It’s Rainin’ So Hard.

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.”

Hell Day for a Fluco

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.

Meanwhile, Here in Suburban Richmond: an essay

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.

Love Over Fear? A reflection

When I wrote this poem last fall, using the 5-7-5 syllable haiku formula, I really didn’t have an answer to the question it poses. 

But it’s nagged at me.  I have a t-shirt worn to demonstrations that reads LOVE/fear (love over fear).  But the t-shirt doesn’t fully answer the question either.  Then I ran across a book by the popular philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum that goes directly to the point.  Here’s the cover:

Nussbaum writes:

“We’ve said from the outset that hope is the opposite or flip side of fear.  Both react to uncertainty, but in opposing ways.  Hope expands and surges forward, fear shrinks back.  Hope is vulnerable, fear self-protective.”

So by Nussbaum’s reckoning, fed by her deep reading in the classic philosophers and astute observations about popular fare like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the answer to my high coo’ed question might be:

If hate is just fear

spewed onto others then love

is hope in action.

I’m not entirely satisfied with this equation (or the way the new poem parses) either.  After all, doesn’t love often express itself best in situations where there is no hope, for instance in holding the hand of a dying friend (or in today’s climate, placing a hand up to theirs on a window pane)?  But I like the way Nussbaum’s definitions allow friction to operate on these heavily loaded four-letter words.  She describes how fear and hate, like sticks rubbed together, feed each other’s fire.  Hope and love, like palms rubbed together, warm the hands that reach out to touch.

So I’m thinking that hope and love, framed in this way, can be practiced as solutions to fear and hate.  When fear emerges, because of pain or misunderstanding or perceived danger, then hope can arise, too, perhaps aided by the behavioralists’ A-B-C (accept-believe-challenge) ritual, so that love can blossom where hate might have seeded instead.  For example, the coronavirus is deadly, terrifying and unpredictable.  But because it’s hard to hate a microbe, fear instead feeds on various strategies for hiding one’s head in the sand:  distrusting science, disbelieving the numbers, blaming others, and opposing the simplest efforts to combat the menace.  Fear can even lead to hateful rants in supermarkets by people refusing to mask.  The A-B-C approach to short-circuiting that fear with hope, as a path towards love, might read like this:

I accept that the virus is a sneaky killer.

I believe that I can take actions to protect myself and others.

I challenge myself to keep informed, stay home when possible, wear a mask in public, wash my hands frequently, and help others when I can.

The same model might fit so many of our personal, social, and political concerns.  After all, we live in frightening times.  But there is another word needed to complete this fear-hate/hope-love equation, and that is courage.  Is love, as my amended poem now reads, hope in action, or is something more required to act on these emotions?  Maybe courage is the linking word I’ve been looking for:  Hope feeds love feeds courage feeds hope feeds love.  Maybe, too, courage is love’s engine when there seems to be no hope.

So this: You can give in to fear, let yourself cower into hate; or look up with hope and brave love.  As the Jackson 5 sang in the midst of a time as tumultuous as the one we find ourselves in today:  “A-B-C/it’s easy as 1-2-3.”  Or is it?

PS – Here is a fascinating conversation from the Washington Post with a Black Buddhist gentleman on these same issues.

Hopeful Change in Richmond

On this July 4th, Richmond, VA, my home and birthplace, is a changed city.  Restaurants, gyms, and barbershops shuttered for months tiptoe towards normality, masked shoppers courteously dodge each other in the stores, and for more than a month, protestors have marched every day and night proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, their efforts too often marred by an aggressive and militarized police force that only serves to underline their protests against police brutality.  The monuments to Confederate generals on Monument Avenue are coming down, something that seemed daring to imagine in the story published in my collection Last Rites a year ago.

