Trying Out the New Inflatable Boats

That’s me paddling near the Roanoke River bank.

Sunday turned out to be a good day to give a test run to my two inflatable kayaks, this one on the Roanoke River, which is slowly reaching normal (low) levels, following heavy spring rain.

My friend Susan, who had never paddled an inflatable, and I put in at Wolf Creek and floated down to the river without incident, except that the river was blocked with debris at two different points and we had to make our way around it.

The boats did well. I can’t wait to get them on some faster water and see if they respond as well as they did in the calmer river.

Susan paddles upriver.

Shakespeare Ballet an Opportunity for All

The combination of Mendelssohn’s music, Shakespeare’s writing, dozens of adorable children, a group of mid-level teen-age ballerinas, several classy professional dancers, Sandra Meythaler’s choreography and a full, enthusiastic house at the Jefferson Center made for some lively entertainment Saturday night.

The occasion was the Roanoke Ballet Theatre’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”one of Shakespeare’s funniest, most anarchic and entertaining works. It was obvious that many in the audience had no idea what they were watching, but that didn’t seem to matter. The enthusiasm overwhelmed nearly everything else, applause ringing out throughout the production and becoming almost wild when the small children took the stage.

Community ballet is not to be confused with professional efforts, though there are moments when the pros take over briefly for a look at the real thing. This is more an opportunity for families to see their budding ballerinas on stage, shuffling, spinning, leaping and using what they’ve learned to the best of their ability before a live crowd. You have to leave the critic at home and enjoy what’s going on both in the audience and on the stage–including gurgling toddlers enjoying the moment with the rest of us. A number of the better dancers were returning students, showing what they’d learned in the intervening years.

Frankly, I enjoyed the production because of the community, non-professional nature of the performance, though the several professionals entertained on a different level that was full in its own right.

A New Look for Madeline Smith

The brand new Madeline. (No need for an eye patch for this pirate.)

Here’s how it began.

My best girl got a new “do” today, her first experience with clippers, as well. It’s short, radical and, well, a great testament to “All That Jazz!”

Yay, Maddie. You look great, sweetie. (My only question: How do you see with one eye covered?)

Minutes later, there’s this …

A little girl no more.

Teenager. Attitude. Hat. Haircut.




Murray Run Bridge Back On Line

The recent heavy rain, which damaged several of my neighbors’ trees, also clobbered this huge oak on the Murray Run Greenway trail, which I walked today. Volunteers put the damaged bridge back together quickly and all is OK. Disregard the warning signs at each end of the trail. It’s open and just fine.

Suicide Can Be “A Symbol of Choice”

“Suicide” is a word so sensitive in our culture that it is difficult for most of us to say it out loud. “Cancer” used to be that way. White people who don’t know any better sometimes whisper, “He’s black” about a person, as if there were reason to be concerned.

But “suicide” is today’s word, especially in light of the self-inflicted deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, people many admired and loved. There’s a lot of shock that their deaths were suicide and the news media whispers the word in reports.

Commenting on a new report on the dramatic rise in suicides between 1996 and 2016, the Centers for Disease Control wrote that “contributing circumstances include social and economic problems, access to the means to commit suicide, and poor coping and problem-solving skills.” All of those are symptoms of victim-hood, not choice and I’ll argue that a lot of suicides are simply conscious choices. (CDC suicide story here.)

Suicide is not disgraceful, shocking or even wrong in my world, especially if the choice to die by our own hands is made with clarity and good reason. I don’t know Bourdain’s, nor Spade’s circumstances, nor will I speculate. I will, however, say that–at my age–it is becoming clearer than ever what goes into the decision to take one’s own life, and it isn’t always depression or illness. Sometimes, we’ve just done all we can and we’re ready for what’s next–if anything is.

When my time comes, I hope to be able to make that decision and to go out with the dignity of knowing I did what I could, learned what was presented, was kind, offered help when it was needed, influenced people toward the good. I  don’t want my family to be embarrassed or ashamed if I decided to take my own life. My decision should be mine alone and should not affect the way they remember me.

