Dear Governor Northam

This is the letter I sent to Virginia’s governor this morning, as we cross the line of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in America. Let’s all keep pulling together in keeping that curve bent down here in the Commonwealth.

Dear Governor Northam,

Like many Virginians, I have family members who have come down with coronavirus.  We wait to bury my wife’s grandmother, who died in the early days of the pandemic.  My wife, an occupational therapist at the Richmond VA hospital, spends part of each day 3-D printing face shields and zealously guards the one N95 mask she’s been allowed.  My sons, both Virginia college students, came home at spring break and studied via Zoom the rest of the semester.  My older son, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, has been trained to maintain health precautions to the extent that he can (he wishes beach goers there would do the same). My younger son, a film student who lost his chance at a summer internship, is still working in his bedroom, picking up special effects editing gigs online and wondering if it will be worth it to do his senior year if it’s just going to be more of the same.  I’m a professor, had one week to convert my hands-on laboratory classes to virtual versions back in March, and spend part of each day now gaming out strategies for how to manage these courses in the fall.  We all wear masks when we go out, we stay home otherwise.  We even turned down an invitation to a Memorial Day picnic at a neighbors’ house, because older people would be there, and we’d hate to think we somehow might have infected them.

I say all this by way of introduction.  One other thing:  All four of us voted for you.  We applauded your swift and straightforward coronavirus restrictions, even though they directly impacted our lives, because as we have seen they “bent the curve” of deaths this spring.  Since then, however, we have been disappointed by your team’s management of the information and guidance we receive.  Your confusing sort-of-mandate about mask wear in public places, for instance, does not seem to provide any additional incentive for sensible people; in fact, one might think it is intended to poke the hornet’s nest of never-maskers who marched on the Capitol early on.  Your team obfuscates in answer to simple questions.  Perhaps they don’t intend to, but it’s worrying.

I teach my sons and students not to complain without offering a suggestion, so I would like to practice what I preach here, if you please.  This is what I ask:

Recognize that most Virginians will act responsibly when provided with the facts they need to make decisions and the tools they need to act on them.  Trust us to do the right thing.  Understand, however, that we need those facts and tools in order to do so.  That said, please:

Follow Tennessee in making all Covid-19 testing free.  Set up testing tents in the parking lots of county libraries or public schools across Virginia at least once a week; for those who cannot travel to those locations, offer a roving test van and a call-in number to schedule a test.  Turn no one away who wants a test, whether they are symptomatic or not.

At these testing sites, provide literature and guidance on what to do if the test is positive.  Provide explanations for home quarantine, including information on how to notify people we have been in contact with while contaminated, encouraging them to quarantine as well.  Offer free paper masks to anyone who needs one.

(If testing and mask giveaways at this level are still unavailable, clearly explain why, and say when they will be.  If testing must be rolled out in stages, show us the plan for that.)

Put the power of Virginia’s church congregations to work supporting their parishioners who are in quarantine, with food delivery, phone check-ins and prayer.  Other volunteer groups, such as the Lions Clubs, PTAs, and Scouts, may be enlisted to similarly support people who are spending two weeks in isolation.  Reach out to them and provide guidance on how to provide this support safely.

Provide free on-site testing at least twice weekly for all residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as New York is doing.  Do the same at all Virginia state prisons.  Encourage any business where people must work in close proximity indoors (grocers and meat processors, for instance) to do the same.

Provide emergency salary protection for anyone who must quarantine and make it illegal to penalize any employee who is in quarantine.

Break the stupid and unhelpful rule that says nursing homes, prisons, and food processors do not have to report out their numbers of infections.  Communities need to know where the virus is spreading in order to act safely on those risks.

Please provide more accurate, up-to-date and granular local data about the virus’ spread on the Department of Health webpage.  Include the information noted in my previous point.

Explain in plain language what you will do if the virus comes back.  What would trigger back-tracking on the phases of reopening in a particular community?  Stick to whatever plan you have in place for this. Make it clear to all of us that you are acting on the triggers and that you have the numbers to back up your plan.

Please continue your efforts to prepare the state for an upsurge in cases.  At each of your press conferences, list how many ICU beds have been added, how many ventilators, how much PPE.  How are health care workers being trained to meet an upsurge?  Show your constituents that the Commonwealth will be ready for the expected upsurge in the fall.

Finally, if a business chooses to reopen, yet an employee does not yet feel safe to go back to work, do not rescind unemployment benefits for the duration of the crisis.  Workers need to know that the governor has their back.

Governor Northam, as I said, I am confident that most Virginians will act as responsible citizens who care about each other in this crisis.  We have already shown that, in following your initial guidance and bending the curve of cases.  But we need honest, open, and clear information and direction from your office in order to continue on this path.  One more suggestion, please be sure to model mask wear next time you go out?

