When my husband Kurt and I were having lunch a few months ago, my Honest Tea bottle offered up some truth with its white tea and mango. Its interior lid quoted a Pashto saying, “Do not be so sweet that people will eat you up, nor so bitter that they will spit you out.” That is the rub is it not? How much should we wrestle for our independence and freedom versus the needs of those around us–those we love and care for, as well as the collective groups of people who share our neighborhood, city, state, region, country, and planet.
I will freely admit that I have never stood up for my individual needs as much as I am obsessed with caring for the needs of others. My altruistic, other-focused perspective sounds like a wise choice, especially since I am a woman, because it is definitely what is expected of me. No matter what culture of people I have ever experienced, read about, or observed, women are expected to care for the needs of others more diligently than their own. We do not want to be spit out or found wanting.
Pashto, the language of this proverb, is the language of some of the people in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pashto–along with French, German, Russian, and Spanish–is one of the world’s languages that is built around grammatical gender, meaning that the nouns chosen to express ideas contain feminine or masculine verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on. Chinese, English, Korean, Japonic, Native American, and Turkish languages do not have this grammatical gender expression. Modern English expresses gender in its pronouns (e.g., he, she, his, her).
It is interesting to me that a language in which words have male and female meanings, should have an aphorism admonishing the wise person not to be too sweet nor too sour, but suggesting that a person should seek to strike a balance in between, to achieve the harmonious center.
The majority of men I know do not seem to wrestle with striking a balance between their individual needs and the needs of those around them. Certainly our nation’s president is not the least bit concerned with anyone else’s needs. For him all roads lead to him, his re-election, and continuation of the power he wields to ensure: (1) he is shielded from prosecution by the Attorney General of his choosing, (2) that governments and people seeking his favor will stay in his hotels and resorts to enrich his bottom line, (3) that he will be worshipped by his fervid fan base, and (4) he will not be seen as a loser from Queens, New York. Losing is not something he can abide.
On the other hand, women in our culture struggle mightily with how to balance their own needs with those of their family, friends, and community. I know I have struggled during this pandemic to keep myself safe while meeting the obligations asked of me by my family.
Despite the competing forces currently pulling our nation and even our families apart, there is a middle ground that seeks balance between the poles of extremism. I have pitched a tent in that moderate location–the metaphorical equator between the inhospitable North and South poles. My neat equatorial analogy falls down, however, as I live in East Tennessee. If I am the equator between the two opposing political Republican/Democratic poles, then living at my equatorial home is too close to the sun and also rather inhospitable–especially during the very politicized COVID-19 virus ravagingin our country and the state of Tennessee with 4.3 million people recorded as testing positive and nearly 150,000 deaths to date.
Being a moderate who believes this virus is unpredictable and dangerous, I believe we should all take prudent measures to protect ourselves and others: wear masks, respect social distancing, not open schools until the viral curve has been flattened and brought under control, and refrain from gathering togther with people outside our family bubble until we have a vaccine that is widely distributed and available. This is not the sort of belief system exercised by everyone in our nation or by my state, city, or everyone in my family. Thus, the conundrum becomes how to balance the competing interests of the individual (staying alive and healthy) with my obligations to my country, state, city, and family.
Perhaps a way forward was suggested by our visit to Portland, Oregon, a year ago when Kurt and I visited our nephew Zach. Recently Portland has changed considering since a year ago. The city has suffered intense conflict between protestors who support the Black Lives Matter movement and Homeland Security forces sent to the city by our current president.
A year ago, however, we found Portland to be an inspiring city full of natural beauty. While we were there, we visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden that was built by 70 craftsmen from Portland’s sister city of Suzhou, China. After a year of construction, the Lan Su opened in September 2000 with the defining motto: between lake and mountain lies true meaning.
In Ancient Chinese philosophy, balance is the source of tranquility, harmony, and happiness, as in the concepts of yin (dark, negative) and yang (light, positive) as present in nature. What seems to be oppositional on its face, in Chinese belief, can actually be complementary. As explained in the Lan Su online Visitor’s Guide:
Yin and yang are seemingly opposing forces, like dark and light or masculine and feminine, are interconnected and yield balance and harmony. The reflection of the sky (yang) is mirrored in the water here on earth (yin). The willow branches (yin) caress the stone (yang) below them.
Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon
Balance, order, harmony, tranquility, happiness, and health depend on compromise. Our country’s future depends on detente, a French word meaning easing of tension, hostility, or strained relations. Detente was a word we used to hear a great deal about in the early 1970s when President Richard Nixon was trying to broker a lasting peace, and avert nuclear war with the Soviet Union, through an agreement with its then-leader Leonid Brezhnev.
I was just a kid at that time, but even I understood that nuclear annihilation was MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The Soviet Union dissolved during the 1970s and 1980s and in 1991, after its satellite states gained their independence, what was left officially became the Russian Federation, or what we call Russia. The name may have changed but the wish to control power on the world stage has not. Russia seeks to undermine the remaining superpower on the world stage: the United States. And what better way to neuter America than to foment its destruction from within by encouraging division, hatred, and racism.
For the future of our country–and the world–we should abandon our Mutually Assured Destruction of either/or thinking and adopt the notion of and. We should discourage divisive thinking of North versus South, Black versus White, male versus female, immigrant versus non-immigrant, Native American versus non-Native American, Democrat versus Republican, red state versus blue state, rural areas versus cities, and farms versus towns.
We should be Black and White because we are black and white. We should be cities and rural areas because are towns and farms. Within each red state (except maybe tiny Wyoming) there are millions of people who vote blue; and within each blue state are millions of people who vote red. Does it really make any sense to destroy our country, our livelihoods, and our lives to spite the tribe on the other side of the railroad track? Do we really want to go down with the ship, fighting with each other?
Succinctly, we should be the American people who wear masks for the duration.
During my adult life I have traveled fairly extensively and wherever I go, I take photos of posters, signage, and graffiti that show the whimsy and idiosyncratic nature of public communication. Here are a few photos from my collection.
Posted in the London subway (called the Tube by the locals), in June 1993:
I know the Brits had the the English language before we Americans got involved, but it is difficult to agree with the statement that this poster can promise anything on its own.
Also seen in the London Tube, June 1993:
Not only do the English authorities let you know what they want you to do, they tell you why you should follow their directive as well. Beware pigeons, you have been warned.
A poster from an exhibit in the Museum of London, June 1993:
The British suffragettes were not only tough, strong, resilient, and dedicated to winning the vote for English women, but they also did all this with great flair, according to the Purple, White and Green exhibit at the Museum of London.
Photographed at a Knoxville, Tennessee, furniture store, possibly 2011:
Yes, Norma Jeane Baker would probably never have become Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe if she had followed the expected behavior of women in the 1940s and 1950s. There is that saying about breaking eggs to get an omelet.
Observed in St. Martin, an island in the Caribbean, 2006:
This is one of my all-time favorite photos of serendipitous signage. My husband Kurt and I were taking one of our few real vacations–as opposed to him working in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Central America, South America, or Africa and me coming along with him on the business trip. We were driving through the French side of St. Martin (one side of the island is French, the other side is Dutch) when I saw this building and told Kurt we simply must get this photo. He drove back and snapped this shot, and I must say that there is a great deal of truth here. Happiness is very much a self-service proposition. You must bring your own peace of mind to the rodeo because expecting other people to make you happy is an appointment with despair.
Posted in Costa Rica in March 2007:
Costa Rica is a country of great natural beauty that is known for protecting its wildlife and ecological diversity. It also takes seriously its responsibility to keep its waiters safe when they are crossing a road to serve food. Yes, this sign really was posted beside a road in Costa Rica.
Posted in Costa Rica in 2007:
Costa Rica warns drivers to slow down for monkeys, dogs/wolves(?), and children at a road crossing.
Observed at the Knoxville Zoo, 2015:
Ok, people with diarrhea, out of the splash area! Really? This was a problem at the Knoxville Zoo? Wow.
Posted in South Knoxville, probably 2015:
We are putting it out there, people. Not just at Halloween, but year round, this parking place is reserved for a very special woman–and her broom. And her toad.
Posted in Downtown Knoxville:
Spelling was not one of the strong points for the city government official who commissioned this sign. It is centeral to our detour mission to move you on your way, Knoxville drivers.
