Ten Favorite Books of 2021

Halfway through 2021, I retired from teaching at VCU and set out on whatever this next chapter may bring. The books listed here (only three of which were actually published in 2021), have informed and inspired me along the way. Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:

Martha Gellhorn – The Face of War (Grove Press):  I knew Gellhorn only as Hemingway’s second wife, but discovered her brave and brilliant war reportage while trying to process our pullout from Afghanistan. The essays in this book (D-Day invasion, Nazi concentration camp liberation, Vietnam, etc.) focus on the grunts and civilians, not the generals, and in every hard-won line Gellhorn’s love of mankind and hatred of what we do to each other gleams. Of late, there seems to be a much-belated effort to recognize female war correspondents. Gellhorn’s book, for me, was a revelation.

Ted Goia – Delta Blues (Norton):  I have a wide bookshelf of musicophilia ranging from early jazz to post-punk, and have written young adult biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Elvis Presley. This book bowled me over. Goia is a masterful musicologist, who devotes a chapter to each of the leading pioneers of country blues, while weaving in pretty much everything known about the evolution of blues music from slavery days to the present (and making the case for blues as the lodestone of American popular music in general). He’s a dazzling writer. The chapter on Howling Wolf, whose childhood was a horror, is alone worth the price of the book.

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper).  Gob-smacked. You may think you know this story, but believe me, there’s a surprise on nearly every page of this beautifully written book that pulls together research from nearly every scientific field to tell the tale of how weakling bipeds on the plains of Africa raced to very quickly overrun the planet. It’s not pretty, but wow.

Ibram X. Kendi – Stamped from the Beginning (Bold Type): I launched into this 600+ page history of white supremacist oppression in America in 2020, during the Floyd-Taylor protest marches, and finished it early this year, having learned so much about how – since the 1600s – racism has served the masters, been encoded in law, and continues to color our lives today. I’ve read several books on this topic of late; so far this one’s my favorite.

Ted Kooser — The Poetry Home Repair Manual (U of Nebraska): Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, subtitled this book Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, and it’s all that.  So many instructional writing texts float on theory or fluff, but this one focuses on communicating one’s observations clearly and interestingly. I’m taking his well-grounded advice to heart, reworking some of my clunkier poems and enjoying the effort.

George Saunders — A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House): My old friend, the author Paul Witcover, gave me two of the books on this list (dude knows me well). This one is a retirement present subtitled: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The master teacher here is witty, insightful author George Saunders, and the method is reading short works by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol, glossed by Saunders to goose you along in better understanding the mechanics and the magic of fiction writing (like Kooser’s book, all in the service of clear communication).

Suzanne Simard – Finding the Mother Tree (Knopf).  One of my fave books from last year, The Hidden Life of Trees, propounds a “wood-wide web” of nurturing communication among trees and other forest plants, which led me to this remarkable book by the scientist who discovered that network. She explains her forest experiments, devotedly studying nerve-like synaptic root systems, and promotes the notion of “mother trees” that have a sort of memory shared with saplings to protect them from disease and trauma. Clear-cutting, she argues, kills the mother trees, so new growth is weaker, less resilient, and prone to failure.

Jack Trammell and Guy Terrell – Civil War Richmond (History). You may know Trammell as the Democrat defeated by the aptly named Dave Bratt in a Virginia 7th District Congressional race. You may not know that he’s a noted sociologist and historian who has written 20 books. This new one, co-authored with Virginia poet Guy Terrell, digs deep into the maelstrom that was our sleepy capitol city during the Civil War, attending to untold stories of free and enslaved Black people, the wounded and sick, and those with disability or gender differences, while challenging what we think we know about where we live and how we got here. (Lots of gripping photos, too.)

Douglas Wolk — All of the Marvels (Penguin). As a kid in the 1960s, I haunted our local drug store for the early issues of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil and pretty much anything Marvel every month. My kids have grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that interprets those comics in interesting ways. So when my fellow geek friend Paul sent me this book, oh what a rabbit hole I fell into!  Wolk says he’s read all 27,000+ Marvel comics; in this book he pulls together the key themes of what he calls the “epic of epics”.  Fortunately, there’s an MCU app that stores most of these comics online. Currently spending way too much time on my iPad, re-reading the old comics to follow Wolk’s inspired guidance.

David Young – Du Fu: A Life in Poetry (Knopf). There is no greater poet than the ancient Chinese wanderer Du Fu (used to be Tu Fu). I have three translations of his work and always carry one with me on my own travels. This new version (2019) serves as a sort of memoir, the poems freshly translated, then arranged chronologically in sections introduced by notes on what the poet was up to at the time of their composition.

Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this very odd year! Share a comment, if you will, about your own perusals. Happy Holiday Shopping to you – let’s all buy this year’s holiday gift books from local indy bookstores – after all, Jeff Bezos is rich enough, ain’t he?

Here in Richmond, my favorite bookstore is Book People, owner David a kind and devoted bibliophile.

In Charlottesville, New Dominion Bookshop on the downtown mall is my go to.

btw, Washington Post’s list of Ten Best Books of 2021.

Yazoo Ho! Day Five – Headed Home

I’m tired and aching for our bed at home, exactly how you hope to feel at the end of any trip. Waving so long to Roz, I nose the little Mazda out into the mighty river of Atlanta’s notorious morning traffic, and fight my way upstream, as twenty lanes narrow gradually to four, and that harrowing tangle of interchanges gives way to arrow-straight highway bordered by the piney woods and lakes of eastern Georgia. Three hours in, I stop in Greenville, South Carolina for a quick burger at Five Guys with my longtime colleague and friend Jeff, semi-retired from occupational therapy professoring. He’s made lemonade from the Covid lemon, launching an online startup that offers fill-in zoom teaching for OT programs around the country. As always, we happily grouse about the current state of academia (we should have our own MAGA caps: Make Academia Great Again), proudly review the careers of our sons (we each have two – all grown), and promise to catch each other on the flip-flop.

