I know it’s not the week for my regularly-scheduled blog post, but I’m offering this special edition as a tribute to very special person.
Reeling with grief when my dear friend John Tanasychuk died last week, I posted photos of him on Facebook, along with obituaries that were published in Florida and Detroit newspapers. Doing those things—and reading the comments from friends who were kind enough to take a moment to reflect on John’s life, whether or not they’d known him—was a comfort.
But there’s so much more I want to say and share about John, and HeartWood seems the right place to do that. After all, this blog was his idea.
It all started when he and his husband Steve visited Ray and me here in Newaygo about five years ago. Over lunch at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, I groused to John about how authors and would-be authors nowadays can’t just write books, they have to create “platforms” to make themselves visible to publishing professionals and potential readers.
“I guess I’ll have to start a blog,” I whined. “Everything I read says to do that. But I have no idea what to blog about.”
John, in his characteristic upbeat manner, refused to buy into my glum attitude. “You’d be great at it,” he insisted. “And I bet you’d love doing it. Just write about your life here—all the interesting and creative people you know, the places you go, the things you do.”
Hmmm. He had a point. I thought it over, came up with the theme of “creativity, connection, and contentment,” and began to get excited about the idea. And so HeartWood was born, with John as one of its most loyal readers and cheerleaders.
That’s the kind of friend he showed himself to be all through our thirty-plus-year friendship.
We first met in 1985, when John was a reporter for the Windsor Star and I was the science writer for the Detroit Free Press. We were both covering a geography convention at the Renaissance Center and happened to sit next to each other at a press conference. I told him I found it hilarious that a group of geographers needed maps to find their way around the Ren Cen’s maze-like passages. He saw the humor, too, and laughed his delighted, almost childlike laugh. We traded business cards, and instead of throwing his into a drawer as I did most cards I collected, I put it in my Rolodex, hoping our paths would cross again.
That didn’t happen until three years later, when he showed up in the desk next to mine at the Free Press, having just been hired as the food writer. I knew I was going to enjoy being desk-mates when the first thing he did was tack a picture of Liberace on his bulletin board.
Before long, we were sharing laughs and confidences, so easy to do with John. Both fans of the Canadian comedy group The Kids in the Hall, we could crack each other up with a line or a gesture from one of their routines. He also liked to tease me about being such a compulsive neatnik about my work space. Many times I would return from a bathroom break to find mail strewn across my desk. It looked like an accident, but eventually I realized it was John’s deliberate work—a trick to see how long it would take me to straighten things up and put everything back in its rightful place. (Answer: About one nanosecond.)
John did silliness better than anyone I know, absolutely unselfconsciously, but he did serious just as well. He had a gift for putting people at ease and giving his full attention to every conversation—never distracted, always fully present.
And curious! Which made his visits to my house interesting. Not only was he constantly asking questions, some of them most unexpected and fascinating to consider, but he also had no qualms about opening cupboards to see what was inside or poking through my closet, bureau drawers, and file cabinets. If anyone else had done that I might have thought it nosy. But when John did it, it was just part of the who-knows-what’s-next fun of having him around.
Cooking for John was part of the fun, too. He knew and loved food and cooking, but he wasn’t a snob about it. He appreciated everything I made, from the simplest bean salad to the most elaborate . . . huh, now that I think about it, I don’t recall ever making anything elaborate for John. He was so easily pleased with simple fare, why get fancy?
Before one of my moves, I cleaned out a huge accordion file of recipes I’d collected throughout my life, including some I’d inherited from my mother decades earlier. Jell-O molds, casseroles, layer cakes, Christmas candies, that sort of thing. I mentioned the project to John—who by this time had moved with Steve to Florida—and said I hated to throw all those recipes away but couldn’t imagine anyone would want them. “Send them to me!” he said. So I stuffed them into the biggest mailing envelope I could find and sent them off. Soon after, he called, having gone through a good number of them, wanting to hear stories about the dinner parties where my mother served some of the dishes and curious (always!) why I had so many recipes for roast chicken and anything containing bananas, figs, or eggplant.
While both at the Free Press, we got in the habit of taking lunch-hour walks together. Sometimes it was to actually go to lunch—usually somewhere like Ham Heaven for bean soup—but usually it was just to run errands and talk about anything that came to mind or resulted from John’s incessant questioning.
Over the course of our friendship, we saw each other through staggering losses: the death of my husband Brian in 1989 and five years to the day after Brian’s passing, the death of John’s partner Joel. We designated October 15, the anniversary date, as “Widows Day” and made sure to check in with each other on that date every year.
