Landfill Lessons

August 3, 2020

Five young guys came by the house last week and relieved us of a sofabed that had sat in the living room for at least 20 years. They tied it precariously to the back of a beat-up pickup truck for a trip up I-95 to Alexandria. We let them have it for free, but I worried about it bouncing out on the interstate. When the driver thanked me he impulsively extended his hand to shake mine. I bumped his elbow. He grinned.

Getting rid of the sofabed is a strange relief.  We also sold our entire dining room set to some antique dealers, the kitchen table and chairs to somebody else, and gave away two small sofas.

We’re not slowing down. The days, hot as blazes this past month, are flying by. On Wednesday I put a second coat of paint on my former office in the basement. We stacked boxes of books and old photos in the toolshed. We’re waiting for a couple more painting estimates. Then the fun begins, as we try to stage the remaining furniture.

We’ll keep giving things away or taking them to the landfill.  You can take anything. Kids find it fun. About a year ago when our daughter and two grandsons were visiting, I proposed we visit a nearby park, with a quick stop at the landfill. I had a vanload of stuff to dump. She wasn’t enthusiastic. But we went.

You wave to the attendant. You back into position to open your trunk just above the bins. The older boy got out with me and helped me pitch the trash. He enjoyed it, we both did.

Looking at the near-empty house has a calming effect. Why is that? It simplifies the logistics of moving, but means also we’ll have to buy more on the destination end, still undetermined. But if it feels so good now, why didn’t we do it years ago?

It’s complicated. Maybe we had other things on our minds, health care, bills, car trips. Maybe we didn’t care. I think we made up things to avoid facing our inertia. Of course the answer is that we were engaged in great and wonderful things: world travel, executive staff meetings, other critical projects of vital importance to humanity!

That’s what I tell Sandy and others. It’s fun to see yourself as important when you’re not.  But moving creates the struggle to—to what? To complete the chores, remembering that’s what they are—chores. Then to keep our focus on the world in all its strangeness, chaos, and tragedy, as we watch the virus casualties soar and meanwhile confront the complicated questions of our lives. After many years I encountered again the English novelist Graham Greene, the on-again/off-again “Catholic” novelist, so he’s called in undergraduate English classes. Apart from his rationalizations about faith as he vectored between fidelity and infidelity, he asks the same question as St. Thomas Aquinas about the significance of human action in forming belief in God and the message of Christ. He probes and then probes more deeply the nature of love, sin, repentance.

Greene came to mind through his work, but also because he’s cited in Eric Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which tells the story of Churchill’s first year as prime minister, 1940-41, the year of the Blitz. Greene, who had just published his bestseller, The Power and the Glory, worked as an air-raid warden in Bloomsbury in London’s West End. In his journal he reported on the devastation of the German attacks, writing, after a night raid on April 16, 1941, that “one had ceased to believe in the possibility of surviving the night.”

Greene’s work, in all its tortured moral ambiguity, wrenches our perspective away from chores. Larson, writing history, takes us to darker places. He quotes extensively from the diary of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels and his wife poisoned their six children as the Soviet army entered Berlin. But we can look still deeper than Goebbels’ evil life and its end.

Goebbels’ wife Magda had a son from a previous marriage, Harald, who served in the German air force, the Luftwaffe. He was captured and sent to a POW camp, then released in 1947. His father, Gunther Quandt, was a captain of industry whose companies used slave labor to produce weapons and other equipment for the German army. After the war he was detained briefly by the allies, but avoided prosecution and rebuilt his businesses. When he died his sons Harald and Herbert inherited his companies. Harald died in a plane crash in 1967. He and his wife had five daughters, who inherited the businesses, including shares of Daimler-Benz and BMW. Their families now are among the wealthiest in Germany.

For years the Quandts refused to discuss the source of the family’s wealth. A German media company produced a documentary, “The Silence of the Quandts” complete with family members’ evasions. You can watch it, with subtitles, on YouTube. After its release the family funded a study of the Quandt businesses that revealed the Nazi connections.

We can back away from that nightmarish story. I wonder how I even got there. From the lessons it teaches, maybe not. I went back to Greene and his unsettling questions as we thought about our reasons for attempting to move during the pandemic, which seems to have no end. We read it’s now spreading north again, abetted by a civil war over masks in southern states and pseudo-mystical medical falsehoods spreading even more quickly.

wp-15963084427085714843598751846410.jpgThere’s all that, unfolding before us while we’re packing, donating, and hauling junk to the landfill. Tragedy is playing out before our eyes, but then so is goodness. I get that same vague charge of satisfaction when I dump stuff as when we said goodbye to the sofabed. We are bringing our long-cluttered house to life, doing good things, positive things, in the small world we can control. The place looks almost empty.

Moving has turned us into small thinkers, preoccupied with trivia. I try to recall why I saved some of the things we’re now parting with. Really, it doesn’t matter. We’re walking away, starting a new life someplace quieter, we hope. At this point, quiet is good. We don’t need things. We need the example of those Londoners, who, Graham Greene reports, overcame evil in ‘40-‘41, then the example of those covid-19 victims, right now.


July 27, 2020

Some milestones flash by. You get married, acquire in-laws, have kids, make new friends, change jobs, attend weddings, move to a new town. You’re reminded (someone always knows) of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, soccer games, swim meets, then deaths and funerals, sometimes after they’ve occurred. If you don’t pay attention, life can be a blur of missed special occasions.

Not this one. One year ago tomorrow Sandy was released from the ICU at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Penn. She spent a week there, starting the day before her birthday. Her birthday present was an MRI, followed the next day by an angiogram—a catheter inserted in her thigh and pushed into an artery in her brain. The diagnosis: an ischemic stroke, in which blood flow to the brain is blocked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that strokes kill about 140,000 Americans each year. Nearly 800,000 have strokes each year.

She experienced symptoms: numbness in her arm and an optical migraine, on Saturday, July 20. It was the hottest day of 2019 in eastern Pennsylvania. Our daughter-in-law Caroline rushed her to the Bryn Mawr ER. Luckily, the hospital is a stroke specialty center.

The docs said Sandy’s stroke was “minor”; it didn’t seem minor at the time. It affected the left side of her brain, but she didn’t suffer any loss of physical or brain function. Through her ICU week, cardiologists and neurologists debated the right level for her blood pressure. Too high could cause damage to limbs or vital organs, possibly blindness and death (true for anyone with chronically high blood pressure, if untreated). Too low risked inadequate pressure to push blood through her brain’s constricted arteries and veins. I don’t think they flipped a coin, exactly, but the range they agreed on, between 140 and 160 (systolic, or top number) is too high for most people, but strong enough to keep blood flowing to her brain, with moderate risk.

