Photo by Steven K. Smith © 2017

In 1972 I went to school at Lakewood High, near Hebron, Ohio. I was in the tenth grade. It was a mostly rural, tight-knit community, and our family had moved there only a few years previously. I was still an “outsider.” This was not helped by the fact that I was overweight, didn’t particularly like sports, either playing them or watching them, and tended to read a lot of science fiction. Even worse, I played chess at lunch periods and home-room with a couple of the other semi-pariahs.

Gym class was the bane of my existence at that time. If I could manufacture an excuse to get out of it, I did. I hated Phys. Ed. to the extent that the previous year, when I’d broken a bone in my foot in an accident playing basketball, I was sorry to get the cast off because that meant I’d have to attend gym class again.

Phys. Ed. was usually some semi-organized sport of some kind: football in the fall, basketball or volley ball in the winter and spring, for example. I did try to participate, I just wasn’t that good at it, and wasn’t terribly motivated to improve.

It’s something of a contradiction, then, that one of my most pleasurable memories of that year at Lakewood High involved a brief, offhand exchange that occurred in gym class during a basketball game.

My assignment for the game was to guard another player on the opposing team, and try to keep him from getting the ball, or scoring with it if he did. This was called, “sticking your man.” Which, I suppose, was a shortening of the phrase, “sticking to (or with) your man.” If I got the ball I was supposed to pass it as soon as possible to one of the more capable players.

The one who was the designated “captain” of our team would call time outs to discuss game strategy every once in a while. I don’t remember his name, but I don’t recall that he was one of the boys on the school’s basketball team. A lower-echelon player, if so. I usually wasn’t addressed in these discussions. One time, however, right at the end of one of these conferences, the captain turned to me and said, “You’re doing a good job of sticking your man.”

I said, “Thanks.”

It’s certainly not my only memory of Lakewood High, but it is one of the clearest, after about forty-five years.

The following summer we moved and I went to Newark (Ohio) High for the remainder of my high school career. I had fulfilled my requirement for P.E. by then, much to my relief, and Newark High had an actual chess team that played tournaments with other schools.

Perhaps ironically, at that point I got interested in exercise in a big way, in the form of bicycling. I never became a bicycle racer, but I did do many club rides and a number of long bicycle tours, and joined the League of American Wheelmen. (Now the League of American Bicyclists.) I lost the excess weight and generally spent more time outside in physical activity. What high school Phys. Ed. couldn’t accomplish, I did myself, in my own way. While I never did gain much interest in basketball, that forgotten P.E. class basketball team captain did show me that it’s possible to feel good about doing something purely physical.

Thank you.


Bike in 1975 cropped_1
Somewhere in southern Michigan, Summer 1975. Photo by Steven K. Smith

Spring has finally arrived, flowers blooming, gentle breezes, warm rains, birds singing, and all the other pleasant clichés that attend it. One of those other signs of spring is that I got my bicycle out and tried going for a ride for the first time since last fall.

Let me explain how embarrassing it was for me to write that last sentence.

While a junior in high school I saved up my money and got a membership in the League of American Wheelmen, an organization that promotes bicycling and dates from the late 19th century, and was a major force for promoting the construction of good roads in the US, among other things. It’s now known by the less sexist title, “League of American Bicyclists” but when I joined it was still “Wheelmen.”

The summer after my high school graduation I took a solo bike trip from my home in central Ohio to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, just north of Cadillac, about 500 miles (800 km) or so. I went with about $35 in my pocket, camping behind bushes in stands of trees along the road at night. Admittedly, $35 went farther in 1975 than it does today, but still.

The trip up there took five days. One of those days I had a tail wind most of the day and went about 150 miles (240 km). My bike broke down in a manner that I couldn’t repair on the road shortly before I got to my destination. The last 50 miles (80 km) were slow and uncomfortable with a wobbly rear wheel missing four spokes and a serious flat spot on the rim. My father and my older brother came to rescue me. What remained of my $35 dollars wouldn’t have covered a new wheel.

In my last year at Ohio State University I didn’t bother getting a parking sticker for the student lot. Rain or shine, snow or ice, I rode my bike to school from my off-campus apartment. I calculated that for every time I drove to classes the previous year, that had I parked illegally in the student lot, got a ticket each time, and paid the ticket, it still wasn’t as much as what the parking sticker cost.

I was a veteran of many invitational club rides in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, and was president of our local bike club one year. I used to think of a twenty mile ride as a “short” ride.

Biking gradually decreased, partially due to knee and back problems, but also (let’s be honest) because of general laziness and the advance of other interests. My music “career” began taking up much of the time I used to spend biking.

My inaugural spring-time ride the other day was about seven or eight miles. A positive change I may have I’ve noticed: It seems that fewer motorists are overtly hostile toward bikers these days. In my early experience it wasn’t uncommon to be honked at aggressively, cursed at, and on one occasion I had a car full of young delinquents make several passes throwing peaches at me. (A peach going 50 miles per hour hurts. I had bruises.) It’s been years since I’ve seen that sort of thing. I can’t deny the possibility, however, that maybe I’m just not seeing it because I’m on the road less these days. I hope not.