At sunset, signs for Butner appear (just north of Durham), and I smile at how the six-hour roundtrip to visit Corey in prison there used to seem so arduous. When I pull into our driveway in Bon Air after dark, our pup Buddy spins in giddy circles to see me (Is it true, as they say, that dogs have no sense of time? That to them your disappearance for a 5-minute trip to the grocery store is just as painful as a 5-day trip out of town? Maybe one way to measure that would be in the number of circles they spin on your return?), and my wife Chris, who has been tracking my phone, sets out dinner. How sweet it is to be home, to swap tales about our past few days, and yes, to fall back on my own pillow again!

Thus ends my 5-day, 2,000 mile journey, mission accomplished! If I go back before Corey’s release, I’d like to broaden the scope of my travels, perhaps visiting the Blues Museum north of Yazoo and some of the storefront civil rights memorials scattered around the Deep South, maybe even daring that pig ear sandwich. This whole drive I’ve been wrestling with the “Cold Civil War” we seem to be fighting in our dear old USA, while at the same time feeling grateful for the kindness shown by the young woman at the bookstore, who pulled out a map and showed me how to get the most from my battlefield tour, by the prison guard who (I’m pretty sure) came in early to work (after celebrating her son’s birthday) to make sure I could get in to see my friend on that second day, by the waitress who brought me a free Coke for my travels. No, I’m not suggesting that random acts of kindness will get us out of this mess. General Grant did not “nice” himself to victory in the War Between the States. But empathy is the core of community. Isn’t this how we bridge our divide?

This is my first fall season in twenty years not wrapped up in teaching. Instead, October will be book-ended by poem readings at Celebrations of Life for two longtime friends who didn’t live long enough to retire. In between, I’ll do my Meals on Wheels runs, volunteer at this weekend’s Folk Festival, set up a smart home for a friend who uses a wheelchair, and plant a Little Free Library box in a corner of our yard.  Will even tie on my professoring necktie again and lecture at WVU (a trip cleverly planned for the heart of leaf-peeping season). I’m meeting with my friend Ed Turner on Zoom, helping him write his memoir and deep into drafting a new novel. This travelogue has been a homework assignment in my writing life, practice in composing a personal essay. Thank you for coming along for the ride. As Roz counseled, in retirement, you have to give yourself a reason to get up in the morning. At least for this month, that’s covered.

Ruminative musings and detours aside, the main point of this Deep South journey, of course, was to visit my friend Corey in prison. It was so good to see him again, especially since his mom just phoned to say that the Delta variant has hit the penitentiary, his unit is in lockdown, and who knows when anyone else will be allowed to visit?

Post-script: Have been throwing in quotes from Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” across this travelogue. Here’s a superstar version of the song, from The Band’s Last Waltz concert movie.

Yazoo Ho! A Deep South travelogue: Day Four

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

I pack and slip out of the Steele Cottage at 7, having finished every crumb of that hummingbird cake, and head back to Yazoo. Hurricane Nicholas has dissolved, and yesterday’s foreboding drive with it. The morning dawns bright upon expansive cotton fields and what had seemed looming, shaggy monsters reveal themselves to be only overgrown swamp oak copses. I stop to admire a delightfully whimsical folk art construction north of Vicksburg, and find myself singing that perfectly appropriate Dylan line, “Yes I think it can be easily done, take it on down to Highway 61.”

This is fun. After a year and a half of masking up and staying home, zooming my final courses, retiring without celebration, and constantly fretting over the death rate, it feels so liberating to hit the road, even if my destination has been a fortress prison in the Mississippi Delta. Having figured out the game, all goes well at Yazoo. The same kind guard is on duty and processes me into the visitors’ room without a hitch. For three hours, Corey and I jabber at each other with never an awkward pause, always more to say. Today we share the room with other visitors, too:  a young woman who drives in from Atlanta once a month to visit her fiancé and a spry elderly fellow and two well-behaved youngsters who have come down from Memphis to see his son, their dad. Atlanta is seven hours away; Memphis three. It’s clear, for all of us, that the drive is worth it. It dawns on me that the rules here — sit six feet apart, no touching, everyone in masks – are the rules we all live under now, more or less. Covid itself is a kind of prison, and with the Delta variant running wild, who knows when we’ll be released?

I plan to drive straight back to Atlanta, stopping only for gas and gnawing on a leftover piece of fried chicken for lunch. When I start the car, the radio blares – wouldn’t you know it? – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic “Freebird” and it’s shouted claim, bleakly ironic in this setting, “I’m as free as a bird, babe, and this bird you cannot ca-a-a-a-age!”  Don’t you love these sneaky correspondences, when the one-armed bandit turns up all lemons and the world seems briefly a little less random? I’ve been force-feeding the model this whole trip, testing my Apple Music subscription by calling up obscure tunes by Son House or Blind Lemon Jefferson on a whim, their mournful blues a soundtrack to the movie beyond my windshield. Mississippi has been all Delta blues, but crossing into Alabama I switch to the Allman Brothers and Hank Williams, passing through Birmingham Randy Newman’s essential Good Old Boys album, and hitting the Georgia line R.E.M. and Ray Charles. Navigating the multi-lane freeways in Atlanta, though, the best music always is Outkast, and – back aching, eyes bleary – played loud.

The whole trip, though, I’ve been returning to a Bob Dylan playlist, songs across his 60-years-plus career pouring out in a jumble that somehow fits together. I’d scratched my head at old Bob’s Nobel Prize, but the idea has slowly grown on me. Driving through the Deep South for the past four days, I can’t think of any artist who has so bountifully articulated the tortured psyche of America, and delineated how the lies we (who identify as white) tell ourselves (most glaringly about race) are the keys to our culture’s troubles. Nobody listens to albums any more, but having followed Dylan my whole life (yea, even unto these latter years), I still think of his work in album-sized chunks. From one album to another, his bands, his musical stylings, even the timbre of his voice, change. But jumbled together on a playlist, there’s a consistency to his effort, anchored I think, by his masterpiece Highway 61, Revisited. That tune — surreal, careening, hilarious and dark — exemplifies Dylan’s mission, which seems to me – and though a lifelong fan, forgive my presumption here – to be holding a funhouse mirror to the American carnival, that mirror pieced together from shards of our strangely prophetic folk music, the primary sources that no one else seems to grok as he does. Asked about this, Dylan has said, “The main body [of folk music] is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs.” (In Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America.) That’s the well Dylan’s been drawing from in his career-long reflection on our flag-bedecked Midway and its back alleys. Anyway, that’s how I see it on this drive, bookended by the bracing horrors of the Legacy Museum and their current incarnation at Yazoo Penitentiary. Throw in the Civil War glorification at Vicksburg battlefield for good measure, Alabama’s governor diverting covid relief money to build more prisons, hospital ICU’s overflowing with anti-vaxxers….  We’re in a bad place, but Dylan’s music implies that you could jump in your time-traveling DeLorean, pick any era in American history, drive eight hours in any direction on any road, and what you come across would be just as gob-smacking as this trip. Play our Nobel Laureate for instruction on the way. As the elderly gentleman at the Legacy Museum said, “Oh my.”