It was a rough week: following the angiogram, two or more blood draws, days and nights, a continuous IV and real-time blood-pressure monitor, an emergency CT scan, summits with a rotating crew of specialists who shared their uncertainty. The problem: how much blood pressure medication would she need to stay in that 140-160 spectrum? They came up with a mix of pills.

Through it all—or most of it–she smiled, or tried to smile. She gritted her teeth during the blood draws, but came up with a grin. She toughed it out.

wp-15956337744343099650973824858574.jpgWe picked up her first prescriptions from the closest CVS after discharge. It still was hot as blazes. We stayed with our son and daughter-in-law for a couple of days, extending our total stay from a weekend to twelve days. Then, at home, weekly visits to the family doc for blood-pressure checks and appointments with a cardiologist and a neurologist.

A few quiet weeks passed. We started walking, first up the street, then around the block, then a mile, then two. I covered this in some of my posts of last summer. Sandy’s BP was way up, then down. She went through two or three of those at-home blood-pressure devices, including one with an audio feature. It spoke to her: “Your systolic pressure is … your diastolic pressure is …”

Time crawled by, weeks, then months. She saw the cardiologist and took the stress test and passed. A “B+,” I called it. The neurologist visit was a little creepy, he grilled her about depression and gave her a prescription for anxiety. More pills. But she started feeling better.

She went back to the gym and walked on the treadmill, rode the exercise bike, lifted light weights. She went to weekday Mass. We kept up the walks. She talked to other women who had lived through strokes.

We got back on the road, to a family wedding in Georgia, then, for symmetry, Thanksgiving with our son and daughter-in-law in Pennsylvania. I suggested driving by the hospital, she wasn’t interested. For Christmas we trekked to South Carolina and watched the grandsons open their stuff Christmas morning.

She talked to people at Sentara hospital and a nearby assisted living facility about visiting with recovering stroke patients. The need is real, and urgent. Recovery, even for minor strokes, is slow, difficult, painful.

We managed to get our last “on the road” junket in, to Florida, in March. Then covid-19 hit. The workshops and visitation programs all shut down. We shut ourselves down. Like the rest of the country, we watched the reports: seniors were the first victims, then first responders, then everyone else.

Meanwhile, healing continues. Sandy still is on her meds, 6:00 AM then again at 6:00 PM. That will be every day, forever. She won’t be getting off the stuff, with one exception, the anxiety prescription. One day she simply stopped taking it. The doc was OK with it. I haven’t noticed a difference, probably because anxiety is contagious. She may have passed it to me.

She came with me to my oncologist’s appointment last month. We sat in the waiting room, everyone wearing masks, looking nervous. The doc came in, we talked through our masks. He looked over my scan and said it looked good. Back in four months.

So this week, her anniversary week, we looked back to the stroke birthday, 66—here we were at 67. It was uneventful. The kids called and sent gifts, we went to Mass. Prayers were for the covid victims, for all those suffering.

Later we went to dinner, socially distancing. We looked back two years, when she turned 65, a big deal. I recruited all the kids to show up for a surprise party. I called friends local and long distant, most made it. We ordered food, drinks, the works. The weather cooperated, it was clear and cool out in the yard. It all came together.

This anniversary moves us forward. We’re thinking of all the stroke victims, still in need. You push on, knowing what they’re experiencing, while their doctors and nurses now are in their own danger. Then we remind ourselves: another year is ahead. Prayer and courage gets you through it, to healing, peace, and the next anniversary.

Back to Vietnam

July 20, 2020

As I read about Trump and his White House people savaging Dr. Anthony Fauci, I thought of Vietnam. That is, the vicious war and its spinoffs at home, some of which I lived through and participated in. Then, as now, America suffered.

Last week I watched a “webinar” presented by a history professor at my alma mater, St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., entitled “St. Anselm and the Vietnam War.” The presentation focused on 1969-1970, the height of the anti-war movement. The professor referred with academic dispassion to a demonstration in downtown Manchester in fall ’69 and the “love it or leave it” criticism of the demonstrators by the local newspaper editor. He then discussed the explosion of student activism in May 1970, following the killing of four people on May 4 by Ohio National Guardsmen at a demonstration at Kent State University that responded to President Nixon’s “Cambodia incursion.”

In April President Nixon had authorized U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to attack sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia used by Viet Cong guerrillas and units of the North Vietnamese Army (the People’s Army of Vietnam, or PAVN). The operation abruptly expanded the scope of the Southeast Asian war. Historians believe the action, (opposed by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird) incited further popular support for the communist Khmer Rouge, which was fighting a civil war against the Cambodian government.

Just before the Kent State killings, Connie Buckley and I, both juniors, had taken over as editors of the college newspaper. I recall we wondered what in heck to put in our first issue to get our fellow students to pick it up and read it. Suddenly the nation blew up before our eyes. Instead of announcing spring sports scores and exam schedules, we found ourselves reporting on national tragedy, as colleges and universities shut down in a strike against the war, against Nixon, against the military. Those who were there remember: the nation’s most prestigious schools shut down by angry, agonized protests that at times descended into violence.

I got a mild kick out of the professor using a digitized image of the front page of our May 15 issue, which featured a story I had written, “Events of Week Lead to Optional Strike.” Those memories rushed back: two weeks of angry exchanges among students, faculty, and administrators, dozens of tense interviews, sleepless nights of writing, rewriting, copyediting, page pasteup (no desktop publishing in 1970).

wp-1594935107807168571779861052082.jpgWe already were on the front lines. In mid-November 1969 Buck and I hitchhiked from New Hampshire to Washington for the Vietnam War Moratorium march organized by the “New Mobe,” along with 250,000 others. On a cold gray Friday we marched past the White House, each wearing a sign bearing the name of a soldier who had died in the war. We shouted the names. Buses had been parked along Pennsylvania Avenue to keep the marchers at a distance. Weeks later, in a story for the paper, I wrote, “for a few moments it seemed we became the dead G.I.s whose names we wore, saying, ‘What about me?’”

At the time and for a while afterward we savored the sense of being “involved,” of doing something meaningful and important. Yet while in D.C. I watched marchers carrying Viet Cong flags smash windows along the route. This is not for me, I thought. And as we watched over the next six months, despite the sincerity of millions of Americans who opposed the war, the movement was coopted by political extremists, including some very violent people.

