ben, Rae’s grandparents, will celebrate the splendor of 60 years of marriage.  Against the backdrop of these fine witnesses, a strong case can be made for why Troy and Rae decided it is now time they too should be wed.


As we reflect on Troy and Rae joining together, I want to invoke two special people to come up here on their behalf to share their thoughts.  First, Troy’s dear friend Maxwell Dunlop will share his reflections on this special couple.

Maxwell’s reading delivered  From The Velveteen Rabbit (on Being Real)

Thank you Maxwell.  And now, I ask Rae’s Aunt Cindy to come forward to share her special reflections.

Cindy’s reflection delivered  from Nora Ephron, The Notebook, and selected verses

Thank you Cindy.  Now, my dear friends and family let us commence.  Please rise as Troy and Rae come forward together.


Troy and Rae, I ask you to come forward and clearly and confidently state your intentions. 
Do you both willingly come forward to pledge your love and trust to one another? Know and understand this covenant of marriage is not to be entered into lightly, but thoughtfully and seriously, with a broad smile and the deep realization of all its obligations, joys and responsibilities. 

So then Troy, please look upon Rae.  Do you, Troy Matthew Anderson take this woman, Rae Ann Gulley, to be your wife?  To have and to hold, from this day forward, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, for richer or poorer, forsaking all others, and keeping yourself only unto her for as long as you both shall live.  If so, please say, I DO.

So then Rae Ann, please look upon Troy.  Do you, Rae Ann Gulley take this man, Troy Matthew Anderson, to be your husband? To have and to hold, from this day forward, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, for richer or poorer, forsaking all others, and keeping yourself only unto him for as long as you both shall live.  If so, please say, I DO.


The bond you share Troy and Rae is a blessing from above and a miracle witnessed by those of faith.  Nurture it daily, treasure it always and proclaim it widely in all that you do. And now please look again unto each other, take each other’s hands.  

Ron guides Troy and then Rae through the recitation of their vows.

Troy, Please repeat after me: I, Troy Matthew Anderson, take thee, RaeAnn Gulley to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better or worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love, cherish and honor all the days of my life.

Rae Ann, Please repeat after me: I, Rae Ann Gulley, take thee, Troy Matthew Anderson to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better or worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love, cherish and honor all the days of my life.


As a testament of your love and lasting devotion to each other, the giving of rings is an eternal sign of your trust and covenant without beginning or end.  I now ask you to share with each other your rings.
Troy, “Rae, with this ring, I thee wed.”
Rae, “Troy, with this ring, I thee wed.”


I appeal to you both, Troy and Rae, as you go forth, not to conform to the world, but to be transformed by renewing your minds; Let your love be genuine.  Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual and lasting affection.  Outdo each other in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in faith.  Contribute to those in need, extend hospitality to strangers, and special kindness to all God’s creatures.  Bless those who trouble you, and avoid cursing them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Do not be haughty but commune with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay evil for evil, but take note of what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, look to each other every day putting forth your best intentions to live in harmony and peace. 

And with this pronouncement, by the power vested in me in kinship with these two special souls, and by the authority of the state of Colorado, I am truly excited to pronounce these two beautiful people, husband and wife. 

Troy, I believe it is time for you to smile wide and kiss your bride! Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce for the first time, Mister and Mrs. Troy and Rae Anderson? 
As Mr. and Mrs. Anderson make their way around the setting via carriage, you can linger here for a bit to take in the music and the moment, to take pictures of their carriage procession, and then we will all head over and gather at the reception area for dinner and celebrating.
.           .           .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .


I ask each of you to stand and join with me in prayer.   Troy and Ray wanted to start this evening's festivities with a moment of prayerful thanks.  As we gather this day with Troy and Rae, let us be mindful of our many gifts, and the many blessings bestowed on us this day-- the opportunity to bear witness to the love of these two people, the ample laughter and joy of those gathered here, the raucous laughs and cries of all the children with us today.  Let us offer thanks, and bestow our blessings upon this wonderful wedding couple, as we pray together:

For sumptuous food and splendid roast,
For the invitation from our gracious hosts
For Rae Ann whom Troy loves the most,
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost

Amen and Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A new adventure in lifelong learning

From: Risse, Brian

Good Morning Public Library Sales,

This morning I would like to announce that Ron Stefanski has accepted the position of Executive Director of Sales and Business Development with Ed2Go.  He will be starting in this exciting new role on Monday, July 9th.   While I am saddened to see Ron leave the Public Library organization, I know that he leaves having contributed a great deal to our resurgence.   His commitment to his customers and supporting the larger sales organization played a large role in very solid public library year and the SAM program achieving and exceeding plan.  Most importantly, he  played an even more significant role in insuring  that we are poised to continue down this successful path for years to come.  I want to sincerely thank Ron for all his effort and success with our team, and I wish him nothing but the best in his new role with Ed2Go.

Best Regards,

Brian Risse
Vice President - National Sales Manager, Public Libraries
Cengage Learning | Gale

From:  Ron Stefanski

Yes, as it turns out, the next adventure in lifelong learning is me!  After 8 years at Gale Cengage Learning working with public libraries, I have been recruited to take on a new assignment as executive director for Ed2go, another Cengage Learning company.

This compelling lifelong e-learning solution has become a mainstay for over 2,000 community college, workforce development and continuing education partners across North America. And thanks to the enthusiastic support of so many public libraries, my new assignment will include supporting our ongoing efforts to bring lifelong e-learning solutions to library partners. 

Thanks to John Szabo and his team, the tremendous success of the eCampus initiative at Atlanta Fulton, fueled by Ed2go and other Cengage Learning products makes clear that there are tremendous opportunities ahead to continue building our educational e-solutions for customers across multiple markets.

I am excited that my new role means I can expand my own professional development and lifelong learning goals without leaving Cengage Learning or public libraries behind, both of which have contributed so much to my professional development this past decade. A shout out to all of my treasured colleagues in public libraries, without whom my education and adventures wouldn’t be nearly as complete. Let's continue the march to make a difference in communities, transforming learning and lives.

Paz y Amor!


Ron J. Stefanski
Executive Director, Sales and Business Development
Cengage Learning
27500 Drake Road, Farmington Hills, MI  48331

(o) 1.800.877.4253 x8298 | (m) 248.921.9153  | (f) 248.699.8043  | ron.stefanski@cengage.com | www.gale.cengage.com

Currently reading The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler, just completed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Making Me a More Courteous Reader: A Lesson in Library Redemption

Making me a More Courteous Reader: A Lesson in Library Redemption

As someone who grew up Catholic, in an ethnic neighborhood dominated by Catholics, in a school populated almost exclusively with Catholics and run by men and women in religious orders, I became well schooled in tales of religious redemption.  Akin to this experience, it shouldn't come as any surprise that whenever I think about urban libraries from this same perspective, I identify much of what I experienced in them as the ultimate lesson in urban redemption.

It didn't start out this way.  But as a kid, I associated our public library with two things that were seemingly unrelated but equally significant to me.  One was perfect penmanship and the other, chocolate.

Now, at first glance, this may not add up.  But when I was a kid growing up in an enclave of recent immigrants from Poland and Italy on the East side of Detroit in the late 60's, among multiple generations of my large extended family, strong penmanship was clearly a precursor to the good life.  Why?  Because the nuns who taught me and my siblings at Holy Name of Jesus Elementary School said so. (I'll get to how chocolate figures into this in a minute).

Minimally, good penmanship could spare you a lot of grief up to and including a serious slap on the wrist with a yardstick or pointer.  But it could also curry favor with the nuns and get you special out-of-class opt-out assignments. Good penmanship put you in good standing in the hierarchy of grade school at Holy Name Elementary.  The Vatican may have had Papal Infallibility, but it was really the nuns who ran the tight ship of state that constituted parochial school in those days.  And if they weren't infallible, the nuns certainly made clear they were The Law.  They brought draconian discipline to three things when I was a kid—perfect penmanship was the first.  The other two were reading, and multiplication tables. 