As I told it, the Confederate ghosts, condemned to haunt their monuments, taunted each other, Jefferson Davis predicting that A.P. Hill’s little traffic island plinth in North Richmond would come down first as a test case before the toppling of all the equestrian statues on Monument Avenue.  But as it happened, General Hill got the last laugh, his statue still standing, while those on Monument Avenue fall like dominoes.  Not that he hasn’t been targeted.  Marchers have demonstrated at his feet, and one of the ugly events of the past month occurred there, when an anti-protestor ran his car through the crowd.  Fortunately, no one was hospitalized, and the culprit was arrested.  But after more than a month of nightly marches, a bronze and pigeon-bombed A.P. Hill still stands athwart the leafy environs of Northside.  The city has recognized his unique status, because unlike the Confederates who have been toppled, Hill is not just memorialized but buried inside his plinth.  Before his statue is dismantled, something must be decided about what to do with his remains.  Because his corpse stands inside it, the Hill monument may yet survive the current purge. 

As will hundreds of other testaments to the Confederacy here in Richmond.  Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett lie among 27 Confederate generals and 18,000 enlisted men in the shadow of a 90-foot granite pyramid erected in their honor at Hollywood Cemetery.  The Daughters of the Confederacy will continue to place confederate flags atop their graves.  The perverse Tiffany stained glass window of Robert E. Lee (as Moses) amidst angels in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Grace Street, will remain, as will the White House of the Confederacy (where Stonewall Jackson’s bullet-torn jacket is reverently displayed), the Civil War Museum at the old Tredegar Iron Works, where so many of the Confederate cannons were forged, the old Confederate convalescent home and chapel on the VMFA grounds, and the townhouse on Franklin Street where Lee licked his wounds after the war. 

Those critics who have complained that Richmond will lose its tourism dollars from Civil War history buffs now that the Monument Avenue statues are coming down are no doubt mistaken.  This city is permeated with the war and its ultimate cause.  Consider, for instance, the Slave Trail to the razed Lumpkins Jail site; consider Belle Isle, where hundreds of Union soldier POW’s starved and died of dysentery; consider the ruined half bridge on the James, a reminder of the burning of Richmond, ordered by the Confederates themselves, as they fled south at the end of the war. 

Consider, too, the national park battlefields dotting the area: Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill, and within an hour’s drive Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.  Those battlefields would seem to be likely relocation sites for the Monument Avenue statuary.  I have mused about remounting General Lee on his noble horse Traveler, at Petersburg, pointed west towards surrender at Appomattox.  General Hill, a reckless warrior and a virulent and abusive racist (though in my story a long ghostly pergatory has mellowed him somewhat), may deserve no monument at all.  Perhaps his corpse will, as my story suggests, eventually lie without fanfare in some family plot near his birthplace in Culpeper. 

And perhaps the time will come when we can perceive the blight of slavery and its ongoing aftermath, the holocaust visited on Native Americans (and its ongoing aftermath), the continued unequal treatment of women, and the persecution of all those “othered” people (immigrants, LBGTQ folk, those with disabilities) in a clear-eyed and fully informed light that leverages our history towards honest reflection and action.  Perhaps as the ghost of A.P. Hill in my story concludes, we may eventually recognize both the dream and ideal that we claim for our nation, and acknowledge and atone for the horrors perpetrated in their name across the centuries. 

If the upheaval this year in Richmond and around the globe can do more than topple racist monuments, if this long-suppressed fury can be harnessed to reconciliation and reparation, in the name of a more equitable nation, in the name of recognizing all people as our brothers and sisters deserving of the rights penned by that most complex and troubling Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, then perhaps, too, the remaining vestiges of the war that for a time split our nation in half, a war with ghosts that haunt us still, can play a role in reminding us of what can happen when we let fear and greed sour to hate, serving as cautionary guideposts towards a better way marked by hope, kinship and justice.  Or not.  As always, it’s up to us.  Stay well and safe this Independence Day, friends.

Image by Richmond Times Dispatch

Corona in Prison

I’ve been receiving frankly terrifying letters from friends in prison about the malignant neglect that has been causing exploding numbers of coronavirus cases there. And last night caught the new episode of Last Week Tonight that exposes some of the horror.

Though it seems after several months of the virus, with virtually no guidance from the White House, individual states have begun to figure out how to protect the elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, the people in jails and prisons have been left to fester, and the staff, who go home at night, are spreading hot spots in communities all over this prison-happy land.

The federal Bureau of Prisons, left in the hands of Trump’s lackey Attorney General Bill Barr, could care less. But here, nothing I can say can match this blog post from a friend in a BOP facility.

