Where will we be a year from now?

Is this what you expected life to look like a year ago? 

When my children were all young, the changes I noticed from year to year were often typical milestones: first steps, potty training, starting school, riding bikes.  

In those labor-intensive years coated with more body fluids than I care to recount, raising children felt like my major contribution to the world. It still does. 

Three of my children are now grown and contribute to society. They are active citizens who participate in our democracy and in their communities. They also know how to cook and clean a home, and I’m fairly certain they regularly do both. 

In times of great change, however, simply contemplating one’s life at the end of the year seems remiss. 

We are about to embark on the third year of a global pandemic; the effects of climate change are no longer a distant cataclysm; and liberal democracy, of which this country has long been the world’s leading example, is looking precariously wobbly. 

Alone, each of these can overwhelm anyone paying attention. When dished up together, as they are, it might feel as though the best course is to rock to and fro in a fetal position. 

But I suggest otherwise. 

We can’t wish away COVID-19, a warming planet or an assault on democratic values. They are here and must be recognized and addressed with thoughtful urgency. 

And consider this: positive paradigm shifts can, and often do, occur alongside or just after major calamities. According to Stanford professor Walter Scheidel, the worse a pandemic or plague, the more it results in leveling societal inequalities. 

It’s hard to know how long the COVID pandemic will prevent economies from returning to the way they were (if they ever do), but what is clear is that many workers no longer accept wages that leave them below the poverty level and often working in unsafe conditions. 

I worked part-time at World Market, a retail store, for five years and even with sterling reviews I never received a raise larger than 25 cents an hour. When I left in 2018, my hourly wage was less than $10. This holiday season, new hires at World Market started at $13 an hour. 

As a freelance writer and adjunct faculty with the University of Akron — employment that paid living wages just a generation ago — I work hard for little. When receiving government assistance during the first year of the pandemic, it gave me previously unknown financial capacity, and what I reasonably should always earn. 

Endless fires in California, rapid increases in U.S. sea levels and tidal flooding, devastating December tornadoes in Kentucky — the time to sit back and chit-chat about the impact of and solutions for climate change is past. Yet only recently has it been possible to inject the topic of climate change into any serious political discussions.  

Yes, many corporations that deal in fossil fuels, as well as the politicians they lobby, give little more than lip service to seeking paths away from combustible energies to those that are renewable, but the shift has begun. Individuals, communities and states that recognize the consequences of ignoring the facts are moving ahead with changes. It’s still too little, too late, but the tide is shifting. 

Dissatisfaction with government and societal status quo abounds on both the left and the right, but how to address that dissatisfaction divides the nation. Autocracies have always existed elsewhere, but not in the United States, long a beacon of democracy. That is, for now. 

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Barton Gellman reminds us that just six days into this year, “insurrectionists injured scores of police officers and trashed the hallowed building revered as the citadel of our democracy. Chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence,’ they threatened the sitting vice president’s life. They bashed police officers with poles bearing the American flag. They carried the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol rotunda. They despoiled the building with their urine and feces.” 

That all Republicans are not unified in pursuing and prosecuting all participants — including those in government — of this treasonous assault on our government is horrifying, but hardly shocking.  

The title of Gellman’s article is “January 6 Was Practice” and in it he outlines how we now live in a country in which only one of the two major political parties, the Democrats, is willing to lose an election. 

Dispiriting as this is, American citizens of all political persuasions have stopped passively observing government and have become active participants, proving that election turnout is greater in countries with significant discontent, if not outrage, with the way things are. 

This time last year, I easily imagined the pandemic would by now be behind us and I was buoyed by an incoming president’s commitment to addressing climate change and systemic inequality. 

Today, I am certain of only two things: the times are a-changing and these changes challenge us all. When looking back next year, the world will be different, and hopefully better, than it is now. 


Try for a lighter, more meaningful Christmas

Shortly after the Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off, holiday stress begins its annual escalation.  This year the inevitable pressure to find the perfect holiday gifts seems accentuated, given the supply shortages caused by the ongoing pandemic. 

University of Minnesota professor Joel Waldfogel, who wrote “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays,” claims that while we are good at knowing what we need and want, figuring that out for other people isn’t so easy. 

Clever ad makers have used this conundrum to drive us to stores or websites with the promise of gifts so perfect you’ll put everyone you know on your list. 

While commercials of little children coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to the sight of a lit-up pine tree with cascades of presents under its lowest branches give my heart a warm tug, the anxiety that accompanies the thought of so many gifts leaves me feeling less than merry.

Oodles of presents are not necessary. Children are equally enraptured, if not more so, with one or two well-chosen gifts. In fact, between the ages 2 and 5, my children often left many wrapped presents under the tree for days, playing instead with the first they’d unwrapped. 

Overbuying simply feeds the cycle of make-sell-buy-discard that loads up landfills more than hearts. So if you can, stop stress-shopping and consider a lighter, more meaningful, giving season. 

For starters, buy local. There are many area artists who have created one-of-a-kind beauties from jewelry to paintings to garden statues. My holiday season never feels complete without a visit to the Don Drumm Gallery on Crouse Street, where the work of over 500 artists is sold. 

You can also consider shopping at companies with charity-based business models. Each year, my sons eagerly anticipate the following:  

Bombas socks, which are incredibly well-made, comfy and cute. For each pair purchased, the company gives a specially designed pair to organizations serving those who are homeless. Win-win giving. 

T-shirts from Out of Print, a company whose merchandise has “iconic book cover artwork and literary references,” and price tags that look like library check-out cards of yore. With a portion of their proceeds, the company donates books and supports literacy programs. 

Logo merchandise from WKSU, our local NPR affiliate, which my boys wear with regional, nerdy pride because “I heard on NPR …” are words one of us says daily. 

Recently, my 25-year-old son, Hugo, happily realized that his childhood education hadn’t been limited to school. “We learned all the time, like, we went to so many museums!” he told me before we waxed on about our favorite. 

And while it may not feel the same as giving a toy, when my children were young I was deeply grateful to receive annual memberships to museums, zoos and science centers, gifts that truly keep on giving for at least 12 months. Most memberships cost close to $100 a year, a prohibitive expense for many young families. 

Finally, as the word “holidays” means “holy days,” helping others seems abundantly appropriate. Each year former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes an annual giving guide, identifying impactful charities. This year, one of his recommendations particularly resonated with me. 

In 2012, my only daughter was born with Down syndrome, which I often write about. But she also had milky-white pupils. Cataracts. Before she was 2 months old, her lenses were surgically removed. Without those surgeries, she would have been blind. 

One of Kristof’s highlighted charities this year is the Seva Foundation, which restores eyesight to people around the world. A significant portion of their work is removing cataracts with a 15-minute surgery that costs roughly $50 per eye. 

If the gift of eyesight doesn’t resonate with you, that’s OK, many other nonprofits that improve lives in any number of ways also benefit from even small contributions. 

I understand that plenty of people find great joy in going all in on everything Christmas — one my eldest sons’ high school science teachers joyfully installed and decorated over 20 Christmas trees in his house each year. 

Others find great satisfaction in buying gifts — the first time my son Hugo spent Christmas with his girlfriend’s family, he felt like he’d won the present lottery. 

But if holiday gift buying feels like a chore, one you can never get quite right, consider changing the expectations. I’m pretty sure if you do, nobody will be as disappointed as the Madison Avenue ad makers would have you believe.  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 12, 2021.


Not today, COVID

While none of us gets out of here alive, we do have the ability to influence how we exit or, more pointedly, how we don’t. 

A healthy diet and exercise, for example, can prevent myriad issues from diabetes to heart disease. But without the fangs or claws of imminent demise, distant consequences seem improbable and make the call of fast food and couches easy to answer. 

The first global pandemic in a century, however, trucks in both distant and immediate devastation. 

In what felt like the flick of a switch, life changed in March 2020. Two of my five children returned home from college, while the elementary schools of my youngest two suddenly shuttered.  

Those first months were both a blast and terrifying. 

Together the seven of us raucously cooked and ate meals, played euchre and walked dogs in parks. I had luxuriously long talks with my children, particularly my second son, who adopted a puppy soon after he’d returned to Akron. 

