Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Home for the holidays? Savor it -- Nov. 25, 2021 column


For the past half century, I have spent part of every holiday season at my parents’ home in Richmond.

As I bumped around to Charlottesville, New York, Richmond, back to Charlottesville, and then to Washington and Northern Virginia, I’d always circle back to my parents’ home for holiday visits. They visited me a few times but preferred their own digs.

I won’t be making the trip down I-95 from Alexandria this year. My parents are gone, and I sold their house earlier this month.

Those are the facts, but “sold their house” doesn’t come close to expressing the emotional and physical work of the last few months. Caring for an ailing parent, grieving and clearing out one’s parents’ home are an inevitability for most of us but something we hope never to have to face.

My mother died in 2014 at 93. I still feel a twinge saying her age. She would have killed me for telling it – at least until she passed 90. My dad fell at home last December and died in February at 99.

They had lived in the same house in the West End since 1971, never downsizing once they put down roots after my dad’s military career took them all over the world.

They never read Marie Kondo and her advice to get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy or Margareta Magnusson’s “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” which I’m sure would be more popular with a less morbid title.

Once my parents were both gone, all their stuff became mine to deal with.

That’s a daunting task, but many baby boomers have it worse with feuding siblings or childhood memories. I’m an only child and didn’t grow up in the house, but there were still memories aplenty.

I am fortunate my dad, who taught at VCU into his 70s, was mentally sharp to the end. My parents each had a will and a trust, and my dad kept his financial records in meticulous order.

But he and my mother were loath to throw anything away – in case they might need it. They were both paper packrats – as am I. I found boxes of black and white family photos, letters and greeting cards. 

My dad kept receipts for every purchase of furniture and accessories, paint job, roof repair and home improvement. When emails were new, my mother printed them out and kept them. I brought too much back to sort through later.

I am grateful beyond words for my partner Keith, who was kind and cheerful through it all, and Kelli, the stalwart friend of my dad’s who became like family, and her two exceptional sons, Christian and Grant. They all did a lot of heavy lifting, literally.

Our Realtor, Steve, calmly and patiently helped me through the daunting process.

Fortunately, an industry has evolved to help people dispose of their stuff. I found Angela who was personable, professional and efficient and conducted a hybrid online and in-person estate sale.  

I quickly learned my mother’s prized possessions – brown furniture, china, silver and crystal – aren’t in favor.

Getting rid of them is like living in that segment on “Antiques Roadshow” where they re-evaluate the appraised price of items from years earlier, except with house clearing everything that once was worth something is now worth next to nothing.

“Nobody wants it,” was a refrain I heard over and over.

I live in a small townhouse so couldn’t take much furniture. I sent some to my cousins and other family members. But I boxed up my mother’s Wedgwood, after learning it would fetch only $1 a plate, and her silver, which would be melted down, and brought it home. I resolved to set a nice table.

I gave away much to charities. I hired Linda to help clear remaining clutter and make more trips to Goodwill. Four times people hauled away “junk” nobody wanted.

The new owners, a young couple with two young children, will be redoing their new house and creating their own memories of home. That’s the way of property. It’s yours only for a while. All we can do is enjoy it and then let it go.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 18, 2021

Holiday shopping -- buy local, give newspapers -- Nov. 18, 2021 column


Now more than ever, it’s the time to shop locally and buy American.

With the supply chain strained, tech and other goods made overseas are on slow boats from China, and if they arrive at all, are more expensive.  

Fortunately, not everyone is lusting after hard-to-find Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5. But everything from imported booze to sneakers is expected to be in shorter supply and cost more this holiday season.

As anyone who has tried to buy American knows, however, it’s difficult when so much of what we consume is made overseas. But it’s possible.

Try shopping at a farmers’ market or farm stand for stocking stuffers like jams and specialty olive oils, at holiday markets for local arts and crafts, and at independent bookstores. Seek out Virginia wine and craft beer. Visit a nursery, buy a tree to plant in the yard and help the environment.

Think of experiences instead of things – a gift certificate to a local restaurant, spa or car wash. (Why not be practical?) A museum or gym membership, tickets to a local theatre, concert or classes to learn a new language or hobby.

Small Business Saturday is Nov. 27, a time when local businesses offer promotions and discounts to lure shoppers. These retailers especially need our patronage now.

Roughly 200,000 more small businesses than usual closed permanently in the first year of the pandemic, the Federal Reserve reported. That’s about one-quarter or one-third more than in a typical year.

Shopping small is good for the local economy and your neighbors. You can find more ideas about shopping small at #shopsmall and in your local newspaper.

