January by the Numbers

Last April – seems so long ago now – I posted this rant: https://tonygentry.com/2020/04/24/april-by-the-numbers-a-rant/. Revisiting the numbers game today, when the shock of that horrifying month has long been overcome by the count of those that followed.

On Day 1 New Year’s Day the total:
83.9 million Corona cases/350,000 dead.
Imagine Miami, everyone dead.
Or St. Louis, all dead.
That day, as most days, the US No. 1,
166,113 testing positive, 3,462 dead, and again on this day
as on 307 other days of his term
nearly 1 year of his 4
the President plays 18-holes.

Other numbers:
The golfing President begs 1 state
for 11,780 make-believe votes
2 Democrats win there
on the same day 1000s
sack the Capitol, hunting heads
Q’s and 3-percenters and so-called Proud Boys
5 die.

In 2021‘s 1st month
140,000 more Americans lose their jobs.
Food lines, testing lines, and now lines for
2 vaccines with 95% effectiveness.
But also 3, no 4, new Covid-19 strains.
You need 2 shots spaced 3 weeks apart
if you can find 1.

Then wait 2 weeks, or 3,
but maybe then you can still
be a spreader.
And will they kill the new strains?
Here’s a 1-shot vaccine, too.
What does 65% effective even mean?

73 last minute pardons of cronies and crooks.
The golfing President impeached a 2nd time.
10 months along, somehow still not enough N95’s.
ICUs at 110% capacity.

You’re better off with 2 masks
they tell us now.

On the 31st, a Sunday,
24.4 million Americans have been vaccinated
(just 305 million to go!)
as we continue our run at No. 1:
133,746 new cases, 2641 dead
in 1 day of the worst month yet.

The new old President, just 10 days in,
goes to church and prays,
no doubt, for 3 things:
Unity, mercy, and resolve.

Amen.

How Things Are Now

A year ago, our grandmother Angelina (Ann) Segno, then age 98, began to have difficulty walking. For several years, she had lived in a rural house in upstate New York, a group home with three other elderly ladies and their caregiver, settling into what my wife Chris calls the happy form of dementia.  We raced north within hours over Christmas break, when she was admitted to hospital after a fall, and spent the next two days visiting nursing homes in the area, seeking a placement for her.  We had an ace in the hole that made this search fruitful. Back in the day, Grandma and Grandpa had bought a cottage in the town of Pelham just outside the Bronx, and after he died and she moved into the group home, it was sold for a tidy sum.  When nursing home managers learned that she wasn’t a Medicaid patient, but could pay out of pocket, beds became available.  We chose the new, bright and airy Lutheran facility in Poughkeepsie, with its activity-focused memory unit, and left for home feeling Grandma had already settled in comfortably there.

Three months later, Covid hit.  We never saw her again. Aunt Mary and Cousin Lisa, who live nearby, visited often, waving at her through a window. For months the memory unit functioned as it had, with music, arts and crafts, and other group activities. But that was considered too dangerous in the fall, so patients were largely confined to their rooms.  Chris was Grandma’s legal guardian, so she spent weekends managing her finances, and weeknights on the phone asking about her condition.  Pictures showed her growing thinner, looking more confused.  A woman who, even in dementia, loved to chair dance, to use her hands, to clap and smile and enjoy the company of others, was made a prisoner to Covid.  Before dawn on New Year’s Eve she died, two months shy of her 100th birthday.

So our family has these bookends, our 102-year old Grandma Connie, who died in the very early weeks of the coronavirus, last March.  And Grandma Angelina. Neither, we think, had the virus.  Both died alone in isolation.

