Worm Moon for March 2021

The full moon for this month on March 28, 2021 is called the Worm Moon. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it’s “spectacularly bright.” It is indeed. I took the picture below around 8:30 PM.

Worm Moon March 28, 2021

It’s also known by other names including the Eagle Moon and the Crow Comes Back Moon, Wind Strong Moon among others. By the way we had a Fire Weather Warning around here for today and tomorrow advising against outdoor burning because of elevated grassland fire risk due to windiness.

It’s not clear what kind of worm is connected with this moon. It could be a beetle larva or an earthworm. Maybe the earthworm is connected with the return of robins, who eat the earthworms. Which makes me wonder what earthworms eat. They commonly eat parasites so you don’t want to snack on any raw earthworms.

Yes, in fact you can eat earthworms. You can but I won’t. I’m a finicky eater and I’ve been called the slowest eater in the world. I prefer to call my pace mindful eating. It becomes slower (I mean more mindful) when I encounter stuff like shredded coconut, which I chew forever because somehow, I can barely bring myself to swallow it. It has the consistency of cellophane, to which I have a personal policy against eating. I’m not sure you could eat earthworms mindfully, but I bet you couldn’t get your mind off what you’re eating.

Mindful eating was something I learned about when I took the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course several years ago. Mindful eating guidelines include keeping the different tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter in mind, so to speak. In addition to those there’s another taste called umami (pronounced oo mommy). I think it’s close to savory, not to be confused with Smack Ya Mama, a Cajun seasoning, which you might use in gumbo.

Gumbo comes from a West African word for okra, another thing I would rather not eat because it’s slimy (sort of reminds me of earthworms). Mindful eating could include setting down your utensils or food in between bites. I could easily set down my utensils and okra—but I probably wouldn’t pick them up again.

There is no connection I know of between the Men in Black (MIB) Worm Guys and the moon. They don’t come from the moon but they’re definitely not from this galaxy. I don’t know what they eat but they like gourmet coffee and cigarettes. You can cut them in half and it doesn’t kill them; they just pull themselves together. If you cut an earthworm in the right place, behind the half that contains the head, several hearts, etc., it grows a new hind end.

The moon is a fascinating thing. It stabilizes the earth, keeping it from wobbling on its axis so that our seasons and temperatures don’t change wildly. It’s slowly moving away from us, according to scientists. But it’s a very long goodbye. It will be many Worm Moons before the moon goes. And by then, there won’t be anyone to notice.

James Alan McPherson Park

I discovered recently from a news item that a local park (formerly Creekside Park) in Iowa City has been renamed James Alan McPherson Park. I realize it’s incredible, but I didn’t know who he was. How did he escape my notice? We’ve lived in the Iowa City and Coralville area for over 30 years and the African American Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer and Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor had been here the whole time. McPherson died of pneumonia complications in 2016.

We moved in different circles. My wife, Sena, and I moved to Iowa City in 1988 so that I could attend the new summer enrichment medical school program for minority and disadvantaged students. The program owed its start to a leading African American University of Iowa professor, Philip Hubbard. I graduated in 1992, finished my psychiatry residency in 1996, and spent nearly my entire career working as a psychiatric consultant in the University of Iowa general hospital until my retirement last summer.

In contrast, McPherson spent his whole career as a fiction writer. He earned his Master of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971. He returned in 1981 to become a faculty member there and lived in Iowa City until his death. He won both the Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. In fact, his fame as a writer was established before he ever got to Iowa. McPherson made a substantial contribution to the workshop’s reputation as one of the top creative writing programs in the world.

Last January when I wrote the post about the Iowa River Landing Sculpture Walk, we visited the Iowa Writers Library at the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. I mentioned Margaret Walker, the first African American woman accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I still think the IRL should have a sculpture honoring her.

But I can’t even recall seeing a book by an African American man in the lowa Writers Library. It’s maintained by the Coralville Public Library, whose website lists several of McPherson’s works, including Elbow Room (which won the Pulitzer in 1978), as being shelved there. I remember thinking that the collection was a bit disorganized and that some books seemed to be missing or shelved in the wrong places. But since I wasn’t even aware of McPherson, I can’t say his books weren’t there.

Even though I have a copy of the book Invisible Hawkeyes: African American at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era, edited by Lena M. Hill and Michael D. Hill, I missed any mention of McPherson in the chapter, Obscured Traditions: Blacks at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1940-1965. One reason might be the time frame, which preceded McPherson’s matriculation. However, that’s no excuse because the very last page of the chapter mentions him.

The conclusion chapter of Invisible Hawkeyes (An Indivisible Legacy: Iowa and the Conscience of Democracy by Michael D. Hill in Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era, in Chapter Four: Obscured Traditions: Blacks at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1940-1965, by Michael D. Hill, University of Iowa Press, 2016). does devote a lot of attention to McPherson’s role at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While Hill acknowledges that McPherson described his experience at Iowa as “humanizing,” this was in the context of the struggle against racism endured by most other African American students who preceded him decades before. Interestingly, Hill suggests that it’s ironic for an alumnus of a historically black college or university (HBCU), (which was Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia) to express a fondness for Iowa, a place where racism was keenly felt by his predecessors and which Hill suspects McPherson might not have understood in detail and which he discussed only in the abstract with his mentor, Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man).

Well, I’m in way over my head there—and I think it’s better for Michael Hill himself to comment on how irony seemed a part of McPherson. He’s also in the best position to describe McPherson as a person as well as a writer. In the video, Hill’s initial comments are about McPherson’s reaction to being the recipient of the Pulitzer Price for Elbow Room, his book of short stories.