Uncovered after my podiatrist removed the bandages from my foot surgery in July 2016:
My podiatrist had quite a sense of humor.
Observed in a retail shop in 2016:
Whatever you are choosing–whether it be a washer and dryer, pair of shoes, cell phone, partner in life, or political candidate–choose the best you can can possible afford, and you will not go wrong.
Posted on a Seattle trash can in September 2016:
They were deadly serious about the problem of domestic garbage being mixed with park litter in Seattle. Probably a $2,000 fine would deter most people.
Displayed in a Seattle bookstore in September 2016:
As Donald Trump was running for president in the fall of 2016, someone at this Seattle bookstore gave his or her interpretation of how this book should have been titled.
Seen on the wall of a Seattle bookstore, September 2016:
I recognized a few of these authors’ faces (such as Maya Angelou, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Betty Friedan, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Plath, and maybe J.D. Salinger), but not many. As an avid reader, I would have thought I’d know more of them! How many can you name?
Painted on the side of a Lexington, Kentucky, book and coffee shop, in September 2017:
This sign is, perhaps, even more relevant to our present day struggles in June 2020 than it was in 2017. However, the need to unlearn fear and hate has probably been an issue throughout human history. The antidote? Hope and love, two emotions that have been in short supply in our public discourse this year.
Posted outside the Boone Tavern, Hotel, and Restaurant at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, and seen in 2017:
Plants need to breathe–and so do humans.
Seen in a Salt Lake City, Utah, women’s clothing store:
Yes, the great actress, style icon, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and all-around beautiful person (inside and out) Audrey Hepburn says it best. She advocated pink, laughing, kissing, and being strong when the chips are down. And she believed that happy women are the prettiest women, tomorrow is another day, and that miracles happen. Audrey Hepburn knew a thing or two about miracles because she nearly starved to death during World War II, yet she survived, thrived, and eventually became the mother of her two beloved sons. Audrey would have said the pinnacle of her life was not her Academy Award or her hit films, but her sons. It was her relationships with people she loved, as well as the children around the world that she helped through UNICEF, that were truly important to Audrey. What an inspiration she was, and still is.
May we heed the message of these signs and decide the world is not black or white, but that we all dwell here in this human condition of gray. May we decide that fear and hate will not bring prosperity or healing to our land. May we decide that our thorniest problems are seldom solved with a yes or no answers, or with all or nothing solutions. May we, like Audrey Hepburn, be gracious to ourself, place the oxygen mask on our own face first, and then share our joy and affection with the people we love and share simple kindness with people around us.
Our primary entertainment these days is streaming movies and TV shows, so we are always on the lookout for something we will enjoy watching. A few weeks ago my husband Kurt suggested we rewatch one of our favorite movies, Safety Not Guaranteed, a 2012 independent film starring the infinitely talented Mark DuPlass–who also produced the film through the production company he started with his brother Jay, Big Beach DuPlass Brothers Productions.
We decided the title of this movie should be the headline for the lives we now lead–starting with Spring 2020 and going forward–as we navigate the global coronavirus pandemic.
Sidebar: Some countries have highly organized plans that have worked to keep their people safe, alive, and solvent.
Interesting fun fact: The countries with the best coronavirus responses just happen to have one thing in common: they are led by women.Forbes magazine published an article explaining that the women-led countries of Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan have had the best outbreak responses. Meaning, they have been highly successfully at not only to keeping their people alive and healthy, but also with protecting their citizens’ livelihoods during the quarantine and after.
Sad, non-fun fact: We are not one of those countries. Our once lofty nation–formerly the world’s remaining superpower–has the distinction of being the country with the most people who have contracted the virus (1.77 million or so reported at present) and the most people who have died from it: which as of Friday, according to the CDC, was over 100,000. Also, we have around 20 percent of our people are either unemployed or underemployed. We have no national plan, just non-leadership coming from our federal government with seat-of-the-pants, ad hoc regulations, tweets from our non-planner-in-chief, and daily changes according to which way the wind happens to blow.
Some of the states (such as California, Oregon, and Washington; seven Northeastern seaboard states from Delaware to Massachusetts; and seven mostly Midwestern states including Kentucky, Minnesota, and Ohio) have banded together to come up with regional responses that makes sense. However, people in the majority of states (including our own state of Tennessee) dwell in a limbo land of state, county, and city directives that are often conflicting and inadequate. And we do not have enough testing, tracing, and isolation procedures leading us to the primrose path of a vaccine-for-all, which is perhaps 18 months to three years from now, according to: (1) whether we get lucky in enough labs throughout the world to find vaccines that work and are safe, (2) the virus doesn’t mutate too much, (3) we can produce tons and tons of the vaccine around the world, (4) we can distribute the vaccine to hundreds of millions of people in this country with the attendant vials and shots, and so on, and (5) we can get most people to take the vaccine. Yes, we have a pretty good number of anti-vaxers out there who are against all vaccines on principle. Phew! It makes my head hurt thinking of the obstacles we face.
Sooooo Safety Not Guaranteed could indeed be the title for our lives now. And the movie is perfect for our times as well. It is a love story, a romantic comedy, and a sci-fi adventure rolled into one–which is certainly how my life seems to be currently unfolding.
The movie’s plot: Mark DuPlass plays Kenneth Calloway, a man who purports to have built a time machine, and who places an ad in a local paper for someone to time travel with him. Because who would want to go alone, right? His ad reads:
Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.
Safety Not Guaranteed, written by Derek Connolly
Hard-bitten, narcissistic magazine writer Jeff (played by actor Jack Johnson) notices the ad and receives permission from his editor to surreptiously research a story on Kenneth–and he will have one of his interns write it for him, of course. One of the two interns assigned to the project, Darius Britt (played by Aubrey Plaza), befriends Kenneth and offers her services to travel through time with him. She is snarky, intelligent, thinks well on her feet, and has an immediate connection with our leading man.
The time travel basic training that Kenneth puts Darius through is worth the price of streaming alone (the movie can be streamed on Vudu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play). The acting, writing, and directing are all first-rate, and hey, folks, (spoiler alert) there is a happy ending.
But for me the takeaway from the film is that we must provide our own structure for a world that no longer makes much sense. In such a topsy-turvy world, you are best served by staying out of the way of as many uninformed bystanders as possible since many of them do not have any idea what is really going on. And you are infinitely fortunate if you can find a fellow traveler who believes in you and wants to be your partner through this time-travel adventure called life.
The movie also reminds us that we do not always have all the information about other people, that it is easy enough to brand someone a loser or a lunatic who may be a guy who has actually created a time travel machine in his garage (metaphorically speaking, that is), and, not only can people surprise us with their ingenuity and humanity, but we can often surprise ourselves as well.
So I leave you with some words to live by in this ever-changing world in which we find ourselves:
Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, if he gets angry, he’ll be a mile away–and barefoot.
Sarah Jackson ~ first recorded in the Lincoln Star (Nebraska) in 1930
Also: stop, drop, and roll, if you suddenly find that your clothes are on fire. You’re welcome.
Although it is true thatevery time in human history is fraught with wars, panics, poverty, hatred, violence, and small-mindedness, it is also true that every time in human history has been visited by humility, kindness, creativity, courage, honor, inspiration, and human love and affection.
As Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .
Charles Dickens, English novelist, (1812-70)
We certainly find ourselves in the 21st Century in a similar flotsam and jetsam with a world-wide pandemic in a time of rollercoaster highs and lows, thrown about in our tiny personal sailboats in the midst of gale-force winds. We are tossed, blown, weary of the uncertainty, fearful of the future, and fearful of the virus killing and maiming and pillaging our bodies, our lives, our country, our collective piece of mind, and our livelihoods.
How to go forward? To what end? This morning I read an article in The Atlantic magazine’s electronic version entitled “You Thought You Were Free, but History Found You”. In this article, Caitlin Flanagan had written a 2020 commencement speech that no one would hear which she dedicated to her two sons and her godson, all graduates of the Class of 2020. She outlined the playing field for these students who are graduating without graduations, entering a workforce with few job prospects.