I’ve taught hundreds of occupational therapy students during my tenure at VCU, and some of us stay in touch. Last April, as hospitals reeled with the first onslaught of the virus, they cried on the phone, exhausted, undermanned, treating patients in parking lot tents. Things are more difficult now.  It turns out that many people who survive hospitalization end up with long-term disabling conditions that require rehabilitation therapy.  But home health companies have scant PPE, the nursing homes where many of our graduates work are hot spots, the hospitals are overrun again, and some of my former students have caught covid not once but twice.  Chris, an OT at the VA hospital, has been vaccinated.  My students, one by one, will get their shots, too.  But the cases have spiked dramatically, as has the workload, and everyone is so tired.

Until last month, my friend Corey was in the sixth year of his stay at a minimum security federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. A model prisoner, he taught an English language course for Spanish-speaking inmates, served as commissioner of the prison’s softball team, wrote letters and legal pleas for others.  Coronavirus hit the prison hard. As of this writing more than 40 inmates have died, and half the prison population has tested positive.  When newspapers began to write about this, the administrators decided to farm prisoners out across the nation, perhaps as an effort at seeming to care.  Corey — who had survived three covid-positive cellmates, who had heard prisoners cough themselves to death in the SHU (the “hole”), where they were put when their symptoms got too bad — was told that he was on the transfer list.  He spent Thanksgiving in the SHU – a cell with a roommate, a narrow bunk bed, a trickling shower, and a toilet – having broken no rule, as a way to isolate him from Covid in preparation for the move.  After three weeks of pacing wall to wall, they bused him all the way to Yazoo City, Mississippi, where he spent Christmas and New Year’s in that prison’s SHU, and where he lives to this day (45 days and counting now). As would be expected in the institutional Catch-22 that is the American penal system, we now hear that Butner’s Covid case load has zeroed out (perhaps they hit herd immunity), while Yazoo City’s has exploded.  President Trump’s Bureau of Prisons appears to function like much of the rest of his administration, a protracted SNAFU.

I go back into the classroom on the 25th, teaching a hybrid version of my lab-heavy assistive technology course, along with a zoomed stroke seminar, just as the Covid case numbers in Virginia hit their projected peak.  It’s possible that I may get vaccinated, sometime this semester.  Our boys, college seniors, are still in their bedrooms, fledglings flushed back to their nest, learning whatever their professors can teach remotely.

I haven’t mentioned the insurrection at the Capitol.  Driving back from Grandma’s funeral in New York last Wednesday, we listened to it unfurl on the radio. Since then we’ve watched the video footage of the American carnage the impeached (and soon to be re-impeached) President spoke of at his inauguration (even then, that rainy day, didn’t it seem that this was something he craved?).  I’ve been thinking about the day Christmas week, when I drove down to the southern end of Chesterfield County to drop off cookies for my sister, who has become a devout fundamentalist Christian Trump supporter in her retirement.  Nearly two months after the election, on the winding country roads down her way, driveway after driveway waved a Trump flag or a Blue Lives Matter flag or some other flag of the right wing cults. It’s the water she swims in.  But I miss her.

So that’s my update.  President Biden is a brave old man with a hopeful heart, but what a burden he will lift to his narrow shoulders next week!  Covid and Trump and Fox and Friends have conspired to separate us, to tamp down our prospects and set us against each other.  Old folks die alone, hospital workers collapse of exhaustion, prisoners languish, students and teachers pretend to an education, family members unfriend each other.  Military leaders prefer to let the Capitol be invaded, rather than risk putting troops on the Mall, for fear that the President might order them to join the revolt.  But, we say:  Vaccines!  New President!  2021!  Hang in.

Ten Favorite Books of 2020

In 2020, everyone’s concerns have converged, it seems (if our opinions haven’t).  My favorite books helped explain what was happening, provided guidance and insight, even comfort.  Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:

James BaldwinCollected Essays (Library of America):  Name someone else who has spoken truth to power with such precision.  Read chronologically, these essays form a fascinating autobiography, because everything Baldwin wrote about American history, culture and politics erupted from lacerating self-reflection. Not wanting to mar the pages, I’ve filled a notebook with pithy quotations from this volume, which – among other things – articulates as no other text has why Black Lives Matter matters.

