Thursday, September 23, 2021

A well-traveled trunk gets a new home -- Sept. 23, 2021 column

                                                                                            Photo by Abby Davi 


In his memorable short story “The Things They Carried,” author Tim O’Brien tells about the things foot soldiers carried in Vietnam.

I want to tell you about a trunk that carried the things an immigrant family brought to the United States almost one hundred years ago. As improbable as it sounds in our age of disposables, the trunk has a future.

For 15 days in August 1923, Raffaele and Maddalena DeGennaro and their four children under the age of 10 made a voyage of faith aboard the SS Dante Alighieri from Italy to Ellis Island.

In a somber immigration photo, Maddalena holds in her arms a baby who was not yet 2 years old. That’s my father.

The DeGennaros also brought a domed wooden trunk painted green with metal straps. It was 40 inches long, 26 ½ inches high and 22 ½ inches wide and weighed about 47 pounds, empty.

It contained their hopes, dreams and what they needed to start their lives anew.

The family settled in Connecticut and the trunk went to their attic, where the boys slept. The family grew to eight children, and the trunk became a plaything for generations.

The family assimilated. My dad and a couple of his brothers Americanized their names. They served in the military, traveled, pursued educations and careers -- but never lost their sentimental attachment to the old trunk.

In the mid-1980s, my dad, Guy DeGenaro, living in Richmond, worried what would happen to the trunk with the older generation gone. He wanted to keep it safe.

My dad’s older brother, Augie DeGenaro, shipped it by Greyhound bus from New Haven to Richmond. My mother was not as fond of the old trunk as my dad, and it went to their attic for about 35 years.

My dad died in February at 99, and I began going through his and my late mother’s houseful of belongings. When I opened the Italian trunk, I was astonished to find it full of newspaper clippings.

Unbeknown to me, my parents had saved almost every story and column I wrote for Richmond newspapers for decades. My dad stored the pages in clear plastic bags by year.

The trunk’s interior had been restored at some point and covered in patterned paper. Someone – my grandma? – had written in Italian inside a list of the things the family had carried in the trunk. A translator deciphered some of the words:

Shirts or blouses, a knit or jersey suit for Augie, a tablecloth and napkins with bobbin lace, an embroidered sheet, a red skirt with bobbin lace, a bodice, cotton towels, a cover-all and diapers.

My grandma made lace, a lost art, and my guess is lace was the nicest thing they had.

I struggled with what to do with the trunk. My dad had desperately wanted it to stay with the family; so did I. But I live in a small townhouse in Alexandria and don’t have room for it.

Nor does my Uncle Richard DeGennaro, my dad’s last surviving sibling, who is in his 90s and lives in Florida. I asked his son, Rafael, to email the family to see if there was any interest.

Instantly, Abby DeGenaro Davi in Branford, Connecticut, the daughter of my first cousin Gregg, Augie’s son, spoke up. She didn’t even wait to read the entire email. She knew.

“I’m a total traditionalist,” she said. “I want it to stay in the family.”

Abby and her husband Brian Davi and their children Violet, 11, and Colton, 6, live near her dad, who played in the trunk as a child.

She decided to ship the trunk back to New Haven by Greyhound. Christian and Grant Smith, sons of a friend, double-bubble wrapped the trunk, hoisted it into their SUV, and drove us to the Richmond Greyhound station.

Several days later, the trunk arrived safe and sound. It now has a place in the Davi family room next to a highchair Gregg made for his grandchildren.

Violet and Colton play in the trunk, though they say “it smells like old people.”

No, their mother replied, “It smells like 1923.”

They call it a “treasure chest” – and, for my family, it is. A treasure chest that’s ready for its next hundred years.

 ©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Wednesday, September 15, 2021

`Open a Book, Open the World' -- and rethink -- Column of Sept. 16, 2021


Even in the best of times, news is rarely uplifting.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is more than a catchy TV phrase. News thrives on quarrels, conflict and chaos.

That said, we’ve all endured a particularly sad run of news of late.

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks brought back the day’s horror and sorrow. The precipitous end of the war in Afghanistan made us question, well, everything.

The pandemic tightens its deadly grip on our country because too many of us refuse to take simple, free precautions. Our ailing planet repays us for our disregard of climate change with disastrous storms, floods and fire. Need I go on?

No wonder so many of us are disgusted, disheartened and dispirited.

Usually, when the world is too much with me, I go on vacation, but for various reasons, I haven’t taken a vacation in more than two years.

Fortunately, fall means festivals, and in a rare benefit of COVID-19, many festivals are again virtual, inviting us to attend wherever we are.

The National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress, continues through Sept. 26, with live author conversations online daily. Only two festival events are ticketed and in person at the library in Washington.

More than 100 popular authors from a range of fields are participating in various formats. Among them: historian Joseph J. Ellis, fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, business magnate Bill Gates, historian Annette Gordon-Reed and journalist Isabel Wilkerson.