She wrote that history in the form a world-wide crisis found her father, Thomas Flanagan, when he was a student in 1941, having finally arrived at college from the strictures of his Catholic upbringing, where he could pursue his passionate love of writing. But within months after he arrived, the Japanese attacked our country at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing thousands of Americans, and within a blink of an eye her father was on a destroyer in the Pacific in the middle of a world war.
Honor and service was a big deal to the people who lived in the generation before my own. In the introductory moments of each episode of Band of Brothers, the HBO series about the paratroopers of Easy Company who were dropped into Europe just ahead of D-Day, American veterans were interviewed about their experiences during World War II. One veteran noted that two young men in his hometown committed suicide because they were turned away when they tried to enlist just after Pearl Harbor. I cannot imagine young men killing themselves because they could not fight in a war.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, World War II veterans were the foundation of every civic and church organization and another war, the Vietnam War, was going on. Since I was a small girl, I did not particularly understand anything about Vietnam, except that there was a family down the street whose son was killed in the war. I recall seeing a picture of him framed in the family’s living room, and the pervading gloom of tragedy seemd to engulf their home.
By the time I was old enough to study the history and politics of the Vietnam War, it was over and our country was dealing with the fallout and social unrest that fighting an unwinnable war caused.
There is a case to be made that every war is unwinnable in that so many things are lost when we engage in killing other human beings on such a grand scale. But there is something seductively black-and-white about taking sides with our fellow comrades in arms, sharing goals and values. Even though veterans of any war may wrestle with their dirty hands and unsleepable nights, there is something grand about being part of a great endeavor larger than ourselves. Seeing strange shores, getting out of your one-horse town, having foreign adventures. That is the romance of war for many young men: getting on with life on such a large canvas.
History bites us on the butt, whether we are young, old, or indeterminate. Whether we think great thoughts or whether we just want to slide through our days doing as little as possible. Big events come barreling through our lives smashing furniture, but it is just as hard to deal with the tedium of daily existence when everything is the same, same, same every day.
For many people throughout the world, this COVID-19 pandemic has been a combination of both: a global disaster punctuated with isolation and tedium. For others, this virus is no worse than the common cold, and they cannot understand why everyone is getting all worked up about it. No matter what beliefs people hold regarding the seriousness of the virus, our shattered economy and lack of honest, intelligent, coordinated leadership is leaving us flapping like loose shirts in the breeze.
Some days I feel incredibly grateful that I have a safe home, a large yard to garden, and a job that I can do from home. I pitch my tent in how lucky I am that, despite my self-employed husband losing nearly all his work for the foreseeable future, he is home and we face this crisis together. I have two grandchildren who share their fresh-faced innocence and their pure love and affection with me. I have dear friends and family that I talk to often. I have books to read, food to eat, and music to hear. And I can feel powerful as I dig out that dreaded monkey grass and plant a new bed of flowers, all covered with mulch as if nothing untidy could ever happen in my world.
But I also feel the loss of a shared future, a collective future, a future, as the Brits say, full stop. I read everything I can about the coronavirus and its impact. I read about petty little white men peddling their tiny little ideas about the virus: everything will be fine, we are going to be back to normal any day now, next week, next month. We are all fine; testing is perfect, in fact, anyone can get a test whenever they want one; we have all the personal protective equipment we need for our doctors and nurses and EMTs; our cities and towns and states have all the taxes they need to pay our firefighters, police, teachers, and trash pick-up guys. There is nothing to see here. All good; all dusted.
Nope. None of the above is true. We do not have a normal to get back to any time soon, and all the states–like Georgia and my own home state of Tennessee–led by tiny little white guys who govern with so much ignorance cannot pretend that opening up a few malls and restaurants and beauty salons will make the majority of us feel safe enough to go out and take our chances on a virus that not only slays the elderly in nursing homes, but causes strokes and attacks the organs of formerly strong, healthy people in their 30s and 40s. Yep, that’s the reality of how our particular version of history is upending our personal stories.
I grasp at truths and occasionally go for a ride on them. For me I agree with George Bernard Shaw’s assessment of how to go about living:
This is the true joy of life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, (1856-1950)
Yes! It is about me not being a selfish little clod of ailments and grievances. It is about me being a force of nature, fighting each day to make a difference in the lives of the people around me. It is about me being an eager foot soldier in that particular fight.
My dearest, darling girl, I am writing to you during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 when you are just 14 months old. And let me tell you, my sweet girl, you are the light of my life. When you see me, you smile and reach out your arms to me, then you attach yourself to my shoulder and neck as a baby monkey attaches itself to its mother and you hold on for dear life–for several minutes, mind you–as if your life depends on it! All the while I kiss you and tell you I love you and hold you close to let you know that you are always welcome and safe in my arms and that I will keep holding you, that you need not be frightened that I won’t. And on our weekly Penny days, we will go in my car and have adventures!
Before each adventure, we must spend a few awkward minutes as I try to get you into that detestable carseat that never seems to fit you properly. The drill: I place you in the carseat then hand you your favorite play-in-the-car toys–the stuffed animal sloth baby; your “car keys” and remote key fob that beep; your two hair brushes, one orange and one black (and you hilariously try to brush your hair always with the back of the brush instead of the bristles); and one of my lipglosses, tightly closed. You are patient during this time as I snap the four-points of the carseat locks, phew! Then I can get in my seat, turn on the car and our music, and off we go!!!! Wheeeeeeee!!!!!!!
Just a few weeks ago we walked around the Island Home neighborhood of South Knoxville with your grandpa Kurt and your great aunt Lisa who is continuing her cancer treatments. Lisa’s four months of chemotherapy and radiation from late October to mid February were brutal, and she was not able to see us much during those months. But now she is having immunotherapy shots which do not cause her to be nauseous and ill as she was before. She says she is in pain all the time, but her painkillers help, so she was able to walk around with us on this mild day in early March. You look up at her in wonderment as she talks and talks and talks. Perhaps you think she sounds like me, but you are confused because she looks different.
Although you recently entered your wary-of-strangers period, you hold Lisa’s hand (along with mine, of course) and look up at her as if you are trying to understand what it all means. I can tell, you sweet darling girl, I too am struggling to understand what it all means these days. People are dying of a new virus that strikes in widely diverse ways: some people get pneumonia and die gasping for breath, some people shake with chills and fevers that are worse then even the flu that I had when I was a freshman in college. Some of the people who have shared their experiences of the virus online say they could not imagine they could feel any worse and actually live. And yet other people have mild symptoms or none at all. This disparity of experience is what makes the virus so dangerous: people can have it for days with no outward symptoms and, if they are around other people, they can infect them and each person’s immune system dictates how bad the virus will be.
I fear for your future, my darling girl! Your father has asthma and is in a high-risk category, meaning my dear, that he could die more easily than other people if he should contract the virus. Your great-aunt Lisa is also in a high-risk category because she has a weakened immune system due to her chemotherapy treatments. Your great-grandmother–my mother, who your father calls Mamaw–is 84 years old in a few weeks. No one has been able to get her to stop going to work at the family business. At least we were able to get her off the cash register which she was still working behind until a few weeks ago. But she goes to work each weekday, except Wednesday which is her day off, and exposes herself to the germs of her co-workers as well as the people who come into buy things. In her defense, we can say she had a stroke a few years ago and maybe that made her more stubborn than before. It also made her less mentally agile too. At her age, if she gets the virus she has a good chance of being one of those people who ends up in the intensive care unit of our local hospital where none of us will be allowed to visit her. And if she should die, we would not be able to hold a funeral for fear of spreading the virus. But we must not dwell on the things that could happen and the things we can do nothing about.
It does indeed sound mad, my dear sweetie, but many people in our family are not taking this virus very seriously at all. Luckily your father is able to work from home; what a relief that he stills has a job and that he can work from home. Although your mother is highly educated with a master’s degree, it is quite lucky that she quit working at her full-time job in the fall of last year to devote more time to her children, so she is safely at home and able to care for you and your adorable older brother Lincoln—who has always been sooooooo dear to my heart! Ah, how I love him, and you!
