How About Nothing?

State Seal 2As Virginia’s General Assembly considers its policy for regulating gifts to delegates, I have a suggestion. No gifts.

No gifts from Dominion, Star Scientific, chemical companies, railroads, airlines, real estate developers, road contractors. No gifts. None.

But what about meals, the delegates ask. We have to eat, don’t we? Buy your own meals. You’re perfectly capable of feeding yourselves.

But what about access? Let the corporate lobbyists do what the rest of us have to do. Write letters, send emails, make phone calls, schedule appointments to visit you and your staff in your Richmond office, or when you’re back in your district.

No gifts. It’s simple. And think of the money the companies will save on pens, mugs, water bottles, Rolex watches, green fees, big city shopping trips, wedding receptions, vehicle leases, chartered jets, exotic vacations—money that quite possibly can be returned to you as dividends in the stock that you own. You may get a little personal benefit out of some public integrity yet.

Think how good it will feel when you’ve tackled once and for all how much and what kind of gifts you may receive as a side benefit of your good paying, part-time job as public servant.

Along the spectrum of all or nothing—how about nothing?



NO PIPELINE 1We’ve heard a lot from Dominion about the public benefit and utter necessity of this pipeline here in Nelson County, Virginia. But in fact much of this gas will be exported to foreign countries. Gas that was extracted in this country with a process that causes earthquakes, and puts unknown chemicals in our water.

If men wearing black ski masks, carrying foreign passports were caught doing this, they would be arrested on suspicion of terrorism and tortured until they gave up the names of these chemicals. Work for an American energy corporation, and it’s all perfectly legal.

While the necessity of this project is in question, what the pipeline represents for certain is additional degradation of our water, and the plants and animals and jobs that depend on this water, from here all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

It represents a greater potential for landslides in an area that has seen its share of loss to life and property from cascading rock and mud.

It represents endangerment to our citizens through risk of gas leaks and explosions.

It represents a loss to the many small business owners who invested in the beauty of this county with their livelihoods and their families.

This pipeline is a poster child for a lack of imagination that in my opinion is un-American

Seventy years ago, when this grief-stricken country needed to bring about an end to a painful and costly World War, our government assembled the brightest minds in the world around a single project. Working together over two years, these scientists unleashed the awesome energy of the atom.

It’s high time we assembled the brightest minds around the development of pollution-free renewable energy sources. This is America. Our problems are often hard, but never impossible. And we’re not talking about splitting the atom. We’re talking about building a better battery. So let’s get to it.

FERC representatives – you work for the government. If you want to do something that is truly in the public interest, DO NOT approve this pipeline.

This is Only a Drill


I am substitute teaching at an elementary school in Nelson County, where I live. At some point in the day, the lesson plan says, there will be an Intruder Alert Drill. After my class gathers, I explain to them what will happen, and that this is only a drill.

A thin boy raises his hand. He has dark circles under his eyes as though this question keeps him up at night. “If it’s not just a drill,” he asks, “will we have to jump out the window?”

I look from him to the quiet Blue Ridge Mountains beyond our second story classroom. Sure death from bullets, or possible death and broken bones from a leap to the concrete below? Make your choice, little man.

“No,” I say gently. Knife still in my heart, I instruct them to take out their science books and we turn our thoughts to ocean currents, wave action and the effect of jetties on beach erosion.

Later that morning a tone sounds and a woman’s voice comes over the intercom. Calm and friendly, it instructs the students to move to their places, adults to lock the door and turn off the lights.

The children know just what to do. As I turn the knob on the lock and hit the light switch, they cram their twenty bodies into the recessed cubby area, out of sight of the door. They are deathly quiet. I don’t like to think about all the things they are as silent as.

It strikes me, standing there before them, that this drill is little more useful than the “duck and cover” drills of the 1950’s and 60’s. After all, each classroom has a glass door. Someone intent on harming children need only smash the glass with the butt of one of the guns they’re no doubt armed with—the glass is tempered, so it should shatter easily and harmlessly—reach in, and unlock the door simply by turning the knob. All the potential targets are huddled conveniently in one location.

The children and I wait in dimness as we hear someone jiggle the handle of our door. I try not to imagine what this would feel like if it were not just a drill.   If an intruder was trying the handle on the door to this 5th grade classroom. If the glass shattered. It hits me that there are people all over this country—right here in Virginia— who have experienced this.  Many of these people are dead.

What would I do? I look around and the heaviest thing I can see is a microscope. Could I hit an intruder hard enough to stop him? Would I even have the chance? Would I wish I had armed myself?