Children and teen authors include Traci Chee, Kate DiCamillo, Meg Medina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas.

Dozens of videos are available to watch on demand, including with actor Michael J. Fox, social commentator Roxane Gay and Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. Question-and-answer sessions with authors are scheduled as well.

New this year is a “Festival Near You” section on the festival website that shows local events. See more at

First lady Laura Bush brought the National Book Festival to Washington on Sept. 8, 2001, three days before the world changed utterly. That the festival has survived 20 years and evolved to meet today’s challenges is cause for celebration at a time when we don’t have many.

The theme this year, “Open a Book, Open the World” celebrates the power of books to change our lives as well as our perspective.

“Books have been everything to me,” poet Amanda Gorman said in an interview with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden on a PBS special about the festival, available on the library’s site. Actor and child literacy advocate LeVar Burton hosts the special and also is a festival speaker.

Gorman became a worldwide sensation at age 22 last year when she read a poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. She knew she wanted to become a writer in third grade, when her teacher read Ray Bradbury’s novel “Dandelion Wine” to the class, she says.

Bill Gates says he was lucky as a child to have a grandmother who read to him and his sisters. He also credits summer reading contests at the local public library for encouraging his keen love of reading.

“An addiction to reading has been a key secret of my success,” Gates says.

If, like me, late September makes you feel like you should be back in school – cue Rod Stewart – the festival offers plenty of food for thought, reflection -- and action.

Adam Grant, author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” says it’s important to avoid letting our beliefs harden into fossils.  

“The problem is we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as thinking,” he said on the PBS special. Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, suggests: “Don’t let your ideas become your identity.

“Look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you might be right. Listen to the ideas that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good.”

I haven’t read Grant’s book, but I plan to. In the meantime, his advice makes me want to give rethinking my beliefs a go. What about you?

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

End of Roe? Texas law threatens abortion rights everywhere -- Sept. 9, 2021 column


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott offered a bizarre defense of his state’s new, unconstitutional anti-abortion law.

Asked Tuesday why the state would force victims of rape or incest to carry pregnancies to term, he denied the law does that.

“Obviously, it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion,” Abbott said. No, it doesn’t.

The Texas state law known as Senate Bill 8 prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually four weeks after conception or two weeks after a missed menstrual period. That’s before most women even know they are pregnant, before the embryo becomes a fetus and months before fetal viability, generally at 24 weeks.

The law effectively prohibits about 85% of the abortions in the state and will force most abortion clinics to close, providers say.

The Republican governor also said: “Rape is a crime, and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas.”

Really? Eight in 10 rapes are committed by someone who knows the victim, often a family member or family friend, according to the anti-sexual violence group RAINN.

Critics said Abbott is ignorant, but it’s more likely the governor, a graduate of the University of Texas and Vanderbilt University Law School, knows the facts and is playing to his constituents.

About a dozen other states have passed anti-abortion “heartbeat” laws but courts have tossed them out, at least temporarily, as unconstitutional. What makes the Texas law different, and threatening to abortion rights nationwide, is its enforcement mechanism.

Unlike other states’ laws, Texas specifically blocks state or local officials from enforcing it and leaves enforcement to individuals. Any private citizen anywhere – not just in Texas -- can bring suit against anyone in Texas who performs an abortion or “aids and abets” one.

The patient may not be sued, but anyone who pays for an abortion, the doctor, nurses, abortion counselors, even someone who drives a patient to a clinic can be sued.

State courts are required to award the private citizen $10,000 for each abortion identified. The defendants – abortion providers -- cannot recover their court costs even if they win.

The Supreme Court last month ruled 5 to 4 to allow the Texas law to go into effect, although it did not rule on its merits. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the three liberal justices in dissent.

“The Court’s order is stunning,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a blistering dissent. Calling the Texas law “flagrantly unconstitutional,” she said the majority of justices “have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”

The clever way the law was written has made combatting it difficult, but the Biden administration is preparing to sue Texas.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee wrote Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department urging them to prosecute “would-be vigilantes.”

“The Department of Justice cannot permit private individuals seeking to deprive women of the constitutional right to choose an abortion to escape scrutiny under existing federal law simply because they attempt to do so under the color of state law,” the letter said.

Bounty-hunting on healthcare workers is a novel twist on laws aimed at rewarding private citizens who are whistleblowers against fraud in government programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, or defense contracts.

So-called “qui tam” statutes allow individuals to bring fraud cases and incentivize them with an award. Congress passed the False Claims law in 1863 to combat fraud by companies that sold shoddy supplies to the U.S. government during the Civil War.

 A law professor who clerked for the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia reportedly helped Republican lawmakers craft the private-enforcement strategy. By empowering citizens to bring lawsuits against abortion providers, Texas has succeeded so far in circumventing a constitutional challenge.

Other Republican governors are already using Texas as a model for stricter anti-abortion laws.

Regardless of how you feel about abortion, stop and think about the precedent of a state using vigilantism to enforce laws.