I hope, instead, they will look at my writings, my photographs, positive deeds, community contribution and time spent with me, then judge from that. I also hope they will see the ultimate nobility in suicide that is thought out fully and acted upon with grace and dignity (no messy cleanup, papers in order, debts paid, who gets what sorted out, no questions of foul deeds). If that’s the case, “suicide” becomes less sensitive and more a symbol of choice.

Leah Weiss, Liza Mundy Nominated for Library Awards

Leah Weiss

This year’s People’s Choice Awards nominations from the Library of Virginia feature two of my favorites: Leah Weiss of Lynchburg and Roanoke native Liza Mundy in respective fiction and non-fiction categories.

Leah’s book–which I’ve been raving about since long before it was in print–is If the Creek Don’t Rise, her first commercially published work of fiction. It is a lyrical mountain tale that I’ve compared to To Kill a Mockingbird,  and that ain’t rhetorical overkill. boys and girls.Leah’s writing is simply superb and is an especially great summer read (going to the beach?).

Liza’s Code Girls is a fine historical work about the little-known contribution to the Allied efforts in World War II by a group of several thousand women who helped break Nazi and Japanese codes–in utter secret. Several of the women Liza writes about are from this region, so it feels almost like a local history, though it’s a significant national piece. Liza, a former Washington Post feature writer, is not at all new to the book circuit, either.

The original nomination list for fiction was 34 books, including one by John Grisham, who didn’t make the cut.

You can stuff the ballot box by weighing in on these books at the Library of Virginia website (vote here).  Truth be told, I don’t know how anybody but Leah and Liza can win these babies. Their books are easily a lap or two better than the competition. But, hey, that’s why they play the game.

You will note that four of the fiction nominees are from Charlottesville (not including Grisham, who lives there).

Liza Mundy

This year’s fiction finalists for the People’s Choice Awards are:

  • Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church by Winn Collier, a Charlottesville minister.
  • Say Nothing by Brad Parks, a former Post reporter who lives in the Shenandoah Valley
  • The War Bride’s Scrapbook: A Novel in Pictures by Caroline Preston of Charlottesville
  • Best Intentions by Erika Raskin of Charlottesville
  • If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss of Lynchburg

This year’s nonfiction finalists for the People’s Choice Awards are:

  • The Dooleys of Richmond: An Irish Immigrant Family in the Old and New South Mary Lynn Bayliss of Richmond
  • Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University and Philadelphia
  • An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice by Khizr Khan  of Charlottesville
  • Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty by Jon Kukla of Richmond (his last three works were published by the Library of Virginia)
  • Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy of D.C., a Roanoke native

The winners will be recognized on Saturday, October 20, 2018, at the 21st Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards Celebration presented by Dominion Energy. Each winner will receive an engraved crystal book and a monetary prize of

An Apology to Women from Me

I’m not here to defend Bill Clinton, whose response a few nights ago to questions about his Monica Lewinsky offenses was considered by many (including me) to be insufficient in the current climate. The only acceptable response today is a sincere and unqualified apology, regardless of how we–as men–feel about the question. We have been wrong for millennia and the bill is due.

I’ll step in with this, “I deeply regret every single sexist remark, unwelcome advance, demeaning attitude and unacceptable action toward women in general or as individuals that I can recall over my life span. I also regret that there are many I don’t remember, didn’t think of as offenses or simply misunderstood. They are offenses, as well. I take full responsibility and if anybody wants a personal apology, I will offer that.”

Our culture, for its existence, has encouraged men to act like asses toward women and I am deeply sorry that I bit into that wrong-headed attitude. I had a choice not to, but didn’t make that choice. I chose, instead, to go along with the crowd, to be the kind of man I hope my son and grandson will never be. In the past few years, I hope I have learned something about human interaction and that my attitudes will reflect more positively on my gender.

Once again, I say without hesitation, “I am sorry.”

A Fresh New Look at Lyme Disease

Sarabeth with her mom and sister, wearing her Lyme Disease medicine dispenser port.

Before my young friend Sarabeth Hammond died 18 months ago, she fought a momentous battle against Lyme Disease, showing the courage, grit, determination and fearlessness that led me to consider her a genuine hero.

Sarabeth died in an auto accident, but the potential for her to have died of Lyme Disease  was not insignificant.

