Light in the Darkness

It was a heart-wrenching, terrifying week for America. Watching the tragic events which occurred in Boston, Massachusetts and Waco, Texas, it was hard not to get emotional at times. Many innocent people lost their lives, some from a freak, unfortunate accident, others purely because of someone else’s hate.

I got teary eyed more than once. These kind of tragedies happen all around the world every day, and I’ve experienced plenty that happened in America during my lifetime, but it’s never becomes any easier to witness. These are the kind of things I just can’t become numb to.

I think of the 8-year-old boy who was killed in one of the blasts at the Boston Marathon on Monday, how he’ll never be able to grow up and experience of the dreams he may have had. I think of the 26-year-old campus police officer at MIT who was killed when he confronted the suspects in Monday’s bombings; a young man just a few years older than I, again, now unable to live out his life and make the most of it.

That’s exactly what I try to take from these tragedies; you must cherish life. It’s a very fragile, precious thing that deserves our constant respect and admiration. I’ve been lucky enough to live to almost 23 years of age, and I can only hope I will live on for much longer. When I hear about someone losing their life so unexpectedly as the victims from this week did, I’m reminded that no one should waste the gift of life that they’ve been given.

Make every day count, accomplish everything you can possibly can, and cherish every person you share your life with.

But for all of the painful stories images we saw this week, we also saw a lot of beauty. We always wish it did not have to be so, but adversity truly does bring out the very best in humanity.

Perhaps the greatest representation came in the form of America’s armed forces and law enforcement, who I have always had the utmost respect for. These men and women are the real life heroes that writers like myself can only attempt to replicate; they’re the people who sacrifice their own comforts, their own well beings to preserve everyone else’s around them. Many were injured in the pursuits of stopping the men who tried to bring terror to Boston, and as mentioned before, one lost his life. Their efforts will be—and rightfully deserve to be—commended for the longest time to come. It’s only because of them that an entire city was kept safe during this frightening event.

We also saw an incredible amount of courage from every day people. As comedian Patton Oswalt noted in his own response to the Boston Marathon bombings— “You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out.” Mere seconds after the blasts went off, countless men and women dove into the devastation to assist the wounded. These people didn’t have time to contemplate the danger they were putting themselves in because their natural reaction to try and aid others.

I read stories of Boston Marathon runners who, after having crossed the finish line, continued running to nearby hospitals in order to donate blood. The selfless reactions that so many people had in the city of Boston was nothing short of inspirational; reassuring that there is good in this world after such horrible actions were committed.

The rest of the country saw that courage, too, and it spread. In the wake of these events, you could feel the country coming together to support itself. Whether it was through donations or money, paraphernalia, time, or simply words of encouragement all across social media, we saw countless Americans give a bit of themselves to the victims of these tragedies.

I will never forget watching the hockey game between the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in Boston on Wednesday, April 17th, just two days after the marathon bombings. Two teams, two fanbases who abhor each other set those distastes aside and rooted for one another. The hockey players are not the heroes like the soldiers and emergency responders are, but they did their own part to help America heal, even if it was just for a night. Seeing the Bruins players and Sabres players come together at the end of the contest and hold their sticks high to salute the crowd will go down as one of the most powerful images I have ever seen in my life.

Boston Strong. American Strong. Humanity Strong.

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One of those weeks

Whenever I hear someone say that they had the best weekend or the best week ever, I always think of that Hey Arnold! Episode “The List”, where Arnold attempts to spend the perfect Saturday doing everything a kid loves to do; eat sugary cereal and watch cartoons all morning, bike down the biggest hill in the city, play baseball with every kid in the park etc.

I’ve always anticipated certain weekends, weeks and even vacations as being the “best ever” because of all the things I had planned for them. Of course, just like Arnold’s plans in that episode (for those who remember) many of the, didn’t go as well as I had hoped.

But last week was absolutely one of the best of my life.

It all started with Easter Sunday, which in my family may as well be more important than Christmas; there’s an extra buzz to Easter when you’re a raucous Polish family, I suppose. This year we got 27 of us all together at my house to celebrate, which included a ridiculous amount of food and, yes, booze. In all we were only missing a handful of family members from my dad’s side of the family, so to have that many of us all partying at once was really special.

The next day was even more fun. When you’re Polish and you live in Western New York, the day after Easter isn’t April Fools Day; it’s Dyngus Day, the Polish equivalent to St. Patty’s Day where you wear red and white, drink a lot, dance to polka, and the girls occasionally smack the guys with pussy willows. Most people probably know it as the holiday that Anderson Cooper made fun of last year, but trust me when I say that we Pollacks know have to have a darn good time. I spent almost the entire day out with my family and friends, threw back a few beers with them, and polka’d my butt off with the prettiest gal I know.

I also got to meet two of the Buffalo Sabres at separate autograph signings. Wednesday was really special for me because I finally met Ryan Miller in person. Miller’s been my favorite athlete for years now and I’ve always loved watching him play in net, both for the Sabres and when he tore it up at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Then on Saturday I went to meet Cody Hodgson, the 23 year old center for the Sabres. It’s always kind of funny when you think that you’re meeting a kid just a few months older than yourself and treating him as a celebrity, but I’ve got a ton of respect for Cody after the great season he’s had with the team, and the fact that he may very well become a star in the NHL within a couple years’ time.