Chip Jones – The Organ Thieves:  In this thriller-paced tale of VCU’s failed effort to perform the first heart transplant, Richmond, VA, newpaperman Jones splits the sternum of racial politics and dirty tricks here in the capital of the Confederacy, going all the way back to 19th Century medical school grave robbers and all the way up to the racist decisions that may have killed a Black man to give a White man his heart.

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell – March.  This 3-volume graphic novel-style biography of John Lewis begins with his farm childhood in Alabama and ends with the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the last page a chilling coda concerning the assassinations of 1968. So many people died this year, many we all felt we knew:  Ginsburg and Bryant and Boseman and Prine and Trebek and Connery and Van Halen and (Little Richard) Penniman and (Toots) Hibbert and the list goes on all the way along the line to our own family and yours, too, probably. Lewis’ nationally televised funeral felt like a memorial for all, fitting testament to a man whose life changed ours.

Robert MacFarland – Underland:  I read everything MacFarland writes, joined his Twitter book club this year, and found his new book simply magnificent. It’s about caves and tunnels and secret nooks and the spooky (he would say “eldritch”) beauty of the earth’s entrails.  Somehow, across 500 pages of prose, whole paragraphs read like rich poetry, some lines easily parsed as blank verse.  It’s a dazzling work of subterranean exploration and reflection that I’m re-reading now.

W.S. Merwin – Garden Time:  My dear friend, the poet and disability services worker Sarah Knorr, gave me Merwin’s final book of poems the last time I saw her before her death from cancer (we had tea at Sub Rosa Bakery that late-February afternoon, where I gifted her the MacFarland book).  This may be Merwin’s crowning achievement, each poem diffracting the others, all reflecting an expansive wonder at our temporal existence and our longing for what may last.

Gordon Parks – A Choice of Weapons:  Surprised to find that famous filmmaker and photographer Parks had written a memoir.  Bowled over that he wrote only about his coming of age, stopping before anything like fame came his way.  Gritty, angry, closely observed vignettes about one Black youngster’s travails in an early 20th Century America that had no use for him, each chapter a tightrope walk over a chasm that has claimed so many.  Parks doesn’t pretend that his smarts or ingenuity got him across; he knows it was sheer luck.  And the fury in his writing is all about the injustice of that.

Shusaku Endo — Silence:  Martin Scorsese’s bleak film rendition freaked me out so much that I quit watching early on, then went to the novel, which – in a hard-earned epiphany — reveals the simple key to Christianity’s appeal, something a childhood raised in a Southern Baptist church, and decades of reflection on religion and philosophy, had somehow missed.

Sam Wasson – The Big Goodbye:  Covid/BLM/Election/Zoom, the other common thread this year was streaming movies, they say. We’ve done our share, and some of that has been re-watching the 1970s classics I grew up on.  This book, a blow-by-blow account of the making of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, taught me a lot about the work all those folks on the credits do, told a heart-rending story of Polanski’s tortured past, and opened up a Pandora’s box of classics I hadn’t watched before (check out Polanski’s Frantic, Ghost Writer, and Knife in the Water, whew!)

Paul Witcover – Lincolnstein:  This book won’t be published until 2021, but my best friend Paul let me read it in draft, and wow!  In the first chapter of this roller coaster picaresque, the brain of Jim from Huck Finn is transplanted into the body of Abraham Lincoln, the patched together monster then bolting for the Civil War South, and the hunt that follows turns up hilarious takes on characters from Southern history, literature and folklore, while nailing the lies therein.  I so hope Quentin Tarentino or the Cohen Bros. lay hands on this book!

Peter Wohllebon – The Hidden Life of Trees:  If anything has kept me sane this year, it’s been daily walks in the woods with our dog.  This book, read early in the pandemic, opened my eyes to the community life of a forest, changed how I see and understand the trees that shade these walks, left me strolling more reverently, with a new sense of wonder, along the way.

Okay, your turn – What have you been reading this year?