Yazoo Ho! A Deep South Travelogue – Day Three

Living in New Orleans back in the day taught me that the tastiest (and most affordable) cuisine can be found in dives, Mom and Pop shacks treasured (and taken for granted) by locals. The foodie movement is all about such places, of course, and it was Chowhound.com that pointed me towards my best meal of the trip – Ubon’s – a shabby storefront on Yazoo’s outskirts that specializes in pulled pork sandwiches and cornhusk-wrapped tamales. Will spare you the long treatise I’d intended, about how this Mexican delicacy became a classic Delta soul food (here’s a website explanation), let me just say that my half dozen hot sauce-sprinkled tamales, plump with steamed corn meal and morsels of pork, make my day. The enormous “small” pulled pork barbecue sandwich ain’t bad either.

The takeout window at Ubon’s (and the kind lady who gave me a Coke).

Ubon’s is closed to indoor dining, but has picnic tables scattered out front, so I sit down across from the only other customer, a B.B. King lookalike who easily takes up half the picnic table on his side (come to think of it, he might well be kin to the great bluesman, since King grew up just an hour north of where we sit). He’s waiting for his daughter to get off her shift cooking, grins at my relish over the tamales she’s made, and tells me how sweet life is managing the nearby game preserve owned by a conglomerate that paves roads, runs tugboats, and builds bridges all over the Delta. I tell him my brother used to run a game preserve in Virginia, a job that brought the whole family freezers full of venison. He marvels at that, the notion that other people in faraway places may also live his rustic life, agrees that sharing the game shot by bankers feeds his community, too, then pulls out his phone to show me a photo he’d taken that morning of a spotted fawn peeking out from foliage. “More deer than anybody could eat in them woods,” he says. “Ain’t she pretty, though?” 

The whole time we’re talking, I’m swatting away a horde of flies. He says, “Flies love tamales!” When I move on to my sandwich, he takes the greasy wax paper the tamales had come in and spreads them out at the opposite end of the table. The flies swarm there, leaving me alone with my sandwich, problem solved! At last his daughter comes out. I thank her for her delicious tamales. She shrugs as if to say, ain’t no thing, then they hop in his truck and drive off. I’m finished, too, but before I leave the little grandma who’d served me at the takeout window steps out in her apron and mask with a cold can of Coke. She’d heard me talking about visiting a friend in prison, about my drive home to Virginia. She says, “Take this son; you got a long drive ahead of you.”  I want to hug her for her kindness.

Back in Vicksburg, the heavy sky has given way to billowing cumulus and even a welcome breeze. I walk down towards the river past the columned courthouse and antebellum mansions to Washington Street, Old Town’s ten block main drag, and a quaint but well-stocked bookstore called Lorelei Books. I’m the only customer, so the young woman behind the register pulls down her mask, suggests I do the same, if I want. I thank her and for some reason add, “I’m vaccinated.” She nods and replies, “My mama is a nurse and she does her own research.” I’ve heard that phrase before. Isn’t that the universal code for “We’re not vaccinated”?  I let it go, but seriously, people, a nurse who isn’t vaccinated? Why isn’t that considered malpractice? 

The cashier is a sweetheart, though, points me to the local author’s section, and when I tell her I’m only in town today, pulls out a map of the battlefield and marks highlights of the 13-mile figure-8 loop inside its borders. I buy a book on the Delta blues and wander back to my room, checking out historical markers along the way. It seems that half the homes in Old Town proudly bear indentations from cannon balls thrown up during the Union siege.

I get to the visitor’s center just as the park ranger is about to close the gate, but he says I’m welcome to take a run or walk in there. “This is when all the bicyclists and joggers come.”  I’m so glad to have the opportunity to stretch my legs, after sitting for three days. For the next two hours I dawdle along six miles of the park loop, jogging up and down the grassy ramparts and hillocks where, 158 years ago, Vicksburg’s Confederate defenders lined up in trenches within earshot of their Union opponents, at a stalemate, waiting out three months of Mississippi heat until their food ran out. It’s a beautiful park, broad rolling hills (the remains of forts and redans) giving way to steep forested ravines. General Grant sent his men up those ravines just twice, on successive days, and both times they retreated, heavily entrenched graybacks firing directly down on hapless blue coats as they climbed. Standing beside an old cannon atop one of the park’s hills, I wince at how suicidal it must have been to attempt those assaults.

After that, Grant wisely chose the siege route. Both sides dug in, firing cannonades over the ramparts at each other. The little city of Vicksburg took an almost daily bombardment from more than 400 Union artillery pieces, both from the Army’s guns and those fired up from ironclads parked in the river. Yet casualties were surprisingly few. Supposedly, there’s a cave behind the cottage where I’m staying. It’s where the family repaired each day when the bombardment started. Apparently that’s how the civilians in the city survived. (Union soldiers called Vicksburg “Prairie Dog Town.”) The furthest point of my run is a tall oak, marking the spot where General Grant accepted General Pemberton’s surrender, on July 4, 1863. Far away in Pennsylvania, a day earlier, a major general named Pickett had led his men up a ridge at Gettysburg to slaughter. Though the war would drag on for nearly two more years, the tide had turned decisively in the Union’s favor. The surrender of Vicksburg, which has been described as the nail holding the Eastern and Western halves of the Confederacy together, and the defeat of the rebels at Gettysburg the previous day, launched a retreat that would drag on all the way down the face of Virginia to Richmond, Petersburg, and finally Appomattox.

