Opinion | All the Empty Seats at the Thanksgiving Table – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Courtesy Margaret Renkl

“NASHVILLE — In the box of old photos I found after my mother’s death, there’s a picture of me taken on Thanksgiving Day 1983, in the fall of my senior year of college. I’m lying on the sofa reading James Agee’s letters to Father Flye. I don’t know why the photo exists — we were not a family who documented ordinary moments. Our pictures centered on people gathered around birthday cakes and Christmas trees. Film wasn’t wasted on someone who has no idea a picture is being taken. Certainly not on someone who isn’t even smiling.

I remember that day, not because it was documented in a photograph but because I ran into my Shakespeare professor outside the liberal arts building on Monday morning, and he asked me how I’d spent the break. “All I did was eat and sleep and read James Agee,” I told him. “That sounds like the perfect Thanksgiving,” he said.

 
 

The author at home in 1983.

Maybe I remember that conversation because it startled me. It had not felt like the perfect Thanksgiving. My great-grandmother, the quiet, steady, patient anchor of the entire extended family, was missing. She’d broken her hip the year before, at 96, and then pneumonia — “the old folks’ friend,” my great-grandfather, a country doctor, called it — had taken hold. Mother Ollie was still herself right until up until the day she fell, and I suppose that’s what my great-grandfather must have meant by “friend”: that there are fates worse than death for the very aged. But a year later, the empty place at the table still felt like a rebuke. As with every death before or since, I could not get over the shock. How can love not be enough to save someone so deeply loved?” . . .

Opinion | This Might Be the Most ‘West Wing’ Election of Our Lives – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…David Rose/NBC, via Getty Images

“NASHVILLE — My favorite coffee mug is emblazoned with words of advice: “Lead like Jed. Advise like Leo. Think like Josh. Speak like C.J. Argue like Toby. Write like Sam.” What the mug doesn’t say but implies by its very existence: “Believe in America like a fan of ‘The West Wing.’”

Set in the White House of fictional President Jed Bartlet, “The West Wing” is an hourlong serial drama that aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006. It features the moral quandaries of President Bartlet — economist, Nobel laureate and Democrat — along with those of his family and staff. The show’s cast of thousands includes assistants and interns, journalists, political consultants, pollsters, White House attorneys, military advisers, Supreme Court justices, and congressional adversaries and allies.

The fictional West Wing of two decades ago doesn’t always hold up to 21st-century standards for workplace relationships and attitudes, but my coffee mug sums up the main characters pretty well. Imperfect though they can sometimes be — making colossal errors of judgment, sabotaging promising relationships, being rude to subordinates — they work collectively as a kind of role model for unstinting service to the country we all love.

Story lines on “The West Wing” include the usual grudges, hookups, missed opportunities and hurt feelings endemic to television drama, but the show is far more than a nighttime soap opera. At its heart, “The West Wing” is a multiyear civics lesson, and every episode is a parable.”

Opinion | I Have Covid-19 Antibodies. Finally I Know How to Help. – By Margaret Renkl – TheI Have Covid-19 Antibodies New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

“NASHVILLE — I got sick in February on a trip to New York. Every time I stepped into an elevator, someone was coughing. On my last day in town, I found myself out of breath walking up a small hill, though I walk on hilly trails nearly every day. At home that night, I went straight to bed. I thought I was just tired.

The next morning, I woke to every symptom of Covid-19 I’d read about, plus some that hadn’t been reported yet: fever, headache, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, nausea. At the walk-in clinic, my flu test was negative.

I was sick in bed for two weeks. Even after the fever finally broke, I was too weak to do much of anything. I’d take a shower and break out in a sweat as soon as I tried to step out of the tub. I coughed and coughed, and still it felt like an SUV was parked in my lungs. My primary care doctor ordered a chest X-ray, which showed pneumonia — a mild case, luckily. It was so early in the pandemic that Covid-19 tests were administered sparingly, and I didn’t meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for testing. “I think it’s reasonable to assume this is Covid-19,” my doctor said. “We just can’t prove it.”

During the next few months, proving it became something of an obsession for me. At a time when so much was frightening and unpredictable, I just wanted to know one thing for sure. In April I volunteered for a study by the National Institutes of Health to determine the scope of the epidemic by testing for antibodies in people, like me, who believed they’d had an unconfirmed case of Covid-19. More than 400,000 people volunteered for 10,000 spots. I wasn’t accepted.”

