Optometrist Publishes Book He Wrote for His Kids – Before They Were Born
By John Addyman
Before they were born, Robert Conway’s children were an important part of his life.
He was a folksinger, releasing his first and only record album with local singer Judy Nett, “Stories from Cobbs Hill.” That was in 1982.
He was enjoying married life with wife, Lori, and a budding career as an optometrist, fulfilling a plan he’d formed as a very young man.
And being an optometrist, he had very clear vision. So, on that record, he inserted two songs — for son Jason, who was born a year later, and daughter, Molly, born five years later — foretelling the arrival of his kids. They had been, of course, a twinkle in dad’s eyes. And few things twinkle more brightly than an optometrist’s eyes.
‘When Molly’s Here’ is definitely about our daughter, Molly, but it was written in February of 1982, five years before she was born,” Conway said. “Like most of my songs and stories, the words and music, or the words and pictures, always came together. Lori and I are now approaching our 45th wedding anniversary. At the time that this song was written we had been married four years and were starting to dream and talk about having children. We knew that if we had a daughter, she would be named Molly, after Lori’s great-grandmother (Hebrew name ‘Malka,’ English name Molly).”
“Our first child, Jason, had not even been conceived yet. He was born in 1983. Molly was born on Valentine’s Day 1987. I recited the lyrics to her song at her wedding in October of 2016. Jason has his own song titled, ‘The River Flows,’ also on the record album. Both songs are about potential parents imagining their love for the next generation,” he explained.
In raising his kids, Conway focused on a relationship with them that included stories he wrote just for them, stories he’d read to them at bedtime.
Conway, now 66, and Lori are looking at retirement. Lori, a nurse practitioner at Highland Family Medicine, has already pulled the plug. He is going to wait until the end of this year.
But on the way, he’s turning some of those stories he used to read to his children — the stories that had been gently collecting dust on a shelf — into books. The first one, self-published with a lot of help from Amazon, debuted in 2021 – “The Floating Rock.”
“This is the first story I’ve done something with,” Conway explained at a desk at the Henrietta Library, which carries his book. “I wrote it more than 10 years ago. It has nothing to do with optometry. When I was a young boy, I was at the St. Louis Zoo and they had this announcement for a ‘floating rock.’ I imagined what a floating rock must look like. I went to the exhibit. I remember there was a pool of water and I asked the guy next to the pool, ‘Where’s the floating rock?’ I’m a young boy looking up to the sky. He points down to the water and a floating rock is a type of lava that if it’s a certain temperature, and it happens to fall into the water in a certain way, it’s becomes a floating rock. Well, I was very disappointed,” he said.
“Originally, my story of “The Floating Rock” was going to be about all those unexplainable things that happen in life that when people are given an explanation of — and it’s really not an accurate explanation — but it just lets them go on with the rest of their lives, as if they know what’s causing it,” he continued.
Without giving up too much of the story, “The Floating Rock” is about a good ant that has some questions that the queen ant and her minions can’t answer, but they provide answers anyway.
“The book started out being just that — an explanation of things we don’t really understand how they happen,” Conway explained. “For instance, Monarch butterflies make a migration of thousands of miles and not one member in that group has done it before. But they know exactly when to do it and where to go and they end up in the same place. We don’t know how the caterpillars turn into butterflies. We don’t know how if you take a starfish and cut off a leg, it grows another leg. These are things we really just accept. We don’t really know.”
He got his book together with illustrations he painstakingly prepared and tried to market it to publishers.
“I’ve always been interested in graphic arts and photography,” Conway said. When he was 17, he had done a poster for Planned Parenthood of Rochester.
“It was a pile of turtles like Yertle the Turtle (I was inspired by Dr. Seuss). The poster said, ‘If you feel crowded today, just wait until tomorrow.’”
He went to Monroe Community College and got an associate degree in graphic arts and printing. He completed his bachelor’s degree at St. John Fisher in preparation for optometry college and also took art classes at Nazareth College.