No. I would wish that the United States Congress had taken action to limit the sale of handguns and assault weapons and ammunition.  I’d wish that the funerals—no, the lives— of our school children from sea to shining sea had more influence over our lawmakers than the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers’ lobbyists.

The drill is over, the soothing voice announces from the intercom. We may return to our seats. This time.

One Weekend in July



From New York, Delaware, DC, Virginia, and New Mexico, cars pour into the driveway of our house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Beds full of people, yard full of tents, a rented house and rooms at a B&B.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, cousins, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, children, toddlers, a babe in arms, another on the way. Girlfriends, boyfriends, in-laws, outlaws, five dogs and a cat.

Teachers, engineers, filmmakers, brewers, potters, nurses, writers, beekeepers, 501-C-3’ers, administrators, builders, artists. Soccer, baseball, Frisbee players. Musicians, eaters and drinkers.

Stacks of bagels, dozens of eggs, pounds of pasta, buckets of salsa, crocks of barbecue, vats of gazpacho, pans of cookie, tubs of watermelon, baskets of peaches, loaves upon loaves of summer zucchini bread. Carafes of coffee, pots of tea, gallons of beer, bottles of wine. Growlers, water bottles, pottery mugs, sippy cups.

Big Frisbees, tiny baseball bats, bike paths, canoes, swimming holes, bon fires. World Cup Soccer games at the local brewery, family music at the coffee house, pottery lessons in the studio. Slow walks to the river.

Birdsong at dawn, cicada by day. Whippoorwill and wood thrush at dusk, katydid and tree frog by night. Buzz of conversation, shrieks of laughter. Talk of courtships, marriages, births, illnesses, deaths. Stories from the past, dreams for the future.

To Rob and Jane Ryan Crowe. For all that you got right in your lives, the wars you fought, the joys you shared, the sorrows you survived. You saw that irresistible something in each other’s eyes and left us with so much more than we can ever thank you for—not the least of which is the Crowe Ryan Family Reunion.


Reaching for the Moon


We hadn’t intended to visit the Memorial after dark; I wasn’t even sure the capitol grounds were open that late, but other people meandered up the lamp lit sidewalks, so we crossed over the shadowy lawn.

In the short time we had, I wanted to show Kevin the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial that claims its unlikely real estate on Capitol Square outside the gates of the executive mansion of what was, once, the Capital of the Confederacy. The sculpture tells the story of 16-year old Barbara Johns, who led her fellow students in a walkout to protest separate—and very much unequal—conditions at Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia in 1951. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 waited thirteen long years in the future.

What followed the walkout was a lawsuit that eventually joined with four other cases to become the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court struck down the separate but equal racial doctrine.

“It seemed like reaching for the moon,” said Ms. Johns, and looking back, it was. Following this court decision, powerful US Senator Harry F. Byrd, from Virginia, rallied over 100 others around his “Southern Manifesto,” which opposed racial integration. Byrd and his followers had no need of white hoods; they were duly elected American lawmakers.  They launched their “Massive Resistance” campaign, and in 1959, Prince Edward County closed all its public schools rather than integrate them.

I was in junior high school when Virginia schools were finally integrated in 1971, 20 years after the Moton High School walkout.

In 2008, Kevin and I attended a concert in Richmond and watched as then Governor Tim Kaine took the stage with Dave Matthews.   A Virginia governor was introducing a white man from South Africa, both of them campaigning to elect the man who would become the first African-American president of the United States.   It felt surreal in the best of ways. Here we stood, just blocks away from the avenue that is home to  larger than life statues of men who fought an entire war to prevent just such a thing from happening.

Back at the Civil Rights Memorial, Kevin and I soaked in this dark yet hopeful chapter of race relations in Virginia while the students of Moton High School stood before us in bronze relief, Barbara Johns’ arm raised skyward. As we turned to make our way back to the car,  a quarter moon cast its glow above the rooftops of the city. We took one last look over our shoulder to see Ms. Johns, forever reaching.

A New Car for Jared


Chesterfield County has twelve new police officers and my nephew, Jared, is one of them. Striking in their crisp olive drab uniforms and shaven heads, these young men were sworn in last Friday afternoon. It is hard to hold the tears back as my sister, Laura, and my brother-in-law, Michael, pin the shiny badge on their son’s chest. Hard not to look back on the goofy, happy-go-lucky little kid that he was; to realize that his plastic squirt gun has been replaced with a Glock.

Harder still, not to think about what lies ahead for him.

These men began the physical fitness portion of their training in the intense heat of Virginia summer—in full uniform, Kevlar vest included—sweating through sprints, obstacle courses, push-ups and sit-ups.

