Coronavirus Diary: No New Normal

Video from Boundless — an immersive, distance-learning after-school program on which Inkflow consulted to WeXL — shows the adaptability that defies acceptance of a “new normal.”

You won’t hear me say “new normal” although it’s cute and catchy. Alliteration always allures me. But I won’t say “new normal” in the context of the Coronavirus crisis, because I don’t believe it.

Nine months into this mess, facemasks are not normal. Nor are loved ones refusing hugs. Or televised sports featuring cardboard cutouts and piped-in crowd noise, as if to soothe us into submission, lest we hear the truth contained in the silence of our stadiums.

Most importantly, it is not normal for Zoom to serve as school. So, yes, we have adapted to the pandemic. But with all the resilience we’ve shown, saying “new normal” sounds like surrender. I’m more optimistic than that, because even when I’m apart from clients, what we work on together is worth working for.

For example, at The Writing Salon, where I will resume teaching “On Point” and “To Make a Long Story Short” in January, a past session’s student, Erin Lewellen, became a private writing coaching client and has since produced this opinion piece for NBCNews.com and this story about her work to lead Global Citizen Year through the pandemic.

Two more writing coaching clients have joined me, one about my age and the other a middle-school student. If you want a writing coach, let me know.

That work extends to Creative Writing curriculum design and teaching for Citizen Schools, a non-profit that provides enrichment programs for underserved middle-school students. As a volunteer Citizen Teacher for Oakland’s Greenleaf Elementary, I partner with AmeriCorps teaching fellow Emily Yonce on work with students who bear the brunt of the pandemic’s academic fallout due to the digital divide.

My first two years with Citizen Schools, about 25 students personally handed me their poetry collections, comic books, or short stories. This term, just five students log-in, almost always leaving their cameras off, and just one consistently answers our writing prompts.

The cliché, “If I can positively impact even one child…” rings true.

Consulting on WeXL’s Boundless, featured in the video above, was a much different experience. Dozens of fourth-graders at New York City’s Girls Prep Bronx Elementary School participated exuberantly, with cameras and minds turned on, under the leadership of WeXL Founder/CEO Arabella DeLucco and Girls Prep Teacher Danielle Sacks Sierra.

The first season of Boundless had students produce their own video-based stories while learning from luminaries in the worlds of sports, entertainment, and journalism, such as Monique Billings of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, known off-court as a high-quality YouTube creator, and TV journalist and Miss Wisconsin USA 2020 Gabriella Deyi.

Student response to the program provides every reason for optimism. And Boundless might not have happened without the pandemic forcing hands. Still, even if some good comes from the Coronavirus crisis, let’s not succumb to accepting a “new normal.”

Next in Series–Coronavirus Diary: Anniversary

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: 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

Coronavirus Crisis: Service

With business slowed by the Coronavirus crisis, recent Inkflow activities focused on serving however possible. For Fit Kids and its partner, Galileo Camps, I wrote this perspective on organizational partnerships.

In collaboration with Citizen Schools, we completed our creative writing apprenticeship. Several remarkably attuned middle-school students continued to show up for distance learning and produced some stunning works of reflection on the pandemic, such as Jeremy’s acrostic poem, and other topics, such as Angel’s longing for homeland.

I even chanced into a Zoom consult with the Tasmanian Tigers Women’s Cricket Team. Don’t ask. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Re-Opening

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: The Last Dance

Though many of us thirst for live sports on TV, yesterday’s trickles of the Bundesliga, NASCAR, and a golf exhibition did not satisfy. To drink in the beauty and drama of sport, even though the results were known, “The Last Dance” was a full-on firehose guzzle.

Whether you loved or hated Michael Jordan in the era the TV series covered, changed your opinion based on his interviews in “The Last Dance” or even just learned about him for the first time, the show compelled. A glimpse inside a force of competitive greatness slakes the sports fan’s thirst.

Back in the day, you might have wanted to “be like Mike” without knowing what that meant. Now you know a little more and have new perspective on what price you are willing to pay in pursuit of your goals.

Would you want to “win at all costs” like Mike? Or is that approach now so strange that when you consider the apocryphal Vince Lombardi quote — “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” — you think that winning is nothing?

Answers to those questions have profound implications for how you live your life and others live theirs. That’s what keeps sports interesting, more than the action or athleticism, more than the score. That’s what “The Last Dance” gave us over the last five weeks when we needed it most.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Crisis: Service

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction.