The next stop was the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago.
“It’s one of the largest and oldest optometry colleges,” he said. “When I was accepted, there were 150 students in each class, with a total of seven women. Now 80% of the classes there are women and Asian women are the most common. There’s a big demographic shift going on in optometry.”
He liked being in a big-city school where he got a lot of patients to work with in his clinical studies.
Optometry has been a perfect career for Conway. “I like the one-on-one aspect of it. It’s a way I like to spend my life. You get to know people, you get to know them over the years, get to know their children. I’ve been in practice 42 years, so at this point I’m seeing the grandchildren of people I saw years ago. It’s nice to see this continuity,” he said.
When COVID-19 hit, he was out of business for three months during the lockdowns.
“I had these books on the shelf and I realized that this was the time to do something with them. The meaning of The Floating Rock became different because the world had changed around it. Now it was about governments lying to people about what was going on. The floating rock could now be covid or anything we get misinformation about. It didn’t start off being political, but in the context of where we are now, it is a political book,” he said.
“Many of my patients who have read the book and given it to their neighbors’ children or grandchildren have commented that it’s a bridge, a way for families who have been so split apart by politics over the last few years to start to talk about things and close that gap,” he added.
In every way “The Floating Rock” is a children’s book, but to an older audience, it is a simple tale about why people don’t come clean when cornered.
Looking at the book, it’s easy to see why kids would like it. But his first illustrations, though charming, were too simple, too one-dimensional. He decided on his second try to get published was to incorporate photos he and Lori and Molly took, layering and texturing them against the illustrations using advanced Photoshop techniques he learned on YouTube and Photobacks.com. The result was transforming. The cover photo’s blue sky is a Henrietta clear day during COVID-19.
The photos and layers under the illustrations take kids from the page into a world they can see up-close in their own backyards.
Now Conway is looking over his inventory for ideas on books to come.
“I’ve written 200 songs,” he said. “On my record album there are 10 songs that can be turned into children’s stories. It’s nice to see that the record album is still around; sometimes I see it on eBay. Any favorite song you have when you look at it for a children’s book, it’s probably already been done — that they’ve illustrated it: Ringo Starr’s Octopus’s Garden or John Denver’s Garden Song are examples.”
“That’s where my future books will come from — the books and the songs I’ve already written,” he added.
“Now I’m an optometrist, raising a family. Life happens. I’m an optometrist who has written 200 songs and 10 books — but I haven’t published anything except one record and this (book).
“That’s why I’m retiring, so I can have time to do this.”
Back in his singing days, he was a regular, playing and singing at the Park Avenue Project and Genesee Co-op and he was a member of the Golden Link folksinging collective.
As a now-recently published author, he said his association with Amazon has been fruitful: “The way you publish on Amazon is that you create the files, Photoshop or text files, format them in the proper way. Anyone who orders it, it’s printed in the closest place to them in the world, so it’s worldwide, printed that day, and they send it to the person who ordered it.
Then, at the end of the year, they send me a royalty check and the first check came last year. My wife asked why I was excited to get a check (and it was a very modest amount) because I had to pay taxes on it. I said to her, ‘Well, now I’m an official author.’”
The Conways visited Israel earlier this year and at the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Jerusalem, he left a copy of The Floating Rock with the inscription, “To the students of the Hand in Hand School, wishing you lives filled with love.”
“Our rabbi then added that inscription in Hebrew and a teacher, Nour Younis, a Palestinian, wrote it in Arabic,” Conway said.
So now he’s an official international author, whose next book, “Esmeralda and the Chrysalis That Didn’t Work,” is due in 2024.
Where you can buy “The Floating Rock”:
• Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport
• Hipocampo Children’s Bookstore, South Wedge
• Book Culture, Pittsford
There are also copies at Council Rock Elementary School, the Henrietta Library and the Brighton Library.