Or this episode of Last Week Tonight.

PS – Just got this hand-drawn and colored political cartoon in the mail, a collaborative effort by my friend and his fellow prisoners, in a unit of 1200 where 700 are positive for coronavirus, and where two of his friends there have died from it:

Why this White Virginia Boy Feels So Proud Today

Today is my proudest as a native Virginian, thanks to the announcement by Governor Northam (another born and raised Virginia boy) ordering the removal of the 6-story tall monument to Robert E. Lee in downtown Richmond.

The decision could not have come easy for the governor, knowing that a vocal minority of his constituents will rage, but also because in doing this he has needed to evolve his own thinking, which for most of us would have been the heavier lift.  I know, because like the governor, I am a white guy of a certain age raised amidst tales of the noble, daring, underdog General Lee, a native Virginian cheered by ragged troops as he passes on his good grey steed Traveler.  Like the governor, I underwent three years of Virginia history classes in elementary school, reading text books that not only never mentioned the extermination of the original Virginians, but that substituted the word “servants” wherever the phrase “enslaved persons” should have gone.  I even remember an amateur minstrel show at the white high school’s auditorium on the 100th anniversary of Virginia’s secession from the Union, where white leaders in our community dressed in black face and ragged tuxedos.  I played a role in that play as the son of a Confederate soldier, and in my skit ran onstage to my hoop-skirted mother shouting, “Father!  Father!  Here comes father!” to announce his return from the war. 

It was not until 8th grade that our county fully integrated its schools, and my re-education began.  I am grateful for that.  Looking back, maybe I should say that was my proudest day.  Because that’s when I began to walk the path the governor too has followed.  My first black teacher was Irvin McQuaige, a tough love fireplug of a football coach who made it clear to us that nothing he was putting us through at practice compared to the cotton fields he worked as a child.  He spoke in Bernie Mack staccato, made sure our integrated football team set an example of racial equity and comradeship for the school, and that we were undefeated in district play.  (Coach McQuaige later became a beloved high school principal in our county.) 

Some of my white friends left for the local military school, segregated at the time, but most stayed on.  It was the early 1970s.  The black students led walkouts when administrators made particularly bone-headed (ie, racist) decisions, but our county got through the era intact.  That our sports teams won championships, setting shining examples of interracial teamwork, helped. Black and white students alike are friends to this day.

I think we all know what happened when Governor Northam went off to study medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. That photograph in black face will forever haunt him.  But his journey from that day to this mirrors my own and that of so many other white Virginians.

I’m a little younger than the governor.  Went north to college, where I spent a semester-long independent study reading all of Faulkner, whose entire Nobel Prize-winning oeuvre is a wrestle with slavery and its aftermath in the Deep South, and where I studied history under Professor David Herbert Donald.  Hearing this barrel-chested white scholar dissect and disprove with plain evidence lies I’d been raised on about the Lost Cause and the happy servants and what people I knew back home still called “The War of Northern Aggression,” all with a Mississippi drawl, frankly blew my mind.  Professor Donald taught me what history is all about (he almost made me a historian).  History is about facing the evidence, about wiping away cobwebs of myth and self-serving lore.  It’s about reading the ledgers of humans sold alongside cattle and the postcards showing lynchings all over the South.  It’s about letting the facts guide your opinions.  What a concept.

Which brings us to this past week, when everyone watched the slow and agonizing death of one man beneath the knee of another, and when the steadily growing protests across the country (and the world) made the white knees on the necks of black, brown and indigenous Americans over all these centuries plain for anyone to see and maybe finally reckon with.  Governor Northam saw it, and it changed him.  It pushed him along a path he’s been on his whole life.  The governor had already signed legislation that has made life easier for under-served Virginians, but until yesterday he hadn’t taken any step that might answer that yearbook photograph, that might punctuate the achingly slow revelation so many of us white Virginians have journeyed towards in our own lives.  Yes, there is so much work to do. Yes, our black friends are like, what took you so long? Yes, it’s only a symbol. But what a symbol! He’s done it now.  The Lee statue is coming down.  I’m so proud.