Jogging across the Vicksburg battlefield revives a longtime debate between my ears. Over the past decade or so, culminating with the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue last week in Richmond, we middle-aged white Southerners have undergone a re-education of sorts. I was raised to see Lee as a hero, to understand the Civil War as a battle over the vague notion of “states rights”, to think of the Union Armies (especially General Sherman’s in his destructive “march to the sea”, which began right here in Vicksburg), as the bad guys. Ken Burns’ famous PBS series on the war, narrated by Mississippi historian Shelby Foote, glorified the warriors on both sides. Yet yesterday I walked through the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. A year ago, I marched with protestors down Richmond’s Monument Avenue in the wake of the Floyd and Taylor police murders. It’s clear, of course, that the Civil War that tore our nation apart was all about slavery. And it’s clear, too, that the war continues by other means, a sizeable chunk of white America unable to see people of color as fully human, insistent on maintaining the entitlements that white supremacy affirms.  It’s what MAGA is all about. We came thisclose to a coup over that just months ago. As Mississippi’s Nobel winner William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

I leave the park sweated out and wondering, what is the purpose of all these Civil War battlefields now? Is it possible to still admire Confederate warriors who fought in the name of slavery and treason?  Or are they necessarily understood as pariahs?  I’m grateful for Montgomery’s museum, for the marchers who brought down the bronze figures on Monument Avenue, for the historians who have more truthfully revised the stories I was raised on. I’m glad to wrestle with these questions, and thankful that I’m not alone in doing so. But I’m worried.

Do you remember the Y2K panic, how we’d been warned of the collapse of the Internet when clocks ticked over to a new century?  That New Year’s night, after champagne and kisses, I turned on the tv to some obscure channel that showed the Nation of Islam’s Reverend Louis Farrakhan delivering a speech. I’m no Farrakhan fan. Among other things, I’m convinced he played a key role in the assassination of Malcolm X. But something he said caught my tipsy ear. He noted that around mid-Century the ethnic makeup of the U.S. would tip to minority white, and he doubted that white folks would accept that gracefully. Rather bombastically, I thought, he predicted trouble over the coming decades, culminating in a second Civil War. Over a meagerly stuffed oyster poorboy (and purchase of a slice of hummingbird cake for tomorrow’s breakfast), I fret over our former President, who sits fuming at Mar-a-Lago, at the ugly passions he stirs, and fear that things are about to get worse in our country, for exactly the reasons Farrakhan predicted. A new poll shows the majority of Trump voters (and 41% of Biden voters) support splitting the country in two. What are we going to do?

Yazoo Ho! Sidebar: Mississippi Memory

Forty years ago, my pal John Wahl and I drove up Highway 61 from New Orleans to Memphis on a blues pilgrimage of sorts. John was my only literature loving friend at the time, and agreed to a detour to Jackson, where we thought we’d drive past Eudora Welty’s home. We stopped at the visitors center and asked where that might be. The two blue haired ladies staffing the center looked up from their crocheting. One sneered, “Clodhopper.” The other snickered, then stood and squinted at us, asking, “Do you boys know what a clodhopper is?”  John and I shot each other amazed glances. Were these ladies, in charge of the capital city of Mississippi’s visitors center, calling the most important living writer of their state, a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, a derogatory name? Yep, they were. We said we’d still like to drive by her house. The lady who was still sitting shook her head dismissively, “She will no more let you in her house….” She let the thought drop, pointedly.

Maybe that’s what gave me the idea, why I committed that rude, unconscionable intrusion.  We drove up to the city park and easily found the stately two-story brick house where Ms. Welty had lived her whole life. I parked the car out front and said, “Dare me to knock on her door.”  John laughed, sank down in his seat, and whispered, “Whoo boy – dare.” 

So we did it, rang the doorbell, in our t-shirts and jeans, and oh my, yes, she opened the door, the great writer herself, in a house dress and slippers, her white hair pinned back, those bulging eyes that saw everything there was to see (so much like James Baldwin’s, come to think of it) sizing us up instantly. I blathered something about admiring her writing, young writers, etc., and to our surprise, she said, “Well come in then. We can chat.”

For the next hour, we sat on her living room sofa, while she in an arm chair asked thoughtful questions about our silly lives, seeming interested, nodding from time to time, her large spotted hands in her lap. I can’t remember a thing she said about herself. But every horizontal surface of her elegant home was stacked with books, and just past her head, at a window, there it was, her spare writing table, a sturdy, manual typewriter in the center, a sheet of paper rolled into the platen. We’d interrupted her work.

At last another young man came to the door, clearly a close friend, perhaps arriving on some signal from Ms. Welty or having noticed our car on the street. He chatted briefly, asked if we knew of her recently published memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that had won rave reviews everywhere. We had no idea. Soon he made it clear that it was time for us to head on our way. She walked us to the door, thanked us for our visit.

What asses we were, how gracious she was. Thrilled, abashed, unable to speak a word, we headed on to Oxford and our next pilgrimage site, Faulkner’s home. Of course, dead twenty years, we did not expect a reply to our knock at Rowan Oak.

Btw, the late Ms. Welty’s home is now a full-time pilgrimage site, a National Historic Landmark. Here’s a photograph of her writing desk, as I remember it, from the foundation website:

Eudora Welty's writing desk

Yazoo Ho! A Deep South Travelogue – Part Two

So I remember every face/of every man who put me here.

BnB breakfast at Steele Cottage is served down the street at the Big House at 8:30 am, but that’s when I’m due to visit Corey, so I scarf down my delightfully old-fashioned slice of caramel cake with a Keurig cup and hit the road. Gloomy out. Driving downhill to the Mighty Mississippi riverfront, all lies shrouded in fog. I turn north at the river onto Highway 61-Business, the kudzu shrouded bluffs of the Walnut Hills on my right, the swampy Yazoo River on my left. These are storied names to a Civil War buff, who may recall that General Sherman was rebuffed from these hills, the defenders of Vicksburg firing their muskets directly down on the hapless Bluecoats below. As Mississippi’s favorite son historian Shelby Foote tells it, months later the Yazoo River fed Union gunships into the Big Muddy, where they bombarded and sieged the city into surrender, time and attrition doing what bold charges up the city’s surrounding ravines could not.