We both wrote editorials for that May 15 issue. Although many students expected us to endorse a school shutdown (some hoping to get out of taking exams), we went the other way, opposing the shutdown. And we heard about it.

The debate over the impact of the antiwar movement continues and never will end. The war ended because America’s leaders saw finally that it could not be won, whatever that meant. American troops were pulled back and shipped out. Without them, the South Vietnamese army, organized to fight Viet Cong guerrillas and led by corrupt officers, was no match for the regular North Vietnamese army, the PAVN, armed with Soviet-supplied weapons, including tanks and heavy artillery.

In September 1974 President Gerald Ford issued a pardon to Nixon. Suddenly, in April 1975, as Ford watched on the sidelines and America’s ambassador to Vietnam refused to believe what was happening around him, the PAVN was in Saigon. Two weeks earlier the Khmer Rouge had entered Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and started four years of genocide.

The opposition to the Vietnam war evolved through the late 1960s. It started with horror among ordinary Americans at casualty reports, hundreds of dead soldiers and Marines, week after week. It grew to anger, in voice and strength, under Johnson, then Nixon. The Cambodia incursion prolonged the agony. The antiwar movement descended into nihilism and Nixon was reelected. We are still living with the consequences.

So today, full circle. In 2016 a cadre of Americans, as angry with conventional politicians as their parents were in 1975, managed to elect a pseudo-reality show host as president. For three years we watched, and Senate Republicans watched, as Trump marketed hotels, slandered good people, fawned on dictators, lobbied foreign leaders for political gain, played golf. Then covid-19 attacked. When Americans weren’t sufficiently distracted by the president’s tweets about movie stars, women, and race-car drivers, he needed a bigger target, a teller of truth. That’s Fauci, whose expertise in the science of infectious disease may help us end the pandemic which, with Trump’s connivance, has become a holocaust.

For most Americans Vietnam and the antiwar movement now are a brief few paragraphs in history texts. I recall those casualty figures. I read about the covid-19 deaths, now more than double those of Vietnam and rising. I think of Fauci’s warnings to all of us. Then I think of Trump, and—golf.


July 13, 2020

We’re getting used to the idea of moving to South Carolina. Or trying to get used to it. Our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons are there. The rest of our kids fled Virginia years ago. We’re stranded here in a place that the passing of time has made as comfortable as old shoes. Right now, with the virus raging, the timing for a move is a little uncertain. But life here is getting a little weird. See last week’s post.

I like the feel of Virginia. The Old Dominion is one of the three places, along with Boston and Philadelphia, where American history got its start.  We have Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Highland, James Madison’s Montpelier. The American Revolution and the Civil War both ended here. South Carolina? Famous for starting the Civil War.

That’s unfair, sure. And, although it’s true, also beside the point. History hasn’t tied us here, it doesn’t tie anyone to anyplace. People who will spend their lives here won’t do it because they’re sharing in the story of their surroundings. Same with the old timers in South Carolina and everywhere else. We all have our cultural inclinations: highly unlikely someone who grew up in Alabama surrounded by friends and family will one day decide to move to Vermont. Other things matter. Folks who don’t like cold look to escape to warm places. Local politics may chase people, though not likely to a distant state. The other things really come down to work, health, family. When those things push us, moving is easy.

Jones Gap State Park, S.C.

What’s hard is looking at the options. Regardless of age, what we’re all looking for, move or not move, is decency, tolerance, a steady state for the balance of our lives. Sandy and I know this transplant to South Carolina is our last best shot.

Right now the virus is dictating the decency of life everywhere. Virginia is battling back, reporting fewer cases and deaths lately, as people wear their masks and take care in public places.  In the Trump/red states, Texas, Florida, Arizona, covid is tearing out of control.

Is state leadership smarter in Virginia? Probably. We have our 10-percenters who always do the wrong thing. Some Yankees see only politics. Talk-show polemicists insist that many southerners risk infection to show they’re loyal Republicans: no masks, no distancing, all-out at the bars and the Trump rallies. They have demolished the quality of life of the places where they live, the argument goes.

Is that so? That’s the easy presumption: that southern and western states opened early because they’re more concerned with business and a tough-guy sort of freedom than protecting health. But that’s wrong, completely wrong. The same thing happened in Michigan, Wisconsin, New York. It happened in L.A., it happened in London. The pool parties, the bar scenes, the unmasked crowds showed up everywhere.

It happened in those places because people want to belong, to be with others like themselves. Just as true in Virginia as everywhere else. Here we paid attention to the experts. In Texas, etc., state and local governments let human nature have its way. Ignoring sound medical guidance was colossally stupid. But they did what people wanted.

The point is about belonging which, let’s face it, includes going out, having a good time, with the bright lights, the music, the good-looking gals and guys. When I was in my twenties Mickey Gilley put a point on it with “The Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” Years later Toby Keith followed with “I Love this Bar and Grill.” Belonging, when you’re young, is about going out, rubbing elbows and shoulders. It’s all a little fantasy, as the music tells it. Nothing about covid-19. You can’t drink wearing a mask. It’s what we do, what we all do—or did.

That’s a digression: “opening up” in Texas, etc., also let infirm seniors toddle off to the buffet and the barbershop.

We’re in a different universe, but not so different. Belonging matters for us, too. But our kids are far away. Our “guest” bedrooms, the beds neatly made, have become silent spaces, cheerfully, lovingly fixed up, but silent. Family can’t just drop in. Their lives are filled with work, chores, bills. Life is complicated. For us, that means life is quiet.

Moving away will be excruciating, like tearing off a bandage. Driving away from here that last day will be like a slap in the head—if we can get to that point. The practical problem is overwhelming. We’re looking back now at 42 years of collecting stuff.  This house became a warehouse. Along with the two never-used bedrooms, we have two others disguised as an office and a storage room. Weeks go by when I don’t visit the far end of the house.

I’ve been probing back there, tentatively. I found a dusty folder labeled “Original Orders” that sent me to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in August 1971. The orders—surprise—were typed on an actual typewriter, with a carbon copy attached. Then plastic model jet fighters our son Michael and I built when he was in grade school, lined up on top of a bookshelf.

