WV Can’t Wait: This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around Redux

May 16, 2011, I wrote this in a blog post:

Life is short.  There are people out there who want to tell the stories of their youth as grand adventures in engaging serious problems with  their whole hearts. These are not the same people who want to tell stories of bar-hopping and overspending and trips to casinos.  These are people who are modern journalists and water quality scientists and child advocates.  They are health care specialists and teachers and professors.  They are small business entrepreneurs and artists and historians and contractors.  They are responsible natural resource leaders and sustainability experts.  

Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it, I promise. There’s a brief backstory.


I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed a week ago yesterday, and up pops, “Mark Wolfe is live now.” I chuckle to myself thinking that man is nothing if not LIVE, and move along.

But every now and then I realize it’s still there. Mark Wolfe is still live now. I get suspicious. What’s this creative genius doing, anyway? (Yes, he designed my blog header and the masthead for Essays on Childhood, made art for the WV Land Trust and a revamped logo for the WV Alliance for Sustainable Families…..along with hundreds of other things. It’s good to know what Mark is doing at any given moment.)

I’m not 100% sure what is happening in this video, but then I see John Barrett. John is someone who has always impressed me with his sincere and affable demeanor, his quick mind, and his commitment to West Virginia. He was on the board of directors for the WV Land Trust when I worked for them. Just rock-solid, good governance, can-do, let’s-do-the-right-thing stuff flows from John.

Now I really have to know what’s going on, because whatever it is, my gut is telling me I want to be part of it.

And then there it was. It was the last thing I expected to hear.

I was being introduced through cyberspace to the next Governor of West Virginia.


Stephen Smith (left), 38, who ran the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, announced he is running for governor as a Democrat in the 2020 elections. Photo accompanying Jake Zuckerman’s 11/28/2018 article the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Community organizer launches 2020 gubernatorial bid as Democrat”

This can’t be real. But it is real.

And he’s not a coal baron. Or a lawyer. Or the 9th copy of the same family politician over generations.

He’s a dad. And a nonprofit executive. And a WV native. And a WV native who came back — to help.

He’s 38 years old. His relative youth is one of his greatest assets, and potentially also such for the state. When you’re 38 and running for elected office for the first time, you do not accept all the things the jaded Gollum-like creatures crawling out of their offices try to sell you. Extractive industry is not yet the precious.

I email with Stephen, we talk on the phone, and he’s real. He is a different brand — more informed by ideas of equality and partnership than most. He talked about his family, and his interest in building a movement that has legs to carry it apart from his candidacy.

He really listened to me, and he asked me questions about myself and clarifying questions about my ideas and observations.

He is not kidding when he talks about a movement that shifts power and resources from corporate outside interests and back into the hands of regular West Virginians. It will be very difficult, and as the effort progresses I am sure it will get a little bit scary. I’ve seen how established power brokers react to challenge. (Pro Tip: They are not nice about it.)

I’m excited about this, which has my attention because it’s been years upon years since I was excited about the potential to move the needle in West Virginia. I feel so strongly about this that I joined the campaign as a part of a leadership team making contacts with “ex-patriates” and trying to help make connections with friends in other states who might do the same where they are.

No matter how this goes, I believe supporting a candidate like this — the kind of candidate who rarely comes along — is a needle-moving opportunity in itself.


I know what it’s like to believe and be disappointed, but this feels different. Maybe it’s different because I am different.  Two ideas about that:

  • It may feel different because, truly, West Virginia Can’t Wait. A lot of disillusioned people in my generation and beyond tried to build a life in WV and faced challenges we couldn’t overcome. And that is in fact on me; I decided the cost-benefit analysis didn’t work. That was my choice. But gosh darn it, it didn’t have to be that way. Life is challenging no matter where you are. I needed vocal people in leadership positions to care a lot more about the future for me and my family, and they were too few or too hard to find. It’s only gotten less friendly since I departed. I am astonished by the friends who have left, who are still in the process of leaving. It’s not a few. It was a core constituency of Create West Virginia at one time. The organization never wanted to go political, and I thought then and still think that was a mistake. I understand the concerns, but we are at a chance-against-a-certainty-stage now. We all have to take a risk. It’s true that a ragtag gang of believers in the knowledge economy were going to lose a street fight with extractive industry, but you don’t always fight to win the battle. Say it with me: You fight to win the war.
  • I’m over 15 years older than I was when I decided to move back to West Virginia. I was a few years younger than Stephen Smith is now. I had nothing but optimism and hope in my soul for helping my home state; at some point, I lost that hope. I was severely discouraged, and scared, and I left. The power structure in state government seemed stacked against my concerns. In hindsight I think I may have retreated to recover; for the first time in a long time, I am thinking about how to get back into this fight.

