Such good fortune to have woods behind our house – the tall oaks and poplars and gum trees, the skinny pines — that the rain plays like musical instruments, improvising a rushing waterfall concert, punctuated by the runoff from our roof splattering the driveway and the bass drum thunk from gutter overflow on the rubber lid of our garbage can, all the percussion instruments played at once, so you feel as if you must be moving on a river gaining speed towards rapids, though safe and dry on your screened-in porch. Half the charm of listening to heavy rain, I think, is that paradox, the symphony coming in your ears says go, but you are stationary, and in the dark before dawn this morning, the rain itself is invisible, so sound is the only marker, amounting to a study in percussion. Steady and hard since I sat down at 6:30 (it’s 7:30 now), played as a drone, relentless, the pace unchanging, the weatherman says 4 inches in two hours, no doubt washing out low roads all over the neighborhood that have not already succumbed to the week’s previous heavy downpours.
They say you never hear the rain stop. That truism is accurate, I think. All week I’ve waited to disprove it, and all week I’ve been distracted, missing that moment when the last drip fell. But the weather radar shows an orange storm cloud nearly past us now, headed east towards the Bay, so in the next half hour this torrent should lessen, the timpani fade, as the sky lightens and the morning’s birds, sheltering and quiet now, rush out to greet the day. No breeze at all, the trees still as a frieze, but a lessening of the roar, a rebounding run, then a dimming again, the snare drummers switching from sticks to brushes, the vibraphonists tapping slower, with space between tinks, still the overall laundromat shugga-shugga, but it’s as if the storm has thought to pace its diminution to the coming of daylight. But of course, it was the storm cloud that darkened the sky so late on an August morning, and with its passing, daylight unveils. Glistening swatches of green emerge, and the dark trunks of the tall trees stretch upwards in a still life hallelujah.
One bird whistles a three-note trill and repeats, a flute introduced to counterpoint the drone. No answer yet from her sheltering companions. By now on a dry day the birds would almost be done with their breakfast jazz concert, hitting the feeder hard, flitting and singing to each other all across the backyard. Not a one yet. Oh wait, a shabby chickadee has come to the feeder, sheltering in its lee, shivering beneath its narrow awning, allowing one chirp, shaking its wet feathers, second guessing its courage in leaving the shelter of whatever tree holds its nest. How resilient these palm-sized feathered troupers! What a gift to sit here under the porch roof, listening more closely than usual and adding my own little tapping to the general roar!
Now we note the slightest breeze, the individual leaves trembling as if they too are the audience and not the instruments, rustling program notes at their seats, awaiting the conductor’s wand, attending to the audio-visual synergy that dims and brightens at the same time. They seem giddy in their trembling, the little bird still huddled at the feeder, the rain now, yes I can firmly state that it dissipates, while a flat gray light illuminates the yard, as if someone is slowly turning up a dimmer switch. A hummingbird zooms past. My coffee nearly gone, the day almost upon us, wavering streaks of wet gleam silver on the window screens, that good hollow thunk on the garbage can lid irregular now like a jazz man cogitating on the possibilities, working out a rhythm only he or she can follow.
For an hour this morning time stopped. Everything was a drone, intimating the swelling Om that speaks of Oneness and Nothingness at once. My ears sought out progression, rhythm, resolution, some inkling of movement forward, and my eyes grappled for light, grasping at its dawning gradations as a path back to some norm. You can see why suicide runs rampant in the Great Lakes states, where gray gloom hangs for months and rain falls steadily for days. Imagine the maddening deprivations of solitary confinement in prison. We are made for motion, we crave indicators of progress from here to there, if not in space then at least in the timely changes a day brings. Without that, caught up in the thrum and drone, a little panic sets in. I would feel it if I thought this drenching downpour was not about to end. If I couldn’t sense some variation at least, some shift of sound or light in the general clamor. It’s 8 am now and yes it’s brighter but the rain has not let up. Maybe it’s the caffeine, but I do sense an anxiety in my chest and a fatigue at listening so steadily, the way one might feel in the late hours at a raga festival, wishing I’d brought an edible.