It’s one thing for private citizens who observe fraud to be rewarded for coming forward, but Texas has enlisted residents of any state to enforce a social standard.

This is a slippery slope, and any state could incentivize individuals anywhere to enforce its pet social mores.

Conservatives are celebrating now, but liberals can turn out to be just as ingenious in using these laws.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Masks, vaccines turn classrooms into battlegrounds -- Sept. 2, 2021 column


This Labor Day weekend, my candidate for Worker of the Year is a professor who quit.

Irwin Bernstein, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, walked off the job Aug. 24 because one of his students refused to wear a mask properly in class.

“That’s it. I’m retired,” Professor Bernstein reportedly said and left.

Bravo, Professor, for drawing your personal red line and for your long run in the classroom. Bernstein began teaching in 1968. He is 88. That’s not a typo.

He retired in 2011 but returned to teach part time. This school year he was teaching two classes.

But Bernstein has Type 2 diabetes. His age and other health problems put him at higher risk for complications of COVID-19.

It’s not too much for him and other teachers in the nation’s classrooms to expect their employers to follow the guidance of public health authorities and require masks and vaccinations.

The University System of Georgia offers vaccinations and encourages masks inside campus facilities -- but does not require them.

So, Bernstein adopted his own “no mask, no class” policy.

Two of his students missed the first day of class after having tested positive for COVID-19, the student newspaper The Red & Black reported. On the second day, 25 students in Bernstein’s seminar did wear masks, but one student refused to pull the mask over her nose, saying she had “a really hard time breathing.”

Bernstein asked her twice. An Air Force veteran, he said he risked his life in the military but wouldn’t do so during the pandemic.

Bernstein’s last stand came as the delta variant is ravaging the country.

The daily average of hospitalized COVID-19 patients topped 100,000 over the last week, the highest level since last winter, The New York Times reported.

Hospitalizations nationwide have risen 500% in the last two months, primarily in the South, and intensive care units are reaching capacity. About 1,000 people a day are dying of COVID in the United States, the most since March, the Times said.

With such devastating numbers, mask and vaccination mandates in schools and universities should be welcome.

And yet, anti-maskers and anti-vaxers, spurred by irresponsible Republican politicians, still complain that requiring a mask or vaccination is an infringement of their personal freedom and rights. Critics of mandates complain of “tyrants,” and worse.

Some flout the rules with appalling consequences. Consider a case from California the Centers for Disease Control reported this week.

In Marin County, an unvaccinated elementary school teacher removed their mask while reading aloud to the class last June and half the pupils, who were too young to be vaccinated, got COVID-19. Removing the mask was against school rules.

And yet, as students return to schools and campuses this fall, classroom conflicts are spreading.

The Republican governors of Florida and Texas have fought school districts that have imposed mask mandates. The federal Education Department is investigating whether five states that have prohibited mask mandates have violated the civil rights of disabled students.

At least 16 states have statewide school mask mandates, according to tracking by the Times. But that doesn’t always matter to misguided local officials. A rural school district in Oregon just fired its school superintendent because he followed the state guidance and required masks.

Virginia requires all students, teachers and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, even if vaccinated. Most colleges and universities in Virginia also require vaccinations and masks.

Virginia Tech disenrolled 134 students and the University of Virginia disenrolled 238 who failed to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. It’s unknown how many of these students had made other plans for the school year.

Fortunately, with full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, more employers – including governments at all levels -- are requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, with a few exceptions.

That’s good news. Few teachers or other public employees can afford to say, “Take this job and shove it.”

Universities and schools that hold in-person classes, especially where children are too young to be vaccinated, should protect everyone involved with vaccination and mask mandates. And they should get community support when they do.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 26, 2021

Biden's road is rocky, Trump's is rockier -- column of Aug. 26, 2021


As bad as things look for President Joe Biden these days, Donald Trump may have it worse.

After seven months on the job, Biden’s job approval ratings have plunged as the debacle in Afghanistan, the raging delta variant, the crisis at the border and other calamities take a toll.

Only 47% of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president and 49% disapprove, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average on Thursday.

Such numbers disturb Democrats, but Biden has time and the economy on his side. The midterm elections are more than a year away.

Biden faces an array of crises that challenge his governing skills. Most Americans support getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but the speedy Taliban takeover showed a lack of strategy and preparedness.

Now, however, the administration is working tirelessly to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans and our Afghan allies. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Wednesday rescue efforts would continue even if U.S. troops leave by the Aug. 31 deadline.

In the war on the pandemic, Biden declared victory too soon. The surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths nationwide has devastated hospitals. But with full government approval of the Pfizer vaccine and others likely soon, more unvaccinated Americans will choose, or be forced, to get the jab, and the vaccinated will get boosters, extending protection.

With luck and barring new variants, the United States should get ahead of the deadly coronavirus and find a new normal way of life next year.

Biden’s massive American Rescue Plan made it through Congress, and House Democrats held together to pass pieces of his ambitious legislative agenda. September will be do-or-die for infrastructure and the budget. The Senate remains a stumbling block, but Biden’s proposals are still on track.

As for Trump, who teases about another presidential bid, he lost the 2020 election by 7 million votes. He also lost his White House megaphone, his favorite social media platforms and much, though not all, the news media coverage he craves.

The sore loser continues to claim falsely he won, and, sadly, many Republicans still believe him, despite numerous recounts and court cases that have turned up no widespread election fraud.

Trump draws large crowds of supporters to his rallies, but his overall approval rating is lower than Biden’s. Only 41% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Trump with 52% unfavorable, in the latest Real Clear Politics’ average of polls.

Trump even got booed briefly Aug. 21 at an Alabama rally, and right-wing talk radio host Alex Jones turned on Trump, for suggesting people might want to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Fewer than 35% of Alabama residents are vaccinated.

“I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You’ve got to do what you have to do,” Trump said. Raising his voice for emphasis, he said, “BUT, I recommend take the vaccines. It’s good. I did it. Take the vaccines.”

Trump faces mounting personal woes. The Justice Department said in July the IRS must release Trump’s tax returns to a Congressional panel, as some courts have ruled. Trump’s lawyer says they will fight “tooth and nail” to keep the returns private.

The Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Wednesday released a barrage of requests to the National Archives and seven other federal agencies for information on a wide range of topics. They set a deadline of Sept. 9.

The Democratic-controlled committee plans to examine Trump’s Sept. 29 comment that the far-right Proud Boys group should “stand back and stand by” as well as “documents and communications related to any plan for the President to march or walk to the Capitol on January 6, 2021” and “documents and communications related to the metal stability of Donald Trump or his fitness for office.”

And that’s just the first wave of the inquiry. In their zeal to hold Trump accountable for one of the worst days in American history, Democrats risk overreach, yet it may take only one incriminating document to land Trump and some congressional allies in trouble.

Biden has time to tackle and solve the many crises facing the country. He and Democrats will need to make effective use of that time to remind voters why they chose Biden over Trump.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

One war ends badly as another escalates with hope -- Aug. 19, 2021 column


Images of the fall of Afghanistan and the resulting chaos as tens of thousands of Afghans desperately try to escape the Taliban have shaken many Americans. How, after 20 years of war, could this happen so quickly?

Here at home, the delta variant tightens its deadly grip on the unvaccinated, overwhelming some hospitals and raising death tolls. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines show signs of waning effectiveness. How could this happen?

The short, unsatisfying answer in both cases is circumstances change.

But unlike in Afghanistan where the Taliban’s sudden takeover was a shock, the government insists it has a plan for the next phase of the war against COVID-19.

President Joe Biden and the nation’s health experts Wednesday outlined steps to pressure the 85 million Americans who still have not rolled up their sleeves to do so and to provide booster shots starting with the 150 million adults who are fully vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna.

The federal government already has vaccination requirements for federal workers and contractors, medical staff at veterans’ hospitals, active-duty military, reservists and National Guard. Biden now will require vaccinations of all workers who care for Medicare or Medicaid nursing home patients as a condition of federal healthcare payments.

Biden also extended until year’s end federal reimbursement to states for National Guard personnel engaged in COVID-19 emergency activities. He praised health systems, universities and private businesses that require vaccinations and urged others to follow suit.

And he took aim at governors who intimidate school officials over mask mandates, saying federal funds can pay school personnel, if needed.

Although vaccines were initially touted as a two-and-done shield from COVID-19, they were developed before the highly transmissible delta variant became dominant. Recent data indicate the vaccines still protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death. They are not as effective against delta as the earlier virus, though, and protection decreases over time. 

“Having reviewed the most recent data, it is now our clinical judgment that the time to lay out a plan for COVID-19 boosters is now,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told reporters. 

“The plan is for every adult to get a booster shot eight months after you got your second shot,” Biden said.

Pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control’s outside panel of experts, the booster program is slated to begin the week of Sept. 20.

At that time, adults fully vaccinated before Jan. 20 with doses from Pfizer or Moderna will be eligible for a booster. Health care providers, residents of nursing homes and long-term facilities, and the elderly will be at the front of the line. It’s likely those who received the single Johnson and Johnson shot will also need a booster, but authorities are waiting on more data to decide.

Only those with compromised immune systems are currently receiving boosters. The rest of us can safely wait, officials said.

The boosters will be free and given regardless of insurance or immigration status. The government intends to use the 80,000 locations in place to deliver the boosters. About 90% of Americans live within five miles of a vaccination site.  

Some medical professionals worry the dual track of persuading the unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves while providing boosters to the fully vaccinated may confuse the public. Some world leaders say the United States should not offer a third shot while many around the world have not had their first.

But the administration insists we have enough vaccines to inoculate those at home and abroad. The United States has donated more doses of COVID-19 vaccine than all the other countries in the world combined, Biden said, adding we have pledged to give away 600 million doses.

“The threat of the delta virus remains real. But we are prepared. We have the tools. We can do this,” Biden said.

At such a bleak time, it’s encouraging to see the government be straight about the latest data and adjust its plans based on changing circumstances. Doing so should help restore Americans’ trust in their government.

The government sets the strategy. Vaccinations, masks and boosters are our weapons. But each of us will need to take personal responsibility if we are to win the war on COVID-19.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 12, 2021

Choosing to fight climate change -- Aug. 12, 2021 column


As if fires in the American West, floods in Europe and more intense storms everywhere weren’t enough of a wakeup call, a United Nations panel Monday issued a “code red” warning on global climate change.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” states the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, urging immediate action to avert more dire effects of climate change.

The report, based on 14,000 studies, the most comprehensive summary ever, was approved by 195 governments. It says human-caused emissions have pushed the average global temperature up 1.5 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial average.

“We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of inaction keeps mounting,” President Joe Biden tweeted.

Biden wants to put the United States on a path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is a key contributor to emissions, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed Tuesday includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and $7.5 billion to replace school buses and ferries with lower-emission ones.

A separate $3.5 trillion budget blueprint Senate Democrats passed Wednesday – dubbed the Build Back Better plan – promotes sales of electric vehicles, clean energy manufacturing and a Civilian Climate Corps.

Both bills face hurdles in the House. To some congressional Democrats on the left, the bills are too lean, and to congressional Republicans on the right, they’re too fat.

Republicans continue to insist the climate is always changing, American jobs will be sacrificed, and, besides, our Chinese competitors are worse climate offenders. Our reducing emissions will only benefit them.

With COVID-19 again surging across the country, this may seem the worst possible time to bring up behavioral changes individuals can make to help ameliorate climate change.  

But the changes the pandemic brought to our lifestyles over the last year and a half can be helpful as we consider how we want to live moving forward.

What can one person do to fight climate change?

n  -- Contact your elected representatives

n  -- Eat less meat and dairy

n --  Fly less

n  -- Leave the car at home

Those are among nine steps Imperial College London, a public research university devoted to science, engineering, business and medicine, says individuals can take.  It also proposes reducing energy use, protecting green spaces and planting trees, investing responsibly, minimizing waste by donating items, and talking about the changes you make.

It quotes Al Gore’s mantra: "Use your voice, use your vote, use your choice."

I like the list because it’s straight-forward. I found U.S. government sites so fearful of offending someone they larded up very similar suggestions with “where possible,” “where feasible,” “where affordable,” and “where practical.”

Yes, of course, no one can do what’s impossible or unaffordable, but such qualifiers muddy the message.

Nobody pretends individual actions alone can end climate change, but individuals can raise a sense of urgency, which can lead to change.

Maybe we don’t resume flying to in-person conferences and continue to meet virtually. Embrace Zoom? That, I know, is a reach.

Go on foot or bike to the store. Choose a plant-based diet and make ourselves and the planet healthier. Explore charity organizations or Freecycle groups to give unwanted household items a new home, rather than sending them to the landfill.

“While individuals alone may not be able to make drastic emissions cuts that limit climate change to acceptable levels, personal action is essential to raise the importance of issues to policymakers and businesses,” Imperial says.

Bill Gates writes in his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”:

“When somebody wants toast for breakfast, we need to make sure there’s a system in place that can deliver the bread, the toaster, and the electricity to run the toaster without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We aren’t going to solve the climate problem by telling people not to eat toast.”

Gates is right. Telling people, “no toast” is a non-starter. But if more of us voluntarily take small steps now, we can help reduce our carbon footprint and stave off disaster.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 5, 2021

Cuomo in hell of his own making -- Aug. 5, 2021 column


In Dante’s “Inferno,” hypocrites are found deep in hell, forced to walk in circles while wearing gilded robes that appear dazzling but are heavy with lead.

The eternal punishment reflects hypocrites’ outward profession of virtue, belied by their private corrupt actions.

Dante’s focus was on hypocritical religious leaders, but the punishment could apply to other hypocritical leaders as well.

And that brings us to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the scion of one of America’s great political families, and his stunning descent into political hell.

Just a year ago, as the federal government dithered over how to fight the coronavirus pandemic and New York became its epicenter, Cuomo’s calm leadership was a balm to the nation.

His daily news briefings became must-watch events nationwide, and he was even considered a possible Democratic presidential contender.

Cuomo insisted his sights were set on 2022 and a fourth term as governor, a prize that had eluded his father. Mario Cuomo also served three terms as New York governor but was defeated on his fourth bid in 1994 by Republican George Pataki. Democrats tried twice to persuade Mario Cuomo to run for president, but he declined. He died in 2015.

Son Andrew Cuomo married into political royalty. His ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, the mother of their three daughters – twins, 26, and a 23 year old -- is a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. The couple divorced in 2005 after 15 years of marriage.

Publicly, Cuomo was a righteous defender of women, saying God told him he was a feminist “when He gave me three daughters.”

In 2018, he tweeted, “Only a political skeptic could find a reason to disbelieve” Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault decades earlier, when they were in high school.

Calling Blasey Ford’s charges against Kavanaugh “disturbing and deeply concerning,” Cuomo signaled his virtue with such tweets as “We owe it to the American people to #BelieveSurvivors.”

In 2019, he signed into law a revision of New York’s sexual harassment law, removing the requirement that harassment needed to be “severe or pervasive,” which made it easier for victims to seek justice.

We now know there was a lot going on behind closed doors in Albany and elsewhere as Cuomo’s inappropriate behavior went unchecked and covered up.

This bad behavior wasn’t decades ago. The first young woman came forward in December to accuse the governor of kissing her without her consent in 2018. Others followed, some telling stories of more recent harassment.

The slow drip of allegations culminated in a flood Tuesday when the New York attorney general reported, after a meticulous investigation, that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women.

“I believe these 11 women,” Attorney General Letitia James, a former ally of Cuomo, said, as she released the report of 165 pages and 1,371 footnotes.

“Specifically, we find that the Governor sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching, as well as making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women,” the report said, adding that the behavior extended beyond his staff to other state employees and members of the public.

Cuomo is resisting calls to resign by President Joe Biden, once an ally, several Democratic governors and members of Congress. If he stays, he likely faces impeachment and removal from office. Plus, four county district attorneys are weighing criminal charges.

Cuomo thus becomes the latest powerful politician to believe the rules don’t apply to them. They never learn.

Cuomo himself seems confused. He apologized in March for making anyone uncomfortable but denies harassing anyone.

His pathetic defense this week is that he comes from a different “cultural and generational” background, claiming his hugging and kissing the young women reflects his Italian-American roots. That’s offensive to those of us who share Italian heritage. At age 63, he claims he sometimes slips and calls someone “honey” or “sweetheart.”

It’s 2021, and he of all people should know the difference between light banter and sexual harassment.

Cuomo’s fall from grace is shocking, but he brought it on himself. Instead of walking in circles, he should clear out his desk.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Thursday, July 29, 2021

Steal: Unvaccinated rob America of `summer of joy' -- July 29, 2021 column


In the grocery store for two items, I apologized for forgetting my mask, even though most customers weren’t wearing them.

“That’s OK. You don’t have to wear one,” the masked checker said with a shrug.

I told her I’d just heard news the government is again recommending masks in some public places.

“Oh, I don’t pay attention to the news anymore,” she said.

Some Americans are understandably sick of hearing about the pandemic, but ignoring reality is dangerous to one’s health, as well as to one’s friends and family.

For those of us who are paying attention, the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control was a setback. So much for the “summer of joy.”

President Joe Biden optimistically predicted in June this would be “a summer of freedom. A summer of joy,” mainly because of free and readily available vaccinations against COVID-19.

Despite an array of inducements, only about 49% of the entire population and 57.6% of those 12 and older were fully vaccinated, as of July 27. Meanwhile the highly contagious delta variant is surging, especially among the unvaccinated.

Let’s call the unvaccinated what they are: the Grinches who stole the summer of joy.

Chief Grinch may be Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who tweeted about the new CDC guidance: “Hell no. This is politics, not science.” That’s absurd.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, the minority leader, claimed the masking guidance was “conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in perpetual pandemic state.”

“He’s such a moron,” reporters heard House Speaker Nancy Pelosi say as she was getting into a car.

So, now, conscientious Americans are helping protect the reckless. Fully vaccinated people need to mask up again indoors in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates, per the CDC. These include many counties in Virginia

While 80% of those infected with the delta variant are unvaccinated, vaccinated people rarely become infected as well, and their viral load is similar to the unvaccinated, meaning both the unvaccinated and the vaccinated can spread the variant.

“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday in a briefing. “This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”

It’s tempting to say the unvaccinated made their choice and deserve what they get. But children under 12 are not yet being vaccinated, and no one wants them to get sick. The CDC also recommends that all students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks this fall, regardless of vaccination status.

Fully vaccinated people in areas with low transmission may choose to mask to protect household members who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised or at increased risk of disease.

And there’s another, more important, reason to mask up. The largest concern among public health officials is potential mutations from the delta variant that could evade vaccines, which currently protect the vaccinated from severe illness and death.

Masks are a good step, but the real solution to the pandemic and the key to returning to normalcy is vaccinations.

Sadly, the very people who would benefit most from masks and vaccinations are least likely to follow the guidance. Largely Republican, white male conservatives believe masks and vaccinations are an assault on their freedom and would rather trust false conspiracy theories and misinformation on the Internet than the government.

We’d all be better off if more politicians were like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader of the Senate, who has promoted COVID-19 vaccinations all along and will spend tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on radio ads in his home state, encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Biden is taking the right step in requiring federal employees to be vaccinated or face rigorous testing and social distancing. States and cities are doing the same.  Some employers, notably Delta and United airlines and The Washington Post, are requiring proof of vaccination.

Mandate is a fighting word to many, but we are headed that way, unless more people do the right thing and roll up their sleeves. The Grinches can’t be allowed to steal our future, too.

(C) 2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 


© 2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Space age: Wally Funk finally made it! -- July 22, 2021 column


I tried to resist the billionaires’ space race.

The space trips by Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos were exciting, but how rich people spend their money is only of passing interest to me.

I’m astonished anyone would bid $28 million for a 10-minute ride, even to outer space, as an unnamed individual did in Blue Origin’s auction. Even more astonishing, the winner canceled, citing scheduling conflicts. Really?

In that person’s place July 20 was the 18-year-old son of a real estate mogul in the Netherlands. The dad paid a lower, undisclosed sum for Oliver Daemen to become the world’s youngest space traveler. Teens I know are thrilled to get an old Honda. Really.

But then along came Wally.

Bezos, the world’s richest human, invited Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, an 82-year-old aviator who trained to become an astronaut in the 1960s, as his “honored guest” on his historic space flight. Funk was the oldest person ever in space when she went up with Bezos, his brother Mark and Daemen in the New Shepard rocket, named for astronaut Alan Shepard.

How it is that most of us had never heard of Wally Funk but know way too much about Britney Spears is a conundrum of our modern age. Funk is exemplary, a model of patience, hard work, perseverance and grit.  

So, before we sink back into the morass of Covid statistics and dysfunction on Capitol Hill, let us savor the remarkable, inspirational life of Wally.   

Funk made her first attempt at flight about age 5, donning a Superman cape and “flying” off her daddy’s barn onto a bale of hay. She later made balsam wood airplanes and hung them in her bedroom, she said in an oral history interview.

In learning about Funk, I discovered she and I have something in common. We both attended Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. Stephens started an aviation program for women students in the 1940s. The Flying Susies was the first of its kind in the country. The college ended the program in the early 1960s, before I arrived.

Funk went to Stephens in 1956, earning her pilot’s license at age 17. At that time, Stephens was a two-year “girls school,” and Funk transferred in 1958 to Oklahoma State University, which had a robust aviation program.

In 1961, three years before Bezos was born, Funk volunteered for the Mercury 13 program, a privately funded program aimed at testing whether women could be astronauts. At 21, she was the youngest of the 13 women selected. They called themselves the FLATs – First Lady Astronaut Trainees.

Through dozens of punishing physical and psychological tests, the FLATs were found to be just as qualified, if not more so, than the men training for Project Mercury. Funk endured 10 hours and 35 minutes inside a sensory deprivation tank – longer than anyone else. But the women were not allowed into space.

Then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote, “Let’s stop this now!” on a letter about women astronauts, and in 1962, the FLATs received telegrams saying their training had been canceled.

Funk applied to NASA four times to become an astronaut and was rejected each time. At one point, she was told she didn’t qualify because she lacked an engineering degree and would need to have one in nine months, which was impossible.

She racked up other firsts: first woman Federal Aviation Administration inspector and the first woman air safety investigator of the National Transportation Safety Board. She kept flying, logging more than 19,600 flying hours. She has taught more than 3,000 people to fly.

And she kept her dream alive. In 2012, Funk used her savings to buy a $200,000 ticket for one of Branson’s future spaceflights. Then Bezos asked her to come along for free. A little one-upsmanship there?

After the 10-minute flight, Funk emerged from the capsule grinning, her arms spread wide, as though embracing the world.

“I loved every minute of it. I just wish it had been longer,” she said. They had four minutes of weightlessness.

“I want to thank you, sweetheart,” Funk said to Bezos. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Should non-working parents benefit? New Child Tax Credit revives welfare debate --July 15, 2021 column


It’s Christmas in July. The federal government this week began sending millions of families monthly cash payments through the new, expanded Child Tax Credit.

Through the end of the year, all but the wealthiest families with children will receive $250 a month per child ages six to 17 and $300 a month for each child under six.

Most parents will receive the payments as direct deposits and will take the remainder as a credit when they file their 2021 taxes next year.

“The Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan provides the largest Child Tax Credit ever and historic relief to the most working families ever – and most families will automatically receive monthly payments without having to take any action,” the White House says online.

Families will, that is, if all goes as planned. With 90% of the nation’s 74 million children eligible, this is a massive undertaking.

Sen. Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, hailed the expanded tax credit as “the most transformative policy to come out of Washington since F.D.R. that will effectively cut in half child poverty in this country.”

And it is a huge change in the way the country helps not just the poor but most American families. Since President Bill Clinton signed bipartisan welfare reform legislation 25 years ago, most parents have needed to work to receive benefits. The expanded tax credit goes to families even if the parents don’t work or pay taxes.

It’s a temporary program just for 2021, enacted to help families and the economy hurt by the pandemic. President Joe Biden wants to extend it for another five years and congressional Democrats want to make it permanent.

Biden bucks are popular with recipients – and they vote. But are cash payments the best ticket out of poverty? Some experts warn welfare entitlements can be a tender trap that locks families into dependency.

“If the child tax credit expansion is permanently enacted, it would destroy the foundations of welfare reform. This increased cash benefit without work would take more low-income Americans out of the workforce,” Robert Rector, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote in an essay.

The advance Child Tax Credit boosts the existing credit from $2,000 per child for working parents.

Payments will be based on a family’s latest tax return with no limit on the number of children covered, although children must be citizens with Social Security or tax identification numbers. Those who don’t pay taxes can sign up online.

Families are eligible for the full advance credit if they have an adjusted gross income of up to $150,000 for a couple or $112,500 for a single parent or head of household. The expanded credit phases out for parents with higher incomes, but many are still eligible for the regular Child Tax Credit, in effect since 2018 but scheduled to end after 2025.

Examples on the White House website of how the new credit works include “Alex and Casey,” a lawyer and hospital administrator who are married with two children and make $450,000. The high-income couple won’t qualify for the new credit, but they will still receive the regular credit of $2,000 per child.

One could argue that people of such means should not receive any Child Tax Credit, which should be targeted to those most in need. But that point is rarely heard amid the clamor over non-working parents.

By next tax season, some households with no working adults will receive more than $10,000 in these payments. No work required. Just free money on top of America’s existing safety net,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, wrote last month in an essay on Real Clear Politics. He favors expanding the credit for working families only.

In 1996, ending “welfare as we know it” was a bipartisan goal and the bipartisan law Clinton signed ended welfare as an entitlement. The law also mandated work for welfare recipients, limited the time someone could receive benefits, and cracked down on deadbeat dads, among other things.

Clinton insisted welfare would no longer be a political issue, and politicians would not be able to attack each other or the poor.

He was right, but only for a while.

With businesses and Republicans up in arms about unemployment benefits reducing the incentive to work, extending the expanded Child Tax Credit for non-working parents likely will be a hot political issue well into the 2022 campaign.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Time to retire the national anthem? July 8, 2021 column


To celebrate the new Juneteenth federal holiday, Vanessa Williams sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the end of the “A Capitol Fourth” Independence Day concert in Washington.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is known as the Black national anthem, so, naturally, critics blasted the singer-actress as well as broadcaster PBS for going “woke.”

No matter that opera star RenĂ©e Fleming opened the show with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“There’s only one National Anthem that covers everyone. It doesn’t matter what color you are,” one man wrote on Twitter, expressing a common theme.

Or does it? A national anthem should bring people together in the shared love of country. Does “The Star-Spangled Banner” still measure up?

The NAACP recognized “Lift Every Voice” as its official song in 1919, and over the last century it has become beloved as the Black national anthem.

Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after watching the British attack Fort McHenry near Baltimore in 1814 and seeing the American flag still flying in victory in “dawn’s early light.” He put words to the tune of a then-popular English drinking song.

But Key was also a slaveholder and a lawyer who argued in court for the “right” to own slaves.

In our time of racial reckoning and reconsideration, statues to Key have been toppled as many people learn about Key and rarely sung verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The anthem’s third verse includes the line:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or gloom of the grave.” The line is open to interpretation, and Key never explained what he meant. Some academics read it as overtly racist, while others see it as a reference to European mercenaries and enslaved Africans the British used as mercenaries in the War of 1812.

Americans alive today have grown up singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. But it wasn’t always so. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” ran a cartoon in 1929 with the caption, “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.”

That oversight was rectified in 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law designating “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Even then the choice was controversial – though not for race reasons. The New York Herald Tribune said the anthem had “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.”

It was also criticized as too militaristic and too anti-British.

For years, civil rights advocates have called for changing the national anthem.

Doing so would take an act of Congress and 60 votes in the Senate to override a filibuster or presidential veto, so that’s unlikely.

Rep. James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, introduced in January a measure to make “Lift Every Voice” the national hymn. Black writer and activist James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem in 1899 to celebrate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black in Congress, says making the song a hymn would bring people together in “an act of healing.”

That may be a reach. Clyburn has only about 40 cosponsors in the House, and there is no companion bill in the Senate.

Progress takes time. In May, Maryland finally repealed its offensive state song. “Maryland, My Maryland” was written in 1861 during the heat of the Civil War and has references to Lincoln as a “tyrant” and “despot” and suggests Union soldiers are “Northern scum.”

The Virginia General Assembly couldn’t quite bring itself to repeal Virginia’s  state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” with its racist connotations. The legislature did demote it to “state song emeritus” in 1997.

Virginia now has an official traditional state song, “Our Great Virginia,” a revision of “Oh Shenandoah,” and an official popular song, “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” which was popular in 1980.

Americans increasingly recognize our history is complicated and certain iconic people, place names and even songs are hurtful to a large swath of the population.

It’s time we consider what we want the national anthem to accomplish.

If it is to bring us together, as I think it should, we should consider retiring “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.

My choice would be “America the Beautiful.”

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.