You may wonder what Lincoln, who is 15 months older than you and is now 2 and a 1/2 years old, has been doing during this time of death and dying in our country. Well, before the outbreak, he had been attending a wonderful Montessori school for about a year, but his school has been closed to keep the virus from spreading. When we saw you and your brother a week or so ago, every time you picked up a toy he took it away from you and emphatically said, “No sir”. We, the adults in the room, would laugh and negotiate with him that he must allow you to have the brown bunny we brought you, that he had his own blue bunny. And really it was ok if you had the red toy when he had the green one, and so on.
Your mother Tracy explained that she and you father had said, “No sir,” to Lincoln about something he was doing and now he has extended this emphatic dictum to you in no uncertain terms. Although it is crazy funny to hear Lincoln hand down his “No sir” judgement in your general direction, and all the adults (Kurt, Tracy, and me) in the room try to get him to see that are plenty of toys for the both of you, you seem to be mostly unbothered by his inability to share. I say mostly because occastionally you complain, but most often you plow forward as if Lincoln’s efforts to control you do not exist at all.
When I carry you into our house, I set your feet on the floor because you have been walking for a few weeks now, my dear! You were here last Friday and when you got in the house, you immediately and very clearly said, “Cat”. You are fascinated by our cat Cadi Kitty who tolerates you pretty well. I showed you that I can point my finger at Cadi Kitty and she sniffs it approvingly, demonstrating that you can stick your tiny finger in front of Cadi Kitty’s nose, and she will bend her nose toward it. Sometimes kitty will allow you to touch the fur near her tail but, for the most part, you toddle toward Cadi Kitty like a little drunk man because you are still getting used to walking on your legs instead of crawling. Of course, kitty walks or runs away and takes shelter in another spot, then hides under or behind a piece of furniture. It isn’t your fault, Penny dear, cats are just very wary of small children. If we had a dog, well, it would be another matter.
And , oh by the way, my darling, it is not clear at this point what you shall call your grandfather Kurt or me. When your parents asked Kurt for his preference in this regard, he agreed that Papa was a heartwarming choice, but neither you nor Lincoln have taken up the charge and called him that. Of course, the only clear words I have heard you say are cat, ki cat (for kitty cat), and mama, ao as you get older you may choose to call him Kurt or Papa or granddad or Poopsie, who knows! As for what you shall call me, I thought about it long and hard when Lincoln was young, and came up with Mimi which isn’t really such a great choice at all. A friend of mine’s grandchildren call her Gigi which I think suits me very well because I love things that are, or sound as if they are, French! But you may choose to call me Anna or Yaya or Boobala, who knows?! I would prefer that you and Lincoln come up with your own name for me, as long as it isn’t terribly depressing name such as Granny or something equally sad.
On a far more important matter, we have the misfortune, my darling girl, of having a president of our country who is the worst possible leader for such an unprecedented health crisis. If all goes well and you live through this pandemic, you will study him in school and shake your head in wonderment that he was the president in charge of our collective lives and livelihoods.
You may wonder that he was elected to lead our country since he got 3 million less votes than the woman who won the majority of votes cast in 2016. This appalling state of affairs was set in motion at the founding of our country. Apparently the slave-owning states in the late 1700s and 1800s did not have enough population to control their destiny among the non-slave-owning states, so they insisted on certain concessions to be part of the Union. First the slave states wanted slaves to account for three-fifths of a person so their power in Congress, based on population, would be greater. Then they wanted elections for the president of the country to be based on something called an Electoral College where the popular vote would not elect the highest office in the land. Instead the people would vote for “electors” who were aligned with each of the two presidential party candidates. These electors would vote for whoever won the vote in their state (although each state had a different view of how to apportion the electors’ votes). This sounds convoluted, and it is. Under this crazy system, twice in this new century, two losing candidates have become president with unfortunate consequences for the country both times.
My dear girl, the first popular-vote-losing president in modern history took our country to war in 2003 over false pretenses which cost the lives of many American soldiers as well as untold numbers of people in Iraq. To this day, 17 years later, Iraq is still an unsettled mess. Our second popular-vote-losing president is the one who leads our country now. Before he ran for president, he hosted a reality television game show of sorts in which contestants vied to win a job in his company. He fired the contestants he did not like in a very dramatic manner. On the show he played the part of a successful businessman, despite all his bankrupt businesses. He was very sure of himself so many people in the country found him to be compelling when he decided to run for the presidency in 2016. In school you can study all the sad decisions made by many people–especially the voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (the three states who m ade the difference in the Electoral College) who voted for this reality show host who had not done anything in his life that wasn’t in his own self-interest. But the main thing we have to hope for now is that in the fall of this year, we will elect a new leader who actually cares for the people in our country and who makes decisions that help everyone in the country not just the people in his tribe who voted for him. Life would be so different with a real leader in charge, but that is enough about that depressing man!
And I must sadly report that the governor of our state of Tennessee has been such a limp rag during this crisis that his only early advisory was for people to pray. While our governor was advocating prayer, the governor of our companion state of Kentucky took early action to save the lives of his people. Now at this point, on March 31, 2020, as published in the The New York Times, there are more than 1600 reported cases of the virus in Tennessee and only 400 or so reported cases in Kentucky. Our state has 6.77 million people and Kentucky has 4.468 million. For another comparison, Texas has 28.7 million people and over 3000 reported cases. So you can see that Tennessee, with its 6.77 million people and 1600+ cases, has more than half the cases of Texas with 28.7 million people. Gee, thanks Governor Bill Lee, for doing so little that many people in our state will die due to your lack of vision and poor leadership. Sheesh! Don’t get me started!
You may ask what we do every day now that your grandfather Kurt and I spend every day at home, sheltering in place. Normally Kurt would be out of town at least half of each month with his work as a self-employed consultant providing training as an independent contractor. But Kurt’s work has been cancelled until July, so as it rains outside, I can hear your grandfather typing a letter on his typewriter in his office upstairs.
If he isn’t tapping on his typewriter, he is playing his guitar or mandolin. Just like your beloved mother who plays the piano, Kurt is a musician! I do not play an instrument, my love, but I do sing to you as often as possible. Besides singing to songs on my Apple playlist, when I give you a bottle, I sing “Sing A Song of Sixpence”, an English nursery rhyme dating to at least the 1700s. The version I grew up hearing from my Irish grandmother and German-Irish mother is different from the one shown on Wikipedia. It goes like this:
Sing a song of sixpence A pocket full of rye Four and twenty blackbirds Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened The bird began to sing Wasn’t that a dainty dish To set before a king.
The king was in his counting house Counting all his money. The queen was in the parlor Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden Hanging out the clothes When down came a blackbird And snapped off her nose.
You naughty, naughty blackbird I need my little nose To sniff the lovely soap suds When I wash the clothes.
I’ll get a sugar cookie And hang it on a tree If you will find my little nose And bring it back to me.
Our family’s version of the traditional English nursery rhyme
While Kurt is upstairs, I am in my office downstairs writing to you. During these last few weeks of staying mostly at home, weather permitting, I fight the weeds in my flower beds, tend my small kitchen garden, or go for a walk holding hands with Kurt. Before this crisis, we ate a great deal of our meals in restaurants, but now restaurants are closed except for curb-side pickup. We try to support our favorite restaurants, Farmacy (a restaurant owned by our friend Bettina) and Benefit Your Life (a gluten-free restaurant in West Knoxville) by picking up a meal at their door and eating it in our car. But a restaurant meal doesn’t happen more than once a week, so we cook alot, with grocery store shopping being our main forays into the world.
I go to my part-time job at the family business around once a week to take photos that I place on social media. I talk with girl friends occasionally on the phone which allows us to share experiences of how our lives have changed since the lock down–and occasionally we laugh which is quite welcome since there is not much to laugh about these days. And let me make it clear to you, my sweetheart, that we never in all the world thought we would be living like this, buttoned up in the house as the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) wages its war on humankind. Older people are most at risk, but even a few children as young as you have died as well. Ever so sad, the deaths, no matter the age of the people involved.