Right now, that looks like serving on a leadership team to communicate with WV “ex-pats”  living in Virginia about how we can help leverage the movement for change.

If I can pass this spark to you, well, I would be delighted. Give the movement a look-see. Then consider emailing the campaign about how you can help.

There’s a place for you in this.

No foolin’ around.


Intersection: Elliot Rodger, My Past, & Every Woman’s Every Day

I remember sitting on a split-rail fence with my friend Lesley when we were 6 years old. It was a West Virginia early summer. The air was soft and warm. Shrubs bloomed behind us in the neighbor’s yard, while the hot blacktop where three roads met spread out before us.

Lesley had curly red hair and blue eyes. My hair was long, blonde and straight. When I remember the events of that day, I always see the two of us perched, trying to balance on the fence, not quite stable because we were so young and small. But we wanted to sit up high. We wanted to watch our world come and go from sideline safety. Cars came to the three way stop. Sometimes the right of way was obvious. Sometimes they would wave each other through the intersection if there was confusion about what should happen. Bicycles, joggers, but mostly cars.

Most of my childhood memories are internal. I don’t zoom to some observation of myself as if I’m an object. But this memory has always been from the middle of the intersection. I see two little girls sitting on a fence. I see expressions that go from happy, to confused, to frightened, to conspiratorial.

A jeep started to drive though the intersection and stopped dead in the middle. Two young men stared at me and Lesley. The driver started to wave furiously. Lesley and I stared back, tilting our heads like owlings. Who were these men? We didn’t recognize them, but they seemed to think they knew us. We didn’t wave back. We wanted them to leave the intersection and keep going, but they didn’t do that. One of them started calling out to us. “Hi! Hi, there! Hi-i-i-i-i-i, girls!” The driver was the one waving like crazy. The other man was laughing now, an ugly laugh, not the kind that makes you feel good or happy or safe. The more aggressive and insistent the driver became that we acknowledge him, the more committed I became to silence.

Who did he think he was? I didn’t know him. This was our space, mine and Lesley’s. We lived here with our families. With people we knew. I didn’t want to engage him. Even as a child I had an instinct that waving back would be the beginning of legitimizing this man. Something about these people was not right. They were adults. We were children. We were minding our own business. They were dangling out in a space where other people had the right to come and go safely. Did they think they owned the entire neighborhood? Did they think Lesley and I owed them anything just because they wanted something from us?

They wouldn’t go away.

After what seemed like an eternity, the driver slammed his hands on the steering wheel, and screamed, “Say HELLO, goddamned it!” His friend laughed more. The jeep lurched forward with a squeal and a roar, and then they were gone. We never said hello, and I’ve never regretted that.  Lesley and I were free to speak now. We looked at each other, relieved, and giggled and shrugged and tried to go back to our view of the world before the men stopped, stared, insisted, got angry, and did something threatening. Except we couldn’t go back to that view. I saw something that day when I was six years old that I would never forget and never really get over. There are men I don’t know, whom I have no interest in knowing, who have a sense of entitlement about gaining my attention. They will insist and push and cajole, and then when they don’t get what they believe they are entitled to, they will get angry. They will shift into a mode of violence to regain some sense of power over me if I don’t respond to them as they wish. They are entitled. They are dangerous. And they will force women and girls to learn that they are not be ignored.

And when I say “my” attention, “me” and “I,” I speak for every human female on the planet, whether you are 6 or 86, black or white, Muslim or Christian or atheist.

Lesley and I were, in the end, conspiratorial, and by that I mean that we were drafted into one of society’s longest-standing back rooms of agreed-upon silence. I never told my parents about the men, and she and I never spoke of it again. There was an inexplicable shame in attracting their attention in the first place. I remember we were wearing shorts and flip flops. We were just sitting on the fence, clearly open to engaging our world. Had we brought this on ourselves? Maybe they were just nice people. But I knew that wasn’t true. I knew they were not nice people, and yet they had noticed me and tried to interact with me, and if bad people were trying to talk to me, what did that say about what kind of person I might be? Best to just never mention it.

When I think about this man from Santa Barbara, the way he talked about women, the way he rationalized his violent impulses, the way he terrorized people because life and the people in it weren’t giving him exactly what he wanted and believed he was entitled to have, it makes me sick. I am sick that that I find nothing “chilling” about his writings or his videos. I find them familiar and common. Because we don’t talk about it, little girls will continue to be subject to grown men’s harassment and blame themselves. Grown women will endure leers and catcalls and slink home to change into baggy pants and a stiff drink. And the band will probably play on. I’ve been marching to this drum for forty years.


WARNING: Kanawha County in the rearview mirror

My home community of Kanawha County, West Virginia, held a vote on a levy that would have restored funding to the public library system (long story) and shored-up the county school system’s budget against federal funding drops and self-imposed levy caps.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposal to meet these financial needs with additional property taxes. Superintendent Ron Duerring said Saturday that “everything will be on the table,” as they look for budget cuts.