Thank you for your leadership and for your team’s hard work. Stay safe, stay well,

Tony Vomits Punk, the books

My friend and long-ago college tutor Randy Fertel is writing a follow-up to his well-received book of essays, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation (see my review here).  The new book will explore the uses and abuses of improvisation as an idea and a strategy in the arts, popular culture, and politics, and what I’ve seen of it so far is both fascinating and directly relevant to our current predicaments.  Anyway, he texted me last night to ask if I could suggest a book on the history of punk music, which immediately sent me to my book shelves and to the composition of the list I’ve shared here, in case anyone else may be interested in this topic that has meant so much to me.

Interestingly, I’ve never seen a cohesive history that starts with the New York scene (CBGB), blends in the UK (Sex Pistols, etc.), and adds in LA, Cleveland, DC, Akron, etc. in that incredibly packed and explosive 2-3 years (oil embargo, gas lines, Drop Dead New York) made so depressingly indelible to those of us who graduated out of high school into it (1975-’77).  That said, here are my Top Ten books about punk, for your reading pleasure.

Homstrom, John, & Hurd, Bridget.  PUNK: The Best of Punk Magazine.  This is a hefty coffee table book that reproduces the New York ‘zine that coincided with the very beginning of punk in New York.  It’s fun to read, feels juvenile and clubby and silly.  But introductions to each issue throughout the book do a good job of pulling together what was going on in the streets, what mattered, and how the sound and look developed (first issue was January 1976).

Legs McNeil.  Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.  Legs co-founded PUNK magazine, was in bands, etc.  A little frustrating as the story is told in fragmented interviews and dashed off asides, but he was there, knew everybody, and paid attention.

Jon Savage.  England Dreaming. This may be the best punk history, fierce and on point, but its focus is the English scene, especially the shooting star that was the Sex Pistols, so it doesn’t catch that first ignition of punk in New York.  One of my favorite books about music and its impact on culture, back when music could do that.

Lester Bangs.  Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste.  Guessing you know Bangs, the mad king of rock critics, whose stream of consciousness writing and make it bleed tastes made each of his record reviews and interviews a punk manifesto (his review of James Taylor, for instance, is a hilarious plea for something please to come blow up the music scene).  Most of the reviews came pre-punk, but he was there when it happened, wrote the first review of Patti Smith’s Horses, traveled with the Clash, and even took a stab at an article called “The Roots of Punk” (in Mainlines, that doesn’t mention a single band but perfectly nails what it felt like to be a confused teenager of the era).

Patti Smith.  Just Kids.  I’d include this in a list of my favorite books of the century so far, just so achingly beautiful in its appreciation of youth’s glory and what comes after.  Have you read this yet?  Damn it’s good.  Patti, of course, was the first punk goddess (and there were a lot of girl bands in punk), put out the first punk single (Piss Factory), and single-handedly changed college fashion with Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photo of her on her first album Horses

Richard Hell.  I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp.  If you ask me, Hell was the first punk punk (Warhol and Reed and Iggy and the Dolls his immediate influences, but let’s draw the line here).  And what’s amazing is that he’s aged into a sort of elder statesman of the scene, sober, articulate, and more clear-eyed than wistful over what he created and survived.  This autobiography is almost as well-wrought as Patti’s, and less insular.

Dee Dee Ramone.  Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones.  All four of the original Ramones are dead (one of their later drummers survives).  Dee Dee lived all the excesses of punk like a latter-day Keith Moon.  He wrote most of their best songs, could hardly play bass, and that was fine.  A line from the book:  “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds.  Punk comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”  The Ramones are a sort of miracle, the perfect punk band before punk even had that name, and they never made the mistake of evolving into something less crude.  I will always love them and their individual members in the same way I love all four Beatles.

Simon Reynolds.  Rip it Up and Start Again:  Postpunk 1978-1984.  Punk was dead in two years, so they say.  But most of the bands I love came after that, were just as punk as the originators, and even got record deals.  This is a highly readable straight history of punk’s splintering into hard core, ska revival, new wave, straight edge, etc., leaning towards all the amazing bands from the UK then.

Michael Azerrad.  Our Band Could Be Your Life.  This chronological history covers roughly the same post-punk era (1981-1991), but focuses on the American bands.  Title is from a song by The Minutemen, one of my favorite bands, and if they ain’t punk, what is?

Prison Reviews of my Poems?

Just before the pandemic shutdown, I visited my friend in federal prison.  A couple weeks before that, I’d sent him a copy of my debut poetry collection Yearnful Raves, along with some other books.  Check this out:  I’m standing at the guard box in the visiting room when he strides through the prisoner’s door, and before we even get to the one allowed hug he’s saying, “Man, take this the right way, we liked your novel and your stories, all good, but these poems, that’s your sweet spot, man!”