I’m clearly not much of a meditator. I shy from the lessons this morning’s rain would share, can’t stop thinking my way through it, typing little observations, watching Buddy at my side with his head up attending with so much more of a zen poise. The chickadee is gone. The hummingbird is gone. The rain continues. I had hoped to hear it come to an end. For a moment there thought, ah, diminuendo, and of course the sun will come out eventually. But now I think it’s actually falling harder. So hard that it fogs the far trees, makes a rain scrim in the woods. Nearby a tree falls – ah crescendo, the cracking at its base a little thunder (there has been no thunder all morning), then the accelerating shush as the limbs slap through the canopy and down to a sodden thump, the heavy trunk settling in the loam. Foundations loosened in wet soil, leaning old grandfather trees upended deep in the woods, their roots revealed like tentacled hands, done with the work of ages. That was a change! The falling tree snapped me out of it, brought me back to attention. I can groove on the music again. The breeze has accelerated, tickling the leaves on some trees but not others, like a ribbon of breath snaking from limb to limb. I’ve been sitting her listening and typing for nearly two hours, and if anything it’s falling harder than before. What an unusual August morning! Poor Buddy needs his walk. I feel like dear Irma Thomas in New Orleans, “Counting every drop, about to blow my top, I wish this rain would hurry up and stop.”
It’s been nearly 50 years now, but August 10 still marks a day of terror for me. As it may yet for all Virginia high school football players of a certain age – the beginning of two-a-day practices diabolically set smack in the most sweltering week of the summer. I was a Flying Fluco in the years 1971-73, when our team finished district competition undefeated only to bow to the mountain boys from Strasburg or Madison in the Regionals. Winning was a new thing for Fluvanna County back then. Just a few years earlier, my brother-in-law Butch had been a college-recruited lineman for a team that lost most of its games. But all that changed when Virginia realigned its football districts to better match high school populations, when full-blown desegregation finally kicked in (our county’s Black high school became the junior high school and everyone – Black or White – became a Fluco), and when a submarine engineer from Virginia Beach named Phil Browning decided to come home and take up football coaching at his old high school.
Coach Browning was first and last a man on a mission. His quite simple philosophy had three components, plainly derived from the playbook of the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi: (1) you win games with defense, (2) you win games in the fourth quarter, and (3) you win games as a team. This philosophy, taken to the extreme (Coach would have had it no other way) meant that in his first season the team occasionally punted on first down, just to get our fearsome defense back on the field; that two-a-days became brutally violent endurance sessions that left everyone bruised and spent, flat on our backs on the cool gym floor between practices; and that no one got off easy (one of the shameful moments of my life, one that still haunts me, was standing there agape among my equally dumbstruck teammates, while Coach whaled on his quarterback son Skip, who had shown the temerity to question him).
We were small (probably the heaviest among us my senior year weighed 180 pounds), slow (at least after our brilliant running back James Johnson fell to injury), and undermanned (by our senior year word of Coach’s horrifying practices had winnowed us down to 25 players, barely enough to scrimmage), but boy were we in shape! Just as he’d planned, game nights were cupcakes compared to our practices. We feared no one, easily played offense and defense without rest (that senior year, most of us on the first string stayed on the field the whole game, even for kick-offs), and we were relentless. We never bad-mouthed or resorted to dirty tricks in the scrum. We just ground down the opposing teams, big old farm boys left gasping in our dust. We won some games 42-0. As an example of Coach’s sometimes maniacal defense-first philosophy, after a few of those lop-sided victories, when the other team had somehow scored a touchdown, he kept us on the field after the game, or brought us back to practice on a Saturday morning, just to run ten wind sprints for every point the other team had scored.
Those of us who stuck it out across our three high school seasons were changed for life. I know that nothing I’ve been through since has ever pushed me quite as hard, and every hardship I’ve faced has been answered by this photograph, from a day that all but crushed us, down on the old softball field a mile from school, where we trudged to practice twice a day. We were all exhausted, dehydrated (back then it was considered “pussy” to drink too much water, and the water we did have was silted with salt pills), beaten by a relentless August sun, and stumbling about almost delirious. On the day in this photograph, my friend MacLean Zehler collapsed into convulsions after practice, a victim of heat stroke. He might have died.