I stumbled on copies of papers I wrote in grad school. Copies of hundreds of my bylined articles from magazines and newspapers back to the late 1970s. One of them, entitled “Music City Not Altman’s Nashville,” appeared in the Nashville Banner (long defunct) in 1975 after I moved to Music City. I have a copy of the Marine Corps Gazette from December 1976, and magazines that ran book reviews I wrote. Another piece ran in The Wall Street Journal in 1986, after we landed in Jersey. Still have a copy.

This is the way it is when you hike up your britches to move. Some of it I’ll keep, some will go to the landfill. Keep sifting, shake the dust off, come up for air. Constantly. This is how we learn about ourselves. We’ll probably replicate these collections at our next house. The truth about us may be buried, but it’s there. It’s home.


July 6, 2020

Sitting in the back yard on the bench our son built for us, I don’t want to think about complicated things, although more and more, everything is complicated. But I’m done “decluttering” for the day. It’s quiet. The neighbors next door aren’t on their deck playing their unique music. Anchored here, thinking my old-guy thoughts, I can’t help going over in my head the bizarre, baffling, hilarious things I’ve seen around here in these 33 years.

Above my head a huge maple extends its limbs over the roof, probably damaging it. Our back yard is a hill steep enough for the kids to sleigh down when they were that age. The yard is enclosed in scrub and trees that hang thickly over our weed lawn, blocking most daylight. The property behind us at the top of the hill resembles a jungle. The occupants, probably renters, have not yet cut the yard this spring and seldom did last summer. It’s a thick tangle of bushes and vines, nearly obscuring the house. I don’t mind, the massive growth gives the impression that we live on a lush nature preserve. Sandy worries about snakes, though. I imagine the forest reclaiming the entire lot, then spreading down the hill.

wp-15938900466268717652544329140450.jpgThe fence along the south side, put up by the owner years ago, is collapsing. He’s been gone for a half-dozen years, the house is rented. The current tenants aren’t motivated to do anything about the fence. Neither were the previous occupants. So it sags, sometimes a ten-foot section teeters over and falls into our yard. I’ve propped it up with a two-by-four.

The house on the north side has a basement apartment. The owner bought the place about eight months ago. He lives upstairs and rents the apartment to a couple with three little girls. They cook many of their meals outside on a propane gas grill on the side of the house facing us. The parents don’t speak English, but the two older girls are perfectly fluent. Sandy has given their mother a couple of our daughters’ old but still good coats and dolls. The girls always wave, smile, and yell “Hi!”

Like anyone who’s lived in the same place a long time, we’ve seen it change. Change is putting it mildly. People talk endlessly about the explosion of residential and business growth in northern Virginia over the past three decades. Trees go down, subdivisions go up: thousands of homes and townhomes. Then the Stop-N-Gos, the 7-11s, the Sheetzes and Wawas move in.  Live here if you need gas and coffee.

But that’s going on everywhere. I wrote last summer about how you’ll never be lonely if you drive along America’s numbered state highways. It’s here, where we live, that we observe the evolution of suburbia. A caveat: in neighborhoods ruled by HOAs, things don’t change, except for the trees and shrubs. Most people don’t want to be hassled so they generally obey the rules. They get the pools and tennis courts.

Our neighborhood was one of the first settled in the “community” of Lake Ridge, within the worn-out industrial-residential town of Woodbridge. Lake Ridge isn’t a municipal place, just a series of subdivisions along a four-lane thoroughfare. This neighborhood doesn’t have an HOA. So we don’t have those annoying fees. Folks are free to put their own stamp on their homes and the street out front. No HOA means Christmas lights year-round, religious statues and giant inflated Darth Vader balloons on the front lawn, slat fences labeled “beware of the dog,” and boats, including some enormous ones, parked in the street. These are boats that never go to sea.

We have pickup trucks and minivans parked closely together in the street to conceal that license plates are missing. We have cars and trucks parked nearly forever, abandoned. Late last year, on a pouring rainy night, we were amazed to see a tow truck pull up behind a car that had been parked for months, hook it up and haul it away.

Sandy frequently counts the cars parked in front of a house down the street where probably four families live. It doesn’t bother me. Sure, they’re probably illegal. None of my business. The family next door to us, or some of their many friends and relatives who visit frequently, without masks, likely are illegal. I hope the police have more important things to do.

The neighborhood probably is a lot like others. We have our petty crime, our odd door-to-door people (no “no soliciting” signs around here), our amateur fireworks any time of year, our loud dogs and missing cats. We have neighbors who moved in late at night and moved right out again. We have—there being no HOA—front lawns that can get to a foot high. We have our oldsters who keep their eye on you. We have our do-it-yourselfers who shouldn’t do it themselves.

We have, as aforementioned, a mix of nationalities, which means exotic cooking aromas, Vietnamese, Salvadoran, Chinese, and others, and loud music from other continents—all the other continents. What we haven’t had is trouble. OK, one bad experience, a robbery, years ago. Otherwise this mix of bureaucrats, maintenance and construction people, restaurant staffers, domestic workers, enlisted military—families, single parents, and retired folks—gets along. We all wonder about each other, but we get along.

Isn’t that all that matters? The rough spots I see may be rough only to me. The yapping dog up the street may be truly his owner’s best friend. The flip side of self-awareness, after all, is cluelessness: my neighbors may not like the color of my house, or my attitude. Be positive, I remind myself, constantly.  Things may fall apart around us. Still, find good thoughts. Live with faith and hope.

In Nashville we lived in the city, near academics, professionals, students, and musicians, with city bus service, neighborhood shops, cafes, a theater. Then, of necessity, we landed here in the suburbs. Not the manicured-lawns kind. We found ourselves in the melting-pot burbs, the “beware of the dog,” big-boat burbs.

I hear a distant, low bark of thunder, and look up. The sky is darker. I stay in my chair, thinking about how we got here: what if this happened, if that didn’t. We’ll move away eventually. We wonder who will move in. My joke is we’ll come back in 10 years. Our house will be gone. Instead, we’ll find a forest.


June 29, 2020

All the kids called last Sunday for Father’s Day. We talked, as we always do, about visiting, which is being pushed farther into the indistinct future. “On the road” has pretty much become “up the street to the hardware store.” We tried to fake a reason to get out of town. Maybe it will work out next month.  Meanwhile, I have chores to finish.

Pausing for that moment, Father’s Day is one of those Hallmark holidays, like Valentine’s Day—nice, but not really commemorating anything. This year it was swallowed up in the hoopla over the Trump Tulsa rally, which came along with the new pandemic surge. It’s spreading where a month ago people were saying they’d never wear a mask or stay home. The turmoil that followed Floyd’s death didn’t abate for that special Sunday, either. People were in the streets in D.C., in Tulsa, in Seattle. One month and everything seems worse.

