Month: October 2020

Saturday Soundtrack: Roots music for ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night

Happy Halloween! If you grew up with the Monster Mash and decided — based on that small sample size — that there were no decent Halloween songs, I’m here to set the record straight. The really grim and scary songs were all hiding out in the roots music bin, just as the great, old folktales were ones that really hit the mark when it came to ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night. The Folklore Center at the Library of Congress had a blog post a few years ago entitled Ghost Stories in Song for Halloween. The first tune recommended was Jean Ritchie singing The Unquiet Grave, “which is both a tender love song and a frank conversation with a ghost.” Writing about Ritchie’s version, the liner notes suggest that the song… “…is notable for its exhibition of several universal popular beliefs, including a talking ghost, the idea that excessive grief on the part of mourners disturbs the peace of the dead, the troth plight that binds lovers even after death …

The information crisis

As we prepare for the election and a torrent of stories — good and bad — in the coming week, I thought it helpful to turn back to a book that reminds us of the importance of stories, how we tell them, and how we process them.* In doing so, I also want to bring in the work of another writer — a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative — who speaks to the information crisis we face in America because of the deliberate and extensive efforts of political actors and media giants like Fox to poison the citizenry’s understanding of public affairs. Let’s begin with Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. Steve Almond’s impressive yet troubling book was written about the American psyche in 2018 by the New York Times best-selling author and co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast (with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed). In it, Almond looks at the many reasons we came to be where we are today as a nation. The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of …

In praise of public libraries

Most communities have a place that even in technology-obsessed, locked-down 21st century America remains a surprisingly relevant bellwether institution: the public library. I was thinking about libraries as I finished reading Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows. Published in 2018, Our Towns is the story of a five-year journey across the country, most of it taken at low altitude in a little propeller airplane. Along the way, the Fallows saw small and mid-sized towns that had faced economic hardship, political crises, and job losses. They also saw “the emerging pattern of American reinvention.” And one of the first places they stopped in each town to gather local information and to gauge the character of the community was the public library. I thoroughly enjoyed the couple’s take on what America looks like away from the big cities and the corporate media, even if I felt that the focus on the economic development directors of the world and the craft beer revival may have received too much …

Democracy is never permanent…and the work to keep it never ends

One of the challenges in building hope for the future is the need to overcome cynicism. We consider racism, sexism, pandemics, authoritarianism, poverty, environmental degradation, fascism, financial inequality, and other challenges in the world today and we become cynical about our ability to make a difference. Over the month of October, I have posted a series of observations on the lessons history teaches us as we fight the good fight to keep our democracy. I find two consistent lessons. First, the life that we see today is not permanent. Change will happen. If we do nothing to save our democracy, there are forces of tyranny ready to step into the breach. Lesson #2 teaches us that if we push and make great progress towards building a more just society, it will take work — long, tedious, boring, necessary work — to maintain and build upon those gains. Hope for a better future is required if we are to find the courage to continue with our labor. The reason I turn to history and the places …

Great communities don’t remain that way by chance

Early in my preservation career, I was privileged to serve five years as the executive director of Virginia’s Historic Staunton Foundation, an award-winning preservation organization recognized over more than four decades for its work to protect and revitalize this historic Shenandoah Valley community. Our children were born during the 15 years we lived in Staunton, it shaped each of us in significant ways, and we still have deep friendships that bring us “home” several times each year. Just as we like to return to this gem of a community, visionary leadership has made Staunton a year-round destination for tens-of-thousands of visitors annually and has generated national recognition for the city, including more than forty awards and accolades for its historic downtown from national organizations and media in the past ten years. Some of the top ones include : The Great American Main Street Award A National Trust for Historic Preservation Award Best Small Towns in America Award (Smithsonian magazine) The 15 Most Beautiful Main Streets Across America (Architectural Digest) That level of success does not …

Saturday Soundtrack: Paradise

Music is a language that helps us process loss. Throughout 2020, Americans have had to call on that language time and again as more than 223,000 of our fellow citizens have lost their lives to COVID.  Overall, “25% of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household was laid off or lost their job because of the coronavirus outbreak, with 15% saying this happened to them personally.” On top of this health and economic crisis, we are facing the potential loss of our democracy to minority rule. So many have suffered personal losses during this year, holes in their lives that shake their soul. For those who find nurture in roots, country, folk, and acoustic music, the death of singer/songwriter John Prine to COVID early in the pandemic still creates a void that is difficult to fill. But we try. Thankfully, music provides a way to remember lives and process loss. For this Saturday Soundtrack, I want to focus on the remembrance of a song that, in itself, is about loss: John Prine’s Paradise, …

Misinformation and the threat to democracy

Take any old laptop, add a legally blind store owner, conveniently forget to save security camera tape from the store before it is erased, throw in some Russian disinformation, turn to Rudy Giuliani and Rupert Murdoch — two titans of misinformation — to sell your story and “boom,” just like that you have a faux scandal! If you are not a regular consumer of the right-wing infotainment networks and watched the last presidential debate, you may be confused about all the talk by Trump of a “laptop from hell” that (allegedly) included emails (again!) and compromising photographs of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, and “proved” that the whole Biden family was corrupt. Talk about your projection. Trying to control the flow of information is one of the chief threats to democracy, and in Donald Trump we may not have a master at the art, but it isn’t for lack of trying. Attorney, professor, and author Teri Kanefield writes, “Democracy is based on rule of law, which requires a shared truth (a functioning public sphere). Fascism, to …

Journeys that move us toward justice never end

Yesterday we took a walk through Brookside Gardens. It was a beautiful fall day, the colors were vibrant, and the air was clean. Along the path were small signs of “Garden Mindfulness” with reminders to “feel the air moving across your skin” and to “bring awareness to those parts of the body where you could feel the wind.” After a while we came upon a labyrinth placed in a tranquil meadow setting. As I slowly walked the curving stone path, I recalled the rules and morals of the practice from my reading of Rebecca Solnit’s delightful book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. “…sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.  After the careful walking and looking down, the stillness of arrival was deeply moving.” In these troubled times, we are all on a difficult journey. It is important to recall that sometimes the only way is the long one. Work that is meaningful takes time …

Be a good boy…and follow your mother’s advice

Pop quiz: Who said the following? She’s a ‘nasty woman.” A “crazed, crying lowlife.” A “dog” who has the “face of a pig.” “Low I.Q.” She is “ugly both inside and out!” A “monster!” Okay, enough already. I don’t even have to tell you who said all those things. You’ve no doubt guessed correctly. Sexism in America, like our country’s racism, never went away. But it also never had such a vocal champion in the Oval Office. For centuries, women have taken abuse from men. For much of that time they had few rights and legal remedies to help battle oppression. Sexism and abuse continues, as we see all too well in the actions of the current president, but today women have more rights, more ways to combat mistreatment, and a power that is already being seen across the country. Winning the right to vote in 1920 gave women the opportunity to play a significant role in addressing sexism, and they are taking advantage of that power to push against one of today’s chief threats …

Why I write

In my journey to write with clarity and passion, I often turn to what others have to say. I look for inspiration in works such as Yale’s Why I Write series. Writing should be easy, you say. Just turn on the computer and start typing, right? Or go old school, pull out the legal pad, and put pen to paper. Easy peasy. Getting a bad first draft can be fairly effortless for me. I did it with this short post, for instance. In a rush, I unfortunately called it a day and hit publish. Wrong decision. Writing well, as opposed to simply writing, is hard. Understanding why one is compelled to write can be an even more difficult journey. In many ways, each of us needs to answer that particular question, which differs individual to individual, before good writing truly begins to sing. I came to pick up the slim volume entitled Devotion by the musician and author Patti Smith because I was looking for inspiration and answers to those questions of how and why. …