February – The Longest Month

Why is it that February, our shortest month, always seems the longest? And this year, as we round toward the first anniversary of the Covid-19 shutdown, wearing doubled masks, teaching and learning via Zoom, scrambling for vaccinations, and this week trying to summon an appropriate mourning for half a million Americans dead (far more than any other country), we slog along in what feels like the longest February ever.

Just now I googled today’s date in 2020.  CNN’s Covid headlines read:

  • Death toll rises to 2,468 in China’s Hubei Province
  • Israel Expands Restrictions on Foreign Nationals as Fears Mount
  • Number of Coronavirus Cases in Italy Rises to 62, 10 Villages Shut Down
  • Number of Global Cases Now Stands at More Than 77,000

Not yet a headline, in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, a stream of ambulances had been rushing residents of a skilled nursing facility called — ironically — Life Care to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. On this day a year ago, 44 Americans were said to have Covid-19. 

And this guy described as a “top infectious disease doctor”, a white-haired Marcus Welby-type named Anthony Fauci, warned on tv that “We are clearly at the brink of a pandemic.” The President, an orange-haired Mussolini-type, had just returned from a political rally in Las Vegas. His day’s agenda was empty, but he stepped onto the porch of the White House for a few minutes to tout the economy. If any reporter asked him about the virus, it didn’t make the news clip.  In two days, he will tell his fateful and most deadly lie:  “The coronavirus is very much under control in the U.S.”

A year later, watching our gray-haired grandfather President try to lasso the horse so long out of the barn, seeing Dr. Fauci more often than we see our neighbors, having buried loved ones while still waiting for some safe date when we can hold memorials for others, we’re all so exhausted. Half a million dead. Benumbed minds boggle. We shrug, don our masks, and trudge on.

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.

“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.

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.”

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.

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?

Walking the Endless Wall

Just a couple miles away from the New River Gorge Visitors Center in West Virginia, the aptly named Endless Wall hiking trail offers vista after vista of the gorge, the famous arched bridge, and the rapid-churned New River far below.  It’s a well-marked, mostly flat four-mile out-and-back that your grandmother could do in sneakers, but its rewards belie its accessibility.  The trail begins amidst a surprisingly robust stand of hemlocks, some of the few left from the hemlock borer blight that has devastated so much of the Blue Ridge forests.  These graceful conifers stand tall and limbless up to a high canopy where their piney needled tops sway in a breeze.  At ground level, rhododendrons run riot across the stony ground, with nothing to block the view between them and the hemlock heads.  Chris and I walked in an almost cathedral quiet, sunlight shafting in between the narrow columned trunks, just a tinkling stream and the caw of crows to mark the stillness. 

Half a mile in, as we approached the “endless wall,” the hemlocks give way to the usual mixed deciduous forest of white oak, maple, and sycamore, their mustard, pumpkin, and occasional cranberry-colored leaves littering the path made a tunnel by over-branching rhododendrons (must be so fragrant here in springtime when they blossom!).  I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural trick, of narrow passageways opening onto high-ceilinged rooms as we emerged from this tunnel onto our first vista, a rock outcropping directly at the edge of the ridge, with a magnificent view of the fgracefully arching rusty bridge that spans the gorge.  Just far enough away not to hear the cars rushing along its arrow straight roadway, but not too high to miss the distant hushing churn of the river below.  We stood as if on the edge of the world up there, and the steeply sloping hills, dappled in autumn colors, seemed like some rumpled shag rug, hawks and buzzards swirling below and then swooping past us to circle even higher in the sky. 

New River Gorge Bridge seen from Endless Wall Trail

Every hundred yards or so for as long as we wanted to walk, another spur trail offered another outcropping and yet another magnificent gorge view.  One path goes to a climber’s ladder that disappears down a rock crack to a narrow ledge far below.  We didn’t see any climbers on our walk, but what a series of challenges that miles-long wall of rock must offer!  No kayakers on the river rapids either, as temps dipped down to freezing overnight, but it was easy to imagine our son Nick and his Passages Adventures crew blasting through the narrow white water channel there on that storied trip he took I think 3 years ago.  The brisk air and the bracing vistas made me feel almost brave enough to consider taking up white water kayaking and rock climbing myself!  Eventually we turned around, not even halfway through the hike, stopping on a broad flat rock and letting our legs hang over the edge, for lunch.  Here’s my favorite picture from the hike: 

On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62

Finished Dharma Bums, its final rapturous rush as Kerouac’s protagonist (clearly and baldly autobiographical) packed a Summer on a Cascades Mountains (Desolation Peak) fire lookout into half a dozen pages; the final page as innocently exalted as I have felt in my epiphanies, so many of them nature-driven, and heartbreaking since we know how his short life will devolve into alcoholism (his drinking a recurrent theme in the book, the Gary Snyder character deriding him for always needing a drink) and a sequestered death at his mother’s house in Florida. Coming off the mountain, believing he’s learned an ultimate truth through a Buddhist filter, all is right; he fears and yearns for the tumult of the cities, suggests that the lessons of his mountaintop solitary Summer will carry him through. I have felt exactly that, and wondered if I was the only one who had walked that path. Kerouac says, no, this is not an uncommon thing, it’s open to anyone; just let yourself turn towards that edge of madness depth perception, check your everyday cynicism at the door, and grin.

Can’t believe I’ve never read this book before. It sums up so beautifully a path I’ve trod (and you have to think this book influenced the music and literature and the whole cultural gestalt that led me along all these years – it certainly had to up the ante for the coming youth movement, almost seems a blueprint for hippiedom and its many offshoots, in ways that On the Road was not) (that classic almost a cautionary tale about the dread of aimlessness, whereas Dharma Bums, with its hilariously ham-handed and dilettantish Buddhistic flourishes, points the callow reader towards inward-seeking life goals Thoreau or Muir would have appreciated).

The woodsy parties sound like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fests, minus the LSD (not yet invented), no doubt emulated by all the hippie communes to come. I’ve been to parties like that – I’m thinking especially of weekends at Nora’s rundown Mississippi plantation. Young people at play with flowers in our hair, skinny dipping in the creek, at the cusp of some sort of revelation, and holding it there like a glow of pot smoke swelling our lungs. Those weekends, probably every day of my wild oats years in New Orleans, too, just another On the RoadDharma Bums derivative. And not just then and not just me, of course. Think of their influence on the searching, fulfillment-yearning, meandering way we have all lived in the sixty-plus years since their publication! Even if you never read them, they signified.  What culture shaking power Kerouac’s two great novels unleashed!