Real Americans

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When Eric Jones, captain of Sea Valor, handed me that flag behind us to place in the flag holder yesterday, my first thought was “don’t drop it into the Bay.” The American flag means more to Eric than it does to many of us.

Eric’s story came to me from Tony Green a few weeks ago, as I sat across Tony’s desk at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland learning about his pioneering work with the new AP African-American History course. Tony invited me to join his group aboard Sea Valor, where Eric, Tony’s former student, would contribute to the course curriculum.

An invitation for a day sailing on the Bay is a no-brainer, but that invite grew dear to my heart when Tony told me Eric’s story, adapted here from http://www.SeaValor.org:


Eric grew up in the Bay Area, his mother a social worker, and his father an Air Force Colonel. Eric felt compelled to help people from an early age and became an EMT as soon as he turned 18. That led to him joining the Prince George’s County Fire Department, where he received additional training in firefighting, search and rescue, hazardous materials, and rescue diving. Eric continued by earning his Paramedic certification, and in 1998 graduated from The George Washington University (GWU) with a BS in Health Sciences, with a focus on Emergency Medical Services with a minor in Psychology.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 Eric was driving to class at GWU (he was then working towards a Masters in Public Health), and as he neared the Pentagon, American Airlines flight 77 had just crashed into the Pentagon. Knowing he had the skills to help, he pulled over and ran towards the building. He helped pull and carry five people from the impact zone, and then spent the next four days as a member of the Mortuary Affairs team removing the remains of those killed. On September 14, Eric finally left the Pentagon, and drove to New York Ground Zero, to join fellow members of his fire department who were already there assisting with the massive search and rescue operations. He spent another two weeks engaged in search and rescue, and then search and recovery operations. For his efforts, Eric was one of two people awarded the Medal of Valor from the Department of Defense, the highest civilian award issued for heroism.

Like many of the first responders during 9/11, Eric has struggled with PTSD, and additional traumatic events over the years have made it worse. He has tried all of the traditional treatment methods; therapy, medications, support groups, etc., and found varying degrees of success, however nothing has “cured” the depression and PTSD.

Over the years, Eric has known seven people who have taken their lives as a result of their depression and PTSD. In 2016, his friend Jason, an honorably discharged and highly decorated Army sniper, took his own life. Just a few months later, his friend Andrew Berands, an Oscar-winning cameraman, took his life. Both of these tragic deaths affected Eric very hard. He has known firsthand the deep feelings of hopelessness and despair that result from the inability to process traumatic events. Eric’s fate might have been the same, but believes that sailing and a love for the ocean saved his life.

Eric has always loved all things ocean; scuba diving, swimming, boating, exploring tidepools, but in 2010 he discovered sailing. First, on small sailing dinghies in the Potomac River, then on larger boats which ventured offshore. In 2011 Eric served as crew on his friend’s boat sailing from Miami, Florida to Annapolis, MD. This experience solidified his love for sailing.

For a week, as they cruised up the Eastern Seaboard, Eric felt happy for the first time since before 9/11. His depression was still there, but sailing and being surrounded by the ocean and all of its beauty, brought him a sense of peace that he had been yearning for. This was the first time he realized the healing power of sailing and the sea.

Over the next several years, Eric’s depression grew worse. After his mother died in 2015, followed by the suicides of his two friends, Eric was in a bad emotional state. The only time he felt calm and at peace was when he was near or in the ocean. He started sailing with friends, and over time, he realized that he felt better not only on the days that he sailed, but on the days before and after. Sailing and other ocean activities were helping. Eric founded Sea Valor to bring the same healing to others suffering from PTSD.


Yesterday, I joined Tony, a diverse group of his students, and a few other strays like myself at the Emeryville Marina, where Sea Valor is moored. I asked Tony how Eric might be feeling on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He said that we may or may not hear from Eric about that, and he reminded me to check out the display below deck of the triangular-folded flag that Eric rescued from his days of service at the Pentagon.