Opinion | I Am Watching My Planet, My Home, Die – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

“NASHVILLE — I was writing a love letter to autumn and its perfect miracle of timing — the way berries ripen just as songbirds migrate through berry-filled forests — when the songbirds suddenly began to die. With no warning at all, thousands and thousands of birds, possibly millions of birds, were simply falling out of the sky.

It’s not yet clear why the birds were dying — smoke from the wildfires on the West Coast? an unseasonable cold snap? the prolonged drought? — but whatever its immediate reason, the die-off was almost certainly related to climate change or some other human-wrought hazard. Every possible explanation for the birds’ deaths leads back to our own choices.

We think of songbirds as indicator species — so sensitive to environmental disruptions that they serve as an early warning of trouble. But the fact that the environment has become increasingly inhospitable to songbirds — and to human beings — is only one measure of a planet under life-threatening stress.

The earth is getting measurably hotter, each year breaking records set the year before, while Arctic sea ice continues to thinWildfires are growing hotter, more frequent, more widespread and more deadly. Northeastern forests are sick. Our oceans are full of plastic. The world’s largest wetland is on fire, and the Amazon rainforest is on its way to becoming a savanna. The pandemic that has paralyzed global life is itself the manifestation of a disordered relationship between human beings and the natural world.

None of this is new. We’ve seen it all happening, worsening with every passing year, for decades now. Any chance of reversing climate change is long since gone, and the climate will inevitably continue to warm. The question now is only how much it will warm, how terrible we will let it become.

There are days when I lose all hope, when it feels as if the only thing left to do is to sit quietly and bear witness to all that will soon be gone: the rain forests and the tidal estuaries, the redwood forests and the Arctic sea ice, the grasslands and the coral reefs. Every wild place and every living thing that wild places harbor, all gone. I held my father’s hand as he died, and I held my mother’s hand as she died, and now it feels as though I am watching my planet die, too.

But that isn’t how I feel most days. On most days I am still fighting as hard as I can possibly fight, living as lightly on the earth as I can manage. The only other option is surrender.

But personal responsibility isn’t going to save the planet by itself. Saving the earth at this late date will also require us to reform the entire global economy. It will require government regulation. It will require industry innovation. It will require companies to invest in the very planet they have been profiting from.

None of that can happen in a country governed by “leaders” in thrall to the fossil fuel industry. Instead of getting serious about climate change, Republicans have run headfirst into the fire, repealing or weakening nearly 100 existing environmental protections. Those changes alone, if left to stand, will add 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2035.

We cannot let them stand, and I’m heartened by signs that we won’t. Money from philanthropic organizations is finally flowing into planet-saving research. As the costs of failing to address climate change have become increasingly clear, people on both sides of the political aisle are beginning to wake up: Today, 72 percent of Americans recognize that climate change is happening, a marked departure from the position of the climate-denier in the White House. Fewer than 10 percent share his view that climate science is a hoax.

Despite the Democratic Party’s forward-thinking position on conservation and Joe Biden’s own $2 trillion plan to address climate change, Mr. Biden is not an environmentalist’s dream candidate: There is just no responsible way forward that includes fracking, which Mr. Biden would not move to end. Nevertheless, he represents our only hope at the moment, and preserving hope is our only chance to inspire change.

Every single issue that matters to me — education, social justice, women’s rights, affordable health care, criminal justice reform, gun control, immigration policy etc. — won’t mean a single thing if the planet becomes uninhabitable. The same is true for my brothers and sisters across the political aisle: If they care about the right to life, as they say they do, if they care about the economy, about freedom, about national security, as they say they do, then they have no choice in this election but to vote for candidates who are committed to halting the rate at which the planet is heating up.

For now and for the foreseeable future, there is only one issue, and in this election there is only one choice. Because there is only one planet we can call home.”  -30-

Opinion | A 150,000-Bird Orchestra in the Sky – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

“NASHVILLE — At first they circle high in the evening sky. But as night descends, they, too, begin to descend, bird by bird, one at a time, and then all in a rush: 150,000 purple martins swirling together, each bird calling to the others in the failing light as they sweep past the tops of buildings in the heart of downtown Nashville. To anyone watching from the ground, they look like one great airborne beast, one unmistakable, singular mind.

Their music grows louder and louder as the circles tighten and the birds swing lower and lower, settling in the branches of sidewalk trees, or swerving to take off again as new waves of birds dip down. They circle the building and return. They lift off, circle, reverse, settle, lift off again. Again and again and again, until finally it is dark. Their chittering voices fall silent. Their rustling wings fall still.