One other key point in this jog down memory lane, our team was integrated successfully, whereas many of the teams we beat failed at that effort. For instance, Prince Edward County is notorious for having briefly shut down schools rather than integrate, all the White kids migrating to a private academy set up just for them, which cut the school population in half. Other teams clearly fought amongst themselves, were disorganized, and ripe for the taking. Coach wouldn’t have that. As an example, he loaded up his old blue bomber of a car with Black and White players alike, all tumbled in together after practice, and spent the next hour dropping everybody off at home. This was the Vietnam War era, and he worked hard to get as many of us as he could into college, because the alternative was a plane trip overseas.
A couple years ago, after a high school Homecoming game, a few of us gathered at the house of former player Roger and former cheerleader Karen’s house to talk about the old days. MacLean, now living out West, had come home to interview people about Coach Browning for a script he was writing. I told him the movie had already been made, the classic Remember the Titans, with Denzel Washington in Coach Browning’s role. But he turned on his video camera and watched in amazement as old Flucos recounted down to the play and how much time was left on the clock glory days of fifty years ago. I haven’t seen that script yet, but I hope to soon (so c’mon, MacLean!). Meanwhile, like all my fellow Flucos of a certain age, I bow to August 10th in remembrance of bruises and triumphs past.
In this morning’s New York Times a summary of the mistakes we’ve made here in the U.S. in coping with the coronavirus, which has put the lie to our already tattered notions of national pride. I feel battered on all sides, even though it’s been easy for me so far. A professor of occupational therapy with college junior sons, we were enjoying a spring break vacation in Kill Devil Hills as the nation shutdown in mid-March. They closed the bridge to the Outer Banks the day we left, and that Monday, like teachers all over the country, I learned to zoom.
Our sons zoomed, too, in their bedrooms here at home. They’ve chosen all online classes for the first semester of their senior years and will be studying in their bedrooms again. One – an ocean rescue lifeguard – has taken advantage of zoom to stay on until the tail end of the season in Nags Head. The other, a budding film-maker, has set up an online business adding special effects to music videos. My wife, an occupational therapist in a free-standing polytrauma unit on the VA hospital campus, wears a mask all day, has helped 3-D print thousands of face shields, and has seen only one covid case in her building so far. I’ve had it easy, really, isolating at home, working with a half dozen students on their doctoral dissertations and capstones, tinkering with a couple books I’m writing, and cramming to learn strategies for teaching my fall lab course in what we call a hybrid (half zoom/half face to face) model.
I only leave the house a couple times a week for groceries, hand-washing and squirting disinfectant, and scowling behind my mask at those with bare faces. I get squirrelly, sure, but I’m an introvert, so that helps. I read, I write, I ride my bike, I cook and mow the lawn, I blog and post to social media. I’ve marched for BLM here in Richmond, with the old folks who haunt the edges of the crowd. On occasion, I Facetime with a distant friend and we’ve even had a couple socially distanced cocktail meetups on our screened-in porch. We’ve been lucky, healthy so far. Yes, my wife’s 102-year old grandmother died in March in her assisted living facility. She’d been spry, even danced a little on her birthday, but spiked a fever and was gone in two days, back when there were no tests, so we don’t know. As one son drily put it, “Even if it wasn’t the virus, something was going to get her.” Eventually, I imagine, we’ll bury her beside Grandpa, but for now her ashes sit in an urn (she didn’t want to be cremated, but there was no other choice). Our other grandma resides in a dementia unit in a New York nursing home, well-cared for, but only able to wave with some bewilderment at family visitors through a window. A close friend died in late July of cancer. The last time I saw her was in February, and not being able to visit her to say goodbye saddens me. In my extended family, some have caught Covid and recovered at home. But like I said, we’ve been lucky so far.
I know, however, that a lot of our luck comes from our special privilege. We have a roomy suburban home where we can all live comfortably in shutdown. We have jobs. I even have a job that allowed me to work from home this summer. We’re on the same page about the virus, and look after each other. Yes, it’s worrisome that some others in my family and some neighbors distrust the science, have marched against masking, throw up their hands and call this the End Times, etc. Across the decade plus of the Obama and Trump administrations, politics have distanced us. Like so many others we’ve learned never to discuss politics at gatherings. But now, when the only way to slow the virus and lower the death toll is for all of us to pull together (the way other countries have been able to do), it worries me more that we’re so divided, so confused, somehow making public health political.