Up to this point, the hardest part of living in this time is the unknown and unknowable aspects of it all. Will we catch the virus? If so, will we have a mild version of it or will we get pneumonia and need to be hospitalized? Will our loved ones get the virus, and we will not be able to see them for fear of getting sick ourselves? Will people we love die and we cannot celebrate their lives by giving them a funeral? If we get ill with the virus, where can we go for medical attention now that our primary care physicians’ office has said they are not going to perform coronavirus testing and will see people mostly by teleconferencing? Will our hospitals in Knoxville have enough ventilators for all the seriously ill people who will be fighting for each breath? Will our governor stop being an inmitigated disaster and more strictly define essential business and ban all large gatherings to save lives, including church services and funerals? When will our friends who have lost their jobs go back to work? When will Kurt go back to work? What about our friends who own small businesses who are suffering with little income or none? Will there be enough personal protective equipment to protect the medical professionals who are fighting on the front lines of this pandemic? Will the decisions that need to be made to save our people and country be made in a timely manner or at all? If we get sick and need urgent medical care, will we be able to afford to pay the medical bills even though we have health insurance? What about the people who have lost their health insurance because they have lost their jobs?
Yes, my dearest darling, this is a harrowing time. But I will tell you that my great-grandmother Cordelia Nichols Montgomery lived through the horrendous influenza outbreak of 1918, even though she lost her beloved daughter Luva Vera to the flu at the age of 10 in Fries, Virginia. Earlier Cordelia also lost her first baby daughter Rose Elizabeth who died the same day she was born on January 31, 1899. Cordelia’s much-loved husband John died at the age of 53 of hepatic carcinoma, the most common form of liver cancer. And she lost my grandmother Darcus at the age of 31, four months after my father was born in 1935. In fact, of her four daughters, Cordelia had only one daughter, Eutaw Regina, who lived and thrived as an adult. Fortunately Cordelia had five sons who all lived into adulthood, she came from a line of strong women, and she had her faith to console her in hard times.
So my dear Penelope Rose, you have ancestors who endured hardships and lived on. What else is in your favor, my sweet girl? Even though it is not a wise choice during a pandemic, your nearly 84-year-old paternal great-grandmother Arzelia (yes, it is a singular name for a decidedly unique woman) still works five days a week and, until a few weeks ago, she worked a cash register in a thriving business. Your great aunt Lisa is now fighting her second battle with cancer and still manages to weed her yard, walk around the neighborhood, and bring enthusiasm and her positive nature to everything she does. Your mother and father are devoted to you and your brother–and my dear girl, you have two–count them–two sets of grandparents who adore you and your brother and live in the same town as you, which is not a done deal for everyone these days.
Here is my prayer, my sweet darling, that I can live as long as possible so you will have my unconditional love for as long as I can give it. I sense that we are made of the same fiber: We are both passionate, independent, fiercely affectionate, and interested in everything around us. We want to know things for ourselves.
I am now reading a book that is a tribute to a relationship between a feisty woman named Bobby and her much-adored granddaughter Bess who was the light of her life, as you are of mine. Bess Kalb, who is a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel television show, wrote this book entitled Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, in the voice of her grandmother. They were soul mates, my dear Penny Rose, as I hope we will always be. Anyway, when I discovered this book I could not stop reading it and have nearly finished it. I am reading the digital version now with two copies of the book being shipped to me on Friday. Yes, it is that kind of book, and I must share it with as many people as I can. Bess suggested on her Twitter page that people buy her book from their local bookstore. For us, sweet girl, that bookstore is Knoxville’s independent downtown bookseller Union Avenue Books. It is a wonderful bookstore that you and I must visit–after the pandemic crisis is over!
One of the stories that I highlighted in my digital copy of the book is the story of when Bess, a very sensitive girl, would cry every day the babysitter tried to take her to nursery school. So Bess’s mother called her own mother Bobby who lived in another state and asked if she, Bobby, could take Bess to school.
I hung up and got on a plane. She didn’t even finish her next sentence.
We walked into the school, took the elevator up, and when the doors opened you squeezed my hand so hard it almost fell off. You looked straight ahead like I was marching you off the plank. I crouched down to hug you goodbye. You started breathing fast, and your little heart was beating right through your coat and tears started streaming down your cheeks at full force. Big, round tears, I thought someone would call the police. So I took your red face in my hand and looked you in the eye, and I said, ‘Angel, I’ll be right here. Right outside this door. I’m not going anywhere.’ You stopped crying. You knew I wouldn’t lie to you. You didn’t even ask me to promse, you just wiped your eyes with your two hands and walked right in.
Thank God I had The New York Times in my handbag.
Two minutes later–maybe one minute–I heard a little knock on the door. That was our code. So I popped my head up so you could see me through the window on the door and gave you a big, wide smile. ‘Everything’s okay! You’re all right. Grandma’s here.’ You nodded and headed back to the circle of kids. Then five minutes later–knock-knock-knock-knock-knock!–and I popped up through the window and smiled. Then ten minutes, twenty, thirty, and so on. But all day, unless you were napping, you’d give a knock and there I’d be, smiling like a showgirl, letting you know it would be all right. I’m here. You’re safe.
I didn’t get through a single article.
It happened all week. By Friday, you didn’t knock. That’s when I cried.
Nobody Will Tell you This But Me by Bess Kalb, published by Knopf
My dearest, darling girl, that is exactly what I want for you: I want to be here for you, smiling like a showgirl, for as long as possible. So that you will know: Everything’s okay. You are alright. Gigi is here!
May you always be ever so yourself for all of your days! And may I be there cheering on the sidelines, encouraging you every step of the way!
Yesterday I learned that Senator Lamar Alexander–one of two senators representing my home state of Tennessee in the U.S. Senate–voted not to call witnesses during the our current President’s impeachment trial in the Senate. I was not surprised, in fact, I would have been more surprised to find that he had voted any other way. In fact Republican senators with the courage to put their country before their party’s unquenchable thirst for power number exactly two: Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine.
Of course, there are two other considerations for most Republican Senators: the abject terror they feel at crossing the authoritarian bully in the White House and his followers, as well as their fear of being shunned by their tribe. What would the people at the country club say? How could Lamar amicably visit his home folks back in Maryville, Tennessee, (just a short drive from Knoxville where I live) if he was found to have contrary ideas and actually acted on them?
Luckily for the home folks, Lamar has always been willing to camouflage himself with one image and to actually be someone else. When he was running for Tennessee governor in 1978, he made his campaign appearances wearing a red-and-black checked shirt to show that he was just a salt-of-the-Earth, man of the people. This graduate of Vanderbilt University, who was president of his high school class, and got his law degree from the New York University School of Law, was never a simple man of the people. When Alexander ran for President of the U.S. in 1996, he wore the same shirt and even his mentor Tennessee’s real-deal Senator Howard Baker, said he wished Lamar would get rid of the plaid shirt.
Since yesterday’s vote, I have been musing about the difference between the two senators from Tennessee, Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander.
As a teenager, I watched the Watergate hearings when I got home from school. These Senate hearings sought to uncover whether President Richard Nixon had abused his office and encouraged his staff to break the law during his re-election campaign–most specifically during a break-in of his opponent’s campaign headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972. Just as most American people and politicians on both sides of the aisle, I was impressed with Baker’s measured and relatively unbiased approach. Howard Baker became famous for his question during the hearings, “What did the president know, and when did he know it.” Baker impressed me as truly a statesman and a leader.
I was director of development communications for the University of Tennessee System in 2002 when the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the university was being planned, and was writer and editor of the publication urging donors to support the effort.
When I did research for the publication, I learned that one of our faculty members, a professor emeritus, had interviewed Baker’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle for an oral history. The professor was kind enough to share the quotes with me for our publication.
The quotes were across-the-board glowing, and Baker generously allowed us to use his own photos for the brochure. I felt privileged to be working on this project and so proud of who Senator Baker was, what he stood for, and how he represented Tennessee to the world. For the oral history project, Democrats such as former President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, were quoted as saying:
From a selfish point of view, I could not have asked for a more cooperative, helpful, enlightened, and competent leader. . . . When he couldn’t support my position, he told me the truth, or when I asked him for advice about the general tone or attitude in the Senate, he shared his frank opinions with me. . . . I respected him as a partisan leader.
President Jimmy Carter
We were friendly and there was complete cooperation with each other. We kept each other informed. While we were of different philosophies, different parties, I don’t think two people could have gotten along better.
Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill
African-American journalist Carl Rowan, who was born in Ravenscroft, Tennessee, and was a nationally recognized author, journalist, and deputy assistant secretary of state for President John F. Kennedy, shared his take on Howard Baker:
I say to Baker: you are a great man who tried to make America as decent as it can be. You succeeded in ways that our grandchildren may never know or appreciate.
