Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.


* * So I got a quick shower

Yes, I know. You’re reading the headline and asking yourself why you should bother to read an article about me taking a shower. People take one every day. The recent shower I got was a bit different.

Many of us who are politically motivated have a series of issues that frame our perceptions of the nation and world. National security. Education. Health care. Taxation. Infrastructure. Energy policy. For me, during the last several decades, the issue of gun violence has been near or at the top, accentuated when a madman killed 32 people in my town of Blacksburg and at my Virginia Tech, 11 years ago. We lose over 30,000 of our fellow Americans each year to gun violence. It’s a national tragedy, unique among other First World countries.

Other industrialized nations have implemented a series of common sense gun restrictions, combined with active mental health treatment schemes, to virtually eliminate gun violence. For example, following a mass shooting in Australia in 1996, that nation implemented stringent gun controls that lowered their rate of gun deaths to 10% of ours. We have the 11th highest rate of gun violence in the world, and by far the largest of any large or highly developed nation

Any number of reasons contribute to our inability to reduce the carnage here. Various interpretations of the Second Amendment have limited what lawmakers feel they can do. Powerful lobbying groups like the NRA carry a disproportionate level of influence, and because they have significant funding can put oversize pressure on lawmakers. And there’s the legacy of our Wild West past.

Communities like Las Vegas, Orlando, Austin, San Ysidro, Sutherland Springs, Littleton, Charleston, Camden and schools like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Stoneman Douglas have experienced the horror of mass shootings.

We know we cannot eliminate guns or gun violence from all private hands in America. But I’m convinced that strict background checks which would make it harder for people suspected of violence, waiting periods to eliminate sales at gun shows, better safety features (e.g. embedded chips to prevent anyone other than the original buyer from firing a gun), limited lethality (in muzzle velocity and magazine capacities), and liability laws for dealers, manufacturers, and owners whose guns are involved in shootings, would all reduce the carnage.

After each of these terrible events, empathic people have implored lawmakers for change. But after each, the dust has mostly settled and the blood has mostly been wiped away with little if any change. Through the power of social media, however, after the Stoneman Douglass massacre on St. Valentines Day, activists became emboldened and took to the streets. Last week, I participated in a Rally for Commonsense Gun Reform organized by the New River Valley chapter of the national action group Indivisible, at the town center in Christiansburg, a half-block from Congressman Morgan Griffith’s office.

I found myself carrying a borrowed sign that had in the background the black silhouette of an assault rifle and in the foreground the red circle with the diagonal line indicating “no,” alongside 25 or 30 other protestors. Several drivers honked approval. We got some thumbs-ups and some thumbs-downs.

Then, a driver in a pickup truck slowed and threw a shower of water from his cup at me, splashing my face, head, shirt, and sign. I wiped myself off and the ink began to run on the sign. I was so flabbergasted by this liquid assault I didn’t think to retaliate or even be angry.

Afterwards, I was overwhelmed by mixed emotions. I have had far worse done to me by ugly people. What the guy did was despicable, but it would only damage myself more if I lashed out. Then he's hurt me twice. Maybe, just maybe, he’d return home and realize he was an ass. Maybe on Sunday, his preacher will say something like being kind to your fellow man or turning the other cheek, and he’d feel remorse. Who knows? Maybe he was simply an ugly person, and would find smug self-satisfaction in his dastardly deed. I can’t concern myself with that. All I know is that not lashing out, not throwing a fire-hydrant or similar thing back at him, makes me feel better about myself.

I think people like he are scared right now. They really, truly feel that their lives will be deeply endangered if jack-booted thugs storm their house to take away their weapons. And they see me, and the other protesters, as facilitators.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m sure this guy remains adamant about being able to exercise his Second Amendment rights, to the extreme, in the way he interprets them. But then he became angry enough at me to prevent me from exercising my First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly free from abuse or assault from him. I’m guessing he’s the type of guy who would need the concept of hypocrisy explained to him.


* * Habitat For Humanity builds community 

Shelley Fortier is working to provide boots, so to speak. She’s the Executive Director of the local affiliate of the Habitat For Humanity. There’s an old expression about people picking themselves up by the bootstraps. Some people face daunting financial obstacles. Habitat For Humanity helps people in a real, tangible way to make improvements in their lives, by helping them achieve home ownership.

Hers is a fascinating story that led her to that position. She told me, “I was raised in Blacksburg and went to Virginia Tech. I got a degree in Political Science, but I entered the corporate world.” She met her husband Joe in New Jersey, and had a series of jobs in the New York, New Jersey, and New England areas, and then in California, working in management for retail chain stores.

“He finished a graduate degree from Berkeley in Energy Resources. We were both pushing 40 and were asking ourselves what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. My parents were still in Blacksburg and we ended up moving back here.”

