Up for the Challenge

In Mike Kiel's wonderful memoir, as in his life, humor is a constant and self-pity is nowhere to be found.

Ryan Jones and Mike Kiel

About halfway through his book talk at the Ebensburg Cambria Public Library last October, Mike Kiel asked his dad if he would come up to the front of the room with a handkerchief. “One of the downsides of being paralyzed,” Mike said with subtly perfect comedic timing. “You can’t wipe your own nose.”

Honest, thoughtful, occasionally rambling—he warned us that he’s prone to “squirrel moments”—and almost always funny, Mike was at the library last fall discussing Challenge the Moment, his 2019 memoir. I was there to reconnect with the most memorable guy I met during my nine months at Penn State Altoona, where Mike and I were freshman dorm neighbors on the third floor of Maple Hall. I was a clueless kid from the West Coast suburbs, out of my element 3,000 miles from home. Mike was a small-town guy from nearby Portage, comfortable with pretty much anyone in any situation. He made a lot of friends, and I was lucky to be one of them; he’s a presence in pretty much every good memory I have of that year. But after I moved up to University Park my sophomore year—in the days before email, texting, and social media—we mostly lost touch.

I was in the Daily Collegian newsroom in the spring of 1993 when I saw the story come across the AP wire: Penn State Altoona student shot, in critical condition. Mike had exchanged words with a stranger late one night coming out of the off-campus convenience store we’d all frequented countless times; the guy shot him, point blank, in the neck. Mike nearly died, and was left paralyzed below the neck.

Challenge the Moment mixes autobiography with poetry and self-reflection to cover Mike’s life before and after that night: His childhood, his recovery, and a parade of often hilarious, occasionally unbelievable stories involving Mike and the tight-knit family and loyal friends who have remained a constant in the years since. Words like “compelling” and “inspiring” are accurate but hardly do it justice; if you’re reading this, you should go order a copy right now.

Mike spent two more years at Altoona before finishing his bachelor’s (and, eventually, a master’s) at Edinboro University; he’s worked for the past 20 years as a rehabilitation counselor and specialist in Johnstown. We’ve reconnected over the past few years online, but my trip to Ebensburg in October was the first time we’d seen each other in person in 30 years. It was wonderful to see that in all the ways that matter, he hasn’t changed a bit.

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