So often were John and I seen together at the credit union and in shops and cafés, the tellers, clerks, and servers thought we were a couple. We found that assumption terribly funny, since John was gay and I, recently widowed and recuperating from cancer treatment, was about as interested in a romantic relationship as I was in flying to the moon. Which is to say not at all (unless John had been going to the moon, in which case I might have considered it).
Eventually, though, new romance came to both of us, and we both reacted as good friends do, thoroughly checking out the other’s suitor.
The first time Ray picked me up at work for a date, John and another dear friend, Emily, stationed themselves in front of the Free Press building, pretending to take a smoke break, but really scrutinizing the shady-looking guy in the black truck. And when John took up with Steve, I was perhaps a bit more discreet, but still did due diligence to be sure Steve’s intentions were honorable.
John and Steve’s wedding in 2014 was one of the most joyful marriage ceremonies I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. And one of the most interesting, blending John’s Ukranian and First Nation Anishinaabe ancestry and Steve’s Jewish heritage.
When John was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago, I was heartbroken at the thought of illness stealing his energy and élan. Yet I had a feeling John would handle cancer as he handled everything, with grace and even good humor.
He did. When he came to my book launch last fall, he was as vital and full of fun as ever. He didn’t just attend, he participated, helping out at the signing table, chatting up guests, and charming everyone he met.
I have a feeling that wherever John is now—and I want to believe he’s still somewhere—that’s exactly what he’s doing.
And in these uncertain times, instead of giving in to sadness and worry, I’m doing my best to channel a bit of John’s bright spirit.
Be sure to come back next week for part 2 of the HeartWood Author Expo.
First of all, it was Friday the 13th. Second of all, there were warnings all around to practice social distancing in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Stay home. Avoid crowds. Cancel big events.
So it was something of a surprise to get word that the West Michigan Women’s Expo, where I was scheduled to sell and sign books last Friday, was still a go. Granted, a few authors who’d reserved space at the event decided against coming, but a dozen or so of us intrepid—or foolhardy—souls showed up at DeVos Place with our books.
The Expo opened at 10:00, and while the crowds weren’t overwhelming, a steady stream of expo-goers ambled through. Book sales were not exactly brisk for the first few hours, but we were all hopeful things would pick up after lunch.
Then, around 1:00, the rumors began circulating. The Expo was being shut down, and we’d soon be sent packing. This rumor came in various forms, the most colorful version being that “twenty men in suits” had converged on the conference center and ordered the event closed. A later, more credible report had it that Governor Whitmer herself had issued the directive. (There’s a trenchant comment in there somewhere about one woman doing the work of twenty men (in suits!), but I’ll bypass that for now.)
Given the shutdown and the fact that many authors (including me) may now face cancellation or postponement of other events we’ve worked so hard to arrange, I’ve decided to turn the next two installments of HeartWood into virtual Author Expos.
Instead of strolling through, you can scroll through and visit the virtual tables of the authors you might have met in person at the cancelled event. With this many authors and books, I’ll bet you can find plenty of reading material to keep you occupied during this period of voluntary isolation.
And if you find a book you love, please consider using some of your unexpected free time to write and post a review on Goodreads, Amazon, or both. The author will thank you and so will readers who learn about the book from your review.
The HeartWood Author Expo is now open!
Jean writes speculative fiction. Her novels include Trust, Destiny Pills & Space Wizards, The Last God, A Broken Race and Sahmara. Her short stories have appeared in The 3288 Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Theian Journal, Acidic Fiction's Corrosive Chronicles anthology, The First Line, Tales of the Talisman, Brewed Awakenings II anthology, and more.
When not ruining fictional lives from the comfort of her writing chair, she can be found devouring books and sushi, enjoying the offerings of local breweries, weeding her flower garden, or picking up hundreds of sticks while attempting to avoid the abundant snake population who also shares her yard.
Joan H. Young
A lifelong outdoorsperson, Joan rode a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986 and in 2010 became the first woman to complete the North Country National Scenic Trail on foot. Her mileage totaled 4,395 miles.
In addition to North Country Cache and North Country Quest, both about her experiences on the North Country Trail, Joan has written six cozy mysteries in the Anastasia Raven series and four Dubois Files children’s mysteries. Two essay collections, Get Off the Couch with Joan and Fall Off the Couch Laughing contain work originally published as newspaper columns.
Author, publisher, and animal advocate, Janet is the founder and publisher of Cats and Dogs, a Magazine Devoted to Companion Animals, a free publication distributed in West Michigan that promotes pet adoption and spay/neuter.