With the U.S. military, we are often treated in movies to scenes of sergeants asking new scribes in formation to drop and give them 50 push-ups.  In much the same way, at any point in the life of a Catholic elementary school student, you could be asked to get in line, move into perfect formation, boys on the right, girls on the left. Walking quietly, hands at your sides, you could be spotted whispering to a colleague one minute.  In the next instant, regular as a heartbeat, you'd be stopped suddenly and asked by some vigilant nun what 7x9 was. 

Or once you were in your seat back in class, the nuns might ask you to rise, walk to the front of the room and write the alphabet in cursive on the chalk board. Sister Marie Blanche, my fourth grade English teacher, insisted that the consequences of not forming good letters were just as clear—all we had to do was check out the public school kids down the road.  According to her, juvenile delinquency and prison were two possibilities.  So I guess we might reasonably conclude if we weren't going to display to future employers that we were bright, smart, hard-working, honest and industrious, at least we could assure them through our strong penmanship that we were neat, orderly and law-abiding, as evidenced by our impeccable handwriting. Sister Blanche also made sure we were always carrying something to read with us where ever we went.

"Children, whenever you have 4 or 5 minutes of idle time, please remember that wasting it is a sin against God.  After all, you can always be practicing your multiplication tables in your head, and if you have a book, you can always find something to read."

Over the years, demonstrating competency in any of these arenas—reading, multiplication or perfect penmanship still continues to inspire a tremendous sense of child-like pride.  Even as a writer using a word processor for the past three decades, I still take amazing satisfaction whenever I write out a personal letter or card to someone, clear that my expressions of support or congratulations are far superior when penned in person.

As for reading, thinking back to my childhood in our small bungalow at 7590 Tappan Street, there were few books lying around the house.  We weren't exactly poor, and my mother often read to us, but there were other sources for books that didn't cost money.  Right after the Race Riots in Detroit in 1967, the Detroit Public Library expanded its book mobile program in our neighborhood.  So every other Saturday a book mobile parked itself in the church parking lot off Van Dyke at Holy Name. My mom subsequently sent my brother Raymond and me down there to check out books.

I’ve had this conversation with my long-time friend, Juliet Machie at Detroit Public Library over the years.  She never tires of hearing it.  If the nuns taught us to pursue reading with ruthless and unwavering discipline, it was the book mobile librarian from Detroit Public Library that actually inspired a love and excitement for reading. As we soon learned, we could check out any book we wanted.  No restrictions, except we had to return it in two weeks before we were allowed to check out another.  We were given a library card, and the equally important responsibility of bringing it with us when we checked out our books.  How fun.  How liberating.  How exciting.

So one day I was in the book mobile looking for something that might peak my interest.  My previous pick was a bust.  It was a bit beyond me, truth be told.  We had watched the movie A Night to Remember directed by Roy Ward Baker at home with my parents. I was mesmerized by the story of the Titanic, and wanted to check out the book by Walter Lord.  A copy of it wasn't on hand in the book mobile, so the librarian asked me to fill out a hold request slip.  In the back of my mind, I heard Sister Blanche admonish me to print slowly and neatly.  Perfect penmanship had appeared once more.

                                                            File source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A_Night_to_Remember_(film_poster).jpg

On my next visit, the book awaited me, and I left so excited, the anticipation building on the near mile walk home. But it turned out to be a huge disappointment. The book had few pictures, and I lost my way in the rest of the narrative, and gave up trying to finish it shortly afterwards.

For my next selection, I decided to ask the librarian for help in picking out something more suitable.  Happy to oblige, I can't remember exactly what she asked me.  However, I do have a vivid recollection of what she handed me:  A copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
                                                          File source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charlie_and_the_Chocolate_Factory_(book_cover).jpg

To this day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still stands out among the best books I've ever read.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory transported me to another world, much like the Harry Potter franchise does for many young readers today.   

Imagine living in a small home with your grandparents, who once worked in a factory, and walking past their plant en route to school every day.  Hmm.  This was a picture all too familiar to me.  It wasn't much different than the trek we made to Holy Name Elementary each day with the stacks from Chrysler's Lynch Road Assembly Plant where my grandparents both worked billowing huge clouds of dark industrial smoke in the background. 