Shortly the business route connects to nation-bisecting Highway 61, where bucketing rain, the pre-dawn darkness, and deep puddles shift me down to 2nd gear. Tall oaks hung with Spanish moss line the road.  At some points their tops meet overhead, so the Mazda crawls through a soggy tunnel in gray light. No one of my generation can drive this road without thinking of Dylan, without musing over the Delta Blues. So I say, “Siri, play Robert Johnson,” and allow myself the spooky thrill of “me and the devil/was walkin’ side-by-side,” tinkling notes on guitar mimicking the tap of Satan’s goat hooves on the pavement. No color yet, the flat cotton fields opening before me filled with silvery water to the horizon, kudzu-burdened trees along the borders looming like shaggy monsters. Occasionally a pine log-laden lumber truck blasts past, causing the car to quake and skitter.  Renata Adler wrote, “I think you are not altogether American unless you have been to Mississippi.” I might add, unless you have driven Highway 61 in the rain.

Lights from a paper mill ahead on Highway 61.

So I’m a bundle of nerves and trepidation, as I veer off Highway 61 onto northeast-bound Route 3 towards Yazoo City. Who knows if the guards will let me in? Since covid, the prison goes on lockdown without warning, so despite Corey’s month-long effort on the inside to get all the necessary paperwork signed, and his assurance in a brief phone call that all is in order for an 8:30-11:15 visit, I’m worried.  As always on my visits to see him in Butner, I steel myself to the task. Entering a federal prison, even for a brief visit, is a daunting proposition. The gleaming stacked rolls of razor wire, the guard towers, the turreted walls of reinforced concrete, the doors that creak open like a bank vault’s, all frighten me. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) long ago gave up on any effort at rehabilitation. Their prisons are hermetically-sealed storage bins for human beings, at the beck and call of overworked and underpaid guards.

Fortunately, the rain has eased as I drive past the saw mills, oil distribution plants, and rows of travel trailers (housing migrant workers, I imagine) that signal the city limits. I turn onto an arrow straight stretch of asphalt, stop for a temperature check at a drive-through tent, and begin the 90-minute rigamarole of seeking my friend. Corey is designated a low-security prisoner. If that has you imagining a picket-fenced country club with tennis courts and tea at 3, think again. Just like at Butner, Yazoo’s low security unit is a concrete bunker, surrounded by razor wire. I park, mask up, and knock on the visitor’s door. The guard there seems surprised to see me, shouting, “No visitors here! Covid outbreak!”  My heart sinks, worst fears come true. I beg, explaining that it’s all been set up, I’ve driven from Virginia, my friend hasn’t had a visitor since February of last year at Butner.  At that, the guard says, “Wait, the Butner boys? They ain’t here – they down at the other place.”  He points me further down the road. I try the prison “camp” building and the glowering medium security unit, at each stop pointed further along until at last I arrive at a real fortress, an endless line of low concrete bunkers that could easily withstand a missile attack. Corey, a low security prisoner, lives in the penitentiary. I think of his parents, who hope to visit soon, and tell myself to warn them about this. What a horrible thing for a mother to see.

Of course, there’s more to the morning’s gauntlet. Happily, the guard says, yes, my friend is here, but unhappily, she says, “No visits scheduled for 8:30; don’t know who told you that.” Again, I beg. I’m staying down in Vicksburg, it’s been so long, etc. She softens, a little. Says, “Go sit in your car. See what I can do.”  Fair enough. It’s 10 am before they let me into the visitor’s room, the guard saying no way can I come back after lunch for the afternoon session, but she allows that she’ll be on duty tomorrow, and will let me return for a morning visit then.  I’ve just spent two hours directed from pillar to post, driven by the whim of prison guards. Sitting in my assigned seat in the visiting room, I realize that this helpless frustration is my friend’s life every minute of the day for the past seven years.

And there he is. He strides in behind a Fat Albert-looking guard, with that lazy but alert half-hitch prisoner’s gait that rappers work so hard to emulate. He’s in a baggy beige jumpsuit, cheap running shoes, a white cotton covid mask and prison-issue black frame eyeglasses. Bald as Michael Jordan, squat but buffed out, arms bulging. He shows off his trim bod by briefly tucking back the jumpsuit. No touching, seated six feet apart in facing chairs. Except for the guards at their podium, we’re the only people in this basketball court-sized room. Corey says, “Nobody comes. You never know if they’ll let you in. We’re in the boonies. Too much hassle. There’s a thousand men behind that wall. Nobody visits.”

Nothing to do, either. No window facing onto the world. But there’s a quarter mile track and when they let him out he runs, some days ten miles. Corey’s in his 50’s but can clock a 6-minute mile any day, a 25-minute 5K. There’s no weight room, so the unit becomes a panting, pumping world of Burpees all day long. Corey taught himself Spanish in prison, then began teaching warden-approved English as a Second Language classes to the Latin inmates. He’s penned pleas that have helped guys to shorter sentences, reads every book he can find, and watches cable news when it’s on. But the past year was awful, hearing old men cough themselves to death, untreated, in their cells, locked in solitary for weeks, supposedly as protection from the virus, selected for transfer to this godforsaken penitentiary, only to find that the covid breakout that had sent his crew from Butner had receded there, but then hit hard at Yazoo. He says, “Did you know that Yazoo is a native American word?  It means death.”

