Coronavirus Diary: Back to School

My friend and collaborator Gino DeGrandis — photographer for our mutual client, Fit Kids — snapped this photo of the near-unprecedented thunderstorms that rolled through the San Francisco Bay Area on August 16. One of Gino’s photographic specialties is stormchasing all over the world. He’s seen a few, some too close for comfort.

This one was not so threatening in and of itself, but its 10,800 lightning strikes sparked hundreds of fires in the Bay Area, plus a phenomenon new to me called a “fire tornado.” The three major “fire complexes” — named the LNU, the SCU, and the CZU — have burnt a half-million acres. The CZU, in my county of San Mateo, is 0% contained and threatens more than 24,000 structures.

For now, I am safe other than inhaling the occasional floating ash while running or bicycling, which I must, even more than usual, to stay centered during the Coronavirus crisis, let alone this latest shit-rain. An August thunderstorm, a delightful staple of my Midwestern days, but never experienced during my quarter-century in the Bay Area, contained next to none of the actual rain our region needs to prevent fires.

What to do? Keep working. After all, it’s back-to-school season.

When Gino emailed me his photo, he mentioned that he missed Fit Kids. Pre-pandemic, he shot many of the non-profit’s free after-school fitness trainings for under-served elementary school students. Of course, COVID canceled those for the foreseeable future, and as Fit Kids continues its pivot to distance learning via Home Workout videos, we shoot more footage of scenes like these.

In addition to Fit Kids work, I am re-configuring my Creative Writing curriculum for Citizen Schools to meet their Distance Learning needs and just wrote a back-to-school perspective for St. Thomas Academy: Why Troubled Times May Make this the Best School Year Ever.

My new one-on-one writing instruction clients in Chicago get the Zoom treatment, as do students in the two classes I am teaching for The Writing Salon this month. One of those launched on August 16, about four hours after our thunderstorms passed. After the class, one of my Chicago clients emailed apologies for canceling her August 10 session due to losing power when near unprecedented 100-mile-per-hour gusts tore through the city.

I replied: “Thanks, and no worries. We all do the best we can. Ironically, we lost power out here on Friday when PG&E implemented rolling blackouts because of our ‘heat wave’ and then about 3am today we had a thunderstorm, with lightning strikes that ignited some blazes. At the start of my Writing Salon class today, I had to say, ‘Just log back in to Zoom if we get disconnected due to blackout, fire tornado or plague.’ “

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: NBA Restart

The new Dames I bought in March are still on my shelf, but at least their namesake is not. Delightfully, Dame D.O.L.L.A., his teammates, and opponents have returned to NBA play.

This is the closest to normal I’ve felt since March 11, when Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 shut down the NBA and signaled the start of the Coronavirus crisis. Still, the resumption of all sports — in the name of both the almighty dollar and restoring some creature comforts — is far from a diversion.

Instead of distracting us from societal challenges foremost in our minds, watching NBA games shows us how far from normal we really are. Digital bells and whistles — fake crowd noise from fake fans — taunt us and haunt us with reminders that we cannot gather, that pandemic protocols deprive us of community.

To the credit of the NBA and its players, the league’s restart embraces and emphasizes anti-racism efforts, rather than trying to distract us from those, too. The announcers, interviewers, and studio hosts who advance the platforms printed on the court and on players’ jerseys for the most part do a wonderful job.

If the commentary intrudes on coverage of the on-court action, well, that’s the point of a “no-more-business-as-usual” stance, though the league, the TV networks, and the advertisers they serve desperately need business as usual. They all walk a fine line between inspiring an audience to action on social justice and lapsing into complicity. Already, the most repeated messages and ads are threatening to become, if you’ll pardon the expression, “white noise.”

Aside from a bit of understandable rust on some players, the games are so worth watching. Hopefully, that means the social-justice messages will get through and have their intended effect. Even more hopefully, what we’re being sold is worth buying.

Next in Series: Coronavirus Diary: Back to School

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Opening Day

It’s been decades since baseball was America’s national pastime, but the sport still speaks volumes about America. The state of our nation was on display Thursday night at Nationals Park, which was almost entirely empty due to the Coronavirus crisis.

Even with no fans in attendance to boo him as they did at the 2019 World Series, Trump did not throw out the ceremonial first pitch and likely will leave office as one of the few U.S. presidents in the past 100-plus years never to participate in that tradition. Similar to Trump’s abandoning the fight against the Coronavirus crisis, leaving Dr. Anthony Fauci as the trusted public face in that battle, Fauci supplanted Trump on the pitcher’s mound.