Grandsons’ Father’s Day card

Seems worse, is worse. Getting to 123,000 covid deaths will do that. We are traumatized by the collective grief, and by the invisible threat. I think of Londoners in the 1940 summer of the Blitz, German bombs nearly every night. The true-believer Trump cadre still insists it’s a hoax and that masks are for Democrats. On Friday Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert, used the word “protean” to describe the dynamics of covid infection. I wondered: do those guys in cammies and carrying guns get that?

We know one thing. A working baseline for thinking about the pandemic is that the Trump administration attitude reaffirms Stalin’s cynical insight: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

Beyond the pandemic, the wrenching polarization of the culture has had another, little-noticed effect: Americans, with their political opinions, have become obnoxious at worst, insufferably boring at best. Either you’re certain Trump and his family are ripping off America for every nickel they can squeeze, or you’re convinced that Joe Biden and the Dems will tear down every statue in the country, not stopping with Confederate generals.

So we recognize all that. Then we can move on, back to our own lives. Two members of our running group are doing that: they’ve bought homes in southern states, after decades in northern Virginia. They’re heading for the beach, warmer weather, lower taxes, less congestion. It may seem like an immutable law of nature: get close to retirement, think about the next step, typically cast as upgrading “quality of life” by changing the scenery.

We’re not standing still. I’m touching up the banged-up wall of the downstairs bedroom, replacing moulding in a couple of places, repairing ceiling tiles I installed years ago, and excavating and repairing the sump pump drain line. Never thought I’d be stuck with that one. If the mildew keeps attacking I’ll be powerwashing again, reliving the experience of last September (this blog, Sept. 30, 2019). And so on.

Truth is, I still would be blowing those things off if we weren’t thinking about moving ourselves. The moulding has been broken for years, same with the ceiling tiles. The gash in the bedroom wall is only eight months old, made by a plumber on an emergency call. Other than the minimum, like cutting grass and some painting, I quit on handyman stuff years ago. I have power tools stashed in the basement I haven’t touched in decades.

Rousing myself to take care of these things has not been easy, and I needed a serious push. The real point, the point beyond the point of thinking about the repairs is setting out to do them, just as our friends set out to find new homes. These are positives that force us to act, to focus on the real world, the nuts-and-bolts, executing complicated, usually annoying tasks that have a metaphysical dimension. They require serious attention to concrete, existential things: the tools, the materials, the measurements.  To fix the ceiling I have to pay attention to all that, plus the equally difficult act of balancing on the ladder.

If you tackle these things, the reward is a contribution to your own life and the family’s well-being. That applies even if the result is less than professional, if the moulding you installed is a little crooked, if there’s cement smeared where it shouldn’t be smeared. You could have hired a pro, but you didn’t. You might need to hire one for something else.

“Quality of life” requires small, deliberate steps. You don’t get past those steps listening to talk-show hot air that reinforces your opinions and prejudices. Those hours you spend with Fox or MSNBC and on the internet are gone forever. Those repair jobs still will be there, haunting you.

The home-repair thing is just an example, probably an obscure one, of what I’m thinking. Our friends will be setting out on great adventures in new communities, where they’ll reappraise their lives. The goal is joy and enthusiasm for whatever lies ahead. More than three decades ago we uprooted our family from a comfortable life in Tennessee and moved to New Jersey on a bet we ended up losing. After a year we did it again and landed in Virginia. Changing communities, changing states, is transformative—no other word works. The point, for the umpteenth time, is move forward, always forward.

There are other ways. We have friends who are awaiting the birth of a grandchild. They’re preparing to celebrate the coming of a new life to their family. They’re anticipating the joy of it. We’ve been through that, we know. Right now we’re stuck with the chores. I’m working on my attitude. Hope there’s some joy ahead.


June 22, 2020

Forty-one years ago, for one afternoon, Sandy and I visited Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. It was a detour, we were on our way from Nashville to St. Paul. Our month-old daughter, our first, was packed in the back of our cramped Toyota in one of those early baby restraint baskets.

I had read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as a kid and had to make the stop. Twain’s history there is a tourist attraction. We walked down to a pier to look at the Mississippi, brown, fast-flowing, nearly a mile wide. Barges crawled up the channel. It’s not much of a place, I thought. It probably wasn’t much of a place when he lived there, either.

Clemens, or Twain, is famous because he told us something about the country, and about ourselves. Huckleberry Finn resonates in American literature and American history, for some in the wrong way. Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain.” That book is a haunting, dark tale of America. So was Twain’s life.

wp-15925055882632767795506662360043.jpgTwain was an American hero. He was loved, admired, applauded. Oxford gave him an honorary degree. You can read his books, but they tell you nothing about his suffering. Four of his six siblings died before reaching 20. His son died at 19 months. His oldest daughter, Susy, died at 22, another daughter, Jean, drowned at 29. His wife Olivia, devastated for years by Susy’s death, passed at 58.

You can look all that up. But you don’t need research. Right now in America we need to be reminded that a sweet spot exists between heroism and pain, called dignity. Dignity is a function of moral strength—courage, if you like. Twain is remembered as a writer and a “humorist.” But he showed the America of his time the dignity of moving forward in spite of grievous personal loss. The novelist Oscar Hijuelos reveals Twain without the mask of the humorist. Hijuelos worked for 12 years on his magical Twain book, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise.

Hijuelos isn’t a household name and never will be one, although he wrote nine novels and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990. He worked on Paradise until the day before he died of a massive heart attack in 2013. He was 62.

Today the pandemic is ravaging western and southern states. Some people in those places are chucking their masks, if they ever owned them, pushing into each other in bars and restaurants. Maybe they think they’re lucky. They should read Hijuelos’ books. They won’t, but they should.

Paradise invokes two heroes, Twain and British explorer Henry Stanley. Twain, in his novels, stories, and countless public talks, helped America understand its rich and tragic history. Stanley spent years blazing trails in Africa.

Clemens and Stanley were two of the most famous men in the world. Hijuelos conjures up a chance meeting on a Mississippi steamboat in 1859 that binds them together for life.