Back in the seventies and early eighties the etiquette on crowded invitational rides was to announce, “On your left,” when passing a slower rider. This convention also applies for pedestrians on multi-use trails.

While I was doing my ride the other day, part of it did occur on such a trail, one reclaimed from an old railroad right of way. When I passed the joggers on the trail I dutifully called the warning, which has become practically a reflex for me. It seemed that few of them heard it, however. Most of them had earbuds from their smartphones in and were not exactly engaged with their surroundings. I avoided hitting anyone, but I came close once. It’s a narrow path.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for someone to develop a cell phone app to detect the sound of a biker approaching and give a warning over the music. Maybe it could use GPS and distributed network technology to keep track of approaching hazards. I don’t know.

I offer this idea for free to anyone who’d like to develop it. It could potentially prevent many injuries.

Or they could just remove the earbuds and engage in the environment they’ve taken the effort to put themselves into. But that’s crazy talk.


Steve at Bardstown KY, January 2008

In my career as a musician I sometimes give concerts and other performances, and teach workshops at dulcimer festivals. See my musician website, for more details, if you’re interested.

At dulcimer/folk music festivals I often take workshops as a student as well, which sometimes seems to surprise some of the other attendees. Occasionally it surprises the workshop leaders as well.

I’ve always found that odd.

Apparently, once I reach the point where festival organizers will hire me to teach workshops, I’m not expected to need to learn anything further. This is an attitude that I find hard to understand.

Last August, I taught at the Fort New Salem Dulcimer Festival, at Salem WV. My good friend and mentor, Jerry Rockwell, taught there too, and I attended one of his workshops during the course of the weekend. At least one of the other attendees seemed to be surprised by this, I don’t know why. Of course, Jerry is an overflowing wellspring of knowledge about the mountain dulcimer, and music in general, but I have often taken workshops from other players, if I found the subject interesting, regardless of the skill level the workshop is pitched toward.

Last June, at the Kentucky Music Week festival in Bardstown KY, I took a workshop in Cajun music that was geared toward intermediate players, and a couple of workshops on improvising pitched to advanced players. My store of knowledge increased in each case. I try to take the attitude that everyone has something to learn, and everyone has something to teach, as well.

When I play at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, doing the “wandering minstrel” thing in the lanes around the grounds of the fair, I will often have people ask me some variation of, “How long did it take you to learn to play that?”

My standard answer is, “I don’t know. I haven’t finished yet.”

This is what I think is the core of my personal philosophy. There’s always something more to learn, whether about music, writing, gardening, or astrophysics. I hope never to stop learning, and that one of my very last thoughts, just before I die, is, “Not yet! There’s still more I need to know!”

Mother’s Day

Iris picture_1So, Mother’s day has passed, and where I was the weather cooperated beautifully. My wife and I went to my son’s house, and he grilled hamburgers and hotdogs for lunch. My daughter-in-law had a “Mom off duty” button pinned to her shirt, and some of the time she even tried to take it seriously. I tried playing at soccer in the back yard with my son and grandson, and no one got hurt too bad. I noted a bruise on my calf the next day that I didn’t recall previously.

Early that morning I’d visited my own mother, at least symbolically. She’s been gone for more than five years now, and my father had passed long before her. I pulled some weeds from the border around their headstone and planted some periwinkle. The irises that my brother had planted are looking great: healthy and just about to bloom. The daffodils that my wife and I planted had flowered last month.

Mothers—parents in general, I suppose, but particularly mothers—have a grip on our lives that transcends understanding, a grip that death cannot break. I call myself a writer, but this relationship is not one that can be explained in words. Described, maybe, but not explained.

In one of my current writing projects, a short novel, there is a funeral scene, where the woman who died is modeled in part on my mother. She’s actually an amalgam of several people I know, in addition to components drawn from my own imagination. I’m up to version 27 of that novel, meaning that I’ve decided that revisions became sufficiently “significant” that I saved the work in progress as a new version 27 separate times. No, I don’t work quickly. I couldn’t guess exactly how many times I’ve read over that scene while polishing and revising the novel. Hundreds, I wouldn’t doubt. I still find my tears spilling over as I read the funeral scene.

The funeral I describe isn’t even anything like my mother’s. I doubt that the scene is all that remarkably moving to anyone else. Neither my editor nor any of those who read it in the Internet Writer’s Workshop made a particular comment about that, anyway. I think it affects me only because of what it brings to my own recollections. I’ve written other scenes where characters died, but none of them have affected me like this one, probably because they’re more pure invention, not rooted in that most basic of human bonds, the one between a mother and child.

My mother shared my excitement upon hearing that my chapbook of poems had been accepted, but she died unexpectedly before its publication. I was able to insert this dedication before the book went to press:

This book is dedicated to my mother, Reva Smith Shaffer, the one who introduced me to poetry to begin with. The hours she spent reading nursery rhymes, James Whitcomb Riley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others finally bore fruit in this volume. Though the words here are mine, I’d have written none of them without her influence. Thanks, Mother.

And I still thank her.