Lyme is a disease that has been vastly misunderstood and misdiagnosed for some time now–including in Sarabeth’s case, where she and her mom, Caroline, fought conventional wisdom and a medical system stacked against her, stubborn in its outdated beliefs.

Virginia Tech and the Centers for Disease Control have a new outlook on Lyme, as reported in the following press release, which calls Lyme “the most reported vector-borne disease in the United States. It is an infection transmitted by the bite of a tick infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi.”

The release continues thusly:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report showing that diseases from biting insects, ticks, and mosquitos in the U.S. have tripled since 2004.

Brandon Jutras, a Lyme disease researcher in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, says, “Warming temperatures are playing an important role in this increase. Ticks not readily killed due to warmer winters, are coming out earlier in the season and spreading to more northern areas. Another factor likely playing a role in the increase is public and physician awareness.”

There are many misconceptions about ticks and Lyme disease, and Jutras, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and affiliated faculty of the Fralin Life Science Institute, offers several quotes and insights on this issue.

MYTH: All ticks transmit Lyme disease.

“Four major species of ticks are capable of transmitting the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, only one of which is found in our area: the blacklegged, or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis.”

Just because you are bitten by a tick, doesn’t mean the tick is carrying the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. After a bite, the disease can take anywhere from 12 to 72 hours to be transmitted, “so prompt removal is critical.”

MYTH: Burning or salting ticks is the only way to remove them.

“NO! This can actually make matters worse. The only appropriate way to remove a tick is to get as close to your skin as possible with fine tweezers and pull.”

MYTH: I would know if I were bitten by a tick.

Not necessarily. “During feeding, ticks are slowly injecting a very complex mixture of salivary components, a few of which act to numb the area. So, unlike a mosquito, most people don’t feel a tick feeding, unless you happen to be allergic to one of the salivary components. …The second stage, nymph, is about the size of a pencil tip. These tics “like the groin, back of the knee, or armpit, which are not obvious or easy places to check regularly.”

MYTH: Everyone with Lyme disease gets a telltale bull’s eye rash

That is a clear sign, but not everyone develops the rash. “… It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of people who acquire Lyme disease do not get the typical rash.”

MYTH: If the test is negative, you don’t have Lyme disease.

“The best diagnostic for Lyme disease is a blood test which measures a patient’s serum for specific antibodies produced in response to certain bacterial products. This type of response can take 1-2 weeks to detect since the body must develop sufficient amounts of antibody, or, titer, to allow for faithful detection.”

Tips for Prevention

“Wear light-colored clothing while enjoying the outdoors and treat these clothes with DEET, or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide-containing bug spray. … Initial tick contact almost always occurs below your thigh.”

“Don’t skip the dryer when washing your outdoor clothes. Ticks survive the washer and can remain on clean clothes. They do not, however, survive the dryer.”

Tech and the CDC don’t say so in their reports, but I’ve read that lemon oil and lavender oil are great for repelling tics. And they don’t smell bad as the commercial grade insect repellents often do. In fact, I like the smell of both (not to mention they’re a heck of a lot less expensive).

Studio Roanoke Passes Into the Void Again

Kenley Smith (left) with Children’s Theatre owner Pat Wilhelms at the opening of Studio Roanoke.

The Pete Smith Theatre in downtown Roanoke, closed for some time now, has been bought by a real estate development group that has no definite plans for it yet. It was owned by my old pal Kenley Smith, a guy with a fascinating story to tell–and he tells it often.

Kenley bought the former clothing store a few years ago after earning his MFA in theater arts at Hollins. He started his own live theater company–Studio Roanoke–and opened it to new works, some of which were quite impressive, most of them written by Hollins students or grads. Kenley earned his money running weekend fantasy stock car camps for aging white guys who love NASCAR.

His own plays were among the biggest stars at the Smith Theatre (named for his dad). Kenley rented the theater cheaply to a local group for a while after he moved out of the area to Nashville to seek bigger audiences for his plays, but that effort failed and the theater has been dark since.

The new owners, who paid about $350,000 for the building in the middle of things on Campbell Ave., don’t know exactly how things will pan out, but they’ve talked of retail on the main floor (a grocery store has been suggested) and apartments upstairs. The building has 7,000 square feet on three floors.