They’ve been out on the driving course, learning to execute those stunts we’ve only seen on television (“That was really cool, Aunt Linda,” Jared said. “Those V-8 engines are powerful!”) They’ve spent days on the shooting range, honing their accuracy with weapons. They’ve endured pepper spray and tear gas. They’ve had to drink and monitor their blood alcohol level. They’ve wrestled each other in marital arts training.

The world is a different place now than it was when I was growing up. Unemployment still drives people to drink, and people still drink and drive. But now they also drive and talk on the phone or text. No longer rare are the drug cartels, the gang wars, home invasions, meth labs, acts of domestic violence against the general population. School shootings, mall shootings, workplace shootings. Today’s criminals are often better armed than our law enforcement officers.

And to think. In Jared’s previous job at the glass company, we used to worry that he’d cut himself.

These rookie policemen spent the last six months in school. Now they’ll spend the next few months getting schooled out in the real world where these things actually occur. Where fires destroy and storms ravage. Where cars crash and teenagers bleed. Where adults abuse children and spouses batter one another. Where girls go missing, and kids screw up. Where the bad guys break and enter, steal and murder.

How will they deal with all this? In addition to their weapons and defensive tactics training, they’ll face it all with a dose of compassion.

“Much of this will become routine for us, but we always have to remember that when someone calls the police, very often it is the worst day of their life,” Jared explains to me. “How we respond can make that better or worse. What we do can make a big difference.”

After the family celebration at my sister’s house, after the cake has been eaten and the guests have departed, we talk more about the day’s ceremony and the weeks ahead. Laura tries on Jared’s jacket for size and looks like a little kid playing dress-up in her father’s clothes. The rookies have been issued their cars, but they’ll each spend the next few weeks riding with a seasoned officer before they’re sent out to patrol their beats alone. Jared looks forward to all of this with awe and excitement.

He sits on the floor and leans back against the couch. “I can’t believe it,” he says, his voice filled with wonder. “I’ve got my own police car.”

For a moment, no one speaks. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to rejoice or despair. Jared’s got his own police car.

And What About Your Drinking Water?

Watching the people in West Virginia adjust their lives to deal with a crisis of safe water availability makes those of us who are able to drink from the tap feel fortunate.  But should it?

While researching an update on Kepone, a pesticide that was dumped into the James River in my hometown of Hopewell Virginia in the 1970’s, I stumbled upon a startling fact.  Not only are monitoring programs not strictly overseen by “responsible” agencies such as the EPA or the state, sometimes the monitoring required by the EPA is useless in determining whether or not there is a problem.

Take Kepone for example.  The hundreds of thousands of pounds of insecticide that were released into the water floated in suspension, then drifted to the bottom.  Bottom feeders sifted the contaminated sediment.  Bigger fish ate the contaminated bottom feeders.  Humans chowed down on the contaminated fish that contained so much Kepone that in 1975, Governor Godwin banned fishing, crabbing, and oystering from Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay, a ban that would not be completely lifted until 1988.  Fish consumption advisories remain in effect to this day. 

Hopewell gets its water out of the Appomattox, in an area that was affected by Kepone.  Today, no one monitors for Kepone in the drinking water, even though Kepone still remains in the sediments of the river in great quantities.

Kepone is buried in cells around Hopewell.  At the state Department of Environmental Quality, I was able to find monitoring reports for only one of the cells— one located on Honeywell property, monitored by the same company that was responsible for the original contamination of the river.  (Allied Chemical, the creator and manufacturer of Kepone, later purchased Honeywell and assumed its name.)

It is impossible to determine from the monitoring reports whether or not Kepone is present at levels that could affect human health.

Here’s why:  The EPA requires a detection method that can tell if Kepone is present at 20 parts per billion or higher.  Honeywell actually uses a method that can detect Kepone at even lower levels – 5 parts per billion according to their reports.  They do an even better job than the EPA requires.

Which sounds nice until you realize that Kepone is harmful to humans at .03 parts per billion

In other words, no one is using a detection method that can determine if Kepone is present at a level that is harmful to humans, even though today’s technology can detect Kepone at parts per trillion.  Note that people still fish, swim and ski in the river at Hopewell and beyond.

When I asked an EPA employee about this, he said, “I hate to tell you this, but it’s like that for things that are far worse than Kepone.”

What happened in West Virginia last week has pointed up how many chemicals we live with and how little we know about many of them.  Even worse in my mind are the ones we know quite a bit about, and still turn a blind eye.

Think about that the next time you turn on the faucet to get a drink of water.