Stanley won fame for finding the missionary David Livingstone in present-day Tanzania in 1871. He grew up an orphan in Wales. While still young he shipped out to New Orleans. He served a short stint in the Confederate Army, was captured, and ended up in the Union Army. He then bounced around as a reporter and later was sent to Africa by Belgian King Leopold, then searched for the headwaters of the Nile. His story is controversial. But he returned to Britain a giant, called Bula Matari, “Breaker of Rocks.” The name is inscribed on his headstone.

Clemens’ novels, stories, and down-to-earth humor made him rich for a while. Bad investments bankrupted him. He crawled back by writing and traveling endlessly to give talks.

Hijuelos reports all that, but spins a tale of decades-long friendship between them that spanned continents and political beliefs. After hitting it off on the steamboat, Twain, then still Clemens, and Stanley traveled to Cuba. The Civil War separated them, they didn’t meet again for years. Stanley was a devout Anglican, Twain a dedicated agnostic. He hated the cruel march of European colonialism in Africa, which killed thousands. Stanley showed the colonizers the way, although historians differ over whether he was implicated in the abuses. He became wealthy and was knighted by the Queen. Twain battled financial ruin for years.

In Paradise, Stanley never fully recovered from the malaria he contracted in Africa. Eventually he suffered a stroke that incapacitated him. His wife, the painter Dorothy Tennant, kept Twain advised of his friend’s condition. Their friendship, in Hijuelos’ telling is elegiac—a bond of two Victorian gentlemen of letters who placed their pain and their political differences aside to remain gentlemen. Twain visited Stanley and Dorothy when he was in London, drank whiskey with Stanley, posed for Dorothy in her studio, reported on his globe-trotting adventures, and passed along his irreverent opinions on nearly everything. Their decades-long friendship represented mutual admiration, respect, love. Over the years, Dorothy develop a complicated, stirring affection for her husband’s best friend.

In Hijuelos’ story, Stanley dies a drawn-out, agonizing death. He knows it’s coming, his wife knows, Twain knows. He lapses, then recovers, then grows weak, then weaker. Twain is in America, mourning the loss of Susy and caring for Livy, who like Stanley is slipping away. Dorothy writes Twain with the news.

Seven years later Twain returns to visit Dorothy, scarred by grief, still the erudite, old-school gentleman. Dorothy feels a mystical, unmistakable spark in his presence, the presence of a great man. Clemens looks back, telling her the story of that riverboat meeting. Finally he says, “Lest I get teary-eyed, I better go now, Dolly.”  He dies three years later.

Religious faith plays a small role in Hijuelos’ story, yet faith always is present. Twain carps about religion and the idea of an afterlife as he observes the suffering of the poor in America’s Gilded Age and Europe’s greed in exploiting its colonies. He struggled to pay bills while coping with searing pain. Yet he offered America the gifts of dignity and reverence for human life. Dignity and courage, when we find them, offer solace, peace, hope.  Hijuelos’ story, Mark Twain’s story, through all his darkness, becomes a beacon.

Two Places

June 15, 2020

Washington, D.C.

We still are groping with the insidious questions about the Floyd killing: why it occurred and what it represents: “bad apples” among Minneapolis cops or a strain of endemic racial bigotry affecting police forces. As Americans reacted to that nightmare video, local governments, paralyzed by public outrage, faced peaceful demonstrators, also looters and vandals. They sent out the police, then the Guard. Some police officers and Guardsmen knelt with the demonstrators. The anger, eloquent in some places and destructive in others, remains.

Traffic was light as I crossed the 14th Street Bridge into Washington last Tuesday and stayed light as I cruised up 14th. No one was coming into town.  I turned onto Constitution Avenue, then took a left on 11th Street. I parked at the corner of 11th and F. I put on my mask.

I hiked north along F toward 14th. The streets were nearly deserted. Construction workers were erecting plywood barriers to protect storefronts. Bank and hotel windows along F Street already were boarded up. “Black Lives Matter” and “BLM” were spray-painted on the plywood and on the building walls. Peaceful people had been here, but so were the vandals.

wp-1592065586999390583767145666100.jpgPolice cruisers and giant vans were parked at intersections, their flashers turned on. Officers had stretched yellow “Do Not Cross” tape across the south sidewalk at 14th and H, but the north side was open. More pedestrians and bike riders appeared, some wearing BLM shirts, all heading across 15th Street to Lafayette Park, and then to Black Lives Matter Plaza at the southern end of 16th Street.

The Park, which fronts the White House to the south and H Street on the north, was inaccessible, closed off by eight- or ten-foot-tall black cyclone fencing put up by the Park Service a day or so earlier (it has since been taken down). It had become an art gallery of protest. Signs conveyed anger, sadness, grief, defiance, along with some crudity and threats. They still were going up. Hundreds of men, women, and some children moved along and past the fence, some painting new messages on the street, others stringing letters as tall as me along the fence, spelling George Floyd’s name, “BLM,” countless other slogans, demands, and prayers. An elderly white man stood in the street holding a BLM sign above his head.

wp-15920656893724977071911785534495.jpgAcross the street at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a group was gathering. St. John’s, where Trump revealed himself as a coward while clutching a Bible, had become ground zero.

I walked up BLM Plaza. “Black Lives Matter” had been painted in street-wide block yellow letters, next to “Defund the Police,” a punchy sound bite that, we hope, no one will take literally.

Someone was addressing a group in front of St. John’s. It was hot, but the crowd kept growing. Camera crews were everywhere, reporters interviewed people who stopped and stared at wp-15920654795061106636908969753697.jpgthe art fence or contributed to it. I saw no police, no Guardsmen. Unlike last week, democracy was working. The site was calm. Protest was legitimate, peaceful, and powerful.

“Bad apples” can be got rid of. But the overwhelming problem, the origin, cultivation, and proliferation of racial hatred, still simmers. Scholars and politicians with theories are everywhere.

Petersburg, Va.

Petersburg is a good a place to think about racial bigotry. Petersburg ended the Civil War. I wrote about Manassas, which began the war, a couple of weeks ago.

On a bright and warm but silent Friday morning, Sandy and I walked around the earthworks of Confederate batteries at the Eastern Front site of the Petersburg National Battlefield. Petersburg wasn’t a battle. It was a ten-month-long campaign in which Grant’s 122,000-man Army of the Potomac ground down Lee’s 65,000-man Army of Northern Virginia. During the campaign some 90,000 men on both sides were killed and wounded.

wp-15920649675892686735284321266201.jpgGrant and Lee both knew that the rail hub of Petersburg, where five lines converged, was the key to Richmond. In early June 1864 Lee inflicted heavy losses on Grant’s army at Cold Harbor. Grant then attacked Petersburg but in four days failed to capture it. He began his siege, to last 292 days. In twelve bloody engagements from mid-June of ’64 to April, ’65 Grant’s superior forces exhausted the Confederates while taking terrible losses. The rebels were overwhelmed at Five Forks intersection on April 1. The following day the Yankees broke through to Petersburg. A week later, Lee surrendered, ending the war.

