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

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: 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

Speaking of Donald Trump

At the start of a Citizen Schools semester, we Citizen Teachers pitch the students on the Apprenticeship we will lead. Above is my pitch for my Poetry Apprenticeship.

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

Kobe

For a long time, I was not much a fan of Kobe Bryant, who died yesterday at age 41 in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others en route to a youth basketball tournament. Early in his NBA career, he was a wannabe Michael Jordan. He conducted an unseemly feud with Shaquille O’Neal for alpha status that helped unravel a Lakers dynasty.

Most importantly, at the end of a felony sexual assault case against him, he confessed to non-consensual sex with his accuser. There is no getting around that.

Later in his career, however, especially outside the media, in more intimate settings, I began to appreciate him. The first time was at the Lakers’ shoot-around the afternoon of Game 3 in the 2007 playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.

I attended by invitation of Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson, a professional acquaintance back then, to interview Assistant Coach Tex Winter and raise Tex’s profile as a Hall of Fame candidate. Kobe arrived late to that shoot-around, perhaps due to receiving treatment for injury or illness.

But when he arrived, the energy in the gym changed. He watched the walk-through like a hawk. Players became much more intentional and attentive, even though Kobe was just watching. Because Kobe was watching.

That energy reminded me of attending a press conference for the presentation of one of Michael Jordan’s MVP awards. He entered from the back of the room, and the feeling in that space changed even before I saw him. By 2007, even if Kobe was not on Jordan’s level as a legend – with two more NBA titles yet to come – he was way past a wannabe.

Near the end of the team’s practice, Kobe hoisted a few jump shots. He couldn’t help himself, his love of the game ran so deep. Then Kobe swaggered out of the gym, and his teammates followed with a swagger unseen earlier. He dropped 45 on the Suns that night.

The next time I saw Kobe outside of the media was at the October 2018 Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program’s Project Play Summit. He’d retired from the NBA as an elder statesman, one of the all-time greats, known for his five championships and as many individual accolades as anyone who ever played, known for his work ethic and his fierce competitiveness.

Now, Kobe was onto using the platform of his fame to change the world for good. He’d started coaching Gianna’s team and was concerned enough with the state of youth sports to spend an afternoon with a few hundred like-minded folks.

The Summit included Kobe leading a panel discussion with four athletes ages 11-13, titled “What if Youth Designed Youth Sports?” and another session on “The Meaning of Play” with his childhood friend, Kevin Carroll, the author and former Philadelphia 76ers athletic trainer.

Kobe’s roles in these events were not ceremonial. They were hard, earnest, honest work with much more payoff for everyone else in the room than for Kobe himself. This work required Kobe to be humble and genuine, especially with the kids.

He was as prepared as he had ever been on-court and performed with the same aplomb. If you didn’t know better, you would never have thought he was any kind of celebrity, let alone one of the world’s most famous athletes, a global icon, Oscar winner, and multi-lingual budding Renaissance man.

Ferocious, competitive, mean-mugging Mamba — in this new venue — channeled all the same intensity that fueled his basketball career into an equal measure of kindness, gentleness, and playfulness. He had become a man in full and stayed that way until yesterday.

St. Thomas Academy and the Spirit of Minnesota

I love the smell of free coconut shrimp at Outback Steakhouse in the morning after the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It smells like…victory.

Like crazy Colonel Kilgore, zealotry infused this historic Minnesota football season. For me that stemmed from an unusually spiritual visit with clients at Saint Thomas Academy.

My travel to the Catholic, boys, military, college-prep school was timed for the final home football game of the season. The purpose was to gather material for future alumni magazine and website stories from, among others, Coach Dan O’Brien, whom I had interviewed by phone for an oral history of the football program.

That phone call with the former University of Minnesota assistant coach resonated. He’s old school, so we spoke of Vikings legend Dave Osborn and some of the Gophers we knew in common going back to my time at “the U” as sports editor of the Minnesota Daily. We also touched on the story of his son, Casey, who plays for the Gophers even as he fights cancer.

But before meeting O’Brien, there was other business and pleasure to pursue during this homecoming. First was a fantastic walleye dinner at Hazelwood with my friend Mary Hickey, who provided a primer in Catholicism during our childhood in a way that feeds my work with Saint Thomas Academy.