And that brings me to another idea for your holiday shopping: Give a newspaper subscription. Or give two -- one local and one national.

If you’re reading this, you’re already a newspaper reader. Thank you. Why not treat yourself or give a digital or print subscription to friends or family, in town or away. Many a child has learned to read through the newspaper.

This isn’t a sympathy pitch for newspapers, although it’s no secret newspaper circulations are shrinking, and hundreds of local papers are dying.

More than one-fourth of American newspapers have disappeared in the last 15 years, with 300 newspapers closing in the past two years alone, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported.

COVID-19 further depressed the newspaper business. Hit by furloughs as well as staff and pay cuts, newspaper people were working harder with less to bring you the news.

The center’s online survey in August of reporters, editors and publishers at papers with print circulations under 50,000, which is about 97% of the market, found more than a third were working 50 to 60 hours a week, and half worked 40 to 50 hours a week. 

We need to support local journalism these days. The role of the local newspaper is critical to a functioning democracy. Voters need to be able to distinguish truth from lies.

We need to know what our elected officials at all levels of government are doing. Virginians will need to keep up with a new Republican governor and General Assembly.

And it’s helpful to know what’s on sale, which new eatery has opened, the latest sports scores, and who died. For a break from bad news: the comics.

For all their challenges, local newspapers perform valiantly.

“Local newspapers significantly outperform local TV, radio and online-only outlets in news production, both in overall story output and in terms of stories that are original, local or address a critical information need,” a 2019 Duke University study of 100 communities ranging in size from 20,000 to 300,000 residents found.

A national newspaper will provide a broader perspective on the nation and the world. Both local and national papers will make you smarter.

I recommend the print paper because we all spend too much time in front of screens. If your family and friends prefer getting their news digitally, go for it.

 Newspapers are devoting more time and energy to their digital products, and they provide a lively, interactive experience.

Reading a daily newspaper – or two – will reward you with knowing what’s really happening around the corner, in Washington and the world.

© Marsha Mercer 2021. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Toxic politics, inflation batter Washington -- Nov. 11, 2021 column


That was quick. Republican euphoria over Virginia’s election results and what they may portend for 2022 began to evaporate in less than a week.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu dashed the hopes of fellow Republicans Tuesday by saying he would not run for the Senate. Instead, he will seek a fourth two-year term as governor, which he is expected to win handily.

“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington. It’s to the citizens of New Hampshire. And I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results,” Sununu told reporters.

Republicans had counted on Sununu to run against incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan, one of the weakest Senate Democrats seeking re-election in the midterm elections. Former Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has also indicated she won’t run, leaving the New Hampshire GOP with lower tier candidates, so far.

Every Senate seat is crucial as both parties seek to break the 50-50 tie in their direction. Vice President Kamala Harris casts tie-breaking votes. Sununu’s decision was a blow to Republicans, who were blindsided by the announcement. Party leaders found out the same way everyone else did – on the news.

You can’t blame Sununu for saying, thanks but no thanks, even if he did it artlessly. Politics in Washington could hardly be nastier. Republican House members who vote “wrong” in the eyes of extremists – that is, in a bipartisan manner – now endure death threats.

One wonders why anyone who wants to be constructive – rather than a demagogue -- would take on the capital’s toxic atmosphere, although we must be thankful for those who do.

At the same time, Democrats are still smarting from the Virginia election debacle -- and they can’t catch a break. They want to celebrate the roughly $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill the House passed Nov. 5 and President Joe Biden is scheduled to sign Monday.

But Biden saw his victory lap derailed Wednesday by scary inflation numbers. The Consumer Price Index rose 6.2% last month from a year ago and is at its highest level in more than three decades.

Taming inflation is now a top priority for the White House, though there’s little a president can really do. Gerald Ford’s Whip Inflation Now button and Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater led to their one-term presidencies.

“Everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread costs more, and it’s worrisome even though wages are going up,” Biden said Wednesday in Baltimore. “We still face challenges, and we have to tackle them.”

The spike in inflation threatens his $1.85 trillion social safety net and climate change reconciliation bill in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and others worry it will feed inflationary pressures. White House and independent economists dispute that assessment.

“By all accounts, the threat posed by record inflation to the American people is not `transitory’ and is instead getting worse. From the grocery store to the gas pump, Americans know the inflation tax is real and DC can no longer ignore the economic pain Americans feel every day,” Manchin, of West Virginia, tweeted.

But Manchin, who holds a knife over Biden’s reconciliation package, has been all over Twitter touting the goodies the infrastructure bill will bring his state – “nearly $6 BILLION in infrastructure funding over the next decade.”