2020: A Personal Slide Show

A little slideshow as we leave this trying year:

Last day of December in New Jersey visiting family, I photographed this old truck/came home and published a book of poems dedicated to our boys/and in what almost seems an innocent time now, took notes on what to do in an active shooter situation at school/spring break came and Jeanne Wallace let us spend it at her Kill Devil Hills beach cottage – the news grew bleaker all week there and they closed the bridge to the mainland the day we left/Grandma Connie, here with Nick and Stephen on her 100th birthday, was an early casualty, we think, though there was no testing yet; died alone in assisted living after gesturing “I love you all” through a window to her daughter-in-law Roz who stood outside in the shrubbery in tears/the pandemic comes to Richmond/a haiku I posted on Facebook/how family visits now/my new teaching gear/doctored photo/the marches begin downtown/thank heavens for the woods and daily walks with Buddy our dog – here some tulip poplar blossoms collected along the way/Sarah transitions/some of her many hats/the widower Ken finding another use for poplar, making a table for Chris’ flowers/Election Weekend in Franklin County, VA/a cartoon sent to me by my friend in a federal prison, where Covid has exploded/that happy Saturday afternoon/and just the four of us on Thanksgiving after two of us were exposed and awaiting tests. May we emerge in health and compassion in the New Year!

And here’s a link to the New York Times’ annual photo display: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/year-in-pictures.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage.

“By the Book” Self-Own

My friend and author Rosemary Rawlins asked me to share an anecdote or two for her book club, which I’ll be joining in December for a discussion of my novel The Coal Tower. Sent her this self-interview, which I agree is “contrived”. To say the least, but anyway:

What books are on your nightstand?

Oh gosh, this is embarrassing.  My nightstand groans with four stacks of books, arranged in order of priority, more or less.  I tend to read several books at the same time, dipping in and out as I go, seeking little linkages that pop up from time to time, which, by the way, drives my wife crazy – she’s a straight through to the end and on to the next style reader.  On the priority stack today we have:  Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racist ideas in America (actually begins pre-colonially in 1400s); I’m up to the 1980s and the Reagan Era now, so almost done; Jose Saramago’s Blindness, next up in my morbid pursuit of pandemic tales that launched back in April with a re-read of Camus’ The Plague; Lawrence Weschler’s Waves Passing in the Night, about the sound engineer Walter Murch’s oddball celestial theories, and three books of poetry, Carolyn Forche’s new In the Lateness of the World, Galway Kinnell’s The Past, and Jamie K. Reaser’s Conversations with Mary.  All of these feeding a notion in some poems I’m scribbling that seem to be about human perception in all its glory and feebleness; and Fever, 1793, a young adult tale by Laurie Halse Anderson, that I hope will help me learn how to tell a Jamestown story for teens that I’ve been fumbling with.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I’m there now, in our living room stretched out on the sofa, afternoon light slanting in at the windows so there’s no need for a lamp, dog napping on the floor beside me, not a phone beep to be heard.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

This answer seems to change every decade or so, as it probably does for most people.  In my youth, as an earnest Southern Baptist it was The New Testament and then that ecological bible Thoreau’s Walden.  In college Whitman’s Leaves of Grass knocked me sideways.  I fell hard for Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo in later years, but to answer you today, I’ve been writing a story that imagines Whitman and Thoreau swimming together at Walden Pond, and it’s those two guys and their masterpieces that have me swooning all over again.

Your novel is set in Charlottesville, Virginia, so might be considered in the line of Southern fiction.  Are there Southern writers you especially admire?

I’m old school on this, I’m afraid.  Faulkner’s top of the heap, then comes Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy, Ellen Gilchrist, Barbara Kingsolver, Daniel Woodrell…. Writing The Coal Tower, I took a shot at reading the famous short stories by longtime UVA professor Peter Taylor, who wrote with such precision about matters of social class in dear old C’ville.  But his casual racism shocked me, and then it seemed to turn up in so many of the old lions I’d read:  Percy and Steinbeck and Hemingway, for instance.  But before I start to rant, ask me sometime about my years working restaurants in New Orleans, and encounters with Percy and dear Ms. Welty there.

