Walking Around with Famous People

I intended to write, write, write through the pandemic about how we “country folk” made our way through the Covid mess. Now that things are opening back up, I’m not that surprised, I suppose, that I just didn’t find the energy for to do it.

But I’ve got notes, y’all, so I’m going to spend a couple of days talking about some of the things that kept us busy when we were supposed to stay away from other people.

I’ve mentioned that one thing I like to do each morning is take a walk. It really is pretty here and getting a little air sets me up nicely for the day. I walk with my neighbor, Jane, a couple of days a week (on many weeks we made sure to walk six feet apart!), but other days, I’m on my own.

When we lived in a suburban neighborhood in busy Northern Virginia, I’d get on the road walking or jogging by 5 am so I could get home in time to bother our kids before they went off to school. The problem with that schedule here is that when it’s dark, it’s dark. We don’t have streetlights.

That’s the moon setting, you know

Our daughter prodded me out the dark door. Now a New Yorker, when she came to visit she appreciated getting out early and seeing the stars. You’re missing out, she told me, so I dusted off my old headlamp and started braving the pre-dawn roads.

Sunrises are pretty good here.

The other problem, though, is critters. We have friendly creatures, like opossum, foxes, and rabbits (squee!). We have some other denizens, though, like coyotes and yes, black bears, whom I did not want to meet. The answer came from my sister and brother-in-law: podcasts.

I started with Smartless, a podcast featuring Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, Will Arnett, and a mystery guest each week. I chose this one because I walk without my earbuds in (on dark, twisty, roads, I want to be able to hear what’s coming) and I figured that the sound of men’s voices would discourage anything creeping around from coming too close. They talk to some amazing people and what I love is that they’re all really, really kind to each other.

Then Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground came along and I loved that, too. And Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us is good, though her guests tend to be doing their book tours, and I have hit up Amazon a few too many times when I get home. I am now way behind on my reading.

Lately I’m loving Adam Grant’s WorkLife – he is an organizational psychologist and talks about how we get along with each other, mostly at work but also just in general. He has great energy, is really thoughtful, and was sassy enough match wits with Malcom Gladwell when he was a guest on the show. I just saw that WorkLife is one of Apple’s most highly-rated podcasts, so here I was thinking I was discovering something but ahem, I’m just a little late to the party.

Most of all, I highly recommend Every Little Thing, where each episode answers a burning question, like how old is Winnie the Pooh (the character. Old bear? Young bear?), or whether people actually only breathe through one nostril at a time, or how the game Scrabble became so popular. The episode on Pooh had me laughing like a fool and actually crying at the end, and I dare you to listen to the episode on dog shows (are they anti-dachshund?) without cheering for the weenie dogs.

These little drops of wisdom each morning have made the walks a lot of fun, and I’ll tell you what: I haven’t seen a bear yet.

It’s a Complicated Place, Franklin County

I’ve had the chance to learn and write a little bit about the history of the southwestern Virginia counties that border Smith Mountain Lake. I’ve learned some of the area’s darker history from Beth Macy’s excellent book, Truevine, and also from our neighbor, who grew up in Woolwine, Virginia, not too far from here.

I’ve seen the Confederate soldier manning the porch at the Franklin County Historical Society, and have been in there doing research when other folks have come in looking for their ancestors among the volumes of data amassed inside.

But this week I was grateful to the Washington Post for its article about how Franklin County, a tiny county (56,000 of us as of 2019) was introduced to the Black Lives Matter movement. “When Black Lives Matter came to white, rural America,” tells the story of three women, Katosha Poindexter, Bridgette Craighead, and Malala Penn, who are trying to raise awareness of racial justice here.

I learned that Franklin County is nearly 90 percent white, which supports what I’ve seen in the past two years we’ve lived at the lake. I learned that the Ku Klux Klan was very active not very far from where we now live. And sadly, from some of the comments on local social media pages about the women’s BLM protest, I learned that some ugly attitudes are still around.

Fortunately, I’m catching up today with a college friend who has a keen eye and ties to Smith Mountain Lake; maybe Heidi will help me sorth things out.

A Reason to Put Earrings On

I’ve started volunteering with our local Smith Mountain Arts Council (SMAC). A number of our neighbors here at the lake have hidden talents as singers, actors, writers, artists, and photographers, and SMAC is here to give them a place to shine.

Sadly, though, with Covid-19, our usual array of performances have been shuttered this season.

For me, this makes my life a little easier because I am in charge of the press releases for the arts council, and with no shows, I have very little to reveal to the local press. But we keep up our monthly meetings, and these have been switched to Zoom meetings.

Because these meetings take place on Friday mornings, it would be in bad form to morph them into a virtual happy hour (though I see nothing wrong with using a 90-minute meeting to move along a Fellowship-of-the-Ring needlework project). We still have our Zoom happy hours on Friday nights with the family, and that’s still my favorite part of the week.