They arrived with two kids, great job skills, no plans, and no jobs. “One day, Joe came home and said, ‘I bought a building in Radford.’ He had a vision. He thought Radford needed a coffee shop and more affordable housing. They have an inventory of great, historic buildings.”

They have gone on to purchase several other downtown buildings in Radford and Blacksburg, and most recently the old Prices Fork Elementary School. Meanwhile, Shelley started volunteering for Habitat For Humanity. Habitat was founded in 1976 in Georgia, and is the largest not-for-profit home builder in the world.

So Joe came out of financial services, and became a developer and carpenter. Shelley came out of corporate retailing and became immersed in providing affordable housing. How did that happen?

“We looked at investing in rental properties. Many landlords bought substandard buildings and never improved them. They were low quality and not putting anything back into them. We believe in fairness. Conversations about privilege always made me uncomfortable. We worked hard. My parents worked hard. Yet my successes stand on their shoulders and theirs on their parents’. That’s privilege. I had that. Not everybody has that. Some people can’t pick themselves up by the bootstraps because they’ve never had boots. I had boots.

“We are social entrepreneurs. We live here. We’re going to invest in the community.”

They got grants and subsidies from a variety of sources. Historic tax credits. HUD money. Private investments. Then they got income from their tenants.

“I saw that Habitat was opening the ReStore in Christiansburg. With my retail background, I thought, ‘That I can do.’ I volunteered lots of hours.

“Everybody knows Habitat as a construction company. We facilitate the energy of human and financial resources of a community to build affordable houses. We are a retailer. We are a lender. We do family counseling, primarily financial counseling. We are housing advocates. The homes we build are sold, not given away. The buyer pays us back at zero interest, and we put that money into more homes.

“Affordable housing leads to a strong economy. Big corporations won’t move here if their $14/hour employees can’t find affordable housing. Companies seek a stable, motivated workforce that can find inexpensive housing. Stable households build stable communities, and stable communities build stable economies.

“I describe my job as popping corn without a lid. I try to catch a combination of land, money, home buyers, and community energy in the same bowl at generally the same time to make a project come to fruition. There is no typical day.

 “Our donor dollar never dies. When someone donates to us, the home buyer pays it back over time. It fuels itself for the next one. The community invests. The family invests. Lots of people have skin in the game. Our buyers build confidence as home owners. We don’t give them boots. We sell them affordable boots and they build themselves up. I spoke with one of our homeowners and he said ‘I was surprised that there are people out there who will come and invest their day for me and my family. I only hope that me and my family can do the same thing for someone else.’ It’s powerful stuff; it’s what love looks like. When volunteers devote their days off to build a home for someone, it builds communities. That’s where the value of life is.

“I have a lot of good days in this job. I’m not an emotional person, but when have dedication days, when we hand someone the Certificate of Occupancy and a set of keys to their new house, it gets me every time. It’s the culmination of all that love.”

Two major Habitat projects are in the works, a single family home in Christiansburg and a multi-tenant apartment in Blacksburg. Visit the website at www.habitatnrv.org for more information and volunteer opportunities.


* * The Board owes Erica Williams an apology

Here in the USA, we’re blessed to live under a set of foundational tenets of democracy that form the cornerstones of our republic. For example, in the eyes of the law, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

We all take this as a matter of faith, except apparently some members of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. That is, except by the Republican members. Because two years ago, in February 2016, these Republicans, three of which still serve, punished Circuit Court Clerk Erica Williams for a perceived transgression she never did.

Background: In November, 2015, Williams was re-elected to a second 8-year term. Shortly thereafter, she declined to re-appoint four members of her staff and a fifth refused reappointment. Reasons are widely speculative, but obviously she felt they were unresponsive to her needs as head of the clerk’s office. She had the full legal power to do this; the statute is clear. Other constitutional officers have done exactly the same in the past.

In response, Republicans on the Board, without justification, voted as a block to remove the $20,700 annual supplemental pay she’d been receiving as part of a Memorandum of Understanding she and the other Constitutional officers had signed. There was no trial. No evidence was presented to the Board. This was merely a partisan witch hunt by Republican Board members who reacted with vengefulness because they’d lost an election. In fact, Williams won by a landslide, a margin of 64% to 35%.

Thereafter, the county’s most partisan Republicans, spearheaded by newcomer James Willis, undertook a futile effort. On March 1, 2018 the State Supreme Court threw out the petition, citing that many signers were not informed that they must sign “under penalty of perjury,” which may have kept many of them from signing.