But somehow, after all that, he’s the same old Corey, my pal. You know how, with good friends, maybe you haven’t gotten together in years, but when you do, you pick up right where you left off? It’s like that today. Corey tells hilarious tales shared by white collar crooks who once dined with the Kennedy’s, describes ingenious meals concocted from corn flakes, peanut butter, canned tuna, and apple sauce. It’s been bleak, yes. Low security prisoners do not belong in a windowless penitentiary under such rigid rules, but somehow Yazoo has become the overflow valve for the BOP, so here he sits.  He adds, “I’m feeling better, a short-timer, almost done paying my debt to society.” He actually says that: debt to society. At some point next year he’ll get out. So now it’s counting days, filing paperwork, dreaming of putting his life back together in the world.  I ask him how he’s coped with the ugliness of prison life for so long. He says he had a counselor once who introduced him to the concept of radical acceptance. “Whatever happens,” he says, “you acknowledge your own guilt, hope for forgiveness, wake up each day in gratitude that you’re still breathing, and otherwise roll with the punches.” It’s a noble warrior’s path. It’s made him, he says, a better man. I think of some of my patients who suffered spinal cord injuries, strokes, or brain injuries, but who found a way to get on with their lives. That’s their game, too. Radical acceptance. Corey mentions the church congregation in Charleston, SC, that forgave the guy who shot their fellow worshipers. He says, “What you realize is that carrying anger, carrying resentment, carrying frustration, that’s only a burden on you. You have to shrug it off. I think of the people in that church every day.”

It’s the strangest thing. Every time I’ve visited Corey, I leave in better spirits than when I arrived. He’s in jail, his life sucks, yet his irrepressible spirit, his humor in the face of absurdity, and this thing he calls radical acceptance are inspiring. It works with his fellow prisoners, too. His mom says she gets calls from them, telling her of ways her son has helped them. It’s time to go. I stand, cross my arms in the Wakandan salute I’ve adopted in lieu of a handshake in the covid era, and Corey disappears behind the steel door.

NEXT – Vicksburg Battlefield, a second visit to Yazoo USP, and the long drive home (with ruminations, of course)

Yazoo Ho! My 5-day 2000-mile drive across the Deep South – an essay

“They say everything can be replaced/They say every distance is not near.”           

In February 2020, I visited my friend Corey in the federal prison in Butner, NC, his last visitor before Covid-19 changed everything. Among those changes, he and some of his fellow inmates were shipped to a penitentiary in Yazoo City, Mississippi, along the way enduring two months of solitary confinement (ostensibly to protect them from the virus). Far from family and friends, often in lockdown (not enough healthy guards to allow freedom on the unit), he has not had a visit since mine.  I promised him that after retirement, I’d drive down. These are notes from that 5-day journey, just completed.

Do people still name their cars?  Our boys called mine the Batmobile when I brought it home during the Dark Knight-era of their childhood, a jet black 2012 Mazda 3 hatchback with a 5-speed straight shift, still chugging 100k later, hooking up via Bluetooth to my phone playlists, humming along on the Interstate and taking backroad curves with sporty precision. She’s not just an appliance to me; rather one of my favorite things. Endearingly, like me, she’s seen better days.

We hit the Chippenham Parkway out of Bon Air, VA at 10, Atlanta-bound, and cruise control I-85 most of the way, only slowed by intermittent showers along the outer bands of Hurricane Nicholas, and by a chain of accidents encountered along the jagged patch of roadwork that seems to stretch across the entire state of South Carolina. On the radio, a discussion about the Lee statue’s removal in Richmond last week. The most memorable quote, from a city councilwoman, “I’m not worried about General Lee. He’s dead. My concern is the racist sitting across from me in council.” A more succinct statement of our situation I have not heard.

“They say every man needs protection”

The other topic on Talk Radio, of course, is our interminable bout with Covid. We’re back to 2000 Americans dying every day, only a single digit percentage of Africans vaccinated, PTSD-stricken health professionals sobbing at wit’s end, yet knuckleheads stubbornly refusing to do the patriotic, self-protective thing and get the damned shot! Friends cautioned me about risking the maw of the anti-vaxx, ivermectin-ingesting Deep South. I wear my KN-95 mask at every brief gas stop, empty a bottle of hand sanitizer, and hope for the best, the little Mazda my own personal bubble – pandemic Ho!  Interestingly, nearly all the Black people I see wear masks. Fewer White folk do, none in service stations anywhere west of Atlanta. (I get looks and sternly return them, eyes creased above my mask.)

I say “Deep South,” contrasted with the South in general, because folks from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have long questioned whether Virginia counts as Southern at all. Often I’ve found myself explaining, defensively, but the Mason-Dixon Line! The Capital of the Confederacy! Bull Run! General Lee! Which just goes to show how the old slave economy Confederacy still stands as the true cultural marker for what is and isn’t Southern. People nod, okay, I guess so then. But Virginia has turned blue in elections of late; we’ve dismantled most of our Confederate statues, thus insulting the white supremacists north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. MAGA’s popularity across mostly white, rural America shows that racism is not a useful delineator of what is and isn’t Southern, and Southerners have always known that anyway. If you judge by Trump votes, immigration resistance, or ivermectin-ingestion, then Idaho is as Southern as Mississippi these days. So if you can’t go by politics or racism, what do we have left?  Geography, of course, that baleful history, and maybe fried chicken?

“I see my light come shining/from the west down to the east”

At sunset, after 9 hours of plodding Interstate, punctuated by intermittent rain, the accidents that upended the lives of one random sample of Thursday afternoon’s drivers, and a jarring pothole struck just inside the Georgia state line that could easily have ended my trip right there (but the little Mazda chugged along – whew!) I pull into the winding, leafy lanes of an upscale Marietta subdivision, home to my unofficial stepmom-in-law, widowed ten years. She lives alone now in the beautifully appointed 3-story MacMansion where she raised her son and nursed her mother and her husband in their last days.  It’s a lily-white neighborhood, except for the maids and yardmen. Despite its luxuries, I’ve always felt uncomfortable there, reverse-snob that I am, my dirty little Mazda sneaking around curves owned by Land Rovers, Beemers and Lexii. Yes, one version of the American Dream achieved. I need to get over my peevishness. After all, my father-in-law earned his wealth honestly, a poor boy who rode the computer revolution up through the IBM ranks into his own software company, etc.

Roz, always gracious and accommodating, had picked up dinner at a taco place, waited for my arrival, and greets me with a hug. She stands in her chrome and marble kitchen with its dual dishwashers and other bespoke appliances like the captain of an abandoned ocean liner, our voices echoing when we call to each other between rooms. We sit down to eat, and I realize that we have something new in common. I’ve just retired, as she did years ago, and back home we’re reconfiguring our sons’ rooms to fit our empty nest. I’m curious how she spends her days. She doesn’t play tennis or — god forbid — pickleball. She doesn’t sketch or crochet. She is the lady who lunches, with longtime friends, and twice a week works out with a handsome Brazilian trainer, who she says has been a lifesaver amidst covid’s social contractions. She tends her orchids, feeds the backyard birds, and babysits her two-year old granddaughter once or twice a week. She seems caught in a lap dissolve between contentment and wistfulness. I feel that way, too, already in my third month without paid work. Her advice is to schedule at least one “event” each day to look forward to. On this day, we are each other’s event.