Life doesn’t get more Minnesota than a meal of the local lake delicacy and conversation spiced with Mary’s soulful, rooted values. That talk left me even more prepared for the next morning to finally set foot on the gorgeous grounds of the Academy.

Deborah Edwards — my direct client, and herself a former Gopher Sports marketer — had a full day of interviews and campus touring planned. Walking the halls of this institution, albeit in newer buildings on a different site than its 1885 founding, a sense of history and honor pervaded. You could see how kids would want to live out the Cadet Creed.

That also reflected in the “formation” ceremony, which the Cadets run with precision, formality and fun. They report their news, make announcements, present colors, pledge allegiance, accept competitive honors, receive the daily Senior Speech required of all graduating students, and exhibit the spirit expected on a Football Friday.

Interviews with Norma Gutierrez and Casey Erickson for a website feature article and with several young men for these Meet Our Students profiles led me to understand what distinguishes Saint Thomas Academy from so many other schools. The boys make their own beds and lie in them.

Even within the constraints of both the Catholic church and military hierarchy, many aspects of the Academy’s curriculum and social structure are very much of, by and for the students. Whatever else they learn, and that’s a lot, they learn how to make decisions and live with them.

Impressed by the History Room, with its century’s worth of medals and badges, the Innovation Center, with its student-built electric vehicles, the pool, the gym, the ceramics studio, the chapel, and most of all the people, I still welcomed the end of the school day. I wanted to roam the Academy’s acres in solitude and soak in more of its spirit, including a trail that contained the Stations of the Cross and led down to Rogers Lake.

Soon the sun set. The air chilled. The wind picked up. It started snowing sideways. It was a perfect night for football in Minnesota.

Mercifully, Deborah had arranged for a seat in the press box. That added yet another layer to my sense of homecoming and made the Cadets’ 40-3 defeat of Hill-Murray School even more enjoyable.

On my Lyft ride to campus Saturday morning to meet with Coach O’Brien, the driver’s chatter turned to football. Hearing of my years at the U, he asked if I knew Darrell Thompson, who still holds most of the major Gopher rushing records. Assured I’d interviewed Darrell several times back in the ’80s, the driver unspooled a string of his own memories about what a great guy Darrell was and still is and how they used to do non-profit work together to benefit youth in Minnesota.

That driver put me in the way-back machine, which may have been the best place for me, because the chat with Coach O’Brien (not to be revealed until the next article comes out), was even more old-school than the first. We concentrated on quality of character, covering every throwback value imaginable. Given that he was not quite two years removed from coaching for the Gophers, I came away confident that they would do what they did yesterday.

The rest of that day and night, I was walking on air, from hiking Minnehaha Falls to visiting David and Lori Fhima (a past partner in crime around the 1980s Gophers football scene) at their restaurant. It was October-in-Minnesota brisk outside, just as invigorating in the present as it was in the past.

A Day in the Park with Wolf Pack Ninjas and KaBOOM!

It was still dark when the Lyft driver dropped off me and Snowman at Pearsall Park and sped away. The driver hadn’t wanted to go there and looked at us funny when we climbed into his car with ten thousand dollars’ worth of video gear.

Although Pearsall Park transformed “from dump to destination” about three years ago, it still is in one of San Antonio’s poorer neighborhoods. With the Lyft car vanished, the only light came from an electric sign explaining why we were there.

Snowman and I were there not to volunteer but to gather storytelling material for our mutual client, Wolf Pack Ninjas, who would help KaBOOM! build an adventure course playground that would offer a Ninja Warrior-like experience.

Wolf Pack – a group of American Ninja Warrior competitors committed to “making the world healthier one kid at a time” – and KaBOOM!, the renowned non-profit playground developer, were joining forces to provide fun and fitness opportunities to youth in underserved communities.

Soon after meeting KaBOOM! teammates who had arrived even earlier than 0-dark-hundred, the San Antonio sunrise crept over the massive mulch-pile that would gradually diminish during the day as hundreds of volunteers raked, shoveled and wheelbarrowed it into the build.

Before the event kicked off, we already were interviewing participants on camera, including extraordinary, community-minded students from the JROTC program at Southwest High School and the basketball team at East Central High School.