Waiting in the parking lot as Eric and his crew prepared, Tony completed the class’ unit on “The Global Reach of the Mali Empire,” dropping knowledge and calling on students to contribute what they’d learned in his classroom, including the voyage of King Abubakari II, ruler of the Mali Empire, who in 1311 AD, led an African exploration to the New World, sending out 200 ships of men, and 200 ships of trade material, crops, animals, cloth, and African understanding of astronomy, religion and the arts.

Soon after boarding, Eric’s father, a retired Air Force colonel, gave a brief presentation on African-American contributions to our country and gave us each a newly minted quarter commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen. That set the tone for our voyage, mixing education, a celebration of Black excellence, inter-racial exploration, and the co-operation that sailing requires.

Eric put us under engine power until we cleared the Berkeley Pier. Students helped raise and lower sails and took turns at the wheel under direction of Eric and his crew–Heather and Nixon. We tied up at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West,” where many Asian immigrants started their American adventure. There, Eric presented to the students about the technical aspects of currents and navigation, introducing a STEM element to Tony’s teaching and helping students understand what confronted both King Abubakari II and then 300 years later, those who endured the Middle Passage.

From Angel Island, we sailed toward and under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then we skirted Alcatraz Island, where Tony and our new friend, Wanda, kept conversation real as we drifted past reminders of some other real Americans.

Eric kept us on the water for about five magical hours. Although we never heard from Eric about his trauma, many of us shared stories of our own. Wanda and I compared notes on the Black and Jewish experiences as both friends and foes in this country. Nixon, of Asian descent, explained that his father named him after the former President, dooming him to not only persistent questions about the origin of his name, but also being playground nicknamed “Tricky Dick.”

Exhausted and exhilarated, we arrived back at Emeryville, processing thoughts and feelings that arose from our conversations, none about how to make America great again, most about how to make America America again.

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.’ “

Next in Series–Coronavirus Diary: No New Normal

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

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

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

Coronavirus Diary: Busy Week

When the Coronavirus crisis closed classrooms, it seemed my work for Citizen Schools would end abruptly. But the organization asked all of us volunteer Citizen Teachers to create a three-minute video about our career paths and another, shorter video wishing students well and sharing some brief guidance.

To my surprise, Citizen Schools featured my videos in their national e-newsletter!

As the above video mentions, this week also marked the introduction of my new novella, Az Der Papa. Here is the second video from the Citizen Schools newsletter.

This week, I also led a three-hour online Writing Salon course for a group of design professionals, plus my new online writing program for Citizen Schools. It’s a thrill to re-connect with students and colleagues, but “distance learning” feels so distant from what we experienced when I introduced this class in February with words that seem even truer today:

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Next in series: Coronavirus Diary: The Last Dance

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction.

Coronavirus Diary: Fit Kids

Inkflow client Fit Kids released its new series of Home Workouts via the e-blast below. School closures during the Coronavirus crisis limit even further the scant fitness resources in the disadvantaged communities where Fit Kids operates.

Each workout uses bodyweight only, providing a fitness solution for underserved youth who live in crowded housing conditions. The pursuit of fitness — with its physical, mental, and social-emotional benefits — is critical to people living in the most vulnerable communities, where COVID-19 has disproportionate impact.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Streaming Consciousness Bay Path Bike Ride

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Anniversary

What a day! Probably the best one since the start of our shelter-in-place order.

8 a.m.–Led a webinar for Sports Philanthropy Network titled “Content and Communication in the Coronavirus Crisis.”

10 a.m.–Zoom workout with Lori Fhima, my dear friend from University of Minnesota days.

noon–St. Thomas Academy work resumed with an interview of Jackson Najarian, nephew of Peter Najarian, whom I used to interview when he played football for the U.

1 p.m.–Phone call with Arabella DeLucco, Founder of WeXL, followed by shooting video selfies for WeXL.org.