The kids must love logging in to see this sight

But last night, I got involved in another meeting, this time with a book group! In the pre-Covid times, they met in Roanoke, at a nice coffee shop, but they’ve gone online for the past few months. They’re a Meet-Up group and I signed up a while ago but got to meet them last night. They’re very nice and some of them were even drinking wine. We read and discussed Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, with an hour-long discussion and plans for our next few books (Why Religion? by Elaine Pagels for July and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibrahim X. Kendi for August). We meet once a month, which leaves time for other reading.

And next month, fingers crossed, we are going to meet – properly socially distanced – outside in a Roanoke park!

Where I Live

For the last couple of weeks it feels like most of the things I tend to write about are terribly trivial.

… an unnecessary insertion into a week filled with long overdue conversations about race that deserved our full and undivided attention.

Monica Hesse, The Washington Post, June 9, 2020

But like most of us, I suspect, I’ve been thinking about race a whole lot since the end of May, along with my place in making things better.

Because the place where I live, in this corner of southwest Virginia, has a lot going for it:

It’s hay bale season and every field is now full of these
We also have ridiculous scenery
And real farmers!

And we live among some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.

But this corner of the world is also trying to figure out, I think, where it stands regarding its past.

The Confederate on the porch used to stand at the courthouse. He moved to the historical society when he was replaced (with another Confederate)

And while it’s not too unusual to see a Confederate flag in someone’s yard, on the other hand, our county’s school board voted just last week to ban the symbol from its dress code, overturning a decision to the contrary that was just made in January of this year.

There’s a lot to think about.

Meeting the People

We have been pretty good about staying away from folks with all of the Covid quarantining, but with restrictions loosening up around Virginia and a set of balding tires on my car, it was time to head in to the city to get them fixed.

Slowed down by the tractor man

The car dealer where I was getting the work done is a 45-minute drive from home, so I planned to camp out there. I brought along my trusty computer, hoping to get some work done. It was not to be.

People in Southwest Virginia are loquacious, and everyone has a tale to tell. I enjoyed some stories from a nice lady, a retired nurse who worked at the huge Veterans Administration hospital in Salem, and I admired pictures of Buddy the car salesman’s geodesic dome house (and learned the story of how he was able to buy it for cash) (hint: it had been a “hippie house”). I had a great talk with Theresa, who has a son the same age as that Reynolds boy who is now back in Kentucky (neither of us know what to do about those darned video games that keep the kids up all night). We all talked about wearing masks, and how we didn’t like them covering our noses. We talked about current events, with Buddy observing that we all bleed red.

Some of these folks were white. Some were Black. Chatting with all of them was much more enriching than burying my face in my computer (even if not, well, literally). And anyway, I got my chance because evidently the mechanic liked my car so much that he found more things wrong with it and I got to stay longer than any of my new friends.

My home for much of today. I was soon joined by some kids who turned on the Disney Channel very loudly on that TV. Bless their hearts. And also bless their dad’s heart: he wanted to talk about his political opinions. This finally did prompt me to find a quieter place to work.

I have not yet met a southwestern Virginian introvert.

Sharing Covid-19 Experiences

I’ve been writing about how the pandemic is affecting my immediate environs, and social media is a rich resource for learning about how everyone is trying to stay healthy and mentally checked-in while quarantined. But there are two groups of folks who would love to hear what YOU are going through!

I’ve mentioned that I do some work with George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. A couple of teams I know are working on projects that study how people are getting along in these challenging times. They would love your input.

Personal Coping Strategies

The Anxiety, Stress, and Relationships Lab (part of the clinical psychology program) has an online survey about Covid-19’s effect on interpersonal relationships. Do you have extra people living in your house right now? Are the stresses of the news and changing circumstances impacting how you might be getting along with them? These folks want to know how you are coping. The survey is completely confidential so you can be totally honest about how you might have been eating more cheese, bourbon, or ice cream over the past month. They will not judge you. The survey form also offers resource information to help you out if you need it, and the information they learn will help other people find positive ways to be resilient in the future.

Faith Communities’ Response

Another group at Mason, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, is conducting a survey of how religious communities are adapting in the face of the pandemic. The religious studies department is teaming up with the digital history folks to gather input from churches, synagogues, mosques (tell your own community!), as well as from individuals to learn how they are making due when they can’t get to services. If you go to the Pandemic Religion: A Digital Archive site, you can also read about the experiences of a variety of religious communities. And then add your own experience. It’s not only interesting as heck but is also a solid reminder that we are all in this mess together.

And if that doesn’t make for a community, I don’t know what does.

From Here? Come Here?

I am doing some work with the Smith Mountain Arts Council — just press releases, but that’s enough that they invite me to monthly board meetings — and it’s a sad time for the arts council because we are having to cancel all of our events, of course. This was the subject of some conversation at our last meeting (on Zoom); the council comprises many talented and energetic people (mostly retired) who want to offer some kind of outlet for performance and give their neighbors a chance to get out for an evening.

One of the guys in the group finally spoke out, confessing that he and his wife would absolutely not be going out until they were completely comfortable that it was safe. There was much agreement.