Carl Rowan, author, journalist, and deputy assistant secretary of state
I voted for Alexander both times he ran for governor, but never thought he was half the man Baker was. I lived in Fort Worth when Alexander was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. After he left UT to further pursue his political ambitions and I returned to the university, no one I talked to ever had anything good to say about his tenure there.
So again I say I was not too surprised yesterday to hear that when Senator Alexander bumped up against his critical moment when history and our nation’s future called for him to be counted, he was found wanting.
During one of his election campaigns, Alexander used Lamar! as his logo for campaign signage and bumperstickers–just as Jeb Bush used Jeb! when he was running for President in 2016. Although I would much rather have Jeb Bush as President right now than the current resident of the White House, it seems abundantly clear that politicians should never use exclamation points after their names for campaign slogans. However, I looked up the definition of the word exclamation and found that perhaps it was relevant for Lamar! Alexander:
a sudden cry or remark, especially expressing surprise, anger, or pain.
The Oxford Dictionary
I will admit it did pain me to read Alexander’s explanation of his critical vote against hearing witnesses in the Senate Impeachment trial. The esteemed senior Senator from Tennessee (soon to retire) allowed that the President of our country did indeed do something wrong. But Alexander decided that he and his Senate colleagues did not need to disturb themselves or the body public by hearing from witnesses. After all a rush to judgment should not be impeded by hearing firsthand accounts of what has transpired, right? I am embarrassed and disappointed that this Senator (as well as Tennessee’s junior Senator Marsha Blackburn who is far worse) represents my state in Congress. Once upon a time Tennessee Senators inspired confidence and pride. Not any more. I am glad Howard Baker is not alive to see what the Senate and Lamar! Alexander have become.
Because as this African proverb wisely observes: when the powerful of this world fight, it is the less powerful that suffer.
I was watching the streaming version of HBO the other night and noticed that Keanu Reeves’s latest movie John Wick 3: Parabellum was available for viewing on my TV. In addition to the movie, HBO offered a First Look behind-the-scenes video with interviews and clips explaining what the filmmakers were trying to achieve with this action film and how much effort the actors, director, producers, and crew put into making the movie.
According to one of the filmmakers, Keanu Reeves trained exhaustively for five months before shooting the film and does 98 percent of his own stunts. And this film features him on screen in nearly frame doing mixed martial arts (Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tactical three-gun, and standing judo), hand-to-hand combat, and fighting while riding a motorcycle. And Keanu Reeves was 54 years old when he shot this movie. We are around the same age! How wonderful to know that people who have gone around the block a few times are capable of such physical feats of derring-do.
And Keanu Reeves is not just a run-of-the-mill film star. Unlike other male celebrities who date women who are 20, 30, or 40 years younger than them, Reeves has been photographed over the past year at red-carpet events holding hands with a lovely visual artist named Alexandra Grant who is around his age and who does not dye her gray hair. How refreshing and inspiring! On her Instagram page, Ms. Grant reacted to a Newsweek article linking permanent hair dye to breast cancer and she explained why she no longer dyes her hair:
Wow. Today’s news… The numbers are staggering, especially for womxn of color. I went gray prematurely in my early 20’s… and dyed my hair every color along the way until I couldn’t tolerate the toxicity of the dyes any more. In my 30’s I let my hair turn “blonde”… I love and support that every womxn can choose how she wants to look at every age. But/and, if womxn are perishing from beauty standards… then let’s talk about those beauty standards. Love to all womxn!
Alexandra Grant, Instagram
Keanu and Alexandra also produced two books together: Ode to Happiness, a 2011 picture book illustrated by Ms. Grant, and the 2016 book Shadows, with Reeves writing text to accompany her art and photography.
As Keanu Reeves has richly demonstrated: people in middle age can be active, healthy, creative, intellectually curious, and spend their time with other old-souls-from-the-start who intend to be indefinitely young together and live passionately throughout their lives. Yes, count me in for that!
When he first captured my imagination 20 years ago, Reeves starred in one of my favorite movies, the 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix. Keanu was cast as the savior of humanity as a renegade hacker named Neo (change the letters around and you get the “One”) who fought the organized, mechanized evil that was controlling humankind and found his soulmate in a fellow freedom fighter named Trinity. The movie’s main themes mirror my beliefs:
Living authentically in the real world is more fulfilling than living in a plastic fantasy world that sucks the life from human beings.
The highest calling of humankind is to love and to work together for the good of all.
A woman is just as tough and courageous as a man.
Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in.
Work together with people who share your dream and do not waste time on the people who do not.
Evil wins when good people do nothing.
These truths are not self-evident in a country where corruption is sanctioned at the highest levels. Today I have read that the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate will collectively close their metaphorical eyes tightly in a “see no evil” fetal position, unwilling to risk losing their power in order to call out a President who yearns to be above the law, who yearns to be an American king.
This country has actually had only one true King—the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—and he was assassinated at the age of 39 by a white supremacist’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. I live in Knoxville, Tennessee, and am deeply chagrined that Dr. King was killed in my home state. As his Wikipedia page states, Dr. Martin Luther King was “a Christian minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968”. James Earl Ray killed the man, but he did not kill his dream that every man and woman, no matter the color of his or her skin, could have a chance to pursue their God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Although our nation’s original Constitution allowed Southern states to count their black slaves as three-fifths of a person for taxation and representation in Congress, I think Martin Luther King sought what could be called a two-fifths solution that would bring peace and healing to our nation that, since its founding in the late 18th Century, has wrestled with slavery.
Treating other humans as property did not work out well for our young country as we fought a bitter Civil War from 1861 to 1865. We have been fighting an uncivil war ever since. It is not only the slave that is in bondage in the owner-slave relationship. And it is not only our current President and his sycophants that are enslaved to their myopia. We all suffer from their unquenchable thirst for power over their fellow men and women.
The Matrix envisaged a world where all humans are enslaved to the powerful anti-human, computerized “matrix” with human-like enforcers to kill anyone who does not conform to the norm. Keanu Reeves as Neo said:
I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
The Matrix, 1999, screenwriters Lana and Lily Wachowski
Wanting control over our lives is something we can all agree on, yet we disagree on how to make a coexistent system work. In his final words in the movie, Keanu Reeves as Neo spoke directly to the matrix power structure and perhaps also to the people in thrall to it:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid . . . You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how its going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without . . . borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.
The Matrix, 1999, Lana and Lily Wachowski
During all the eras of humankind, beginning perhaps with art on a cave wall, artistic creativity as a human expression has pointed a way forward. And anthropologists have found evidence of a spiritual life beyond what we can see in front of us as early humans left funereal tributes to their dead loved ones. Let us take up the charge of our fellow American Martin Luther King Jr.–as well as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, for that matter–and Keanu Reeves to stand for the right against the expedient and the merely powerful. What will history say about us if we do not stand for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if we cannot bring ourselves to stand for what is just?
Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave And senorita play guitar, play it just for you My rosary has broken and my beads have all slipped through . . .
Yes I’ll sit with you and talk let your eyes relive again I know my vintage prayers would be very much the same And Magdelena plays the organ, plays it just for you Your choral lamp that burns so low when you are passing through
And the future you’re giving me holds nothing for a gun I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on
Songwriters: Bernie Taupin, Elton John
This song was on Elton’s John second album–called simply “Elton John”–and it was released in 1970 when I was too young to know who he was. Three years later I would see him live in the University of Tennessee’s old (torn down in the last few years) basketball and events arena, Stokely Athletic Center.
Sadly Elton and I did not have a good first brush with one another. I did not really know the senior who asked me, a sophomore, to go with him to the Elton John concert in the Spring of 1973. I was hopelessly out of my sheltered element at the concert, was not familiar with the bulk of Elton John’s music, and when pot and cigarette smoke suffused the arena, felt so ill I’m sure I staggered to the car.
Later that year, in the fall of 1973 ( my junior year), a new kid from New Jersey joined us at our small-town city, Tennessee junior/senior high school. He was a fish out of water in many ways and did not realize that I was considered a hopeless “brain” who wouldn’t “put out”, and thus had no boy friend or dates, aside from the abortive Elton John concert effort.