Once transported inside Willy Wonka's factory, I still remember Charlie, slightly hungry after a Spartan meal of watery cabbage soup, walking past the chocolate factory and literally drinking in huge breaths of the most wonderful chocolate aroma in the entire world, gulps of that smell sating his young and voracious appetite.

It is not hard to imagine a harsh and punishing world redeemed by the virtues of an endless stream of chocolate.  From there, the world of reading expanded for me.  I went on to read other Roald Dahl stories, and by the time I left our old neighborhood a decade later, and became the first generation in my family to go off to college, my love of reading translated directly into my chosen major in English literature, and my career choice.  Right after graduation, I went to work in the educational publishing industry.

But as I grew older, not surprisingly my reading tastes changed.  What I didn't realize until recently however, was how, in fact, my reading habits actually changed significantly too, as my life took me away from the library. 

I suppose I'm not unlike a lot of people for whom the library was absolutely central growing up, but faded in importance after college.  Much of that, I suspect, is economic.  As our means improve, convenience trumps the abundance of selection that initially has us spellbound at the doorstep of our first encounters at the library.  We get comfortable wanting exactly what we want when we want it.  It's easier to go to Barnes and Noble or Amazon online, than to wait several weeks for a popular bestseller on the holds list at the local library. 

What further complicated my reading habits though, was working in marketing for Border Books and Music in the mid 90's. In that role, books were as bountiful for me as chocolate was to Charlie.

Publisher's sent me endless samples, signed copies and galleys.  In addition, authors also came out to promote their books.  While meeting them in person often enhanced the experience, it also complicated things.  I remember pulling an all-nighter on one occasion to finish a galley.  Ann Patchett was coming to town from Nashville, and we had events lined up for her latest book, The Magician's Assistant. My wife and I also hosted a book club discussion at our home for Ann.

After reading her earlier book, The Patron Saint of Liars, I was super motivated to read her newest work. However in my marketing role, it wasn’t always possible to share the same enthusiasm for every author that crossed my desk.  That didn’t stop the galleys and signed editions from arriving.

Soon enough, I found my reading habits diverging wildly from my wife Kay's.  Whereas she would finish every book she started, even those that proved to be disappointing, my reading attention span plummeted.  If a book didn't grab my attention immediately, I moved on. If I made it to a certain point and the story sputtered, I moved on.  Again, so many books, so little time.

Kay found this practice a bit stunning. At one point, we went to our couple’s book club one month, and as the discussion got underway, I expounded at length on the book we had selected.  Others agreed with my perspective.  But Kay, in complete exasperation, looked at me and said, "How do you know that's true?  You never even finished the book!"

Everyone broke out laughing.  Clearly, I wasn't at a loss to talk about books.  But the sad hollow truth was I hadn't actually read many of them, so the experience was somewhat lacking.

Last fall, this odd self-limiting behavior ultimately began correcting itself.  I'm not suggesting it's horrendous to talk about books you haven't read.  That's been the job of booksellers since I first became one in 1982. It's only missing something if your own experience with stories is cultivated entirely through the collective views of others, and not shaped by your own immersion into the experience of reading it yourself. 

Sometime last August, Kay and I decided to attend the Celebration of Learning Event at the Columbus Metropolitan Library at the invitation of the Executive Director, my friend Pat Losinski.  The featured author was Isabel Wilkerson, a New York Times correspondent who had recently published her first book on the African American migration entitled, The Warmth of Other Suns.

As had become my habit, I went to research the author enough to "pass" in any conversation at the event. However, when I discovered the book was almost 800 pages, I decided to check it out at my local library. 

A funny thing happened on the way to the Ann Arbor District Library.  Although I've been working with libraries for over a decade, I had to admit to Josie Parker, the library director, that this was the first time in what seemed like forever that I actually checked out a book. OMG!  It's so much easier than I remember it.  I can type in my email address online, get into my account, place a hold and ask them to send it to the branch of my choice.  Ann Arbor has a branch right around the corner from my Kroger store, so I can pick up and drop off books on my way to grocery shopping. But something far more profound happened on the way to getting my book from the library. 

I actually finished The Warmth of Other Suns from cover to cover.  More to the point, I was so entranced by Isabel's account of African American life in the Jim Crow south, that once I finished it, I found her website online and wrote her a fan letter.  A week or so later, Isabel friended me on Facebook, and we began corresponding regularly.  For months after reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I talked and posted about the book constantly, and how I loved Ida May Gladney, Bob Foster and George Starling, the three characters whose family odyssey shape the narrative. During a visit to the New York Public Library, I even started talking with my cab driver about the book.

At one point, the driver stopped the car and asked me to write down the title and the author, so he could buy it for his grandchildren.  At the same time, he started telling me about his grandfather, whom he had met only once in his life, a farmer who lived in the Deep South in rural Alabama.  He said, he always wondered if something had driven his mother and grandfather apart, because she never took him south to visit his grandfather, even for his funeral.  As it turned out, his mother told finally confessed, “I brought you up north so I could raise you to be a stand-up guy who could think, and speak and fend for yourself.  And if you acted like that where your grandpa lived, you’d be killed for it.”

I sat there writing out the title and author of the book in stunned silence.  

The experience with Warmth of Other Suns has turned out to be so personal in so many ways.  Something more profound happens when you get your books from someone at the library. First of all, you connect with the person who recommended it, and in some cases, to others who are part of the story.  Isabel Wilkerson has linked me with my common past, and all those who migrated to big cities like Detroit. Ultimately, reading reminds us we have but each other and our stories to share.
Sari Feldman, director of the Cuyahoga County Public library recently suggested that in order to promote reading in her community, she asked staff to share what they were reading as part of their email signatures.  I started doing this, and the response has been incredible.  People have begun asking me about the books I’m reading.  Some responses even show up with an addendum about some favorite recent pick.  Kim Fender, executive director at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County recently recommended In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson after finding out how much we both enjoyed Devil in the White City. 
So I guess my selections are formed by better intelligence now—rather than choosing from a slew of books sent along by those publishing and promoting them.  It’s as simple as returning to the basic practice of choosing books based on what those who love books are saying about them.  Similarly, my son Will has become friends with Marcia Warner, director of the Grand Rapids Public Library.  As a special treat, Marcia occasionally puts books or DVDs on hold for him that she thinks he’ll enjoy.  Amazing. 
By the way, I’m not suggesting that I finished The Warmth of Other Suns because I checked it out of the library rather than buying it online.  But at the same time, I am.  You not only get more connected to the selection in the first place, but there is a big connected world of book-reading, make-a-difference-in-their-part of the-world people out there with whom I’m getting acquainted through books.  The library is simply extending the invitation for me to join their party already in progress. 
Not only that, I’ve noticed other behavior changes.  Because I still read a lot of front list fiction and non-fiction, my selections are usually in high demand.  This prompts me to be more conscientious about returning books on time, or even a few days earlier.  Who wants to be a delinquent dilettante in your own community? And I’ve finally owned the fact that I really don’t do well reading a lot of books at the same time, so I only check out one item at a time.  I am also more conscious of the next book I want to tackle, so I spend more time reading blogs and other community information sources in advance to scope out my next selection.  An ultimate perk of a job working with libraries is taking full advantage of the opportunity to ask more librarians what they’re currently reading.  Their choices always get my attention, even the ones that don’t sound particularly suited to me.  All these changes from my frenetic past practice have me feeling like I’m returning to those simpler book-enjoying days on the East side in my old neighborhood, courtesy of the Detroit Public Library bookmobile.  
Overall, that’s a good thing.  But it occurs to me I’m overdue writing out personal thank you letters to Isabel Wilkerson and Pat Losinski, Juliet Machie, Sari Feldman, Marcia Warner, Kim Fender and Josie Parker and the legions of other library do-gooders out there.  Maybe I’ll put a chocolate bar in with my letters.  It’s clear the combination of chocolate and good penmanship continues to ignite bright magic. 

Ron J. Stefanski

Currently reading The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler, just completed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson