Thursday, May 12, 2022

An island vacation to imagine -- May 12, 2022 column


Planning a vacation? Consider this alluring place in Virginia:


“The Unrivalled Health and Summer Resort of the Atlantic Coast



And this: “It is almost unnecessary to speak of the many and great advantages of Cobb’s Island as a Seaside Resort and Watering Place, unrivalled for its surf-bathing and magnificent view of the ocean.”

Or this, also about Cobb’s Island Hotel, from a Richmond newspaper: “There is a peculiar, indefinable charm about this spot which every one who lingers here twenty-four hours is sure to experience.”

But, don’t reach for your phone to book a room.  

The flyer and the newspaper report are from the 1890s. Cobb’s Island Hotel, once one of the most famous hunting, fishing and swimming resorts on the East Coast, is no more. Nor are the other hunt clubs and hotels that dotted the Virginia barrier islands from the late 1800s until 1933.

The Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo tells the fascinating story of a lost way of life and culture through professionally produced documentaries and beautifully curated rooms with more than 7,000 artifacts.

In the 1990s, “Eastern Shore people saw their artifacts become very collectable and they were getting bought up and leaving the shore, and once something leaves the area, it’s gone,” said Sally Dickinson, director of the center. “So the founders said, `Wouldn’t it be great to have a museum.”

Islanders and their descendants loaned or donated the photos, objects of everyday life, decoys, fishing rods, china and even an ornate silver set from Cobb’s Island Hotel. The center will celebrate its 20th anniversary May 28 with an Art and Music on the Farm Festival.

Nathan F. Cobb came to the Eastern Shore from Cape Cod in 1838, seeking a better climate for his wife and daughters who suffered from consumption. The next year, he bought what became known as Cobb’s Island for $100 or $150, depending on the account, built a hotel and began a lucrative business salvaging contents from ships that ran aground.

He and his three sons reportedly never charged a penny for saving crewmembers’ lives but made out well from the goods the ships carried. His hotel would include a chapel, bowling alley, dining room and ballroom.

The coming of the railroad down the Eastern Shore peninsula in the 1880s ushered a golden age for the island resorts. Instead of taking a steamer and several boats, a wealthy passenger could board a train in New York or Philadelphia in the morning, catch a short boat ride, and arrive in time for dinner.

These were thriving villages with general stores, post offices, schools and churches. Generations of residents grew, caught or hunted their own food, raised sheep and spun wool.

In the late 1800s, Atlantic Ocean storms swept over the fragile, sandy islands and claimed for the seabed many of the communities where 19th century entrepreneurs had staked their claims to hospitality. The Great Hurricane of August 1933 wreaked havoc on the islands, ending the era, but there was a bright spot.

The hurricane cut an inlet between Ocean City and Assateague Island. The Army Corps of Engineers made the inlet permanent, creating a tourist boom for Ocean City while leaving Assateague Island separate. It now is a pristine national seashore and wildlife refuge, while Ocean City attracts more than 300,000 visitors on summer weekends.

In the 1960s, Virginia’s 14 undeveloped barrier islands seemed headed the way of Ocean City as developers eyed building bridges and erecting hotels. The Nature Conservancy bought the islands and is preserving them in their natural state – an almost unbelievable stroke of luck for us and later generations. People can go by boat and visit for the day except for certain times of the year.

You can’t stay on Cobb’s Island, but you can step up to the hotel’s wooden reception desk, look at the handwritten names in the guest register and see the original room keys -- at the Barrier Islands Center.

And you can visit the barrier islands, designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, a vital refuge for shorebirds and seabirds on the Atlantic Flyway, in their natural state.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 9, 2022

On Stateline, the online news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts



State Supreme Courts Are (Slowly) Starting to Look More Like America

Can we stop the exodus of teachers? -- May 5, 2022 column


If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, what former presidents chat about when they’re sitting together, waiting for an event to start, President Joe Biden gave us a glimpse.

Before the funeral of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright April 27 at the National Cathedral, Biden told former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton he would be welcoming the Teacher of the Year to the White House that afternoon.

“And they all talked about how much they enjoyed the years they were here with the Teacher of the Year event,” Biden said told the teachers later.

I can almost hear some readers snickering that teachers are a big Democratic constituency, so it’s no wonder Democratic presidents welcome them. That may be true, but it’s offpoint. 

Teachers are among the professionals -- along with first responders, health care workers and military personnel -- who deserve support and respect from all of us, regardless of our politics, especially during the pandemic.

But surveys suggest educators – everyone from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria ladies -- are fed up, and many are considering quitting.

Fifty-five percent of educators say they’re thinking of leaving the field, according to a National Education Association member survey released in February. That includes 62% of Black and 59% of Hispanic NEA members.

Heavier workloads to cover for absent employees, pay that fails to keep up with inflation and lack of respect from students and parents are among the factors.

The average teacher salary nationwide is $66,397 for the 2021-22 school year, which, when adjusted for inflation, means pay is down 3.9% over the last decade, the NEA reported.

The average budgeted classroom teacher salary in Virginia for fiscal year 2022 is $62,101, less than a 1% increase from the previous fiscal year, the Virginia Department of Education reported in January. Virginia ranked 28th in teacher salaries in the nation in 2019-2000, according to NEA calculations.

Contributing to burnout is the fact schools and teachers have become pawns in our culture wars.

In Virginia, candidate Glenn Youngkin campaigned on restoring educational excellence but as governor launched a “Help Education” tip line so parents can report – call it what it is: snitch on – school officials who teach “divisive” lessons. That’s not supporting schools and teachers; that’s intimidation.  

Worse, he refused to release records related to the tip line under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming they are “working papers and correspondence.” So much for transparency. The Washington Post and a dozen other news organizations filed suit April 13, seeking the records.

At the Teacher of the Year celebration, Biden decried the politicization of education, saying: “Today, there are too many politicians trying to score political points, trying to ban books, even math books . . . Did you ever think, when you’d be teaching, that you’d be worried about book burnings and banning books, all because it doesn’t fit somebody’s political agenda?”

Teachers have enough to worry about, with staying healthy and helping their students who have fallen seven to nine months behind in their learning during COVID-19.

The activism of conservative-leaning parents, ginned up by closed schools and mask mandates, is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future, but other parents also need to step up to support teachers and make their voices heard. 

Biden touted the American Rescue Plan, which he signed in March 2021, that included $122 billion in emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools as well as an additional $8 billion to states and school districts to meet needs of students with disabilities and $800 million for students experiencing homelessness.

All 50 states submitted plans for spending the money and are implementing them. Localities added about 279,000 education jobs in 2021 and 46,000 more in the first two months of 2022. But more needs to be done to help teachers.

“American teachers have dedicated their lives to teaching our children and lifting them up. We’ve got to stop making them the target of the culture wars,” Biden said.

And he added, “It’s not enough to give teachers praise. We ought to give you a raise.”

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

What a wild turkey tells us about Washington -- April 28, 2022 column


A wild turkey is terrorizing people on a bike trail in the District of Columbia. Several runners and bicyclists report being menaced by the angry bird.

“There’s actually a pretty healthy turkey population in D.C. and the surrounding areas,” Dan Rauch, a wildlife biologist with the district’s department of the environment, told NBC 4 in Washington. “There’s at least a hundred, maybe even two, here in the District.”

Oh, come on. Everybody knows there are more turkeys than that in Washington.

At least that’s what the polls say. President Joe Biden and Congress both suffer from rock-bottom approval ratings. Only about 40% of people approve of the job Biden is doing, and Congress’s approval rating is even lower.

Only about 25% approve of the job Congress is doing, according to the latest Real Clear Politics poll average. Slightly more – but only slightly – think the country is moving in the right direction, about 30%, according to RCP’s poll average.

The rampaging turkey looks diligent compared with the do-nothings in Washington.  

It’s spring, but in the nation’s capital it feels like the dark days of fall – as in election season. The midterms may be six months away, but Democrats and Republicans are so busy attacking each other they can’t get anything accomplished.

The country is awash with problems – inflation, the pandemic (still with us) and the crisis at the border, chief among them. Government is supposed to solve problems, or at least try, but Democrats keep fighting among themselves and Republicans, who smell electoral blood in the water, won’t lift a finger to help.

Biden has failed to deliver on much of his agenda. Hardly anyone even mentions voting rights legislation anymore, even though more than a dozen states have passed more restrictive voting laws.

The Build Back Better package – scaled down from Biden’s original $4 trillion proposal to about $2 trillion – appears doomed, although some Democrats still hope to salvage about $1 trillion. They disagree about what should be their priority – maternal and child health, pre-K education, a child tax credit, clean energy measures – and about what can pass.

Nearly every day the news about the environment worsens: “megadrought” in California, wildfires, water shortages, and yet, again, nothing happens in Washington.

It always comes back to: What does Joe want? A spokesman for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Monday he was agreeable to boosting energy production, lowering prescription drug costs and raising taxes on the rich, The Washington Post reported. But Manchin himself told reporters Tuesday there’s no formal agreement.

“I want to make sure ya’ll understand: There’s no false hopes here,” said Manchin, who also continues to hold out for fully paying for the package, a sticking point.

Manchin says he will run for re-election in 2024, so there’s no downside in his red state for his opposing Biden’s agenda.

Congress failed to pass aid to buy more coronavirus vaccines and treatment before leaving on spring break. Now, more aid for Ukraine is also in doubt, as Republicans warn they won’t allow Democrats to include coronavirus aid in the Ukraine package.

Republicans want a vote on lifting Title 42, the controversial Trump-era measure that allows the Department of Homeland Security to “expel” migrants at the border without allowing them to apply for asylum. The administration contends the emergency measure, a public health order, is no longer needed and planned to lift it May 23.

A federal judge in Louisiana has blocked the administration from phasing out the restrictions before May 23. Border crossings are up and are expected to surge even more.

Washington almost never blames itself for anything, so it was surprising to hear Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Michigan, lash out at both political parties.  

“Our immigration system is broken,” she declared at a hearing Wednesday. “Democrats and Republicans own that. Right now, Democrats have the House and Senate and White House and have done nothing to get comprehensive immigration reform.

“Four years ago, Republicans had the House, the Senate and the White House and did nothing” on immigration reform. Imploring her colleagues to introduce legislation to make the border situation better, she said: “Don’t just use it as a political cudgel.”

But they will. No wonder people are so grumpy.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

 Plant hope for the future -- April 21, 2022 column


Last fall, the city of Alexandria sponsored a sale of native trees, and I bought a flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) online.

A few Saturday mornings later, my partner Keith and I went to pick it up. We were early, but there was already a line to pick up trees before most of them had been unloaded from two large trucks.

The woman in front of us told us she plants trees in a park near her apartment complex. Before we knew it, the trees were ready to go. She swooped into the dogwood area and corralled at least half a dozen healthy-looking saplings.

The dogwood sapling we snagged was spindly with a few no-account reddish leaves. It did not inspire confidence about its stick-to-itiveness to survive the winter. But, with help, we planted it in the front yard, watered it and hoped and waited.

A few weeks ago, two large white blossoms appeared, as if to say, “Happy Spring, ye of little faith.”

Planting a single tree won’t save the planet, of course, but it does cheer me at a time when the international news is unrelentingly awful. I like to think someday its white-clad branches will dance gracefully and provide dappled shade.

When a Nebraska newspaper editor named J. Sterling Morton proposed Arbor Day 150 years ago, the state provided premiums and prizes, and more than a million trees were planted in one day in Nebraska.

“Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future,” Morton wrote.

Today we’d say Arbor Day went viral. It spread nationwide, mainly in schools.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a proclamation urging America’s school children to “celebrate Arbor Day thoughtfully, for within your lifetimes the Nation’s need of trees will become serious. We of an elder generation can get along with what we have, though with growing hardship . . .”

But, you in the next generation, he wrote, “will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted.”

Almost every aspect of American life has changed since then, but Morton and T.R. still have something we need to hear. We must look to and plant for the future.

The care and planting of trees has taken on new urgency in the 2020s as people realize our urban tree canopies are shrinking because of development, pollution and the longevity of trees. Many of our beautiful old neighborhood trees are reaching the end of their lifespans.

Our cities are disproportionately hot and unpleasant in neighborhoods with too few trees. Efforts are underway to plant more trees in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Nearly every president or first lady plants a tree on the White House grounds around Arbor Day, now officially the last Friday in April. Nearly every city and town has tree-planting events. Earth Day, celebrating its 52th anniversary, has morphed into a month of events focusing attention on the environment.

The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, returning after two years of hiatus due to COVID-19, returned to the National Mall last month. It drew an estimated 1.5 million visitors to its parade and other events over nearly a month before it concluded April 17.

Yet the cherry trees face their own problems. Along with foot traffic, they suffer from climate change, rising sea level and daily flooding around crumbling seawalls.

The mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 flowering cherry trees to the United States in 1912. The average flowering cherry tree has a lifespan of 40 to 50 years, and every year about 90 trees must be replaced.

But because the federal government does not provide enough funding to care for the trees, the Trust for the National Mall and the National Cherry Blossom Festival have formed a partnership to start the Adopt a Cherry Tree campaign. There are now 3,700 cherry trees on the National Mall, and the campaign seeks to raise $3.7 million.

So, this Arbor Day, we can plant a native tree in our own yard or join a group that plants locally. Adopt an iconic cherry tree. Those are ways to propose for the future.

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Wednesday, April 13, 2022

`Limbaugh on decaf' soldiers on -- column of April 14, 2022


Former Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the University of Virginia Tuesday night was more like a hamburger than raw meat.

His remarks were as friendly and unfussy as a fast-food burger with a smear of spicy mustard. He was respectful, approachable -- “You can call me Mike” – and traditionally conservative.

His audience was polite and attentive as Pence boldly allied himself with the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, his Christian faith, freedom, liberty, mom and apple pie. OK, he didn’t mention pie, though he did say he’s been married to a schoolteacher for 36 years, they have three kids and “the highest title I will ever hold is spelled D-A-D.”

Serving as vice president was “the greatest honor of my life,” he said, and he bragged on the last administration’s record. Never once did he mention Jan. 6, 2021, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, or the protesters that shouted, “Hang Mike Pence” as he and members of Congress hid.

Pence’s theme was “How to Save America from the Woke Left,” so, of course, he declared “Wokeness is running amok in our public schools and universities” and critical race theory is “nothing more than state-sanctioned racism.” 

He blamed the Biden-Harris administration for crime, high inflation, the worst border crisis in American history and a “tidal wave of left-wing policies that threaten to wipe out all the progress we made in four short years.”

His prescription was for young people to join the fight for liberty, but when a student asked if he would run for president in 2024, Pence said, “I will keep you posted.”

Republicans are waiting for Trump to actually say whether he’s running again. In any case, he ruled out Pence as his running mate.

Democrats are waiting too, although President Joe Biden said last year he will run with Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate.

“Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” as Pence describes himself as a talk radio show host in the 1990s, may be the least scary of the GOP politicians who may compete for the White House in the election 200-plus days away.

This not a high bar in a Republican field that includes Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri as well as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Pence is on a speaking tour of universities sponsored by Young America’s Foundation, a conservative organization. His views on marriage, trans and gender issues have made him persona non grata to some and a hero to others.

In an editorial last month titled, “Dangerous Rhetoric is not Entitled to a Platform,” the editorial board of U.Va.’s student-run newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, warned Pence’s rhetoric “directly threatens the presence and lives of our community members,” including the LGBTQ community, and demanded the speech be called off.

In response, 17 professors, including political scientist Larry Sabato, wrote in a letter to the editor: “This speech-is-violence argument is not only wrong – no calls for violence will be issued April 12 – but also contradicts the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, which generally creates space for a wide range of views to be expressed so long as the relevant speech does not incite violence.”

A handful of students protested outside Old Cabell Hall Tuesday, but in the auditorium, which was nearly full, everyone played nice. When a student asked Pence what he would do or say if one of his children came out to him as gay, he replied: “I’d look them in the eye and tell them, `I love you,’”

Then he told the student if they got to know each other, “You’d know the Pences love everybody.”

Love is an odd political strategy, to say the least. The recent Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson as an associate justice of the Supreme Court were viewed as an audition for the presidential campaign, and several likely GOP contenders bared their teeth in full, snarling mode.

Pence barks, but he wags more. He won praise for upholding the Constitution during the electoral vote count last year. He calls himself “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican,” in that order.

We’ll see if that’s enough to compete successfully against his party’s mean boys.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Poetry comes to our rescue -- April 7, 2022 column


After Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, April brings us National Poetry Month.

One could argue that Black and women’s history, as well as poetry, should be observed all year long, not just for one month, but clustering events over about 30 days does help draw attention to subjects we might otherwise forget.

I figured National Poetry Month was celebrated in April because it was Shakespeare’s birth month or because of T.S. Eliot’s opening line in The Wasteland, “April is the cruellest month . . .”

They probably didn’t hurt, but the Academy of American Poets says Black and women’s history months were the inspiration for National Poetry Month in 1996 to remind people “that poets have an integral role to play in our culture and that poetry matters.”

The academy, despite its governmental-sounding name, is a charitable, membership organization. Marie Bullock was just 23 when she started the academy in her New York apartment in 1934 after studying in France, where she was impressed with the prominent role poets play in French culture.  

We’re always hearing that poetry may be dead, but miraculously it survives.

A 2017 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the most recent survey, found 12% of adults had read poetry in the previous year. That sounds paltry but was hailed as encouraging news as it meant 28 million adults actually read a poem, and 12% was the highest share of the population to read poetry in 15 years.

Poetry got a boost from President Joe Biden’s inauguration. When Amanda Gorman, a 23-year-old black woman, read her stunning poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration – was that only last year? – she became a cultural icon, proving that poetry is alive, vibrant and, yes, cool.

A collection of her poems, “Call Us What We Carry,” was published last December and became a New York Times bestseller.

National Poetry Month has become “the largest literary celebration in the world,” says the academy, which offers resources for celebrating poetry at home or in the classroom on

These include 30 activities, such as writing a poem, checking out an e-book of poetry from your local library, buying a book of poetry at your local bookstore, and signing up for a Poem-a-Day.

If you’re wondering why bother or what poetry can do for you, Joy Harjo, the Poet Laureate of the United States, has an answer:

“Poetry can make someone fall in love with you. Poetry can make you fall in love with yourself,” Harjo says in the trailer for her online MasterClass on poetic thinking. If that doesn’t make people want to read and write poetry, what will?

Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate in U.S. history, will wrap up her third and final year in the post this month with several events to be livestreamed on the Library of Congress’ YouTube channel and Facebook page.

For her signature project, she created “LivingNations, Living Words,” an online presentation and interactive map, to introduce the work of 47 Native Nations poets. 

If ever we needed poetry, now is the time. With so much horrible news bombarding us, poetry can be a solace on the page, online or on social media.

People turn to poetry to help make sense of the pandemic, isolation, war and other stresses.

A hopeful prose poem Kitty O’Meara, a retired teacher and chaplain, wrote during the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020 and posted for a small group of her Facebook friends went viral. It begins:

And the people stayed home.

And read books and listened, and rested and exercised,

And made art and played games,

And learned new ways of being and were still.

And listened more deeply.

While some grumpy readers complained O’Meara’s poem reflects a privileged, fantasy view of the earliest lockdown, it rang true with many others. It was turned into a picture book and an operatic solo which Renee Fleming sang and was published in an anthology of pandemic poems.

We can all be grateful for poets as we celebrate poetry this month – and every month.

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.