We took our side-by-side plastic seats and he continued, frankly blowing my mind.  He said (paraphrasing), “I went around showing off the book and guys were like, poems?  I told ‘em they were by the fellow who sends us books, so they were like, okay, show me one.  The ones about your dogs?  Guys went, ‘That’s some truth.’  And a half dozen brothers, I wish you could have seen them debating this one poem.  It’s the one where the space aliens are trying to figure out how to conquer us and they hit on the idea of color?  One guy says, ‘This is about black power!’  Another frowns at him, says, ‘No, it’s the power of words, man.  It’s how just little words can mess with your mind.’  They went at it for I’m not kidding a half hour, and they were still talking about it at chow.  That poem about your brother, that was killer, man.  Guys sobbed reading that! Things you can’t fix in your family, they know what that is.”

I’m sitting in this concrete block visiting room bowled over by the whole idea, prison inmates grooving on my poems?  Anybody’s poems, for that matter.  And then a letter arrives this week from my friend.  He’s included hand-written notes from a couple of his pals that read like reviews of the poems.  He swore he didn’t ask for them, they just wanted to tell me.  So here they are, my favorite reviews ever:

Dear Sir – I want to start this off by clarifying very emphatically that I know NOTHING about poetry…unless Dr. Seuss counts (?) I recently was given the opportunity to read your collection of poetry.  I enjoyed your work.  I must specifically address two of your pieces…your work on the subject of picking blackberries and the lament of crawling under a house to retrieve a dog were fantastic.  The way you “painted” both of these experiences took me back to similar situations from my youth.  I will fault you for having me fixate on blackberry cobbler for the remainder of the day…and going to sleep with the reminder of a long passed hunting dog.  Thank you.  I look forward to your future work.  Respectfully, _________

4 STARS! 

This author does a fantastic job mixing in seemingly humorous concepts with melancholic affirmations of what it means to be human.  The most fascinating of the entries is “Weekend Daddy” on page 12.  Though only eleven lines, it paints a picture that is laughable and yet all too realistic in its portrayal of what must be the titular character’s living situation.  One can readily imagine and “see” the home, and the feelings that come with this flood the mind like New Orleans during Katrina.  It’s a visceral torrent of emotion…all within eleven lines.

Another great example is “Alzheimer’s Poem” on page 26.  Hauntingly beautiful and poetic are the only words I can think of to express the emotions brought forth by this one.

My favorite, despite my feelings about the former ones, is “Don’t Let This Happen to You.” The message is clear and the warning simple.  Through its journeys from present to past and back to future aren’t the most illustrative present in the book, they provide a much needed context for the reader.  This one pulls at the heart strings and plucks at the minor chords guaranteed to leave you wondering what happens next.  Sadly, there is no next, and that means something in and of itself.  From start to finish, this one delivers on the aforementioned concepts and affirmations.

I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Yearnful Raves even if poetry isn’t your thing.  The three above make it worth the price.  ______________________

One thing about writing, it’s all messages in a bottle.  You hope something you wrote will touch somebody, and you’re grateful for any sign.  My friend and his pals clearly get that.  Locked up and in so many cases forgotten, their whole existence is like that, books nobody reads.  So, as you might imagine, I will cherish these notes.  Only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when those guys were debating that poem! And another thing, consider the generosity of these men, currently in their 50th day of unit lockdown for coronavirus. They knew it would matter, cared to reach out, took the time. They have nothing, but they have this. Thank you, gentlemen.

Note from a Friend in Federal Prison

Followers of this blog will recall that I have a friend in a minimum security federal prison.  However tough your home confinement may be now, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on there, even in minimum.  Here’s an excerpt from a letter just received:

Any story you read about the Bureau of Prisons response to coronavirus, take whatever they claim, and flip it.  They are in Deny, Lie, Mislead, Obfuscate, Deceive, Deflect…Mode.  We never get a straight answer.  The virus is now officially on our compound, but Admin is still in denial.  One AW said, “I don’t want our numbers to look bad,” when asked about why we are not being tested.  And all the stories about the BOP trying to send people home?  It’s a trickle, at best. We are still at 160 guys in a dorm made for 124.  We have not been allowed outside in over 40 days.  People getting crazy!  The Psych and Ed departments are trying to bring us stuff to keep us busy, and your books help – thank you!  All my running progress – I was up to 10 miles/day on our little track out back – now I’m back to square one.