Who is your favorite fictional hero?  And the best villain?

Jack Kerouac’s muse Neal Cassidy was, of course, a real person and by all accounts as supernatural as the various fictional versions that turn up in Kerouac’s road novels, but yes, him.  The God of the Old Testament, when you think about it, is the model for so many fictional villains, and frankly, hard to beat.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And what stories do you steer clear of?

I love it when the writing gets caught up in itself, matches the pace of the events it tells, and squirts out a gripping truth or two so you have to put the book down for a minute.  All the writers mentioned above have done that to me at one time or another, creating these epiphanies on the page.  I have good friends who are mystery writers and SF writers, and I admire their work greatly. They too can squirt.  But those genres, otherwise, I don’t tend to go for.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Maybe no surprise, but I have a whole book cabinet devoted to nature writing, and I try to collect early editions of the books that knocked my socks off when I can afford them.  On that shelf a few oddities:  Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, Dr. Richard Rubens’ Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, and a pretty thorough collection of vintage Marvel superhero comics.

Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?

My dear friends who dazzle with their genius, yet struggle like so many artists to find the wide audience they deserve:  Terry Bisson, Liz Hand, Joseph Lanza, Katy Munger, Rosemary Rawlins, and Paul Witcover.  Among these, Rosemary’s new book, I mean wow.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

The only books in our house growing up were an old set of World Book Encyclopedias and their accompanying orange-bound Childcraft series.  But then came Dr. Seuss, Tom Swift, Jr., my first library card and the giant paper and ink proto-Google that was the Charlottesville public library. 

Favorite childhood literary character or hero?

Always the Cat in the Hat.  Have tried to live up to his example ever since – have a royally good time messing things up, if you must, but don’t forget to come back and straighten things out when you’re done.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

I’m that sneaky dad who slips books onto his sons’ nightstands in hopes they might put down their game paddles for a minute.  Most recently, Ta Nehisi Coates’ bound letter to his son Between the World and Me.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

I don’t know if they still do this, but back in the day, at a certain age, every kid at Fork Union Baptist Church was given their own paperback King James Version Bible.  I still have mine.

What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t?  Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’m trying to figure out what to do with Nabokov’s Lolita right now.  90 pages in, things getting pretty creepy, but boy does old Vladimir know how to lead you on, sneakily implicating you in what may be either a comedy or a horror story or both, and maybe that’s what’s so frustrating and intriguing about the whole thing?

What book would you recommend to the President?

To the impeached President, considering his notorious attention span, I highly recommend the aforementioned Cat in the Hat.  Especially those later pages where he and his minions Thing One (Ivanka?) and Thing Two (Jared?) clean up after themselves.  To the President-Elect, a fan of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, in which our hero bravely overcomes a monster ravaging the countryside, restoring peace and unity to the kingdom.

You have published fiction and poetry.  Do you prefer one or the other?

I started writing both around 9th grade and can’t seem to shake either.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

I’m useless at dinner parties.  I always end up wandering around outside, wishing I smoked and had that as an excuse, hoping no one misses me and comes looking.  But if three writers could join me on the stoop, just imagine Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, and I’d have to say Bruce Springsteen.  All of us, of course, our younger versions. I mean, if you’re going to wish!

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

Do you mean right before they die?  Maybe this book bequeathed to me by the poet Sarah Knorr, who died of cancer last summer, the poet M. S. Merwin’s final collection Garden Time.  Every poem like a last sigh of gratitude and wonder and not a comma or period anywhere.

What do you plan to read next?