But here we are. I’m gearing up to put on a mask, a face shield, gloves and scrubs, and walk back in the classroom again in less than two weeks. My students need hands-on labs in splinting, physical agent modalities, prostheses, movement therapy in stroke, and more, or our accrediting agency won’t let them graduate. I’m in my mid-60s, so in a marginally high risk group. Sort of wish I’d retired last year. But instead I’ve agreed to stay on at my job until the end of the school year next May, because the state hiring freeze means they can’t replace me right away.
I’m – I think the word may be – “trepidatious.” We’re at least a year away from a vaccine reaching us all. As I write this, more than 155,000 Americans have died from this thing, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, more are suffering disability in their recoveries. For now the university where I work plans to hold nearly half its fall classes face to face. If I had to bet, I’d say that we’ll be back to full-time zooming by Columbus Day. Meanwhile, thousands more Americans will die.
Why is it so hard for people to face facts? Why can’t our President lead? A couple months ago, I mused on Twitter, “Think of the lives we’d have saved if Ivanka had added masks to her fashion line?” What I meant, of course, was that if Trump had seen a penny profit in those masks, he’d have pushed them hard. But here we are. As he so famously said, “It is what it is.” I tell my students to roll with it, to be safe, and to recognize that this is a year they’ll be telling their grandchildren about. For now, like my boys, they look forward to graduating into a scarcity of jobs, even in the health care field. But they’re young and resilient, and as a friend posted the other day, remember in the late 60s and early 70s, young men graduated directly onto a flight to Vietnam. My parents turned from their teens into World War II. It’s scary, yes. But wouldn’t it be wonderful, wouldn’t it be patriotic, if we could, as President Obama reminded us at John Lewis’ funeral the other day, turn towards each other? I mean, at the very least, think of the lives we could save.
I’m grateful to count author Rosemary Rawlins as a longtime friend. We met after publication of her powerful memoir Learning By Accident, which recounted her struggle in helping her husband Hugh recover from a brain injury suffered in a bicycling accident here in Richmond. The book is heart-wrenching, hopeful, true. It has helped so many people navigate the long months of brain injury rehabilitation in their own lives. Rosemary and Hugh came to lecture my occupational therapy students about this, we chatted, and thus began our friendship.
Over the winter my jaw dropped to read a second manuscript Rosemary was finishing, a work of historical fiction on a topic that might seem impossible to tell, the horrors of the Cambodian Killing Fields of the 1970s. Rosemary knows Cambodian immigrants who lived through that time, has visited Cambodia with them, has immersed herself in historical research, and she has magnificently condensed all of this into a riveting tale of one girl who comes of age across the years when Cambodia was tearing itself apart. By imagining the killing and the upheaval as seen through her innocent eyes, Rosemary is able to convey the personal, human cost of such brutality more powerfully than any straight history could. If you haven’t picked up All My Silent Years yet, it’s available on Amazon, or you can request it at your local bookstore. As they say, you’ll be glad you did.
All this by way of introduction to our By the Book interview:
What books are on your nightstand?
I am reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I often read two books at a time, alternating between them.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I read every day. It’s also a personal habit of mine to read each night in bed before I sleep, and the habit is so ingrained that I have trouble sleeping if I can’t.
My ideal reading experience takes place in a favorite cushy chair in my office, feet on the ottoman. I love being engrossed in a book on a rainy day, or reading at the beach in the early morning or evening when it’s empty. In the fall, I read out on my back deck.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
That’s like choosing a favorite child—impossible! But one book that has stuck with me for a long time is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, not only for the story but the beautiful writing. I found her characters to be extremely well developed and their voices so distinct that I fell into the story and never wanted to come out.
Your novel might be considered historical fiction. Do you have favorite historical fiction books or authors?
Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Tara Conklin (The House Girl). I also loved Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. More recently, I have read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys byColson Whitehead, two powerful stories.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Favorite villain?