One of the “events” that has helped my wife and me through covid has been the delightful Youtube yoga instructor Adriene, who with her old dog Benjy at her side, has kept us both centered and flexible.  Before breakfast I knock off one of her 25-minute quickie routines, then hit the road again. The direct route to Vicksburg, my eventual destination, is through Birmingham, but a slight detour will take me to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. That’s my stopover reward, today’s scheduled “event.”

“Yet I swear I see my reflection/somewhere so high above this wall.”

I don’t know how to describe the next several hours of my journey. Maybe it’s too soon to try. But like the fading of a nightmare that seems to hold important insights, I fear forgetting that harrowing experience. I’d read about the Legacy Museum back in 2018 when it opened, and promised myself to visit if I was ever passing through. By the way, here’s the website, where the tickets (free) can be downloaded, and where the museum’s mission is explained: https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/museum.  But let me tell you, you must go there yourself.

On your first steps into the museum, it becomes clear that the curators have followed the narrative model of the Holocaust Museum in DC, relying on personal anecdotes and multimedia exhibits that fit you into the minds and hearts of sufferers as you make your way through dark tunnels that press you up close to their experience. You are launched into the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean amidst grim busts representing the estimated million lives lost on the Middle Passage, stand before cells at slave markets, where ghostly holograms tell their woeful tales, find yourself in a huge exhibit hall lined with audiovisual accounts of slave sales, escapes, whippings, rapes and hideous murders. You find your own town – in my case Richmond, VA – indicted for its important role in the slave trade. But the museum is not done with you yet. This research institution holds the nation’s primary repository of post-liberation lynchings. Stomach turning photographs and news reports line the walls. Then we move on to the Civil Rights era, where the heroes of that time are framed anew against the institutions that resisted them. Finally, our current situation, the museum singling out the American justice system as the most overt means of racial oppression now in play. Mass incarceration, which, I learn here, was launched in the Jim Crow era, was always enslavement by other means. This is the shadow history you weren’t taught in school, and even if you think you know it all, the compression of these tortures within the museum’s confines can be staggering. No photography is allowed. People speak softly. Some weep. Among the few visitors, I find myself keeping pace with an elderly Black man. As the tunnel opens to each new exhibit, he pauses, looks around, and sighs, “Oh my.”

At last, around a corner, you hear the triumphant voice of Aretha Franklin singing a freedom song, and find yourself in a huge hall with a central crystal chandelier, the thirty foot high walls lined with photographic portraits of those Black heroes who have resisted oppression: Nat Turner, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Jackie Robinson, and so many more. I’m sure this final exhibit was conceived as a place of hope, an opportunity for Black visitors to reframe the museum’s documentation of victimhood as bracing lessons of resistance and fortitude. There is no such gesture offered to us Whites. Yes, the heroes on this wall are mine, too. But it was people with pigmentation like mine who forced them to resist, and here on this day, more dismayingly than ever before, I face the truth of our separation and our ongoing, irrefutable crime.

I wonder what the curators must have discussed as transition rooms out of the museum?  Punching bags?  Debriefing rooms?  Sign-up sheets for equal justice initiatives? Instead, they offer a kind reprieve, a bright and airy restaurant serving Southern food. That’s a sly gesture, too, soul food prepared by black chefs, a hint perhaps to keep our eyes open out in the world, to attend to the roles we play, to the services we provide and are provided, and to the symbiotic nature of our relationships.

I drive away, still inwardly quaking. Wondering what it would take to get today’s opponents of Critical Race Theory inside those walls? How would anyone fail to recognize the importance of racist oppression in our nation’s history, fail to reckon with their own biases, fail perhaps to begin a study of all we have not been taught, maybe even to seek out ways of changing things for the better? Can there be a more important museum in America right now?

There was one more place I wanted to visit, the Legacy Memorial, just a half mile away. This is the stunning work of art – I would compare its impact to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC – dedicated to honoring (and naming) the 4,743 American lynching victims that we know of. Photographs are allowed here, and here is one of mine.

As you can see, this quadrangular outdoor monument aligns hundreds of hanging steel columns, each representing not a person who was lynched but a county in the U.S. where lynchings have occurred. On the columns, the names of victims are listed. Some columns have as many as a dozen names. I found a column for my home county, Fluvanna, too, with an 1899 lynching listed there. Of course, I knew nothing of this event, but I’ve reached out to the county’s best historians, the McGehee’s, and expect a full account from them.

I get back in my car, with 300 miles yet to go.  It’s mid-afternoon, sprinkling rain, but I’m so glad I took this detour.  And what I’m thinking, as I drive out of Montgomery on Highway 80, headed towards Selma and points west, is how essential this museum and memorial must be to whatever healing our divided nation may hope for.

Now, yonder stands a man in this lonely crowd/A man who swears he’s not to blame.

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I cued up the first episode of Star Trek: Next Generation on Hulu, smiling at the memory of having first discovered this new crew and this new Enterprise and their arch-enemy, the creature known as Q, way back in the 1980s. A throw-away line by Captain Picard caught my attention, that at some point following a 21st Century nuclear Armageddon, the United Nations had declared a new day, forgiving all humans for their past misdeeds, thus somehow moving forward to a peaceful civilization without recrimination or conflict.