The ill-fated petition drive was not only unsuccessful, but philosophically a bad idea because the voting process is not well-served if a winner can be removed because of an unpopular decision. Rightfully, Virginia sets a high bar for removal of someone legally elected, making removal possible only under extreme conditions of neglect of duty, criminality, or misuse of the office. Williams’ situation clearly did not apply, as she was never accused of a crime. Mr. Willis’ frivolous war against her was doomed to fail from the start.

Because Willis and his accomplices obtained the requisite number of signatures, the County was forced to act, providing a legal challenge to Williams. Williams also wisely employed legal representation. Because Williams (who now uses her married surname Conner) ultimately prevailed, the County, and by the County I mean you and I as taxpayers, incurred her legal expenses (over $26,000) as well. What this means is that tens of thousands of our tax dollars that could have gone into other County services, instead were frittered away.

Responding to the news of the failure of his effort, Willis was quoted in the local daily newspaper, “We’re disappointed, but we started in this process knowing it was worth doing.” Oh? Maybe if it was “worth it,” he and his collaborators should pay for it!

In addition to the monetary loss we’ve incurred, the matter has been stressful to Erica, as she expressed when I met with her recently. She steadfastly refused to comment on the situations that led to the dismissal of the four employees, only to say she did it to improve the services provided by her office. In spite of all the stress, Erica was composed and professional, never once lashing out at her accusers. She mentioned to me that she took her oath seriously and that she worked every day to uphold that oath, even under the circumstances.

Furthermore, this action has cast a pall over our County, both in how a newcomer can lead a challenge to a fair and legal election, and in how acrimony and recrimination can distract us from the health, economy, education, and welfare we should be focused on. By removing her supplement, the Board validated and lent credence to the recall effort, damaging its own reputation.

Mr. Willis and his collaborators’ reputations are damaged, as they came across as vindictive and incompetent. And people who signed the petition come across as uninformed and easily manipulated, lending their signature without fully understanding their legal responsibilities.

This episode has shown any outside observers that our county is pre-occupied by petty, internecine squabbling, an image none of us want.

If the members of the Board of Supervisors have a shred of integrity, they will admit their error in judgment, reinstate her supplement immediately, and compensate her for two years of lost supplement with interest, unfairly withheld from her. And the Board will issue her a formal, public apology.


* * Ferne Moschella, President of Warm Hearth, loves elder care

Warm Hearth Village is the largest elder care facility in Southwest Virginia, and one of the most successful, with an occupancy rate of over 96%, providing homes to almost 600 seniors. Ferne Moschella, who has been with Warm Hearth for 18 years, is its current President and CEO, carrying on the legacy of Wybe and Marietje Kroontje, who founded it in 1974. I spoke with Ferne in her office and asked about the joys and challenges.

“I was hired as Chief Operating Officer,” she told me. “I had worked for Carilion for 9 years, and was traveling a lot. My office was at Roanoke Memorial (Hospital). I wanted a job closer to home. I have lived in Christiansburg since 1991, and I raised my two children there.”

Ferne is from the Queens borough of New York City. She and her husband moved here from Ithaca after her husband finished his PhD at Cornell, when he got a job in research in physics. With her MBA, she felt flexible about her career. They came down for a visit, liked what they saw, and then moved.

Long story short, she was hired on at Warm Hearth in 2000, and she started her new job the same day that the Kroontje Center opened and their workforce doubled.

I asked about her impressions in how Warm Hearth today matches the founders’ vision. She said, “Their legacy is alive and well. ‘Our mission is to enrich the lives of seniors of all socio-economic backgrounds through a wide range of choices in housing, services, and care.’ It has been modestly tweaked from its original version. I hope this is a vision that (all our staff) can recite. We try to ingrain it in every person who comes to work here. Enriching the lives of seniors is what we’re here to do. All of us here, regardless of our title, have the same job, which is adding meaning and value to people’s lives.”

About her predecessors, she said she is perhaps more liberal-minded in allowing customization of homes and with Warm Hearth’s pet policies. “We believe that having pets enriches people’s lives. So we encourage it. Our staff is willing to go the extra mile to help our residents take care of their animals.

“About the customizations; these are people’s homes. If they want to do something to it that makes it more livable to them, and it’s not going to diminish the value, we let them do it.”

I asked, “Your background is not in geriatrics. What ‘is it’ about old people?”

She said, “Our elders have resilience, wisdom, and a depth and breadth of experience that is unique. What we have to learn from and be inspired by, on a daily basis here, is just phenomenal. This feeling permeates our staff as well. Absolutely. The people we’re serving have served others their entire lives. They’ve been our doctors, our nurses, our teachers, and our professors. Our friends and our neighbors. This is our opportunity to give something back to them. They are at a time in their life where their world is narrowing. As humans, our need for relationships does not change as we get older. When you live to be among the oldest people in society, your peer group has fallen away, by definition. When your life expectancy is 78 and you’re 88, or 98, or 100, and we have people here are over 100, you’ve outlived your support group.