On top of all of that, I got a ton of writing done last week. I finally reached the 50,000 word and 100 page plateaus for my novel, and I’m nearing its completion every day I get a little more work done. It’s been a ton of fun so far and I’m really liking the way that the story is turning out; I feel that my action is gripping, I love the dialogue I’m creating between the characters, and I’m especially enjoying the way that my characters are progressing over the course of the book. And this is just the first of three books!

So that’s what entails a best week ever for me—family, friends, polka, drinking, writing and hockey. I have an awesome life.

A fine line between hero worship and inspiration

Growing up, I didn’t exactly have a “hero” that I looked to as a role model. Most kids choose someone like a star athlete, or a superhero; me, I really liked Godzilla when I was a young’n. But even back then, I realized that he wasn’t real, he was a 400 foot fire breathing lizard who body slammed other monsters through buildings.

Still, there are plenty of celebrities and the like that I can call my “favorites”. I grew up watching pro wrestling, so I was always a huge fan of such wrestlers like the Undertaker, the Rock and especially Stone Cold Steve Austin—the latter being an alcoholic redneck who gave people the middle finger and swore like a sailor. Obviously a great role model for 8 year old Jeffy.

As I got older I strayed from pro wrestling and eventually became interested in normal sports. Hockey became my favorite of those, and I quickly became a fan of my hometown team, the Buffalo Sabres. I didn’t have a favorite player, though, until goaltender Ryan Miller burst onto the scene in 2005. It all stems from my days playing lacrosse in high school; I would slick my long hair back to put on my helmet, and according to everyone I knew, I looked like Miller. I started to see a resemblance, myself, so I ran with it. Now he’s probably my favorite athlete in any sport, and there’s a long-running gag amongst my close family and friends that I have a “man crush” on him. It’s purely platonic, I swear.

Me and Cody Hodgson

I recently met Miller for the first time at an autograph signing. In the last year or so I’ve been lucky enough to meet several other Buffalo Sabres players, including former center Paul Gaustad, goaltender Jhonas Enroth, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and, just yesterday, 23 year old center Cody Hodgson.

Since I’ve gotten hooked on the Ultimate Fighting Championship, there are plenty of pro fighters I’d love to meet. I came into the sport too late to appreciate such legends like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture or Matt Hughes, so my favorite combatants are mostly the newer stars who have emerged in recent years. I also tend to like the lighter weight fighters the most, given that I’m not exactly a giant or muscle head myself; this would be guys like bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, “The California Kid” Urijah Faber, lightweight champion Benson Henderson, and current featherweight title challenger Anthony “Showtime” Pettis.

While I’m a huge fan of all of these guys, I don’t necessarily strive to emulate them; the only human being I put continued effort into being like is Jesus Christ, and that’s for far different, deeper reasons than why I like an athlete so much.

There are other gentlemen that I try to emulate for their talents, however, and those are successful writers who have influenced my own work. I always wish that J.R.R. Tolkien—legendary author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—could have survived into this age, just so I could see and read more of him. It’s because of his writing that the genre of high fantasy became a staple in literature, and since I’m such a sucker for all of that magic, knights, dragons and castles stuff, I hold his efforts in very high regard.

Brian Jacques is another deceased author that I really admire for his work. His Redwall series of books was easily my favorite while I was in middle school, and in more recent years I read his Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series. Jacques breathed so much life into his books, between the extensive (and mouth-watering) descriptions of food , the bright personalities of his characters, those same characters’ unique dialects, the incredible backstory and history he added to his worlds.

Straying into more realistic authors, Louis L’Amour is a writer that I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from. While I love his famous Western tales, it was his lesser-known stories about boxers that I particularly enjoyed. A few of the short stories that I’ve had published have been about mixed martial artists, and I can positively say that you’ll see influences of L’Amour’s style in my works about a different kind of professional fighter.

A couple of authors who are still around and who I follow faithfully are Jeff Shaara, who has made his name writing historical epics set during America’s most famous wars, and young adult author David Clement Davies, whose anthropomorphic adventures (Firebringer, The Sight, Fell) are among my favorite novels in the last decade.

I would say that my favorite author at the moment would be Terry Brooks, author of the Shannara series of high fantasy novels. While I believe that The Lord of the Rings is the greatest story ever created, I feel that the Shannara books are the best fantasy novels out there. Brooks has grown tremendously as a writer since his debut novel The Sword of Shannara from 1977, which was a bit of a Tolkien knock-off.

Brooks eventually went on to add a lot of his own creative flair to the world that he dreamed up for his novels, eventually going on to make a fantasy world that’s refreshingly unique and colorful in an era of media that either continues to copy The Lord of the Rings, or be gratuitously gritty and edgy.

I feel I’m following Brooks—and going well beyond—when it comes to putting my readers in a fantasy world that’s a breath of fresh air among the rest of the genre. But what I take most from Brooks is his style of writing, which puts a heavy emphasis on a telling the story from the characters’ point of view, without jumping into a first-person style of writing. When I read his first few books, the technique occasionally threw me off, until I eventually realized how much it drew you into the action. When you know exactly what the hero is thinking, and when the narrator tells you what it’s like for the hero to witness all that’s occurring around them, it really breathes a lot of life into the words.

I can only hope and strive to accomplish the same someday.