“There will be cuts in pretty much every area — staffing, transportation, you name it,” one principal said. “The possibility of students paying to participate in extracurricular activities is not one that I look forward to.”

The library has a few short months to come up with millions of dollars or start closing county branches.

What on earth?

It all reminds me of a religion/ethics lecture I heard about three years ago at Davidson College:

What does this mean anyway?

Our professor suggested this: “Maybe when you read something in ancient texts, and it doesn’t make any sense, maybe just maybe you’re not focused on what the writer is really trying to tell you.”  Of course, his big maybe was a polite and gentle way of saying that people get into all kinds of arguments about things that are not really the point.

Distance lends perspective, and living in a different community right now I am starting to refocus on some painful dysfunctions in the Kanawha County public discourse system. It’s not that I didn’t know they were there, but it’s easier to see when I suddenly am surrounded by something else. In New England, there is a long tradition of transparent and straightforward public meetings. When we have a meeting about an issue of public importance you are often read a “warning,” and it’s read to you three times. The first time this happened I was scared to death. WARNING! What?

Oh, it’s just a heads up that something important needs your consideration and thoughtful decision. And we know making a big decision takes time and education. So, here you go: Three times we are going to tell you what is coming up and what is at stake, and you have plenty of time to ask questions and get answers, in public.

Norman Rockwell painted “Freedom of Speech” using his Vermont neighbors as models.

There is plenty of disagreement  in Vermont, just as there is anywhere else. But the process tends to support a well-reasoned and informed debate, and even when you don’t get what you want you’re rarely left with the bitter taste of feeling like you were the victim of dark politics and pure ignorance.

I can’t say that about Kanawha County. I want to, but I’d be lying.

Maybe it’s our enormous income gaps, or maybe it’s our labor-strike-dynamics-to-every-fight legacy. I don’t know. But whatever it is my beloved home place has got to turn this ship around, and soon.

There are a lot of proud stands against perceived inefficiency and mismanagement and budget-balancing on the backs of those least able to pay. I understand that frustration. My family is a one-income family right now, and a couple of hundred dollars a year is the difference between having some things we need and not having those things. I, too, would expect clear and compelling evidence as to why this is necessary. Apparently that didn’t happen.

But the scary thing is that it was ever “okay” for certain things to be on the chopping block.  My fervent hope is that as a community Kanawha County can pull together and talk about its values. I grew up there. I know children and education are important to most people in the community. To everyone? No. But those people are so few that they alone could never do the damage that as done with this body blow to the public good. There is a bigger hole here.

There needs to be a coalition that doesn’t pit responsible fiscal management against kids.

These do not have to be opposing goals. But there does have to be an “outing” of who always gets what they want and is never held accountable and who doesn’t.

The whole thing is so classic it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. It traditionally works like this: Status quo interests don’t want the masses tuned into their self-interests, so they steer the general public toward cannibalism.  Why, I wonder, can’t there be an insistence that something like the levy was not an acceptable solution and send the whole thing back to the drawing board?

WARNING: The public will be asked to vote up or down an inappropriate proposal to increase taxes to support our schools and public library system. We ask that we be presented with a source of funds from cuts to less-essential public services.

WARNING: We the public will keep insisting that you do better until you do better. This proposal is unacceptable.

WARNING: We are not kidding.

Look, I feel for the over-taxed and under-paid. I do. I’m about up to here with it as well. But I just hope that Kanawha Countians can work through this frustration to a better way to deal with it than listening to fear-mongers and assuming the worst of those least likely to want to deceive them.

Ask yourself, are people who’ve devote their lives to sharing books and literacy and youth development more likely to jerk your chain than career politicians and out-of-state corporations?

I love you, KC. Don’t give up.

(For more information, read The Charleston Gazette, Libraries to begin searching for funds.)

What’s Your Excuse?

She works out, has three young children, and wants to ask you, “What’s your excuse?”

Apparently, people are freaking out about this. There really is no reason to do that.

I think it’s just great that people who love fitness and working out have found something they enjoy and find rewarding. I confess that they make me chuckle sometimes, but only because they, like anyone who has “discovered” something that made a big impact on their lives, tend to go all ego-maniacal and think that the rest of us want what they want in a literal way.

We don’t.

But I do think most of us want something that we may be struggling to achieve but are holding out on making real. That is the way I read this photograph and this question.

What do you tell yourself you want, but are avoiding?

Most of us have something inside of us that we wish was part of our real life and not just part of our dreams. I don’t care about having a hard body. Yes, if a genie wanted to grant it to me I would accept it, but that is not the thing that I really wish were my reality.