In his Personal Memoirs, Grant wrote generously of the Confederate soldiers’ bravery in battle and endurance of great suffering over the four years of war. He adds:

“But the South had rebelled against the National government. It was not bound by any constitutional restrictions. The whole South was a military camp. The occupation of the colored people was to furnish supplies for the army. Conscription was resorted to early, and embraced every male from the age of 18 to 45. … The slaves, the non-combatants, one-third of the whole, were required to work in the field without regard to sex, and almost without regard to age. Children from the age of eight years could and did handle the hoe … The four million of colored non-combatants were equal to more than three times their number in the North, age for age and sex for sex, in supplying food from the soil to support armies. Women did not work in the fields in the North, and children attended school.

wp-15920651326363106256741912623366.jpg“The arts of peace were carried on in the North. In the South no opposition was allowed to the government which had been set up … . No rear had to be protected. All the troops in service could be brought to the front to contest every inch of ground threatened with invasion. The press of the South, like the people who remained at home, were loyal to the Southern cause.

“As I have said, the whole South was a military camp. The colored people … were submissive, and worked in the field and took care of the families while the able-bodied white men were at the front fighting for a cause destined to defeat.”

After Lincoln’s death our racial history quickly grew uglier under President Johnson, who ignored Grant’s Appomattox pledge of amnesty for Confederate leaders and ordered indictments of Lee, Longstreet, and other generals. Grant, still commander of the Union Army, forced Johnson to back down. Meanwhile Johnson helped Southern state governments restore former officeholders.

The “Dictator” Union naval gun fired 218 shells into Petersburg

In late 1865 Grant learned from his commanders in the South of increasing white atrocities against blacks. On a tour of southern states he was showered with flattery. He was slow to learn about the motives of wealthy whites, but later regretted believing what he heard from them.

Ron Chernow, Grant’s biographer, writes that “by the end of 1865, so-called Black Codes began to forge a new caste system in the South, a segregated world where freed slaves worked as indentured servants, subject to arrest if they left jobs before their annual contracts expired. It was a cruel form of bondage, establishing the foundations of the Jim Crow system.”

Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but Congress overrode his veto. Chernow writes that Grant directed his southern commanders to enforce the law, which abolished the Black Codes. Johnson was impeached in 1868 but escaped conviction by one vote.

Violence spread throughout the South. Hooded night riders murdered blacks and burned their homes and churches. In May 1866 Grant said, “Troops must be kept at all the principal points in the South for some time to come.” In June Congress passed the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States.

The story that follows is a hard one. An especially brutal white-against-black riot exploded in July in New Orleans, killing 34 blacks and wounding 160. General Philip Sheridan called it “an absolute massacre by the police, not excelled … by that of Fort Pillow.” In April 1864, at Fort Pillow, near Memphis, rebels slaughtered some 350 black Union soldiers.

Years of violence followed. In May 1921 Tulsa whites attacked a black neighborhood, killing up to 300. Despite federal law, and the crackdowns ordered by Grant, racial bigotry became embedded in Southern politics and culture. We know also the North was not pure.

From the vantage point of Petersburg, where one tragedy ended, another began. The Floyd incident is another in a convoluted, dark history, from Fort Pillow, then to Tulsa, Minneapolis, Louisville, Houston, New York, and countless other places. History stares us down. High time to learn from it.

Mountain Roads

June 8, 2020

We spent America’s week of bitterness driving through the high country of northwestern South Carolina. Main Street in Greenville was quiet when we passed through, folks strolled without masks and crowded into outdoor seating at restaurants. Local people demonstrated downtown calmly, while the state sent National Guardsmen to Washington “to assist local law enforcement,” the Guard said.

Meanwhile South Carolina, one of the first states to reopen, now is seeing covid cases increasing again.

Our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons have settled in Upstate, the nickname for this region, tucked between North Carolina and Georgia. It’s hugely different from the coastal Low Country, which offers tidal marshes, Spanish moss and, in summer, stifling heat and beach tourism–for me, an alien world.

Upstate is frontier country, on the southern fringe of the Blue Ridge. Greenville is an hour from Asheville, North Carolina’s gateway to the Pisgah National Forest, which merges with the Great Smokies and crosses into Tennessee. You can see the pale blue silhouettes of the mountains from downtown.

So we escaped the tragedies racking the country for a few days. South Carolina, after all, is mainly a hard-red state; the governor, McMaster, and the two senators, Graham and Scott, are Trump groupies. The anger and grief playing out elsewhere seems muted here.

We explored the rough-edged country north of Greenville. The mountains show up quickly as the traffic falls away outside Greenville County. U.S. 25, the road to Asheville, takes you first into rugged foothills then to thick forest, sharp peaks, and cold lakes. This country isn’t the Rockies, but brings me images of the Shenandoahs and Massanuttens minus the granite carpeting.

wp-15915666893017622903784057342346.jpgI hiked a few miles on the Carrick Creek Trail, through deep Carolina forest along the narrow, thundering creek as it rims the sheer, balding face of Table Rock Mountain. The trail links to the 80-mile Foothills Trail, which runs to Oconee State Park through a series of spidery trail connections in both Carolinas to the Appalachian Trail.

The Greenville-Asheville axis has become a refuge for wilderness defenders, climate-change crusaders, and let’s face it, old folks. If you head west or north along winding backcountry roads you probably will traverse the 370,000-acre Sumter National Forest, then enter a larger and richer ocean of wilderness: the Cherokee, Pisgah, and Nantahala National Forests. The Chattahoochee NF then spreads out across northern Georgia, split by the fierce Dragon’s Spine west of Blairsville.