Meanwhile, information how COVID-19 is and isn’t transmitted whiplashed our brains as fast-flung guidelines changed. Now seemingly absurd, at first we worried about touching items in the grocery store lest the last person who touched them had COVID, while simultaneously we believed masks to be unnecessary. 

Then we were told masks are the best first line of defense against the virus, which is commonly spread by airborne droplets, and that wiping down our groceries was unnecessary as the virus quickly dies on nonliving surfaces. 

This seesaw environment of safety protocols is actually how science works. Information yields new hypotheses and new standards, which is why scientists love being proven wrong! Unfortunately, there were those who used this important process to attack whether there really was a virus for their own political gain at the cost of millions of lives.  

My family decided to bunker down until we had what we ascertained as consistently reliable information. My two youngest children saw little more than home and yard for the better part of four months. 

Then came the 2020-2021 school year. I taught hybrid classes at the University of Akron, poorly dividing my line of vision between “roomies,” i.e., the students physically in class with me, and “Zoomies,” or those who attended online. 

 My eldest son began graduate school in Texas where masking regulations were few and seldom followed. He lived and studied in his apartment like a monk, leaving only for daily runs and weekly trips to the grocery. 

But that remote school year was far and away hardest on my youngest two children. Even though we regularly checked his browser history, our fifth grader was routinely discovered to have skipped out on classes to peruse websites. 

My daughter, Lyra, who has Down syndrome, was in the first grade. Benefits wrought from years of speech and occupational therapies seemed to wash away like sand castles at high tide as she went from mostly talking in complete sentences to speaking only key words. 

During the early weeks of the pandemic, hot spots in faraway cities brought hospitals to their knees as patient numbers exceeded capacities and health care workers struggled to meet the need. By the time the same happened in Summit and surrounding counties, it seemed an inevitability. 

Eventually several people I know contracted and recovered from COVID. It wasn’t until this fall, just as the infection rates of the delta variant began declining, that COVID began killing friends and family members of mine. 

The first was the cousin closest to my age on my dad’s side. Brent Christensen was 51 when he died in September. Twenty days before his death, he became a grandpa for the first time. I last saw Brent after the burial of our Grandma, who died at age 90. 

Like everyone, I long for this pandemic to be in the rear window of our lives.  

My second son, who worked in health care at the time, was the first of us vaccinated against COVID. I was the second, receiving my first two shots in April. My ex-partner and other two adult sons were all vaccinated soon thereafter. Last month, I boostered up. 

My daughter has long been my biggest COVID concern. Several months into this pandemic, ample data made it clear that when people with Down syndrome contract COVID-19 they are more likely to develop serious symptoms, require hospitalization and die. 

Perhaps the research moved as fast as it could, but the wait for a COVID vaccine for children age 5 and up was frustrating. Lyra desperately needs in-person education and while masks are excellent at reducing rates of infection, they are nowhere as effective as herd immunity. 

How do I spell relief? V-A-C-C-I-N-A-T-E-D. My youngest two got their first jabs at the earliest appointment we could find once the FDA approved the kid formulation. 

The science on vaccines is clear: They are the surest and safest way to stop cycles of COVID variants from shutting down our schools, businesses and lives. 

One day I will die, as will those around me. Loved ones, family, friends and strangers alike, we are all on this one-way journey together with little to no control over what brings us to our final destination. What we can control, by means of vaccination, is the likelihood that it’s COVID-19. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 28, 2021.


WWII soldier’s dilemma then and now

For several years, I’ve had biweekly dinners with my friend Bascom Hill Biggers III. He turned 99 this past summer, but let me correct the image you may have of a doddering old man: That same week he danced a jig outside the Bureau of Motor Vehicles after renewing his driver’s license. 

Raised in Atlanta, Bascom was an ROTC cadet in college before being drafted in 1943 and stationed in New York City for nearly a year while awaiting orders. A month before his 22nd birthday, he was sent to Europe where he fought on the ground in the final months of World War II. 

During the spring of 1945, Bascom’s ragtag battalion, fill-ins for other battalions that’d suffered significant losses, moved through Germany, clearing remnant enemy soldiers from the enemy’s own country. Alongside Bascom was Russ Mohler, a lineman from Petaluma, California. 

On a cold spring day in 1945, the battalion waited at the edge of a forest near the town of Kameritz. Between the forest and the town lay 3,000 yards of fields. 

“We stand only slightly scattered in a patch of woods already littered with dead. There are so few of us left, so very few. There is a foreboding of panic within me. It is that sickening, helpless despairing feeling that comes when you know you must go on and you only want to escape — but not by death. Death is too close to be an escape.” 

While each soldier had his own weapons and pack to carry, the battalion also had a Browning automatic rifle, or BAR, a 20-pound machine gun. Bascom was barely 5-foot-5 and weighed 125 pounds. “Mohler and I were a team, and he was always there to take over for me when it was my turn to carry the BAR.” 

“We are told what our new C.O.’s orders are. Our new C.O. — a coward. Our real C.O., our leader, is dead. He died yesterday. And now we must take orders from a coward, a man who was too cowardly to come to the front. When someone suggests the unnecessary danger in the orders, his is only a sneering attitude. ‘It will be accomplished my way. You are just frightened. There is nothing to fear.’ Easy for him to say. What does he know of danger? He was safe. He is safe still.” 

Their orders were to take Kameritz and they determined the safest route was alongside a highway leading into the town. On the other side of the highway flowed a parallel stream overgrown with bushes that could easily hide enemy soldiers. 

Bascom, carrying the BAR, was ordered to go first and “spray the banks of that stream good.” He did, with Mohler close at hand. German soldiers hiding between the stream and the highway quickly showed themselves and surrendered.  

The Americans advanced to capture the would-be prisoners when bullets sprayed the ranks from across the stream. A “fellow with guts” went forward and captured three more Germans. 

While Bascom reloaded the BAR, Mohler helped process the new POWs. When he returned, he proudly showed Bascom the pistol he’d collected from one. Mohler had always wanted a pistol. 

“Then with the shock of a train whistle blast, an enemy machine gun opens up on us. It is in the black forest far to our left and it is playing for us. …The enemy is firing the dreaded 88 at us.” 

Bascom and Mohler fell to the ground. Bascom’s impulse was to jump into the stream, but he felt paralyzed. The explosions drew nearer until they were upon the battalion. 

Bascom didn’t realize it at first, but his right hand had been hit. As Mohler looked at Bascom’s bloody hand, a shell hit a nearby tree stump. “It’s my right shoulder,” he cried out before his head slumped forward. 

When the shelling stopped, Bascom called for a medic and worked to peel off Mohler’s equipment and clothing. Mohler turned ghastly yellow and made the noises of an animal in pain. But when Bascom exposed the shoulder, he found no wound. He frantically searched Mohler’s body for other wounds. There were none. 

For several minutes Bascom anguished over staying with his dying friend or leaving to save his own life. He stayed. Not yet 25, Mohler left behind a pregnant wife and two children. 

Eight months later, Bascom wrote a moving account of that fateful day in which death, always capricious, took one young man and passed by another. When I first read the original, typewritten pages, Bascom sat near me, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. 

Over seven decades later, survivor’s guilt hangs on Bascom’s shoulders like a sodden cloak. 

Two nights before Mohler died, the battalion bunkered down in an abandon warehouse. Two by two, the men shared their blankets with one another. Bascom and Mohler embraced, momentarily holding each other at the edge of uncertainty before collapsing into fitful sleep. 

My dear friend embodies the gentleness of St. Francis of Assisi and can harm neither spider nor fly that takes residence in his home. It’s hard to comprehend the impact his military service had on him.  

Just before Veterans Day, Bascom shared with me the conundrum of many a veteran, “I’m glad I went to war; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.” 

A few days after leaving Mohler’s body behind, the spring weather was still bone-chillingly cold when the battalion set up in the garden of recently captured German leader. 

“My participation was so small, infinitesimal compared to what the real heroes did —slaughtered on beaches. Yet it was a perspective. That night in the garden I thought how wonderful it was to be alive.” 

A visible bit of shrapnel remains embedded in Bascom’s once-injured hand, a lifelong companion that reminds him of this essential truth.  

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 14, 2021.