Unfortunately, Fauci’s toss displayed all the quality of Trump’s approach to the virus.

The rest of the evening wasn’t much better. The awful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Nationals Park had some fans longing for the Roseanne Barr version. The fake crowd noise and cardboard cutouts representing fans in the stands at Dodgers Stadium for the evening’s second game reminded the nation that next to nothing was normal.

Still, there was hope. For just a few minutes in the seventh inning the game itself took over. Watching Mookie Betts’ breathtaking baserunning reminded us of baseball’s beauty. Lost in the drama and athleticism as Betts slid headfirst into home plate for the go-ahead run, we remembered how to forget.

Next in series: Coronavirus Diary: NBA Restart

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

John Lewis

Just over five years ago, I joined Sojourn to the Past for one of its immersive Civil Rights history experiences for high school students. My son, Sam, took the journey along with 100+ peers from throughout the U.S.

In addition to serving as one of about 20 other chaperones, I was in charge of capturing and sharing media, along with official photographer Audra Gray. On the third day of our six-day journey, we had a private audience at The King Center in Atlanta with Rep. John Lewis, who passed last night of pancreatic cancer at age 80.

Rep. Lewis arrived late at our event. He was out the previous night celebrating his 75th birthday. He was worth the wait. A forceful speaker, his voice rose and fell to emphasize his points. You could still hear the hurt, even 50 years after he led the Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers cracked his skull.

Rep. Lewis sounded every bit as fresh and relevant as he did when he chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and spoke at the March on Washington, in my view, even more powerfully than Dr. King in his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Sojourn tradition provides each person on a journey a private moment with guest speakers. Hugging Rep. Lewis, I thanked him for all he had done for our country. Then we shot this impromptu testimonial video for Sojourn.

Despite my decades of meeting “important” pro athletes, I had never experienced such gravitas. Although he rests in power now, Rep. Lewis will forever stand as the most important, impactful person I have ever met.

Coronavirus Diary: Swine

About this time, Larry would be pulling the pigs off their spits. The ’82 Project Foundation Swine Social would reach full swing. Along with fellow board members from the Whitefish Bay High School Class of 1982 and our 100 or so guests, we would eat and drink together, pulling cold beers from Beth and John’s ice-filled canoe on the back lawn and toasting our organization for its effort to fund-raise on behalf of our community.

We would heap our plates with pot-luck side-dishes and salads and desserts. We might take a final look at the silent auction items that raise funds, like our $25 food and beverage bracelets, for the scholarships we grant each year to a graduating senior from our alma mater and for the reserve we keep to help community members in need.

We WOULD be doing this right now, but we are not, thanks to the Coronavirus crisis.

Instead, the best I could do today, stuck in California when I was supposed to be at home in Milwaukee for this event, was to bike to the nearest bbq joint for some symbolic swine, meditate on what I was missing, then bike home to refresh myself with a can of Quarantine Beer shipped to me by the co-founder of The ’82 Project, and make a donation equal to my two tickets for admission to the event that SHOULD have been.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Opening Day

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Funeral

Today I “attended” my first online funeral. I would have stood graveside and sat shiva if not for the Coronavirus crisis. My friend’s father passed from an illness that preceded the pandemic.

He was a beautiful man, praised this morning by his widow, with whom he raised three outstanding children. My friend and her siblings all tearfully spoke on my screen, followed by all six of their children, sharing memories of their Papa.

They told tales of his love of family, sports, dirty jokes, and Dewar’s. I also love his family and sports, and we shared more than a few dirty jokes over many more than a few Dewar’s. I raise one to him now while writing.

It hurt not to be there for my friend today. This is the week I usually spend in Milwaukee with my family, and I would have driven to Detroit for the funeral. But I cancelled Midwest plans because my family fears infection so deeply they would not let me visit.

Pandemic protocol also might have kept me from my friend’s family. Even if not, hugs and handholding would have been out of the question.

The only good that comes from most deaths is a heightened sense of the preciousness of life. Mourning together, supporting each other, we are more mindful of what’s important.

It’s an evil irony that we’re deprived that now – at least in the flesh, face-to-face, literal and metaphorical masks lowered – in a time when so many die alone and so many more seek solace.

Still, I give thanks for the life we celebrated today, so well lived that whoever knew him at all will follow his lead in making the most of our time, a time when we know that any breath we draw, even in the company of friends and family, may prove fatal.

Still, the example set by the man we mourn inspires us to breathe deeply of life.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Swine

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Firewords

Most Independence Days it would be time for fireworks. This Fourth of July, it’s time for firewords.

I have always loved this holiday. I was raised to be a patriot. One grandmother was born on the Fourth of July. The other belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution, tracing her lineage to the Revolutionary War financier Haym Salomon.

I drank the same red, white and blue Kool-Aid that most of my peers did. I loved this country and celebrated it every Fourth of July.

Ordinarily at this time of night, I would lie back on a blanket beneath the fireworks at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where I graduated high school and where my parents still live. I would have spent the day following a parade of stilt-legged Uncle Sams and cheerily oblivious families through the streets, drinking beer sold by Rotary or Kiwanis, and “dancing” to a Tom Petty cover band.

Tonight, July 4, 2020, fireworks sound distantly through my Foster City, California porch door. It’s not a scheduled show. Those are all canceled due to the Coronavirus crisis, as was my annual trip home. Air travel is unsafe while this virus rages, and anyway my parents fear infection too much to let me in the door.

So, any fireworks I hear now are set off by the people. By morning. we’ll learn that some of those fireworks were gunshots. Beyond the Coronavirus crisis there is anger in the streets and a reckoning still to come for the recent police murders of unarmed Black folks George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks.

It’s just as well that I did not have a normal celebration today. We’re not free. We are captive to the Coronavirus crisis and the failed government that flouts it — at our expense and deadly danger — even while flying a fake freedom flag. We suffer from centuries of systemic racism, now fanned by 45.

Maybe it’s best that instead of my normal celebration, I spent today on my porch close-reading Frederick Douglass’ “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” One-hundred-sixty-eight years later, his question remains unanswered. So, this Fourth of July, what’s to celebrate?

Coronavirus Diary: Re-Opening

It’s been more than two weeks since my last diary entry. The main reason is that news, thinking, talking, and writing about protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd have consumed my days and nights. I’ve also focused on selling copies of Az Der Papa and worked extensively with students from my “On Point” class at The Writing Salon.

I could not have imagined anything usurping my mindshare from the Coronavirus crisis, but because of who I am, where I’ve lived, and how my friends are, the anti-racism concerns take precedence. I won’t comment further here on anti-racism to keep this diary as purely as possible about Coronavirus.

As to that, signs (or lack thereof) indicate that much is re-opening. Most importantly, the stairs at my running hill shed their police tape and detour signs about a week ago. It has been a blessing to return to running, now mixed in with cycling as much as 20 miles at a time, to keep me as physically and mentally healthy as possible.

Some live televised sports have resumed, notably boxing, golf, and European soccer. More restaurants, shopping, and other services are now available. We have even seen a few friends in recent days as well as light at the end of the tunnel…at least for now.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Funeral

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Black Out Tuesday

The Black Out Tuesday social media campaign makes little sense. At best, it’s an easy way for people, brands, organizations, and institutions to express solidarity. But it seems too easy.

Black Out Tuesday is a handy excuse for some people, especially white people, to avoid the necessary difficult conversations about race at the precise moment when those talks are most important. At the same time, perhaps some people, especially black people, need a break from the barrage of messages about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the Coronavirus crisis’ disproportionate toll on black people, and the President and some of the news media twisting all those stories to defend the racist systems underpinning “America.”

Even if grief moves people to engage in Black Out Tuesday, I hope others remember earlier messages in this current protest movement, such as “silence=violence.” So, today seems the perfect day to raise my voice. Below are links to my work on race, starting with a piece that explains the childhood roots of today’s message, followed by others roughly in reverse chronological order.

Comment on Donald Sterling and Doc Rivers
Opinion and memoir of my childhood in race and sports
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 4/28/14

I #RunWithMaud
Commentary, video and shoutouts for the reasons I ran

Speaking of Donald Trump
Video and poem used to introduce my poetry class to middle-school students I teach within the Citizen Schools program

Long Shot: Conversation with Craig Hodges
Video interview of former Chicago Bulls star and activist and author

Voices We Need to Hear
On watching “Black Panther” and the importance of black voices in media

First and Lasting Visions of the Late Jimmy Webb
Remembrance of my friend from Sojourn to the Past, an original “foot soldier” on the Bloody Sunday march over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge (includes Jimmy’s hilarious remark from the pulpit at Oakland’s First African Methodist Episcopal at the 2:55 mark of this recording).

Our Sojourn
Narrative and photos from a journey with Sojourn to the Past, the civil rights education nonprofit