It is not like Hitchcock: Watching these birds is nothing at all like watching crows and sea gulls and sparrows attack the characters in “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film. The purple martins that have been gathering here the past few weeks are merely doing what purple martins always do this time of year: flocking together to fatten up on insects before making the long flight to South America, where they will spend the winter.”

Opinion | The Difficulties and Delights of a Pandemic Wedding – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Jes Martinez

“NASHVILLE — When our oldest son got engaged last year at sunset on a beach in Spain, my husband and I cheered from half a world away. I write these words without hyperbole: We were truly as happy about this pending marriage as two human beings could possibly be.

The parents of three sons, my husband and I would have a daughter at last, and we already loved this amazing young woman. We loved how happy she and our son make each other. We loved the way they support and challenge and admire each other, the way they are always laughing together. They are the kind of people who would rather save up for a grand backpacking adventure than a grand engagement ring, and we loved how a ring made from my great-grandmother’s tiny diamond made its way to Spain in a special wooden box that my son carried in his pocket, waiting for just the right moment to drop to one knee.

What was there not to love? There was nothing not to love.

The months that unspooled between the storybook engagement and the pandemic wedding, on the other hand, produced much that was not to love.

It was always going to be a small, do-it-yourself event: just family and their very dearest friends at Cedars of Lebanon State Park, in a historic lodge that seats only 75 people. A newly minted college graduate would be the photographer. A fellow nurse at the hospital where my daughter-in-law works would bake the cake. I would grow the wedding flowers, and the bride’s mother would make the tablecloths for the reception. But no matter how simple it looks or how homey it feels, a D.I.Y. wedding requires a lot of planning.”

Opinion | Don’t Cancel That Newspaper Subscription – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Bill Welch/The Tennessean, via USA Today Network

“NASHVILLE — In 1954, a man called the city desk of The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily morning newspaper, to say he planned to take his own life by jumping from the Shelby Avenue Bridge. If the paper wanted the story, he said, they should send a reporter.

At the scene, a young journalist named John Seigenthaler spent 40 minutes talking with the man, who was sitting astride a gas pipe that ran beneath the bridge’s railing. When the man turned to look at the water below, Mr. Seigenthaler, one leg anchored in the bridge’s grillwork, reached down, grabbed him by the collar and held on till nearby police officers could haul him to safety. Today the historic bridge, which spans the Cumberland River, is known as the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge in honor of the journalist who risked his life to save another’s — and got a front-page byline in the process.

Mr. Seigenthaler was a journalist with The Tennessean for 43 years. As the paper’s editor, he led its principled coverage of civil rights in spite of vocal white opposition. Nashville was the first major city in the South to desegregate public facilities, and The Tennessean’s fierce support of civil rights is often credited with contributing to the city’s relatively peaceful integration. “If it wasn’t for the newspaper, Nashville could’ve been a nasty, awful place,” said the former Tennessean columnist Dwight Lewis.

Mr. Seigenthaler died in 2014, and The Tennessean, like every other local newspaper in the country, is a shadow of its former self — smaller, thinner, slighter, diminished in every measurable way. Even before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy and took advertising revenue with it, The Tennessean had already endured round after round of layoffs as its parent company, Gannett, struggled. Its decline accelerated last year when Gannett merged with GateHouse Media, a company known for “the ransacking of local journalism,” as Boston Magazine put it.

I remind you of all this — the decades-old history of a newspaper known for advancing progressive causes and the recent history of a media company in thrall to corporate investors — to provide some context for an appalling advertisement that ran in The Tennessean on June 21.”

Opinion | These kids are done waiting for change – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Kristine Potter for The New York Times

“NASHVILLE — In real life, Nya Collins, Jade Fuller, Kennedy Green, Emma Rose Smith, Mikayla Smith and Zee Thomas had never met as a group when they came together on Twitter to organize a youth march against police violence. It was unseasonably hot, even for Middle Tennessee, with rain predicted, and earlier protests here had ended in violence, with the Metro Nashville Courthouse and City Hall in flames. Collectively, these are not the most promising conditions for gathering a big crowd, much less a calm one. But the teenagers were determined to press on, even if hardly anyone showed up.

On June 4, five days later, the founding members of Teens for Equality — as the young women, ages 14 to 16, call their organization — were leading a march of protesters some 10,000 strong, according to police estimates. “I was astonished,” Kennedy Green, 14, told me in a phone interview last week. “I did not know there were that many people in Nashville who actually see a problem with the system. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there are so many people here who actually care.’”