When the volunteers started working, it was 91 degrees. The sun was grilling, and the work was grueling, from assembling the heavy playground equipment to moving mulch to mixing cement.

But the spirit of the volunteers was remarkable. The adult leaders gave their all with great patience, and every child out there defied the stereotype of screen-addicted teen slacker. They showed pride in their community, willing to work for its improvement. They worked longer, harder and more joyously than many paid employees in much more comfortable environments, undaunted by dust and dirt, unfazed by fatigue.

The KaBOOM! crew orchestrated the volunteers with an expertise borne of building or improving 17,000 playspaces. Their concern with safety meant frequent public address reminders about hydration and sunscreen. The only other interruptions in the motivational music came during an announcement that lunch was available or when Snowman and I were conducting our on-camera interviews atop the mulch pile. Wolf Pack Co-Founder and Ninja Warrior star Ian Dory was so happy with his that he flipped.

At lunch, Ian posed for photos and signed autographs for volunteers, then went back to work right alongside them. By about 3 p.m., pieces of adventure course equipment that took six people to carry were stood in place, the 22 tons of concrete were poured, and the dust began to settle. The build was finished.

The concrete had to cure, so the course was not immediately accessible. But Ian made a great offer to the crowd to come back and play when Wolf Pack and KaBOOM! reunite in San Antonio on November 16.

Inkflow’s Cool Summer

Summer – which I have defined not by solstice and equinox but by “school’s out” ever since attending kindergarten in 1969 – was cool this year. Inkflow’s workflow made it so.

Summer started with a Fit Kids event at Levi’s Stadium on the last day of school for the students we serve in East Palo Alto, continued with gaining new Inkflow clients, and ended with amazing back-to-school initiatives. As usual, returning to my roots in Chicago and Milwaukee nourished the blooms and fruits of these labors.

In early July, The 82 Project Foundation’s annual Swine Social pig roast and fundraiser reminded me why I love serving on the non-profit’s board. Named “82” for the year our board members graduated from Whitefish Bay High School, the organization funds a scholarship for a senior graduating from our alma mater and aids community members in need of financial and emotional support.

During that visit, Inkflow linked with the Milwaukee area’s Concord Chamber Orchestra and contracted to advise the non-profit classical musical group on marketing communications strategy. A slew of stakeholder interviews, an online survey, and observations in and around CCO’s community will inform Inkflow documents that provide the organization a map for its future outreach efforts.

Also while in Milwaukee, preliminary talks from earlier weeks with San Francisco-based real estate concern Andersen, Jung & Co. turned into a short-deadline assignment to write a 90-second speech that Principal Broker Monica Chung delivered to a group of business executives.

Back in the Bay, Inkflow sealed a deal to deliver writing coaching and marketing/business development consulting for Ferox Yoga, the brain-child of yoga instructor Claire Ngoon.

Soon after, the latest issue of Saint Thomas Academy’s Saber Magazine dropped, with several of my articles, including the cover story, “Profiles in Service.”

July closed out with the launch of a new promotional video for Fit Kids, including my first voice-over work…

…and August started with a return to Chicago as a panelist on the topic of “Telling Your Story: How to Engage Your Donor Base” at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World Congress.

About 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including moderator Nicole Fisher (Founder of Health & Human Rights Strategies, Co-Founder of Brain Treatment Foundation and a Forbes contributor), Katie Wilkes (Freeheart Creative), and Marianna Whitehurst (Board Member for Georgia Playworks, Foundation Board of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Chick Fil A Peach Bowl Advisory Board).

Back in the Bay, Inkflow forged an alliance between Fit Kids and Citizen Schools, which will have me leading Fit Kids classes for underserved middle-school students at Redwood City’s McKinley Institute of Technology. The chance to merge my passion for both non-profits into a single project that directly impacts youth and advances both organizations’ goals is a dream come true.

Then this other dream came true:

Minda, whom I informally and occasionally advised in the last several years, read from The Memo, sold and signed scores of copies, and led a rousing panel discussion with several other women of color that infused the packed room with equal parts anger and hope.

Twenty-four hours later, some of Minda’s “Memo” continued to hit home in another room of multi-culturalists, as “summer” ended with students back in school, including those who last night completed the class I teach at The Writing Salon, aptly titled — in light of Minda’s message — “On Point.”