1:30 p.m.–Phone call with my son, Sam.

2 p.m.–Another St. Thomas student interview.

And all day, the one-month anniversary of the Coronavirus crisis, I celebrated my 27th wedding anniversary, thanks to the spectacular Valerie Liberty!

Next post in series: Coronavirus Crisis: Fit Kids

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Week Four

When last week’s gradual closure of parking options limited access to my running stairs, I started biking there instead. But the inevitable occurred, and the stairs shut down completely. Now my go-to outdoor exercise is a 20-mile bike ride along the bay.

Other activities during the Coronavirus crisis include standing in line to get into Trader Joe’s and wondering why major TV networks don’t replay more classic sports. While I wandered the TV desert on Easter Sunday, Willie texted, asking if I planned to watch the H-O-R-S-E competition.

Hell, no!

He texted back wondering what had happened to me. What has happened is that I won’t settle for junk “sports.” If the games don’t matter, I’d rather work, read or write. When it’s TV time, a quick channel check occasionally turns up a classic, such as this one that aired on Showtime last night.

Even without the suspense of the original fight, the athleticism and courage still inspire. A meaningful story still unfolds. That’s why the next bit of appointment TV sports will be Sunday’s debut of “The Last Dance.”

Can’t wait!

Next post in this series: Coronavirus Diary: Anniversary

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Weekend One

In the days before the baby shower we were hosting on March 14, we started receiving reverse RSVPs. Some of the 40 friends and family who had planned to attend changed their plans.

Shaky voicemails wondered whether we might cancel, some concerned for everyone’s health and safety, others perhaps wanting off the hook from making their own decisions. Sometimes my view of human nature veers toward darkness.

Anyway, the show went on. After all, we had plenty of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Some of our guests brought their own. Hand sanitizer, that is.

As each guest arrived, we did a strange dance, negotiating in body language from hug to elbow bump to foot-five. We altered or abandoned the traditional baby shower games that would have involved touching or even passing objects hand-to-hand.

Still, love filled the room, in keeping with the occasion. Conversation remained cheerful, though we sometimes heard worried murmurs. As the shower wound down, our closest friends and family couldn’t help but hug.

The next day, the Ides of March, with Val’s gym closed, she invited her Zumba instructor to lead class on Facebook Live from our living room. When five classmates showed up at our door, I ventured out into the rainy morning.

My stops included a bookstore for a copy of Hanif Abdurraqib’s “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest” and then a walk through the mist past the masked faces, their eyes suspicious of my uncovered mouth and nose, to Cheesecake Factory. There, a Mexican soccer match with no fans in the stands played live on TV.

All the men in the restaurant watched, knowing this could be our last look at live sports for who knew how long. Most, including me, had no idea which teams were playing or any of the players’ names. But it was sports. Live. So we watched.

Afterward, I hit a neighborhood bar our daughter had recommended. The door was locked. Through the windows I could see a few people having a silly string fight. The notice of closure taped to the window mentioned local government’s unofficial reaction to Coronavirus, effective about the time I’d left Cheesecake Factory. I started back to my car.

“Hey,” I heard over my shoulder, “yawanna drink?”

Chasing me through the drizzle was a woman so cartoonishly silicon-and-collagen-inflated that I wondered if she was real at all. “We’re officially closed, but we just finished our staff meeting and decided any customers who stopped by would get free drinks.”

Sold. An NCAA Tournament game from about 15 years ago played silently on the TV. But my attention stayed with the friendly bar owners and employees. We made our connections – talks of travel and sports and ways the neighborhood had changed – and had a few laughs. Soon after Val texted me the all clear, I slipped a twenty onto the bar and stepped out.

“Hey,” I heard over my shoulder. She was running toward me again, this time clutching the twenty. “We can’t take this.”

“You sure?” She nodded yes and held out the bill.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll spend it here whenever this Coronavirus crisis is over.”

Next post in this series: Coronavirus Diary: Workweek One

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction