Thursday, May 27, 2021

What will we choose to remember -- May 27, 2021 column


Dozens of small white flags flutter on green grass at Rivergate Park in Old Town Alexandria. Each flag represents one city resident who died of the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

Titled Alexandria Remembrance, the flags -- set off by white picket fencing and a bed of red and white geraniums -- are a temporary memorial where, signs say, “With love, we remember our 137 friends and neighbors lost to COVID-19.”

On April 6, when City Council authorized the memorial, 129 residents had died, but the numbers have had to be updated. Family members are invited to write a message or the name of a loved one on a flag. I took a closer look:

“Our beloved Ray, I & the kids will love you forever and ever. Please watch over us. XOXO Vicky.”

If that doesn’t break your heart, well, you may not have one.

All around, life on a lovely weekday afternoon in May went on almost as usual. A father and his young son played catch. A shirtless man sat cross-legged, drinking in the sun. A couple sat talking in the cool shade.

They, I, you reading this – we -- somehow survived. With vaccinations and luck, we hope to resume our lives. Our long, international nightmare appears nearly over, but not yet. Look at Japan.

The pandemic has been a shared experience. Though some groups have suffered more than others, we all have been affected. Each of us probably knows someone who has died of COVID-19.

As we go maskless, what will we choose to remember – and how -- of this year of loss, lock downs and fear?

Television networks and local stations as well as other media run pictures and bios of individuals who have succumbed to the pandemic -- nice words, a few seconds on screen, done.

Alexandria’s memorial with a beautiful vista of the Potomac River does what a memorial should: It invites passersby to pause and reflect. It will be on display at the foot of Madison Street until June 21.

The memorial happens to coincide with Memorial Day, which has become the unofficial start of summer. After the hiatus last Memorial Day, Americans are boarding planes in record numbers, planning barbecues and beach trips, and checking ads for mattress sales.

Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, a day to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers with flowers. In time, it became a day to honor all who gave their lives in military service, and now many families take time that day to visit their relatives in cemeteries.

We have lost upwards of 590,000 to COVID-19, more than the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The toll of the Civil War was even higher. Historians now believe perhaps 750,000 were killed – most by disease, not in combat. As a country, we’ve struggled recently to reassess and remove memorials to the men who led the rebellion and sought to destroy the union.

Now we face the challenge of memorializing the worst public health crisis in American history. Almost no monuments commemorate the devastating 1918 influenza, which may have contributed to our lack of preparedness for the coronavirus.

On the eve of his presidential inauguration, Joe Biden did something his predecessor never did. He acknowledged the pain of the pandemic. At a sunset ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, where 400 lanterns representing those we have lost were illuminated in the Reflecting Pool, Biden said:

“To heal we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”

Forgetting is easy. In 1996, children touring Washington, D.C., were asked what Memorial Day meant.

“That’s the day the pools open!” they responded.

So, in 2000, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a measure calling for a Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, a time when most of us are celebrating our freedoms.

Whatever you’re doing at 3 p.m. Monday, take one quiet minute to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

And, though we may want to put the horrible pandemic behind us as quickly as possible, we do need to heal. That means we must remember all we lost to COVID-19.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, into the attic we go -- May 20, 2021 column


A year ago, it seemed everyone in America who was stuck at home because of the pandemic was in cleaning mode.

My social media feeds were replete with triumphant tales of cleaned-out closets, garages and home offices.

I envied my industrious friends but had no such stories to share. I procrastinated.

I spent my time washing my hands and trying not to touch my face and chasing the holy grail of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Now, while others enjoy post-vaccination freedom with trips to the beach and family reunions, I’m fully vaccinated indoors, tackling the attic.

It’s not my own attic that’s occupying my spare time this spring. It’s my late parents’ attic.  

My parents and I moved every three years while my dad spent his first career in the Air Force, but when he retired and launched a second career teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University in the 1970s, they stayed put.

Over half a century, they took a short set of pull-down stairs to stow all manner of things they thought they or their daughter might need or want someday.

The great essayist E.B. White wrote in “Goodbye to 48th Street” about clearing out his Manhattan apartment in 1957 before moving to Maine:

“A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day—smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly.”

Taking advantage of a string of cool spring days, I enlisted Keith, my partner in crime, and our friend Kelli to help liberate objects from their dusty attic confinement.

Kelli is a woman of unstoppable cheerfulness, who, fortunately, is not put off by layers of dust. She even insisted she has seen worse. I appreciate her kindness.

Clearing an attic is physically taxing and surprisingly emotional. Objects become a family timeline. Long-forgotten memories flood back, item by item.

Christmas lived in my parents’ attic, but so did spare china, teacups and chafing dishes. I lost count of the discarded coffee pots. A note in my father’s handwriting on one electric pot said it worked well but failed to produce coffee hot enough for my mother.

A sewing machine and our old typewriters – electric and manual – are heavy enough to anchor a rowboat in a strong wind. Out-of-fashion glass ceiling light fixtures went to the attic with their old lightbulbs. An array of medical equipment sat ready for the next patient.

The attic teaches you about your family and yourself. I’d forgotten stashing my high school newspapers, college and grad school textbooks, notebooks, snapshots and letters as well as every brochure from my first solo trip to England in the 1970s.

Though we weren’t athletes, we accumulated a jump rope, badminton racquets, fishing gear, golf clubs, a bowling ball and croquet set -- all gathering dust.

When my mother died a few years ago and I bagged up her clothes for charity, I didn’t think to check the attic, where hanging garment bags contained mothballs and memories: evening clothes, handbags, footwear, and even a white Catalina one-piece swimsuit. She never gained an ounce so could have worn any of it into her 90s.

Some of my father’s military uniforms still had dry cleaner’s tags from Florida, indicating the uniforms accompanied them when they moved into the house.

There were also a few forgettable clothing pieces from my earlier incarnations: an alpaca poncho, bridesmaid dress and two formal gowns.

The long-forgotten trunk I’d shipped to college came home long ago to be filled by my parents with clips of newspaper stories I wrote. My dad filled his military footlocker with folders containing snapshots, tickets, letters, and other ephemera from his younger years.

E.B. White wrote about clearing out his apartment: “It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world.”

I am, too. Possessions exert a hold on us, and it takes time to pick up every object and make a judgment on its future.

Eventually, though, my parents’ house will be ready for a new family to call home and to begin stashing their treasures in the attic.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

It's too soon for partisan gloating -- May 13, 2021 column


Democrats could not be happier House Republicans booted Liz Cheney from her leadership role for daring to tell the truth about the 2020 election and Donald Trump.

“Republican Party = Party of Trump,” the Democratic National Committee proclaims.

Republicans, meanwhile, celebrate “Biden’s gas shortage” and claim he is creating another “Jimmy Carter economy.”

“BIDEN UNDER SIEGE,” Fox News shouted in an online headline over another that read: “White House staggered by multiple crises from gas shortage to overseas conflict and migrant surge.”

We’re living in a time of intense partisan schadenfreude, the German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Each political party is gloating over the other’s troubles.

That may be fun now, but who will be joyful after next year’s midterm elections?

Historically, the party that occupies the White House loses congressional seats at the midterm, and Republicans need to pick up only five seats to retake the House. In the Senate, the 50-50 split means one Senate race could shift control back to Republicans.

Republicans dumped Cheney as No. 3 in the party leadership to demonstrate their allegiance to Trump. They are making a risky bet that the former president will motivate more GOP voters than he does Democrats and independents to vote against his favorite candidates.  

Cheney was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Republicans want her to go away quietly but she plans to run for re-election in Wyoming and remain a vocal critic of the Trumpy GOP.

“I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” Cheney told reporters.

Unfortunately, hers is likely to be a lonely path. There simply are fewer and fewer Republicans with the guts to buck Trump. Her voice may be drowned out by the Republican chorus claiming President Joe Biden is corrupt and that he and his “radical socialists” are bent on ruining the country.

But will voters buy the purely negative GOP message? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell implicitly acknowledges Republicans have no policy agenda.

“One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” said McConnell, who casts the midterm elections as a referendum on Biden.

Democrats hope voters will credit their party and Biden with the lessening of the COVID-19 pandemic, a return to nearly normal life and a robust economy and will again reject Trump and his minions.

But those Democrats who are gloating about the GOP’s embrace of Trump should remember their joy at his come-from-nowhere success as a presidential candidate during the 2016 primary season.

At the time, many Democrats thought Hillary Clinton would more easily beat Trump than Jeb Bush or almost any of the 16 other Republican presidential hopefuls. Trump, of course, lost the popular vote but triumphed in the Electoral College.

Two years after his surprising victory, there was a backlash. Republicans lost 42 House seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

The 2022 midterms will be the first election after the census and the redrawing of congressional maps, many by Republican-controlled state legislatures, which can stack the deck in their favor.

In addition, many Republican state legislatures have passed more restrictive voting laws supposedly to fix problems in the last election. There still is no evidence of widespread voter fraud or irregularities, and the changes will make it harder for some to vote.

Republicans, though, seem to want it both ways. “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that’s all over with,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday after a meeting with Biden in the Oval Office.

Hardly. Just a day earlier, Trump again said in a statement the last election was “rigged and stolen from us.”

Meanwhile, Trump has moved to New Jersey for the summer and is expected to attend a fundraising event May 22 for the Make America Great Again Action super PAC. The reception and dinner will be at his Bedminster golf club, where Politico reported, “The minimum price for entry is $250,000.”

Democrats should realize if Republicans regain control of the House or Senate next year, Trump could be the one gloating as he launches another bid for the White House.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Print book sales rise, but there's a downside -- May 6, 2021 column


Vice President Kamala Harris visited an independent bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, Wednesday and bought four books.

She’d been wanting to read them, “and I’m going to find time to do it,” she said, according to a pool report.

Many of us share the aspiration. Just that morning, I had vowed, again, to find time to buy and read books.

One of the few upsides of the pandemic has been an uptick in print book sales. Sales of print books rose 8.2% in 2020 over 2019, according to NPD BookScan.

Much of the increase came as parents adjusted to remote learning and bought juvenile nonfiction books. The category was up 23% in unit sales year to year, Publishers Weekly reported.

Adult fiction sales rose 6% over 2019, led by a 29% increase in graphic novels.

But the news about bookstores isn’t as rosy. Many had to close temporarily during shutdowns, and dozens of bookstores shuttered permanently. Bookstore sales were down 28% in 2020 from 2019, according to the Census Bureau.

We all know it’s cheap and fast to buy books online from a certain retail behemoth, and during the pandemic we often didn’t have much choice but to shop online.

Now, though, with businesses reopening, we have a choice. It’s inspiring to see prominent politicians take the time to support reading and local bookshops.

“There is nothing that I enjoy more, or I think is more nourishing, than being able to just walk into a bookstore run by people who love books and love reading,” former President Barack Obama has said.

Obama has long championed indie bookstores. When his first book was published, Politics & Prose in Washington offered him a reading, and a couple dozen customers showed up.

His latest, “A Promised Land,” was the Number One political title last year with more than 2.5 million copies sold. Several Republican candidates and elected officials also had bestsellers last year.

 As president, Obama often shopped locally with his daughters, leaving with a stack of books.

Last December, he shared his 17 favorite titles of the year. Last month, around Independent Bookstore Day, he virtually visited six bookstores around the country.

“Each night, I’d have a stack of briefing papers and speeches to review and notes about economic issues or foreign policy issues. It would take me two or three hours every night to plow through that stuff,” he said in a video conversation with the owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss.

“But the time I was done, it was pretty late. . . But I’m a night owl, and what I found was that having 45 minutes to an hour to be able to read something for me. . . helped to reset me and also helped to extend my perspective beyond the narrow set of headaches that were staring me in the face.”

Obama found fiction helped him connect with people. He advises President Joe Biden to “read whatever nourishes his soul,” adding “That’s going to be different things for different people.”

On her visit to the bookstore, Harris bought three novels and a cookbook. The novels were “Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead, “The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner, and “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett. “Simply Julia,” by Julia Turshen has recipes for “healthy comfort food.”

I spend a lot of time reading newspapers (always a good thing), magazines and the Internet – but lately I’ve missed the longer commitment of books.

I started “Middlemarch” by George Eliot, which I’d read, sort of, in high school. Everyone says it’s much better read later in life. Perhaps too much was going on in mine to focus on a sprawling 19th century novel – even if written by one of the greatest English authors of all time – but it remains on my bedside table.

A good thing about books is they stay around until you’re ready for them.

So, I walked to my local indie bookstore, which has reopened in a new, larger location. It was lovely to let the books call out to me again, and I brought home a first novel I knew nothing about.

I intend to find the time to read it. What about you? Have you visited an independent bookstore? What are you reading?

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.