The protesters, most in their teens and 20s, chanted “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” and “Not one more” as they marched for more than five hours. There was not one hint of disarray in their ranks, no angry confrontations with National Guardsmen or police officers clad in riot gear.”

 

Opinion | An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

“NASHVILLE — Since long before it was a country, our country has been in flames. When we arrived on our big ships and decimated this land’s original peoples with our viruses and our guns, when we used our Christian faith as a justification for killing both “heretic” and “heathen,” we founded this country in flames. And every month, every week, every day, for the last 400 years, we have been setting new fires.

White Christians who came before us captured human beings and beat them and raped them and stole their babies from them and stole their parents from them and stole their husbands and their wives from them and locked them in chains and made them work in inhuman conditions. Our spiritual ancestors went to church and listened to their pastors argue that these human beings weren’t human at all.

Our pastors don’t tell us that anymore, but we are still setting fires.

Christians set a fire every time we allow our leaders to weaponize our fears against us. We set a fire every time our faith in good police officers prevents us from seeing the bad ones. Christian voters preserve a system that permits police violence, unjust prosecutions and hellhole prisons filled with people who should have received the same addiction treatment we give our own troubled kids.

We set a fire every time we fail to scrutinize a police culture that allows an officer’s own fear and hatred to justify the most casual brutality against another human being. It would be almost unbelievable to match an adjective like “casual” with a noun like “brutality,” but we have seen the videos. Watch the faces of justice shove an old man aside and leave him bleeding on the ground. Watch them drive their vehicles into protesters protected by the United States Constitution. Watch them fire rubber bullets directly at journalists doing work that is also protected by the United States Constitution. In video after video, note their unconcern with people who are bleeding or screaming in pain.

Make yourself look. Study the air of perfect nonchalance on Derek Chauvin’s face as he kneels on the neck of George Floyd. Register the blithe indifference in his posture, the way he puts his hand in his pocket as though he were just walking along the street on a sunny summer day. Nothing in his whole body suggests concern. He is not the least bit troubled by taking another human life.

We created Derek Chauvin.    . . . . “

David Lindsay:

Bravo Margaret Renkl.  I support this essay with all my heart.  Here is one of many good comments that I recommended:

Lydia
Florida

@JRC I, too, am white and was born into a Christian family. I, too, never oppressed or abused anyone. And, yes, I have always tried to treat everyone with love and kindness, as I was taught to do. The problem is not that either one of us ever did anything TO any minority. The question here is did any of us ever do anything FOR them so that they could be lifted out of the quagmire that the white American created four hundred years ago and promotes each and every day by not demanding more from our leaders? You are correct. We were not complicit in what transpired four hundred years ago. But to allow it to continue TODAY is most unfair and not Christian at all. This is a wakeup call to all self-righteous, comfortable, white Americans, Christian or non, that many fellow Americans are hurting egregiously. As the Bible says, “To those who have been given more, more is expected.” It is no longer good enough to “tsk tsk” about the unfairness and injustice that is perpetrated from America’s so-called leader down to his minions as we sit in the comforts of our living rooms watching the evening news. It is time to demand positive action. I think this pivotal moment in history will define America for many years to come.

In Reply to EricIrwinWang604 Recommended

 

Opinion | America’s Killer Lawns – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

“NASHVILLE — One day last fall, deep in the middle of a devastating drought, I was walking the dog when a van bearing the logo of a mosquito-control company blew past me and parked in front of a neighbor’s house. The whole vehicle stank of chemicals, even going 40 miles an hour.

The man who emerged from the truck donned a massive backpack carrying a tank full of insecticide and proceeded to spray every bush and plant in the yard. Then he got in his truck, drove two doors down, and sprayed that yard, too, before continuing his route all around the block.

Here’s the most heartbreaking thing about the whole episode: He was spraying for mosquitoes that didn’t even exist: Last year’s extreme drought ended mosquito-breeding season long before the first freeze. Nevertheless, the mosquito vans arrived every three weeks, right on schedule, drenching the yards with poison for no reason but the schedule itself.

And spraying for mosquitoes isn’t the half of it, as any walk through the lawn-care department of a big-box store will attest. People want the outdoors to work like an extension of their homes — fashionable, tidy, predictable. Above all, comfortable. So weedy yards filled with tiny wildflowers get bulldozed end to end and replaced with sod cared for by homeowners spraying from a bottle marked “backyard bug control” or by lawn services that leave behind tiny signs warning, “Lawn care application; keep off the grass.” “