I am of course filing my paperwork to go home.  I will be denied because of the fear tactics, but I will appeal it up the line – hoping that actual facts and data showing I am a minimal risk will win out.  One in a million chance, but “No” is free!  I am tutoring a couple guys in Spanish and taught one of my buddies to crochet.  The days are LONG!

The riot squad has been called in a couple times, b/c the guys got tired of the constant “spin” and didn’t obey direct orders.  It can get pretty tense, especially now that guys are sick due to staff releasing a few fellows from quarantine too early and they were actually positive so infected their units. 

I could ramble on endlessly about BOP mismanagement but it’s not productive.  Box dinner time!  Peace and Love!

One Gift of Our Sequestering: a poem

They came home
fledglings flushed
back to the nest
and, of course,
we welcomed them.

Their rooms still theirs
nothing changed.
We’d washed the sheets
that’s all.

A throwback
that had us thinking
about times we’ve shared
that won’t come back.

Chris said, “You were at work,
and it was just Nick and me.
I’d get tired and lie down on the sofa.
I’d lift him up and down,
whee! until my arms got tired
then he’d rest his head on my chest and we’d nap.

I said, “What I wouldn’t give for one more
game of Grabber-Man.”

So when the colleges turned them out
it felt like, alright, not quite the same
but take it as a gift.  And strangely,
it has been.  A rewind/replay
all of us together at dinner every evening.

That had me thinking of other last things. 
Like:  I can point out the Cary Street corner
where it happened.  I took Stephen’s hand
to cross the street and he sort of swatted it away.
Told myself, I guess that’s it for that.

But I didn’t mark the last time we chased hot air balloons
or that Nick woke up early just to hang with Dad
or the boys took off their capes, put down their swords
and plastic shields and never picked them up again.

(Hand-me-downs for the neighbor children,
still giddy and chubby and fresh.
I want to school their Dad on that, but he, up to his elbows
in his four little kids, he’d look at me askance.) 

(Well, that’s probably half the dream of grandparenting
creaky old knees and old man bad breath
tumbled on the floor to wrestle with the new kid
one more round of Grabber-Man indeed
almost not quite but hey.)

So yesterday when I outrigged a kayak and its paddle,
a surfboard and a bike to his little car
and Nick headed off for the Summer of Covid-19
lifeguarding in the Outer Banks
this wash of feelings, memories, trepidations,
breaking with a shush on the sands of our parenthood.

Buddy sleeps in our room every night
but last night he didn’t come up.
He lay by the front door maybe wondering
when Nick would come back in.  He gets it.
Though like us he only dimly understands.

April Witchery: a poem

Oh man, another poem? Hey, it’s the last week of National Poetry Month, so sue me, right? Anyway, brand new (picture, too), from a walk last week in the woods near our house – and in this month of sequestering, believe me I know what a gift it is to have a woods to walk! Also, are these in fact wild roses?

Publishers Weekly Review

Glad to see this! For an indy author, something of a coup, reviewed by jury selection: https://www.publishersweekly.com/9781732760806?fbclid=IwAR1Syf-ovA1xvyRY5qDpj6J_F0bdusGS1iUZB-7viUAl5OF685vFhKueltg.

As most readers of this blog will know, the novel is available on Amazon here https://amzn.to/3eZo2XQ or by request at your local book store.

And through the end of April, the Kindle version is available for free on Amazon.

Here’s what Publishers Weekly said:

Thanks, PW! What a happy surprise amidst our sequestering!

April By the Numbers: A Rant


N-95 if you care to survive.
The cruelest month, indeed.
For Covid-19.
Contagious 3 days before you’re sick
and maybe 2 weeks after that.
The model said 1-2 million dead.
Then 100k then 60?
No 60k by May Day.
MayDay?  MayDay for true.
N-95?
We all need somebody to lean on.
Coronavirus the 19th.
100 body bags to a reefer truck.
Zoom meeting at 9 am.
14 days in quarantine.
The Dow down by 1/3.
30 million out of work.
Presser at 5 o’clock.
N-95?  (He put it on upside down.)
3 trillion spent and still where is the check?
Quadruple the numbers from China.
Must fall 2 weeks in a row if you want to flatten the curve.
To get the R number down to 1 or less.
Canned beans limit of 2.
1 teaspoon of bleach in 12 ounces of water is what the man prescribed.
N-95, anybody got a N-95?
Mostly they made love from 6 feet away.
18 months to vaccine.
6 to the election.
That lady was Patient 0.
Uganda has 1 ventilator.
5-fold increase in cyber-attacks.
Fuck the N-95, wear this bandana like a cowboy thief.
3 million so far.
In Europe 1/2 the dead lived in care homes.
But the little boy was just 3.
They’re called numbers because they’re numbing.

Well how about this:
Already in April more people have fallen
than all the cherry petals on our lawn.