Janet holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Grand Valley State University and was a correspondent for The Grand Rapids Press for ten years. Her articles have also been published in Cat Fancy, The Muskegon Chronicle, and the North Ottawa Weekly. Her true story of taming a feral cat, “Wild Cat I Think You Love Me,” was published in The Ultimate Cat Lover (HCI, 2008).
Janet’s books include You Might be a Crazy Cat Lady if . . . , Dog 281 (Save Five Series Book 1), More Than a Number (Save Five Series Book 2), and the just-published The Save Five Club (Save Five Series Book 3).
Born in former Czechoslovakia, Emma is a journalist, author, short story writer, and screenwriter based in Lowell, Michigan.
“Small towns in Midwest America continue to inspire my work,” she says. “I find strength in my characters modeled after resilient people in the face of adversity. I love the Lake Michigan shoreline, its beaches and forests.”
Emma’s books include Shifting Sands: Short Stories, Secrets (Shifting Sands Book 2), and Greenwich Meridian Memoir, an epic tale of immigration and love spanning three continents and two generations.
Ellen M. Murray
Ellen is the creator of Think Spell Write, a reading program for students who struggle to read and write fluently despite having had reading instruction. These might be special education students, students whose education has been disrupted by trauma or interrupted due to frequent moves, or students who have not yet learned phonetic rules well enough to effectively apply them to read.
A 32-year veteran teacher, Ellen taught various subjects at different grade levels, always with dedication to struggling students and a passion for teaching reading.
“I love teaching reading!” she says. “I especially love teaching reading to students who feel they will never learn to read. I love that ‘aha’ moment when reading clicks for a student. I love when students are speechless or red-faced, or their face lights up as they realize ‘I can read this!’ ”
Brenda is a multi-award-winning author of pre-teen, young adult, and adult novels. She has published several picture books for children as well.
Among her titles: The Freelancer, On The Third Day: An afterlife journey, From Beyond the Grave: An afterlife journey – Part 2, A Lady’s Destiny, The Moment Of Trust, and Wilkinshire
Brenda volunteers her time writing plays for the Fenton Village Players to perform during the Ghost Walk and Historical Cemetery Walk. She also freelances for magazines from the Fenton, Michigan, home she shares with her husband and cats.
Be sure to come back in two weeks to meet more authors at HeartWood Author Expo II.
It all started with a gadget in a catalog.
No, it really started before that, when I was deciding what to take to a potluck. A salad? Nah. There’d probably be a lot of those. Dessert? Probably too many of those, too. Deviled eggs? Perfect!
So I boiled up a batch of eggs, plunged them into ice water to loosen the shells, and started peeling. Well, “peeling” isn't quite the right word. More like “mutilating.” The shells clung to the inner membranes. The inner membranes clung to the whites, big hunks of which tore off, no matter how carefully I tried to separate shell from white.
There was no way I was taking that mess to a party. So I made egg salad for lunch and whipped up a pan of brownies for the potluck.
After that fiasco, I took a scientific tack, reading up on egg cooking and peeling and following all the tips: choose older eggs rather than fresh ones, add baking soda to the cooking water, make the ice bath icier. No good. Peeling was still tedious and disastrous.
Then I saw it—the gadget in the catalog: The NEGG® Easy Hard-Boiled Egg Peeler. It’s a simple cylinder with bumps on the inside and caps on either end. You remove one cap, pour in a little water, drop in a hard-boiled egg, replace the cap, give the whole thing a few vigorous shakes, remove the egg, and voila! the shell slides right off. The online video made it look so easy, with the whole shell slipping off in one or two pieces.
Of course I had to have one! Ray obliged by getting me one for Christmas and even let me pick the color (yolk yellow, naturally).
Now let me say right here that I am not being paid to endorse the NEGG® (which stands for Naked Egg, in case you were wondering). Nor am I turning this blog into a product review. My intention is not so much to praise the product as to celebrate a simple pleasure.
Because that—along with un-mutilated eggs—is what we’ve gotten from this little gadget. Admittedly, it took us a few batches of eggs to get the technique down. I even emailed the company, asking for tips, and got a reply from none other than Bonnie Tyler, NEGG® inventor and CEO (Chief Egg Officer), advising me to roll, pinch, and push the shell, rather than picking at it.
Now, Ray and I have a ridiculous amount of fun boiling up eggs and taking turns peeling them with our handy little egg shaker.
That’s when we look at each other and say, “We really need to get a life. We used to ride motorcycles for fun. Now we’re peeling eggs?”
But you know what? Anytime you can find joy in everyday activities, I think that’s a good thing. Especially when the result is a tasty snack!
What simple, silly thing gives you a lift?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.