Well, when I get through this first pile, on the top of the nightstand’s second stack – Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Autumn Postcard, Virginia

Exhaustion seems to be the order of the day.  The year has taxed everyone. Most of us have behaved admirably, but we’re tired.  And there seems to be no rest for the weary.  Here in Virginia, after the initial explosion of hospitalizations and deaths last spring, when my former students at hospitals here in Richmond wore the stripes of N-95 masks on their tear-streaked faces as they told of their labors, there was a lull across the summer, Governor Northam having imposed lockdown rules that seemed to work (at least among those of us who followed them), but here we go again. 

What a beleaguered summer it was, too.  For two months protestors marched on Monument Avenue, making a communal art project of the Confederate statues that came down one by one, until only Massa Robert is left (soon to fall).  Tear gas, cars set on fire, right wing provocateurs driving their F-150s through crowds.  Eventually, when the General Assembly came into session, some changes were made to policing, not enough but a start, and the protests petered out. 

A national exhalation last Saturday with the election decided for all except the die-hard MAGA contingent (ironic in a year of on the nose ironies that Biden won by exactly the same electoral college count as Trump had in 2016, and which he had touted as a “landslide”).  But this week, shoulders slump. What can Biden do?

Lonely.  No closure for so many things.  Our grandma, my dear friend Sarah, colleague Rondalyn’s husband all three dead but no funerals yet.  Chris’ other grandma in isolation in a New York nursing home all these months, anxious and confused in dementia.  My friend Corey in a low security federal prison where Bill Barr’s trial of herd immunity has killed at least 30 of his fellow inmates, where more than 1000 have tested positive. 

I teach via Zoom, my students stony-faced on the expanded Hollywood Squares style screen. I see them once a week for face-to-face labs, but in masks and goggles cannot make out who they are, have forgotten some of their names.  My boys completing their senior college year in their bedrooms.  All of us knowing this is not an education, that this whole generation in virtual school is getting ripped off.

Meanwhile, the powers that be grind on.  The stock market soars, the rich get richer, that old song.  Of course, Chris and I are lucky to have jobs, to have so far avoided the virus, to be resilient enough to carry on, all of us at dinner every night and our dog Buddy at our feet. So many have it so much worse, we all know that.

But I miss my friends, I miss the ceremonies and celebrations that mark milestones and offer closure, the interactions among colleagues and students at work, scribbling a poem over coffee at my favorite breakfast spot, going to a movie, having drinks with pals in a noisy bar, browsing museums, and jogging along in a local road race.  I’m an introvert, a loner, but maybe not as much as I’d thought. 

And with the cold weather upon us, the toughest months are coming.  A midnight call from the nursing home to say Grandma has developed a nasty cough, a friend coming off his last chance chemo, first holidays for families who have lost loved ones, laid off colleagues sending out resumes into a jobless void, my inmate pal getting shipped off to a faraway prison as a way to pretend they’re doing something about the virus, the President, of course, ignoring the pandemic entirely as he pouts about his loss over golf. 

Our fatigue is physical, emotional, spiritual.  We all need a good hug.  Somehow that socially distanced Wakandan salute doesn’t cut it anymore.  Trudge on, live in gratitude, one day at a time, yada yada.  You imagine that a time will come when all these photos of people in masks will spark nostalgia – as Springsteen sang, “One day we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”  One can only hope.

Baby Food – a poem

With both boys home again zooming school, we talk about this corona year and its hardships, and I bore them at dinner recalling my own youth and the lessons there.

We hunted nickels in the cushions
when school lunch was 30 cents
bought kerosene in cans to heat
the house for a day
ran the car without oil ‘til it seized.

You weren’t born yet.
I was younger than you.

We put up a sign when the gas arrived
and cars lined up down the street.
Daddy let them buy food on credit.
What else, he thought, could he do?

When the store failed he walked
the fields drunk as a tattered lord.

So that’s why now here in the suburbs
amidst our cosseted stuff
I come home in a mask with cereal.
Ice cream.  Apple sauce.

You see that’s what he taught me —
find comfort where you can.
In hard times, ain’t it true,
you always run out of spoons.