One last thing. If you were not able to listen to the entirety of Governor Northam’s remarkable announcement, I highly recommend it. One of the most moving speeches I’ve heard in a week of moving speeches:

Summer Reading for White Folks

I’m helping a friend write his memoir.  In doing so, we’ve uncovered themes that have colored his life and that have me thinking about the threads that weave through all our lives.  For Americans, an important one is race, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.  So, sparked by this past week’s horrors, I’ve been trying to come to grips with it, as a writer will do, by scribbling down my own experiences as a rural Southern white boy raised in the midst of school desegregation and all that has followed that noble, failed experiment, a white man whose ancestors in Albemarle County, VA, owned other people, a white man with black friends who, in their vigilant courtesy, never share their real feelings about race with me, a white man who has written four young adult biographies about famous black Americans, wondering all the while why the publishers did not find a black author to pen them.  The more I scribble, the more I realize how deeply race has threaded through my own life story, but being a white guy with all the privileges that attain, I haven’t ever really had to think about it much.  I’m determined to do so now, as a form of narrative therapy.  I hope it helps.

If you have begun to wonder about these things, too, I’d recommend a little summer reading that has opened my white man’s eyes.  These books were written by black authors who drop the vigilant courtesy for a moment, telling it like it is, and daring white folks to attend.  You may not agree with what they say, and they’re okay with that.  What they want, I think, is self-reflection, dialogue, some kind of reckoning.  Because without that, even now, twenty years into the 21st Century, what Joe Biden yesterday called our “open wound” cannot begin to heal.

The books:

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me.  Only 150 pages long and conceived as a letter to his son, this book is also a memoir of growing up in Baltimore and learning how to navigate the world one hard lesson at a time. It pulls back the curtain for us white folk on what black parents teach their children, about the past, about the police, about dignity in the face of systemic outrage.  Coates’ meditations on the “black body” in the American consciousness are instructive and unforgettable.

Also recommend Coates’ essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time.  Coates clearly modeled his book on Baldwin’s, universally recognized as one of the great works of 20th Century American literature.  Baldwin’s is even shorter, only 130 pages, composed as two letters to black and white America, about growing up in Harlem in the 1930s into the civil rights movement he did so much to inform. They may be letters, but they read like incisive, surgical pleas, the closing argument of a brilliant attorney who preaches from the pulpit on Sundays.  That Baldwin wrote this in 1963, and that last week happened, is all to our shame.

Toni Morrison – Any of her novels, but I’d start at the beginning, with The Bluest Eye.  The thing about the late great Morrison’s work, apart from the brilliant way she condenses history into personal experience expressed with lyrical concision, is that white people hardly figure in.  Her novels are of, by and for black people.  Black people who make their lives inside a waffle iron that is being heated and pressed on by a hand that doesn’t even have to be named.  In the (white) spaces between every line she wrote seethes a righteous anger with too much pride to go there.  And once you see that, as a white person, you learn something crucial about all the things your black friends don’t say to you.

A film:

Spike Lee – Do the Right Thing.  This movie came out 31 years ago, and it ends with a riot sparked by three white cops choking a black man to death.  So, yeah, relevant.

A documentary series:

Hip-Hop Evolution (Netflix) (4 seasons).  It’s a music series, yes, but whatever your thoughts about rap, it’s also a scathing history of the past 50 years in America, with important footage of the bombed out Bronx in the 1970s, of the Rodney King riots in LA, of the crack invasion that ruined whole communities, and the prisons that filled behind all that.  The talking heads keep saying that this week’s riots are not just about the killings, but also about all the other societal inequities communities of color face.  So if you’ve not lived all that yourself, this series can help bring you up to date.  If you also add Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to your Spotify playlist, that’s a bonus.

Another thing to think about.  Before you do anything else, watch this 50 second YouTube video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yrg7vV4a5o.  Then let’s chat.

Love Over Fear!

PS – My friend Doris McGehee shares these additional readings:

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. I’ve known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation
(1994).