CRT opponents, clearly, would like to live that way. After all, they argue, I never owned slaves, one of my golfing buddies is African American, and my kids don’t need that guilt trip laid on their innocent young minds. The problem, however (one the episode glances at), is the importance of first recognizing and acknowledging, apologizing for, and yes, distributing reparations for, crimes committed in the past. CRT and the Legacy Museum would educate us about those crimes, invite us to recognize and acknowledge them, and begin to consider how oppressive racist tropes continue to thrive today. Which opens a whole can of worms many would prefer to ignore. It should be clear to all but the Stephen Miller’s of our conflicted nation, that If we are ever to arrive at a place where we might, as Star Trek would have it, forgive and forget, then we first must remember and then, one would hope, fix what’s wrong.  You can’t skip steps straight to let’s forget it all. Germany, in its reckoning with the Holocaust, and South Africa in its reflections on Apartheid, provide examples of that path. We can do this, but try to get that notion through the thick red MAGA baseball caps, eh?

This battle over what is and isn’t remembered, about how to tell our nation’s story, is also personal for many of us. It certainly is for me. My family has lived in Virginia since 1690. On our dining room wall hangs a framed letter from a local historian that traces our ancestors back that far. As I pull out of the parking lot in Montgomery, a key sentence, so characteristic of White obliviousness in its blithe contradiction, jabs at my heart. My great-great grandfather, Benajah Gentry, born in 1788, is described this way:  “He was a successful planter, had a number of slaves, was a man of fine character, well beloved by his neighbors, a leading member of the Baptist Church – very active and zealous in religious work.”

Well, you might say, that was back then, when things were different, which is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t really let me off the hook. If I am to honor my family heritage, such as it is, standing on the shoulders of those that have gone before, as we say, then shouldn’t I own up to the behavior of those shoulders down there?  How can I be proud of my father’s service in WWII and fail to feel some measure of shame at an ancestor who – not all that long ago – treated people as property?

And how then, can I begin to discharge that shame?  What can I do to help along the reckoning, the learning, the tipping toward equity and good will, that is so clearly called for?

My plan had been to take the Business-80 detour through downtown Selma, stopping at the storefront civil rights museum memorializing the police riot at the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965 (Pettus, by the way, was a KKK leader), and then crossing the bridge on foot, perhaps grabbing an ice cream cone at a shop in the quaint downtown area on the other side, or even, if I dared, a pig ear sandwich at a soul food place I’d read about. But I was running late, after lingering in Montgomery, and just as I came to the bridge the skies opened. I crossed the bridge in a driving rain, noting the Edmund Pettus sign above me on the girders, and headed on towards Vicksburg, clear across Alabama and Mississippi, sipping a deeply unSouthern unsweetened ice tea to stay sharp along the way.

Wait a minute, did you say “pig ears”?  Yep. And no, you probably can’t make a silk purse out of one, but if you slice it in half, boil it long enough, then slap it on white bread with hot sauce, in Selma you can sell all you can cook. The place for this deep soul food treat is Lannie’s; there’s even a picture online of Lannie with Dave Letterman, who went for their barbecue. They sell pig feet, too. I promise myself I’ll try again, further down the line.

I’m quite familiar with pig parts, by the way. My first job – 60 hours/week in the summer of my 4th grade year – was assisting my father, the butcher at Ranson’s Supermarket in Fluvanna County, VA. We sold tons of chicken and hamburger, of course, but also pork intestines (chitterlings) in 5-gallon buckets, pig feet wrapped six to a pack (their toe nails would often tear the plastic wrap if I pulled the package too tight), and pig ears that still bore a few hairs, like those you see sprouting from an old man’s ears. On occasion, Daddy would boil chitterlings, a delicacy from his childhood as a sharecropper’s son. Even after soaking the split and cleaned pig intestines in bleach, when he threw them in a pot of boiling water on the stove, the house stank like, you guessed it, pig poop, for days. None of us kids would touch the stuff, which was fine with Daddy. He got it all to himself. 

Most of the pig part sales went to our Black neighbors, whose ancestors had been making lemonade from lemons in this way back in slavery days, when the choice meats went to the big house. Carried forward, that tradition, soul food, makes up the menus of Mom & Pop barbecue joints all over the South. I remember my surprise, backpacking through France as a young man, discovering that the French, too, love organ meats and leftovers (pig ear terrine, for instance). As they say, everything but the squeal.

Bisecting Alabama and Mississippi on Highway 20 in the rain, the view is picked over cotton fields, grazing cattle, catfish ponds, and the remains of pine forests stripped down to the red earth to feed lumber yards every ten miles or so. The only stop lights are in the occasional small town, some quaint and Mayberry like, others run down like settings for a zombie apocalypse film. I’m in my little automobile bubble, moving in a straight line five miles above the speed limit, but the hard scrabble poverty of these two states cannot be denied. That they lead the nation in Covid deaths only makes things harder. It’s Friday afternoon, and every radio station talks only about the night’s coming high school football match ups. I count five games (that’s ten teams) canceled, because their coaching staffs are sick.

I might have overnighted in Jackson, MS, the state capital, but continue on to Vicksburg, hard up against a bend of the Mississippi River, because – history nut that I am – I want to tour the battlefield there. From either town, it’s an hour’s drive up to the prison in Yazoo City. I’d been warned away from staying in Yazoo; it’s one of the most violent towns in America.  So around dinner time I pull up to the Steele Cottage, where I’ll spend the next two nights. In Old Town Vicksburg, on a bluff overlooking the river, the surprisingly inexpensive three bedroom BnB, built in 1833, had survived the Civil War’s bombardment and siege. The owners appointed it in antebellum style. But before nodding off in my high four-poster bed (I am the only resident of the place, which calms my covid worries somewhat), I walk across the street to the Walnut Hill Restaurant in another old house, and dine alone by the back door on fried chicken with nursing home soft green beans (the way Mama used to cook them) and mashed potatoes with gravy, the waitress – her mask around her chin – addressing me as “darlin'”. Reminds me of Mrs. Rowe’s in Staunton, VA. And like that Virginia mainstay, the menu includes good old homemade Southern desserts. Here’s a photo of their cake display. Oh my. 

I order a slice of caramel cake for breakfast (recalling the version my dear Aunt Dorothy used to bake), head back to my room, negotiate a sit-down shower in a claw-footed tub, and plan my drive up to the penitentiary, back aching after clocking 1000 miles in two days.  I mean, how do truckers do it?

MORE TO COME – NEXT DAY 3, my penitentiary visit, the Civil War battlefield, and hot tamales at Ubon’s in Yazoo.

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.