Again, I could not pick only one, but for heroine, I’ll say Hetty Handful Grimke in The Invention of Wings, a slave girl called “Handful” with a strong will and memorable voice.
Here’s a quote from Handful in the book: “I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.”
Favorite villain. The villains I cannot stomach are vicious slave holders and overseers. The tortures they inflicted on people is unimaginable and inhuman.
Character-wise, I’ll name Nathan Price, the Baptist minister in The Poisonwood Bible. He was rigid and abusive, a self-serving fanatical man who was cruel to his wife and daughters while acting pious and self-righteous. If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people hurting others in the name of religion.
Your first book was a memoir. Do you have favorite memoirs or autobiographical authors?
I love memoir! On top of the dozens of remarkable memoirs I’ve read as editor of the Brainline blog site (I have a written several book reviews on the site and you can find them here), here are a few other memoirs that I’ve loved over the years:
Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl for its immense wisdom.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, for the beauty of insight before death.
Educated, by Tara Westover, a riveting family story where education is only one of the themes.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, for its poignant depiction of a loving family’s dysfunction and how a child remembers that dysfunction.
Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls, for her humor.
Julie Barton, Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself. I am highly allergic to dogs, but I love them so much I get dog allergy shots. This book had me in tears until the end—a beautiful tribute to a woman’s best friend.
For my research on Cambodia, I read many riveting first-hand accounts of stories that occurred during the Khmer Rouge period including: Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, compiled by Dith Pran; and First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
It’s a raw, honest, and wildly funny book about Chast’s caregiving experience with her parents. I needed this book when I felt isolated and frustrated about my own caregiving antics. A friend gave it to me at the right time, and it had an immediate impact. I felt lighter, less alone, and saw my situation as more absurd than annoying. Sometimes, books are pure medicine; they remind us that there’s love beneath all the mess.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Beautiful, impactful, and important in these times.
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
It wasn’t a book but it was words, so I hope it counts. My daughters arranged for all of the people in my life to write a quote or passage that reminded them of me, or that they thought I would appreciate, and I received the passages in a gift box. I open it all the time and read the slips of paper; each one is uniquely thoughtful and endearing. The gift means more to me than any other.
Are you a solitary reader or do you share your reading experience in a book club or reading community of some sort?
I read a book a month with my book club: Wine, Women, and Words. This group is made up of mostly retired teachers with a few oddballs like me, and we always have lively, intelligent discussions about the books we read together. I also attend a monthly Women’s Journey group that focuses mostly on women’s issues and spirituality.
What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?
If you ask me this again in ten minutes, my answer will change. I’d like to have several dinner parties by genre and one with poets, but here goes:
Sue Monk Kidd (The Invention of Wings),
Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), and
Yann Martel (Life of Pi)
What book do you think everybody should read before they die?
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. What makes a life worth living in the face of death to a young doctor and father facing a terminal disease? An exquisite exploration of the significance and meaning of life, of life choices and beliefs.
What do you plan to read next?
I just ordered Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kandi. I’ve been immersing myself in reading BIPOC authors to better understand recent events in our country and the Black Lives Matter movement.
My friend dying on the mountain emailed talk of hummingbirds some of the last sweet creatures she will see.
Wrote me last week not to worry: “Only continuing my years’ long evaporative process.”
In this season of our confinement she sits with my friend her husband on their porch and tears fall with no more shame than the rain spattering the trees.
She has planned it all with a kind of hope that something like this would come along some way to share it alone with him no visitors to spruce up for, no pies to nibble and throw out, no long sad looks from those of us still breathing without gasps.
Her head cocks listening at the flit, squinting eyes marvel at the sliver tongue sipping from the livid blossom’s drip.
All the thousand things that persist as he cups her fuzzy head in one hand to plump her pillow and she wonders if she’s smiled in thanks but leaves it over to trust because after all that is what we have left in the darkness in the naked world when at last we surrender to sleep and the next thing after that.
She might be awake when hovering for what seems like a pause in time the little hummingbird she could swear it takes her measure nods its glistening head deftly turns its needled beak like a pointer on a compass
and zooms away as if to say the truly interesting the nectar you seek it’s over here come see.