I #RunWithMaud

Today, I #RunWithMaud in solidarity with the movement to call awareness to the murder of Ahmaud Arberry, who would have turned 26 today. Today, the movement called for a 2.23-mile run, referencing the date, Februrary 23, that Ahmaud died for running while black.

Quoting from http://www.runwithmaud.com: “Ahmaud Arbery, a fit athlete, was out jogging near his home on a Sunday afternoon in Brunswick, Georgia on February 23, 2020, when two white supremacists saw him, got their guns, got in a truck, chased him down, pulled up next to him, shot him at least two times, and killed him right there on the spot. Ahmaud was unarmed, broke no laws, and did nothing wrong. He was only 25 years old when he died.

“The attackers were Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and retired investigator for the DA’s office, and his son Travis. When Gregory saw Ahmaud running in his neighborhood, Satilla Shores, a predominately white community, he and his son immediately armed themselves with a shotgun and a 357 magnum, hopped into their pickup truck, chased him down and shot him.

Thanks to Craig Brown, who alerted me to #RunWithMaud and who hooked me up with the t-shirt that pays homage to a neighborhood where I lived in Milwaukee for part of my childhood and first came in contact with the beauty and tragedy of black America. In addition to expressing solidarity with Ahmaud, my run was dedicated to Craig; to Doug Glass; to basketball budddies Mark, Willie, and Syd; and to Rep. John Lewis and another of the original Selma foot soldiers, Rev. Jimmy Webb, RIH.

Coronavirus Diary: Signs of Life

The 24 hours since the self-inflicted debacle of watching yesterday’s Korean Baseball Organization debut have revealed new signs of life. The middle-school poetry apprenticeship I run for Citizen Schools resumed on Zoom (actually it was Google, but these days “Zoom” is to online meetings as “Xerox” was to photocopying).

The students were spectacular! We started slowly with introductions, as the Coronavirus crisis has changed my class participants, and moved into a five-minute free-writing exercise. Each student produced beyond my expectations. During general discussion, one of the students typed into chat: “I made a new poem.”

Quarantine poem
During this quarantine I always feel bored
The best I did was watch my brother as he snored
I can’t go outside, I can’t go and play
I can’t do much, so here I lay
I’ve seen all the shows, I’ve played all the games
I’ve read all the books, and tedious they became
So now I’m looking for something to do
I’m trying to find something new I can do.

It was moving to know that these kids still want to achieve, still go want to go above and beyond. That was the first new sign of life.

The others occurred today during my (almost) daily bike ride. I ran into Sydney, my brother from another mother, just walking down the bike path. I’d last seen him at the basketball gym in early March, when it was still normal for us to swap sweat and bang bodies in the fight for rebounds. Today, I told him to give me six-feet, but he leaned in for the elbow bump.

A bit further up the path, the golfers had returned to Poplar Creek Golf Course, so named for its two key physical attributes: one edge of the course fronting on Poplar Street, and the concrete run-off ditch that winds majestically through the back nine. It never smelled sweeter.

Next post in series

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Week Three

The Coronavirus crisis is both slowly and suddenly squeezing out my sustenance. Most immediately, as seen in the sign of the times shown above, government-ordered park closures limit access to my running hill.

Even before the park closed, a motorcycle cop patrolled the bike path at the bottom of the hill to check for social distancing. Then, the parking lot shut down. Then, when too many people walked in, the nearby street parking turned into a towaway zone.

Granted, this is a first-world problem. Especially now, I appreciate my privilege. But, this being a personal diary, it’s worth noting that the gradual limitation of access to this workout — which has been my saving grace during shelter-in-place — starts to feel, at least metaphorically, like a noose tightening around my neck.

The less I can use that hill run to deepen my breath and blast my lungs to gasping each morning, the shorter and shallower my breath becomes throughout the rest of the day. Short, shallow breath is a symptom of anxiety, a natural reaction to the stress of the Coronavirus crisis, given that in week three:

– Coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. surpassed 10,000 and the Trump Administration estimated that number would reach anywhere from 100,000 to 240,000.

– Today’s election in Wisconsin, where I spent much of my childhood and still have family and friends, carries the stench of dying democracy.

– Although unrelated to Coronavirus, Bill Withers died.

Next post in this series: Coronavirus Diary: Week Four

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