So I think Maria can help me, and she can help you, by pushing the issue if we only will drop the take-everything-personally drama and give it some thought.

What do you really want, and what is the reason you give yourself for why you don’t yet have it in your life?

“You Weren’t There”

Out of all of the strange dynamics I’ve observed since the verdict in the case against George Zimmerman, the one that won’t leave me alone is the chant of, “You weren’t there. You don’t know what really happened.”


Because I am rarely anywhere where major bad mojo goes down (mercifully), and yet I am not usually asked to keep my thoughts to myself.

I wasn’t in New York on 9/11.

I wasn’t with Caylee Anthony when she died.

I wasn’t in Tiananmen Square with the students.

You get my drift.

It is very clear to me that Florida law made it legal to acquit Zimmerman of any wrong doing in the death of Trayvon Martin.  I know enough about the difference between “legal” and “ethical” or even “intelligent” to not knock on that door.

I accept this verdict, but what I cannot accept is the pressure to not state the obvious, what is admitted by the defendant and his army of lawyers: A man took a loaded weapon after an unarmed teenager and shot him to death. He chose to, against the advice of the very resource he trusted enough to call, pursue another person while dropping profanity and suggesting this suspicious person would not “get away” on his watch.

It’s really okay to tell the Emperor he isn’t wearing any clothes. It’s his kingdom, and it is perfectly legal for him to walk around naked.

What is not okay is to expect me not to mention it.

Bruiser or Bleeder?

Early in our relationship, my husband and I had a big fight.

During the resolution period he told me, “Don’t worry too much. I bleed a lot at first, but I heal quick.”

That got me thinking about the metaphor of emotional conflict as receiving physical wounds. I realized that I am not a bleeder, I’m a bruiser.

I can take a lot, but you might not see the swelling purple and yellowish green under the skin that takes a very, very long time to go away. Add this to a conversation I had with my cousin last night where we were joking about middle age and he said very matter of factly, “I notice I just don’t heal anymore.” He meant his twisted ankle, but it pinged in me a deeper concern.

Physically of course the young heal quickly and well because of their biology. But they also often heal quickly and well because they haven’t learned the hard way that some things never change and may not be worth healing for. As cynical as this sounds, I simply am considering this as an unfortunate but apparently very real course of events across the lifespan. At some point, we look at the increasing effort it takes to recover from conflict, and have to decide if we will willingly go back in the ring.

It is romantic and popular to propose that love means going back in the ring no matter what. I don’t know that this concept is in anyone’s best interest. I think each relationship and each situation has to be evaluated for what it is, and each person has to consider the personal cost for continuing to engage people who cause them suffering. I know my limitations, and I am usually a very good judge of character. I can see that someone I love is fundamentally good, but also incapable of change. Juxtapose that with friends who, though I may have struggles with them, I know in my gut that they are walking the same path I am and we will converge at some point. The love (agape love) is there and I can count on them not to bruise me in their own best interest.

Then there are those I love who I can’t really count on.

This is tough stuff, and I know it is hardly unique to me. For anyone out there seeking resolution, I am sending you my very deepest prayer for peace.

Drop the F Bomb. No, really. Drop it.

How some people view my personal interest in maintaining written communication free from profanity:

How I view myself around this issue:

Here are some words used to describe an off-hand comment I made on Facebook about not wanting to share someone else’s blog post because it was laced with profanity: Dismissive. Elitist. Narrow-minded.

Keep in mind, I never said they should not have written it. I never said other people shouldn’t be perfectly free to share it. I simply was expressing a personal opinion that if your writing is full of F-bombs and other heavy-handed swear words, it’s highly unlikely that I will be passing it along to my network. I find it unprofessional and unnecessary, and usually lose some respect for the writer when I realize they don’t have enough respect for their readers to leave the potty mouth in, well, the potty.

Certain words and images are time-tested ways to get people to pay attention to you online. It’s the same principle we used to recognize in person-to-person communication, like using profanity to force people to react to you one way or the other, or wearing inappropriate clothing so you can at least say someone looked at you. In the end it’s a little sad.

(At least it is to me! Just me! I am speaking for myself. Please do not send me notes about how swearing and flashy dressing is not really a cry for attention. I don’t believe you, and you should be OK with that. Just do what is right for you.)

I never said I don’t use profanity. Anyone who knows me outside of cyberspace is probably well aware that I enjoy swearing with friends as much as the next sailor; but there is an eroding civility in our society in which I refuse to take part. Am I perfect? Of course not. I write about that all the time. If my personal standards really upset some people (which apparently they did) it may be that those folks need to check themselves. Why the itchy trigger finger over someone speaking up for her own preference? Some guy actually took the time to write to me and tell me that though he agreed with me, I should “lighten up, luv.”

Yeah. Tell the chick with the cig. Out.

Image credits: The New Yorker and Copyblogger