Then I ran into a neighbor this morning who expressed some exasperation that businesses aren’t opening back up quickly enough. I was a little surprised by her reaction, and I’ll admit that was because she is well into her sixties, in a demographic that I assumed would be more on the side of keeping things locked down a little longer.

But that’s just my oversimplified thinking, obviously.

I do a lot of thinking about the people who are “From Here’s” — whose families have lived in Franklin County for hundreds of years, who have Confederate soldiers in their family trees, and who have seen the fortunes of this place rise and fall with manufacturing, tobacco, the railroads, and farming. On the other hand, a lot of us folks around the lake are “Come Here’s” — people who are mostly retired, and who have moved from places in North Carolina and Virginia, certainly, but many of whom are from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (where my neighbor mentioned above originated).

Items like this little fella are available for purchase at a local gift store.

I fall into the trap of thinking that the Come Here’s think one way, and the From Here’s think another. But my conversations over the last couple of days once again illustrate that that’s more than a little naive. Then I default to thinking, gee, I wish I was a historian or sociologist, just to try to make sense of it all.

Tomorrow, I promise, I will lighten up and talk more about fun quarantine activities and pondering if our college son will ever get out of bed before mid-afternoon.

It’s Still Spring

So…. whatcha been up to?

Here in Wirtz, we’re probably doing much what you’re doing these days: staying put.

But I’m feeling extremely lucky being able to do it.

For one thing, since moving to this area year ago, I have been very fortunate to work as a freelance writer, with my main client being the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University. In case you don’t know, Mason is the largest public research university in the commonwealth (!) (that’s right, Virginia Tech!), serving students from its campuses in Fairfax, Manassas, and Arlington, Virginia. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is one of the largest colleges within the university, boasting over 20 distinct departments and programs. It has some amazing faculty members, students, and alumni, and I help to write about them.

Like most institutions of higher learning (and even not-so-higher learning), Mason has been hustling to meet the needs of its students in the face of this nasty covid-19 mess. What this means for me is that now all of my colleagues are working remotely, just like me. And the messaging has been flying fast and furious, so I have been fortunate to help keep those messages going.

Let me tell you, being able to work during this time is a huge (I’ll say it) blessing. It helps draw my focus from social media, which is so crazy right now, and the news — none of which seems to be all that good. And it’s springtime here, so I can work from an office view like this one.

Most of this blog has been all about the neat things to see around this area, and obviously we haven’t been out doing a lot of that. But in the coming days I’ll tell you what it’s like socially distancing in the country, because it sure seems different than what my friends are experiencing in bustling northern Virginia.

I hope you are well and healthy and have something good to keep you busy, too.

What Do You Need in a New Home Town?

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

While getting our eldest settled is still very much a work in progress, it occurred to me yesterday that I have two of the things in place that have made our own new spot much more homey.

When we lived in Fairfax, I was very fortunate to have a dentist, hairdresser, and a couple of doctors that I could confidently recommend to anyone. When we moved down here, it’s took a while to assemble that team. The dentist was pretty easy: Dr. Sean Eschenbach was recommended by my trusted dental health protector in Northern Virginia (though it did take several — well worth it! — months to wait for that first appointment).

Finding a hairdresser took some more trial and error. One promising prospect confessed that she was planning on moving to Fairfax the week after my appointment, having lived in Roanoke for six months and deciding she didn’t like it (this was a low point in my transition to this town). Another hair professional, on learning that I did not want to color my hair, helpfully pointed out exactly how much gray hair I had and suggested that I should probably consider a perm. My last perm was in 1988 and I’d like to keep it that way.

My one visit to a hairdresser out here at the lake didn’t go well. I’ll leave it at that. (And yes, I am vain enough about my hair that this whole thing mattered to me quite a bit!)

I finally approached a woman in a coffee shop with a sharp coif to see if she would give up her secrets. That’s how I met Betsy at Oliver’s Twist Salon. She is one of the kindest, most pleasant, patient individuals I have ever met. And she makes my hair behave. A great hairdresser and a nice dentist? That is an excellent start!

Who do you need on your team to make your location feel like home?

Country-fied

No, that’s not “country fried” (but I guess you could say that).

Franklin County, our home for the past year and a half, is nothing like the harried and fast-paced Northern Virginia we came from. One of our kids (the one who just finished college and will be moving to a city next week) is not amused. The other one is much more enchanted with our new-ish home.

Maybe he had a hard semester, but he talked a lot over winter break about how peaceful it is out here. Like his mother, he appreciates the cows and tractors. He grew a beard, which startled his grandfather enough to make that gentleman exclaim that he looks just like a native of our neighboring state, known for its country roads and coal industry.

And then, when his car was pretty much flattened in October by a hit-and-run (thankfully, without him in it), he put his sights on a vehicle that would be harder to crunch, and he headed back to college last week in a brand new (to him) truck. He said that he likes driving it around here because when he drives it, “more people wave.” He is definitely fitting in.