“I’ve Known Rivers is about loss and triumph, rage and love, blackness and sexuality, trauma and healing, and the challenging journeys of life. The courage and insight of these storytellers and the wisdom of Sara LawrenceLightfoot as she presents their memories, struggles, and dreams inspire recognition and hope.” – Marian Wright Edelman [Katie Cannon; Charles Ogletree; Toni Schliesler; Tony Earls; Cheryle Wills; Orlando Bagwell]

 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Thirteen ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997).

“Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Bill T. Jones, James Baldwin, Albert Murray: these men and others speak of their lives with startling candor and intimacy, and their illuminating stories reveal much about the anxieties and contradictions of our society.  What emerges is an unforgettable portrait gallery of “representative” black men – which is to say, most unrepresentative ones indeed.” [also Simpson trial]

Shelby Steele. The Content of Our Character (1998).

“In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations–the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but an honest, courageous look at America’s most enduring and wrenching social dilemma.”

Punk on Film Top Ten + 1

Compiling a list of books on punk naturally led me here. You can stream a lot of these in our confinement. Play loud.

Documentaries:

Punk (Epix) – 4-part docu-series produced by Iggy Pop. Best if you want to see the originators playing live, and light on hoary pronouncements of significance (thank you Mr. Williamson), letting the explosion (or fart, if you will) of that 2-3 years yawp for itself.

Punk:  Attitude (Youtube) (90 minutes) – Don Letts’ history starts with Brando in The Wild One, links to ‘50s rock’n’roll, gives props to hippies, it’s about why punk.  Interviews and concert snippets by the originators but follows through to hard core and noise bands (Fugazi, Sonic Youth), even for some reason includes Nirvana.  If you only have 90-minutes, watch this one.

Punk Revolution NYC (Amazon Prime) (3-hours).  How it began, fascinating about Warhol’s guiding hand, the influence of transgressive downtown theatre, the nascent clubs, the rebellion against disco, SOHO and Loisaida as cauldrons of creativity when poor creatives could still afford to live there.  Sob.

The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris) (Youtube) – Okay, it’s not the first wave, it’s the hard core generation that Reagan/Thatcher spawned, but damn, the concerts cum riots!  Headache inducing, intentionally, of course.

The Blank Generation (Poe/Kral) (Youtube) (50 minutes) – Grainy black and white footage, audio as if they’re playing down the hall, but it was all shot in 1976 at CBGB, a time capsule, primary documentation.

Hip-Hop Evolution (Shad) (Netflix) (4 seasons).  Watching this series now, and wow!  Hip hop started exactly at the same time as punk, in bombed out 1970s New York, and way outlasted it.  Same impulses, same anger, same release, but black.  (Notes that punk fans were the first white people to fall in love with rap.) 

Movies:

Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox) (not currently streaming).  I so love this sad movie; may have been Gary Oldman’s first (as Sid).  One of my favorite unforgettable movie scenes (right up there with “Forget it Jake”) is Nancy running down the street in an angry fit, catching a glimpse of herself in a store window, and then stopping to tear off her clothes, screaming, “Fuckin’ Stevie Nicks!” when she realizes those clothes resemble something Nicks would wear. 

Summer of Sam (Spike Lee) (pay to stream on all platforms).  If you want to know what it must have felt like to be a nobody in New York when punk and hip hop launched, this is the movie.  The blackout, the talking devil dog, CBGB, the graffiti bombed subway trains, the grit and the hopeless energy.  Figuring out what to wear!

CBGB (Randall Miller) (Vudu).  The late great Alan Rickman’s last movie, as bushy-haired loser Hilly Kristal, the guy who owned CBGB and created a punk Mecca in the process. Actors play the musicians, some even look like the punks, but it’s Rickman’s movie. The scene where he meets the Ramones for the first time is priceless.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch) (pay on Prime).  Are you a Jarmusch junky, like me?  This movie, set in Memphis, is not about punk rock, but I’ve never seen anything that better nails how our lives fail the rock’n’roll impulse, that cry of spontaneity and freedom, and how that failure hurts and in some cases ruins us.

Control (Anton Corbijn) (pay to stream on all platforms).  A biographical film that follows Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to his suicide, and it’s just as bleak and heart-rending as that sounds. If you’ve lost friends and never really understood it, this won’t explain anything, but the movie knows how you feel.

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,