“When you’ve outlived your spouse, your life partner, your friends, your siblings, and sometimes your children, our job becomes being friend and family. Whether you’re the caregiver, the nurse, or the CEO, you’re now their friend and family. In working here, we all find we receive more than we give. We develop deep relationships with our residents.

“I went to a funeral yesterday for a woman who lived here for 11 years. Two years ago, we were at a memorial for one of her neighbors. She said to me, ‘Ferne, it means so much to us that you come to funerals. I hope you’ll come to mine.’ I said to her, ‘I appreciate that and I hope it’s a long time before it happens. But I’ll be there.’ So come hell or high water, I was going to be at hers. 

 “We have amazing, accomplished people here whose lives deserve to be celebrated. Knowing these people is a real benefit for me. They deserve the best we can give them, to help them live their best lives. That’s what we’re about.

“Every time I go to our Village Center and I see residents and people from the community from all walks of life, in the pool, exercising, having lunch, just socializing, I just want to pinch myself. Warm Hearth is a place for living. Wow; that’s it for me.”



* * Anne Giles wants us to know about opioid use disorder

Blacksburg’s Anne Giles is on a mission to educate us on opioid use disorder. Anne is in recovery from addiction to alcohol and is acutely aware of the problems and stigmas associated with addiction.

Anne spent most of her formative years in Blacksburg, getting her bachelor's and master’s degrees at Tech. She left Blacksburg in 1983, earned a master's in counseling in Florida, and returned to Blacksburg in 2006 to spend more time with her mother during her final years.

In 2008, Anne started a technology company that proved not to be successful. Meanwhile, she began volunteering on the Board of the New River Valley Community Services. “I was so uplifted by their programming that I asked to work there,” she told me. “I was hired part-time as a counselor and I have been there for several years, and that’s what I’m doing now professionally.

“Opioid use disorder is one of many substance abuse disorders. It is one of the few that research shows that responds well to medication, to two in particular: methadone and buprenorphine. Methadone is only available at federally regulated clinics. However, buprenorphine is inexpensive and plentiful, but heavy regulation limits access to it.”

“We have declared that we have an opioid crisis across the nation, but the medicines known to treat it are essentially inaccessible. Most people with substance use disorders have experienced some sort of trauma. Physical trauma. Mental Trauma. Sexual trauma. Neglect. Violence. Loss. Death. All of it. Often someone is traumatized in childhood. Childhood trauma is correlated with mental illness in adulthood.

“Human beings have used substances for thousands of years. The beauty of being human is that we take risks, we adventure, we discover and explore. We desire, we long. 5000 years ago in Sumer, the Sumerians were ingesting beer. We have way more problems with alcohol than with opioids.

“Marijuana. Caffeine. We use substances for many purposes. When our use persists despite negative consequences, then it becomes a problem. That’s the definition of an addiction. Functionality in taking care of oneself. Functionality in maintenance of relationships. Functionality in citizenship or at work. When these functions are impaired, use has become a problem.”

Admitting to be virtually ignorant on the topic, I asked, “How big a problem is this?”

She said, “If death rate is what we care about, there are many more things that are causing pre-mature death than opioid use disorder. But basic humanity calls us to alleviate suffering. People with opioid addiction are suffering. Medications are denied them, and they are suffering. If you had diabetes, and you were not permitted access to insulin, I would be upset about it.

“Doctors have to be waivered to prescribe these medications. They have to go through training and are limited in the numbers of patients to whom they can prescribe.

“I would like for our citizens to speak to their representatives, their elected officials, to ask, ‘why can’t people have these medications?’

“I developed alcohol use disorder following the Virginia Tech shootings. Fifteen percent of people who experience violence develop PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Of those, 5% develop addiction. We live in a whole community affected by the event.”

“Why were the 15% different?” I asked.

“There are many pre-disposing factors to experiencing trauma in a way that develops into PTSD,” she said. “There are numerous research studies on known factors. It’s a social phenomenon (following these shootings). It happened at Columbine. It happened here. I’m sure it will happen in Parkland (Florida).

“The problem with substance use disorder is that it is perceived to be a moral and personal failing. The Surgeon General’s report that came out in 2016 disabuses us of that notion. It is a health condition. But the majority of people still think it’s a personal problem or failing. The research doesn’t support that. We’re having a national conversation on a number of fronts, and this is one of them. There’s a larger problem with Americans not valuing science and knowledge. Changing beliefs with knowledge is harder than I thought it would be. The problem with substance use disorder is that it can result in pre-mature death. It’s an emergency. We need to honor the facts.”