Through the usual high school channels–a mutual friend laying the groundwork with the standard query, “Steve likes you. Would you go out with him?”–Steve and I started dating. In the language of our time, we were going steady because he gave me his New Jersey high school class ring to wear with tape around the back to keep it on my finger (!). And it was Steve who truly introduced me to Elton John’s work and the album that contained the song, “Sixty Years On”.
I am now 60 years (and some change) on, and today is my birthday. I suppose more accurately we should say it is the anniversary of my birth. When I was born it was the last gasp of the 1950s, just before the 1960s changed everything with the Beatles, the Vietnam War, and the resulting peace movement. Not that I noticed because I was just a tiny girl whose parents neither listened to the music of the ’60s nor were politically active. The only sign of politics in our household was that Daddy would just say he was a Nixon man. Though he was a die-hard Republican, Daddy had bought a picture book about the Kennedy assassination and JFK’s funeral. So even though Daddy considered himself a strong supporter of President Nixon, he must have found President Kennedy’s assassination to be enough of a noteworthy event to add the Kennedy assassination picture book to our home. He would show it to me often. Perhaps there is just something about death, or even a brush with death, that focuses the attention.
Today, 60 years from the 1960s, my beloved only sister has been diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer. Daddy died three years ago in December 2016; Mama had a small stroke last year that still allows her to work at the age of 83 (a feat unto itself); and now my sister has cancer that has metastisized and spread. Her attitude is excellent, but her chemotherapy treatments are brutal.
And as my sister fights for her life against this unseen enemy, it is the Christmas season, for me the born-a-week-before-Christmas baby, my parents first child. I have always felt a special affinity to the holiday season because it is my birthday season as well. Just 15 months after I came into the world, my sister Lisa was born so neither my sister nor I recall a time that the other was not there. Daddy’s girls. He was so proud.
As a friend of mine from high school told me today, we are essentially the same people we were when were younger. And he is right. We are born with a genetic makeup that informs our temperament, our resilience, and our predisposition to disease. This genetic makeup then interacts in a delicate dance with the nurturing we receive or do not receive, the love we receive or do not receive, and the acceptance we receive or do not receive. This amalgamation defines us–and yet it does not. We are the same people we were when we are young, but we have the additional experiences of life that attach to us like barnacles. We drag these burdens behind us like a fisherman’s weighty net. If we are lucky we forget enough of the most cruel moments of life so we can wrest ourselves free and fly. Into the joys, into the laughter, into the risks of loving, into the risk of falling, into the infinite possibilties of living passionately.
In many respects, I do feel as I did when I was young. But there are many additional joys and stresses to be added to that core person that was me, 60 years on. There are the smiles of my grandchildren who I love unconditionally and who love me without question or reserve. The laughter we share. The unwritten adoration and delight we find in each other. Daddy is gone in my physical world which is a profound loss. Yet he remains close to me as I pray to him for strength and remember what he would say to me in difficult moments or happy situations. How he trusted me to do that right thing, and how very much he loved me–exactly as I am.
Beyond all these blessings, however, my sister’s serious illness has shaken me to my foundation. I cannot say I will ever be the same person I was before her illness–for just the terror of having to consider life without her. But, as luck would have it, my sister has a week off from chemo this week, and it is the week her beautiful son Zach is visiting us from Portland, Oregon. Last Sunday night, Zach, Lisa’s husband Rocky, Lisa and I walked around Lisa’s beautiful South Knoxville neighborhood. My sister and I walked arms around each other, looking at the Christmas lights at dusk and after dark. She knew who lived in every home we past, and she knew the history of each one.
It was a wonderful early Christmas gift last Sunday to have time with my sister. And tonight, for my birthday, we are having take-out pizza at her house. Sixty years on I am simply grateful for my sister’s presence in my life. We were best friends in high school, and being with her tonight is my most precious birthday present ever. Material gifts are lovely, and I have honored gift-giving my entire life, but time with my sister, just looking at her dear face, is all the gift I need this birthday or this Christmas.
May Daddy’s love give me the strength to go forward, to be there for my dear sister who turns 60 in March. May she be pain-free and enjoy that birthday–my dear, dear, dear, dear sister.
I am a native Knoxvillian who has lived here all my life, except for the three years I lived in Ft. Worth. I have also traveled with my husband to many far-flung places around the country and world, such as Alaska, Antwerp, Bruges (a picturesque city that still has the cobbestoned streets and village square from its 14th-Century heyday), Brussels, and Knokke in Belgium; Cairo (and other historic sites in Egypt); Austin; Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver in Canada; Costa Rica; Houston; London; Mexico City and historic sites in Mexico; New York City; Paris and the South of France; Puerto Rico; Rio de Janeiro; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; Seattle, and St. Martin in the Caribbean. Phew! So, I know a thing or two about a good meal and a good deal.
What parts of Knoxville reach to the national and international levels of interest? Here are a few that will not disappoint visitors and natives alike. And, by the way, all of these are locally or regionally owned businesses.
The new “harvest-land, sea & vine” restaurant in Knoxville is simply the finest: innovative drinks, delicious food, and an intimate atmosphere. Just the best of the best. Our waiter was friendly, knowledgable and fabulous, there are many gluten-free and vegetarian options, and the menu states clearly which dishes are safe for patrons with dietary restrictions to order.
A new restaurant concept, Harvest is located in Bearden at the corner of Kingston Pike and Mohican, across from Nama Sushi Bar.
Harvest sources most of its food from local purveyors, and is open for lunch and dinner daily, with a unique brunch menu on Saturdays and Sundays. They feature daily chef specials, aged Midwestern hand-cut steak and fresh seafood selections along with several vegan, salad, and house-made pasta. And for dessert, be sure to check out at the classic French Pots de Crème, a rich chocolate custard delight, which is simple, elegant, and the perfect ending to a special dinner.
Photos from the Harvest, Land, Vine and Sea website..
Not only is the food amazing at this Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eatery, this family-owned restaurant has become a phenomenon that has been heralded nationally. In October 2018, Yassin’s was named the Nicest Place in America by Reader’s Digest magazine and announced by host Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America television show.
Located in Downtown Knoxville, Yassin’s was started in 2014 by Yassin Terou, a Syrian immigrant who, along with his wife and two daughters, fled his home country.
In announcing the award to Yassin’s on national television, Bruce Kelley, chief content officer for Reader’s Digest said,
Everyone who hears his story and the story of the shop is moved, from the customers that nominated him, separately multiple customers nominated him, to us editors that vetted him, to the judges and to the Knoxvillians we talked to who said he has changed Knoxville. He has made this a better place. This is an important guy.
In response, Yassin said,
Yassin’s is a place where you can come and feel safe and feel welcome because we love everyone around this world.
Yes, it’s an honor; but America is the winner; Knoxville is the winner; Tennessee is the winner. When he sent you [speaking to Robin Roberts about her visit to Knoxville], I say this prayer to everyone around this country. What makes us a winner is the people in this country, not us. So thank you very much.
Yassin has opened a second location for of thriving business. Besides the original location at the corner of Walnut Street and Church Street (at 706 Walnut), Yassin’s also serves its delicious and economical food, at 159 N. Peters Road in West Knoxville. Yassin’s has many gluten-free and vegetarian options to please those with dietary restrictions. And the staff are soooo welcoming and friendly.
Stanley’s was founded with one greenhouse in 1955 by Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley on the family farm that had been in the Davenport-Stanley family since the early 1800s. At first the family was one of Knox County’s biggest wheat producers, then they began growing produce and cutflowers to sell on downtown Knoxville’s Market Square.
What began with one greenhouse is now over 190,000 square feet, with the addition of the 36,000-square-foot retail center opened in 2001. Stanley’s Greenhouse has won numerous local awards as this region’s favorite source for everything to do with successful gardening: trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, outdoor and indoor decor, containers, gardening tools, soil, soil conditioners, and fertilizers.
An old-fashioned soda fountain on Gay Street, Knoxville’s main street downtown, the Phoenix Fountain makes it own ice cream in house–and what a delight it is! Our favorite is the peppermint stick ice cream the owner makes for the winter season.