We skirted the area years ago, heading home from Nashville. We had stopped for a quick visit to Frozen Head State Park northwest of Knoxville, with its angry, jagged peaks, site of the infamous Barkley Marathon, the race almost no one finishes. The Barkley course passes through the site of the now shut-down Brushy Mountain State Prison, for a time the home of James Earl Ray. We stayed one night in Johnson City, then pressed on to Elizabethton and into the dense, not to say impenetrable Cherokee on U.S. 91. We drove around 15 mph for a couple of hours to Shady Valley, Tenn., a minuscule, shining gem, as close to Shangri-la as I’ve ever seen. It’s just south of Damascus, Va., another tiny, near-mythical place, but a key marker along the A-Trail. Anyway, that’s how I remember it.

wp-15915667768412149478396622293563.jpgThese places and roads stay with me. Years ago we traveled east from Nashville into Appalachia to Pikeville in Bledsoe County, Tenn. We used to visit Sandy’s aunt and uncle on their farm just outside town, in majestic country, the Sequatchie Valley along the Sequatchie River. The Valley extends north-south between nearly sheer cliffs, the Cumberland Plateau to the east and what’s called Walden Ridge to the west. Eventually they sold the farm and moved to town. We kept visiting Pikeville until they passed.

The memories become keener farther along the mountains to the southwest, still rugged and massive into Franklin County, where Sandy grew up. “Sewanee Mountain” was the summit, and 41A the road through Cowan, her hometown. Her family is long gone, scattered through the Volunteer State. The last time we visited we stopped at the cemetery. Sewanee, site of the prestigious University of the South, is just up the mountain. From there it’s an hour either to Chattanooga or Huntsville.

If you push southwest from Sewanee you’re still in rough country, and will find the Talledega National Forest in Alabama, and the state’s highest point, Mount Cheaha. It sits astride the Pinhoti Trail, which starts or finishes in northwestern Georgia, with half of its 330-mile length in each state. I ran part of Pinhoti’s pine-needle carpet two years ago.

If instead you head west, the mountains smooth into gentle hills and valleys through Huntland, Fayetteville, and Lawrenceburg. By Jackson the hills have flattened, the soil is just right for growing cotton. The country is transformed. Prairie stretches west for a thousand miles.

We tried going west two years ago, interrupted (I repeat myself) by medical things. We won’t be attempting it again. From  here in S.C. we’ll climb back up the mountains in the opposite direction to get home—for a while. We started some projects we should finish. The place needs work.

So we’ll backtrack through Charlotte, Durham, Richmond, Fredericksburg and wait for better days. Covid-wise, northern Virginia has not yet reopened. We’re still watching Mass on the internet, old folks are asked to stay home. Just as important, maybe more, the blasts from Mattis, Mullen, Powell, and other former four-stars are having an impact with the Republicans, or a few of them. I have faith they will go the way of all corruption. Meanwhile, we have three other kids to visit.

The Legacy

June 5, 2020

One day in the early 1980s, maybe ’82 or ’83, I walked up to the State House in Nashville, Tenn., to interview Governor Lamar Alexander for a free-lance magazine article. The building is an impressive perch, on a high point above the city, and a couple of blocks from St. Mary’s Church, where Sandy and I got married. The church, until 1845, occupied the site of the State House.

Alexander was a Republican star, inaugurated for his first term in January 1979 on a weekend evening to replace the corrupt Democrat Ray Blanton, who had been pardoning prison inmate friends of his political supporters. Alexander became known for walking the length of the state wearing his trademark plaid flannel shirt.

Anyway, the topic was Alexander’s efforts to transform the Tennessee economy by attracting new business, especially auto manufacturing, and to reform state schools, historically among the worst in the nation. He had just scored a huge win in persuading Nissan to build a big plant in Smyrna, just south of Nashville.

In our meeting he was dynamic, full of vision and enthusiasm as he mapped out his plans for improving performance standards for schools and raising teacher pay. He won rave reviews but also stiff resistance from the Legislature. He left office in 1986 still a political giant in the state. He went on to a huge career, serving as president of the University of Tennessee, then Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. He tried running for president in 1996 and 2000 but dropped out early. In 2006 he was elected to the Senate, where he chaired the Senate Republican Committee for five years. In 2015 took over as chair of the Health, Education, Pensions, and Labor Committee.

As a Senator he gained a reputation for cordial, courtly, serious bipartisanship. He announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection to a fourth term in 2020. Then, with the Trump presidency, he faded into the moral fog of the Republican Senate.

Alexander stayed silent during the impeachment hearings, prompting some talking heads to guess he might join two or three other Republicans in voting against Trump. Eventually that amounted to one, Romney. Afterward Alexander, like Collins of Maine and a couple of others offered that Trump’s phone call to Ukraine president Zelensky, in which he twisted the Ukrainian’s arm to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, was “inappropriate,” but not impeachment material. Last week, he released a stock statement condemning looting and burning in Nashville and called for “redoubling our efforts” to end racial discrimination. He then moved on to a message of sympathy for the death of a long-ago Tennessee football coach.

Lamar Alexander will pass from the Senate, like 99 percent of his current Republican colleagues, as a devout party apparachnik, remembered, like the rest, for brushing away any sense of integrity in order to pay homage to party over country and Constitution. All but Romney have been mute in the face of the pustule of scandal that has swollen around them for three years at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and now infects them with the nauseating aroma of complicity.

Setting aside the ghastly wound already inflicted on America by the coronavirus, abetted by presidential indifference, with deaths still soaring and unemployment at double-digit levels,  the political and moral crisis of today becomes the Republican legacy. While the 53 senators who compose the majority may boast, in their earlier lives, of governorships, achievements in state legislatures, law degrees, and business successes, their careers already are stained with three years of cowardice in the face of Trump. Then too, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who both stepped up occasionally to object mildly to this or that Trump act, chose to retreat to retirement rather than face their presumably outraged constituents.

Corker’s abdication opened the door to another Trump acolyte, Marsha Blackburn, who during her campaign threatened Tennessee voters with invasion by Hispanic immigrants and Middle Eastern terrorists if they voted for her Democratic opponent.

I wrote a while back, pre-pandemic, that Republican senators live in fear of a Trump tweet. That fear has metastasized to an abject, boots-shaking paranoia that some of their voters might be incensed by any show of courage in dealing with Trump. Those are the voters who somehow still believe that the moral desert of a failed real estate salesman’s character that drives his avalanches of lies; his treason in fawning over America’s enemies; his cowardice when called to serve in the military; and his perverse behavior with women—does not disqualify him from occupying the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Alexander’s current successor as governor, Bill Lee, last July signed a proclamation for a day honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a native Tennessean, Confederate general, and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Facing criticism, he said he signed it because he was required to by law. In March the state House passed a law ending the tradition, and Lee has asked the Senate to do so as well. Progress comes in small measures, in the Volunteer State, and everywhere.