Note the time element: The money will come over 10 years. Democrats worry voters won’t see enough new jobs and economic growth by Election Day 2022.

Yet the bill was a bipartisan victory in a Congress where few occur. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was one of 19 Republicans who voted in favor in August. He recently called it a “godsend” for his home state of Kentucky.

Incredibly, House Republican leaders threaten to punish the 13 Republican members there who dared to vote for that same bill by stripping them of their committee assignments.

The threat prompted Biden to renew his call for more civility and cooperation in politics.

“I know I get in trouble when I talk about” bipartisanship, he said Tuesday. “As people say, why the devil would I like any Republicans? Well, it’s important. If we don’t generate consensus in America, we’re in trouble.”

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.




Thursday, November 4, 2021

Virginia's election gives lie to the Big Lie -- Nov. 4, 2021 column


As Democrats on Capitol Hill argue over what message voters sent in Tuesday’s earthquake election, it’s worth considering what voters and politicians in Virginia aren’t saying.

Nobody claims the Virginia election was rigged.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe set the tone for civility when he promptly conceded the election.

“While last night we came up short, I am proud that we spent this campaign fighting for the values we so deeply believe in,” he said in a statement Wednesday morning.

He congratulated Republican Glenn Youngkin on his victory, calling him Governor-elect, and said, “I hope Virginians will join me in wishing the best to him and his family.”

That’s the classy way disappointed candidates are supposed to act.

Losing candidates in this country traditionally rise to the occasion. They accept election results, are grateful to their supporters and gracious to the victors.

They don’t spew malice toward voting machines, hard-working state election officials or our electoral system. And they certainly don’t make wild claims about being robbed.

And yet, for more than a year, faith in American elections has been sorely challenged by the Big Lie, the falsehood spawned in Donald Trump’s brain that he actually won the last presidential election.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump claimed the only way he could lose the White House was if the election was rigged. In victory, he griped he would have won by a bigger margin but for irregularities that didn’t exist.

After Trump lost in 2020, numerous recounts and court cases revealed no widespread fraud that would have changed the election outcome. Trump persisted in his delusions, and too many Republicans bought into the Big Lie, leading to the Stop the Steal movement and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, one of the darkest days in our country’s history.

A majority of Americans believe Trump says he lost because he “doesn’t like the outcome,” according to a Marist Poll taken for NPR last month. Sadly, 75% of Republicans still say Trump has a legitimate claim that there were “real cases of fraud that changed the results.”

Many Republican-controlled states have passed laws since the 2020 election making it harder for their citizens to exercise their right to vote. Fortunately, Virginia, under Democratic control, moved in the opposite direction, passing much-needed reforms, including no-excuse early voting.

After a tough campaign season with scathing charges and countercharges, turnout in Virginia was higher than in any gubernatorial race since 1997.

A few days before the election, some Youngkin allies tried to float the idea the gubernatorial election was about to be stolen. Asked for proof, they provided none.

Since Republicans captured the top three state elected offices and appeared to win a majority in the House of Delegates, we have not heard a peep from Trump or his followers about election fraud.

Could it be questions of “election integrity” only arise when Republicans lose? Surely not.

Youngkin walked a fine line during his campaign, repeatedly saying he believed President Joe Biden won the election, which he called “certifiably fair.” But Youngkin also called for “audits” of voting machines in the state, even though a statewide audit in March overwhelmingly verified Biden’s 2020 win.

He reportedly talked frequently on the phone with Trump, while keeping the former president at arm’s length. This brilliant strategy kept Trump from attacking Youngkin, which likely would have torpedoed his candidacy.

Now, as all eyes turn to next year’s congressional races, there’s hope voters will trust that election. Asked if they’d trust the results if their candidate did not win, 71% of Americans said they would – 88% of Democrats, 77% of Independents and 53% of Republicans, Marist reported.

A majority of Americans overall also say they will trust the results of the 2024 election even if the candidate they support loses. But the party divide is stark. While 82% of Democrats and 68% of Independents they will trust the result if the other guy wins, and only 33% of Republicans say they will.

The same Virginia electoral system that delivered victories for Democrats in the last four presidential contests has now elected Republicans as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and likely has given the GOP control of the House of Delegates.  

That should convince the deepest skeptic Virginia’s electoral system does work. Fair elections in the Old Dominion give all voters something to celebrate, regardless of the results.

Bye-bye, Big Lie.  

(C) Marsha Mercer 2021. All rights reserved.