Mast General Store has been in Knoxville since August 2006. It truly is a general store selling everything from outdoor wear, old-fashioned candy, clothes for the entire family to regional decor, candles, shoes, and kitchenware.
The prices are good, the employees are friendly, and the down-home style has been a perfect fit for Knoxville’s small town-city vibe. At Christmas the store’s friendly manager was wrapping presents near the front door for Juvenile Diabetes. I know this because she wrapped several beautifully appointed packages for me!
Three or four days a week–sometimes daily–we go into Wild Love Bakehouse for lunch or a hot or cold beverage. My husband Kurt and I are tea drinkers, but folks the coffees, lattes, and espressos are a work art too!
Wild Love is nearly always full because the soup and a huge array of bake goods are made fresh every morning by the owner and her staff of amazing pastry magicians. Each day the offerings are slightly different. Besides the amazing soup (with a crusty side bread), Wild Love offers a rotating variety of tarts, cookies, croissants, foccacia tartlets, cookies, gluten-free peanut oatmeal bars–and occasionally, the most creative salads I have seen in Knoxville.
Wild Love Bakehouse: the best coffee house, lunch, and bakery combination in Knoxville.
The tea is made fresh to order, hot or cold, with Rishi loose tea. I have them add some honey to mine, and it is divine!
And the staff are all young, friendly, and just fantastically welcoming. Wild Love has only been open a few years, but they are already a go-to location. For the late lunch and early dinner eaters, they are open on Sundays and till 6:00 p.m.!
The owners of Wild Love also have a sister location downtown, called Pearl on Union. Pearl has the same great baked goods and creative food within easy strolling distance of Knoxville’s Market Square.
A few years ago Maple Hall debuted as a brand-spanking new bowling alley, bar, eatery, and all-around fun urban experience in Downtown Knoxville’s historic JC Penney Building–and it is nearly next door to the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain. How convenient!
In 2013 Maple Hall’s visionary owners worked with a creative team of engineers, architects, designers, and contractors to reimagine a portion of the JC Penney Building as a hip bowling alley with good food, an extensive bar, an upstairs game room, and a relaxed, exposed-brick interior. Maple Hall is Knoxville most fun indoor playground.
You can’t go wrong in any of these Knoxville landmarks–and all of them are in Downtown Knoxville or within a quick drive. Enjoy, the best that Knoxville has to offer.
Last week I went to my local art-house film theater to see the documentary film Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice for the third time. Yes, I have seen this movie three times, and I thoroughly enjoyed it each time. The last time I saw a movie at a theater three times was the blockbuster Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, in 1983. So you can see that this film really spoke to me.
Why did I love the movie so much? I have been a huge Linda Ronstadt fan since the 1970s, and count myself among the lucky concert goers who have seen her multiple times. The first time I saw Linda in concert was at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Athletic Center on Saturday, November 5, 1977, during the tour she did for her eighth studio album Simple Dreams. The reason I know the date of the concert? I still have the ticket stub in my memorabilia binder.
Funny how memories can be selective. I had always remembered seeing Linda Ronstadt when I was a student at UT. However, after studying the ticket stub carefully, I learned (1) I had a great seat on the 9th row (!), and (2) I gained admission via a student ticket for which I would have had to present a valid student activities card. The mystery here is that I was not a student at UT in 1977. I was an undergraduate student the year before, but in November 1977, I was 19 years old and working full-time at the university in the admissions office. Hmmmmm. Maybe whoever let me buy their Linda Ronstadt ticket also let me borrow their student activities card. I don’t remember; but I do remember that the concert was thrilling.
When I saw the documentary directed by Rob Epstein (who has won two Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature) and Jeffrey Friedman, I was reminded of Ronstadt’s powerhouse voice and phenomenal song choices that have been part of my life since I was a teenager. For the first time, however, I was able to feel as if I was spending time with her since she narrated a good bit of the movie. She told the story of her parents meeting for the first time when her father rode a horse up the steps of her mother’s sorority house. Her father had what Linda described as a “lovely baritone-tenor voice” which he used to serenade her mother beneath her window. Linda’s mother was educated, beautiful, and encouraged Linda, her third child out of four children, to follow her bliss and be an independent woman, even if her ambition did not include marriage. And Linda says she has never regretted that she never married.
Her mother’s father was the inventor Lloyd Copeman who invented the electric stove, the automatic toaster, the thermostat for Westinghouse, rubber ice cube trays, the pneumatic grease gun, a tamper-proof envelope, and a slew of other inventions. As Linda says in the movie, her grandfather was third to Thomas Edison in the 1950s in the number of useful inventions he patented. But during an 2013 interview with NPR she points out that her grandfather worked alone and that Edison had teams of men working with him. Although her maternal grandfather patented nearly 700 inventions and innovations, Linda said he was only intermittently wealthy since he spent much of his money trying to find a cure for his beloved wife’s Parkinson’s disease–the disease that Linda herself now suffers from.
Linda’s particular form of Parkinson’s disease, called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (P.S.P.), has taken away most of her singing voice, caused excruciating back pain, required her to use a wheelchair to walk very far, and made it difficult for her to perform simple daily tasks. Sadly Linda has found her form of Parkinson’s is not improved by the use of traditional Parkinson’s medications such as dopamine.
Yet Ronstadt is not defined by her disease. She continues to define her life on her own terms just as she did throughout her more than forty-year-long musical career.
Music was simply a way of life for Linda as she grew up and the range of music she heard in her home was wide. The family spoke English, but her father sang Mexican folk songs, so Linda grew up thinking that everyone spoke English but sang in Spanish. Her mother listened to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, her sister loved country music, and one of her brothers was a featured vocalist in a nationally recognized boy’s choir. When she was a teenager she and two of her siblings sang together in a folk group in Tucson, Arizona, where she grew up, as Linda says, “on the last 10 acres of my grandfather’s farm.”
Linda did not get into the music business to be a star or to be the center of attention. She simply wanted to sing and make intricate harmonies with other singers. Some of the most electrifying harmonies she made were with her dear friend Emmylou Harris and their singing icon Dolly Parton. Together the three of them collaborated on the studio albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999).
Throughout her career, Linda wrestled with record company executives who wanted to confine her singing to what was the most commercially viable music to sell as many records as possible. In other words, her record company wanted her to continue making rock records that had made her internationally famous and had sold in the millions. Linda wanted to sing, could sing, and eventually did sing in more song genres (folk, country, rock, pop, opera, musical theater, Big Band standards, and Mexican folk songs or Canciones) than any popular singer has ever done. And despite the fears of her record company, she was successful at singing in all these genres.
Despite the debilitating version of the disease she has, Linda continues to enlarge our lives, not only through the startling range of her musical catalogue, but through her life story. She inspires by the example of her life: choosing to use her singing voice on the largest possible stage, choosing not to be defined by traditional female roles, speaking her mind, choosing not to be defined by the constraints of her disease, and inspiring others who have debilitating diseases.
At the end of the documentary, Linda distills the central question facing humanity to the simple words of a fellow Parkinson’s survivor who told her: “The question is not about life after death; the question is about life before death.”
Yes. We can beat each other up mentally and physically that only our beliefs are the correct ones. We can destroy each other’s sacred places and symbols. We can inprison people in concentration camps because they have a particular religious ancestry. We can consign human beings to slavery or second-class citizenship because they come from a different “tribe”, have a different color of skin, or speak a different language. We can argue until the cows come home about eternal life and which religion has the definitive answer to the pivotal question: Why are we here?
Linda Ronstadt’s life, her voice, her music, and the documentary about her extraordinary accomplishments inspire us to consider that what happens after we die is not our most important question. It is not whether we live after we die that is critical for us to know. The quintessential question is what we are doing with our lives now–before we are dead–that truly counts.
We can live our lives in a selfish vacuum, which is the example of our current national leader, or we can make a difference in the lives of others. For true happiness does not happen by staring constantly at our own navels and following our selfish whims down a rabbit hole. I have found I am the happiest when I share laughter, live my life with open arms, and take the risk to live passionately with at least two wheels on the ground. Sometimes four.
He who owns a rood of proper land in this country, and in the face of all the pomonal riches of the day, only raises crabs and chokepears, deserves to lose the respect of all sensible men. --Andrew Jackson Downing