We just ordered a copy of Elbow Room. I read a few of the stories from it on the web. It’s funny how chapters from some books find their way out there, often through university web sites, it seems. He was a genius at storytelling. Just from a psychiatric clinician’s standpoint, “The Story of a Dead Man” is a perfect description of someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder, something a colleague wrote about: Bad Boys, Bad Men: Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopathy) by Donald W. Black, MD, 2013 Oxford University Press. It’s an autographed copy. Incidentally, whenever I google black psychiatrists in Iowa, Dr. Black’s always near the top of the page. His name is Black but black he is not.

Which brings up a sense of humor, something which many people say McPherson had. He used a sense of humor several times during a fascinating 1983 interview with Bob Shacochis for the Iowa Journal of Literary Studies. It seems to me that they got a bit annoyed with each other a few times. One of the more striking comments from McPherson was his quote of an old Negro saying, “You may be my color, but you ain’t my kind.” The context was a question from Shacochis about McPherson’s thoughts about the Third World. I was puzzled by his reply that he thought the Third World was a “fiction.” McPherson said if the Third World has any power, then it might be politically advantageous for African Americans to identify themselves with it. He wasn’t after power, he just wanted to find his kind—and that didn’t have anything to do with color.

McPherson was very evocative in his writing and his speech. That old Negro saying evoked a memory in me of my short time at Huston-Tillotson College (another HBCU, in Austin, Texas) in the mid-1970s. I had grown up in Iowa in what were basically all white schools where I was the only African American kid in the classroom. When I finally went to H-TC, I felt very out of place. Even my Northern accent got me into trouble. One student asked me, “Why do you talk so hard?” There was this one time when I tried to play in a pickup basketball game with a group of other students. I was a very clumsy player. For the briefest of moments while struggling underneath the basket, I got murmurs of encouragement from several of them, even members of the opposite team. I will never forget how good that made me feel, especially when I contrast it with a memory from my hometown when I tried to play with a bunch of white guys. When one of them called out, “Don’t worry about the nigger!” I went and sat down on the bench.

The point is that nobody at H-TC ever said to me “You may be my color, but you ain’t my kind.” I said that to myself. Now, somebody else sent me a similar message to me in Iowa, shortly before I left for H-TC. It was a white woman who thought she meant well; she knew I was going there. She showed me a picture of a young black woman with the clear intention of trying to get me interested in females closer to my own color. The message was more like “You may be in my back yard, but you ain’t my color.”

Speaking of back yards, when I was in elementary school, a couple of white bullies a few grades ahead of me found me at my house and started beating the crap out of me in my own back yard. Somehow, they knew that I wrote little stories and brought them to school to read. I began doing that for my mother at home. I promised them I would put them in my stories if they would quit beating on me. They believed me and stopped. It didn’t occur to me how dumb they were for a long time after.

Those little anecdotes are nothing like the jewels that McPherson fashioned. My stories here are true biography of pain. James Alan McPherson’s stories were true fiction, something magical and evocative enough to foster healing of pain. I hope he found his kind.

James Alan McPherson did more than enough to get his name on a sign and dedication plaque for a small park.

Shine Your Light

It has been a couple of days since my second COVID-19 vaccine shot a couple of days ago. Consistent with what is known about the side effect profile of the second jab, I had one day of the well-described generalized aches and fatigue besides the sore arm, which didn’t limit my activities. It’s working.

I want to thank the University of Iowa Health Care Support Services Building (HSSB) personnel for a kind, well-organized approach to the vaccine administration process for so many people. This was a way for HSSB to shine a light. It was also an opportunity for many to shine their lights—protecting others as well as themselves.

Dr. Patricia Winokur, MD, Executive Dean and Infectious Diseases specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, deserves special mention for her superb educational video presentations on the COVID-19 vaccines. Now there’s a big light—more like a beacon.

Her father was George Winokur, MD, who was a very influential psychiatrist and a past chairman of the University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry. He had a great sense of humor and was fond of reminding trainees that we had a lot to learn. He came up with a set of 10 commandments for residents:

Winokur’s 10 Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not sleep with any UI Psychiatry Hospital patient unless it be thy spouse.
  2. Thou shalt not accept recompense for patient care in this center outside thy salary.
  3. Thou shalt be on time for conferences and meetings.
  4. Thou shalt act toward the staff attending with courtesy.
  5. Thou shalt write progress notes even if no progress has been made.
  6. Thou shalt be prompt and on time with thy letters, admissions and discharge notes.
  7. Thou shalt not moonlight without permission under threat of excommunication.
  8. Data is thy God. No graven images will be accepted in its place.
  9. Thou shalt speak thy mind.
  10. Thou shalt comport thyself with modesty, not omniscience.

I got a shout-out to the University on Match Day today. A special congratulations to the Psychiatry Department and the new incoming first year residents. I know they’re going to let their lights shine, especially if they commit Winokur’s 10 Commandments to memory.

I’m reminded of Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA, who delivered the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Lecture in January. Her light glowed. By the way, she delivered the 2018 Harvard Deans Community Service Awards to medical students whose lights shone brightly.  

I also remember my former English Literature professor at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas ages ago, Dr. Jenny Lind Porter-Scott, who carried her lantern high. I have a copy of one of her books of poetry, The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems. The lead poem fits the theme today:

The Lantern of Diogenes

by Jenny Lind Porter

All maturation has a root in quest.

How long thy wick has burned, Diogenes!

I see thy lantern bobbing in unrest

When others sit with babes upon their knees

Unconscious of the twilight or the storm,

Along the streets of Athens, glimmering strange,

Thine eyes upon the one thing keeps thee warm

In all this world of tempest and of change.

Along the pavestones of Florentian town

I see the shadows cower at thy flare,

In Rome and Paris; in an Oxford gown,

Men’s laughter could not shake the anxious care

Which had preserved thy lantern. May it be

That something of thy spirit burns in me!

St. Patrick’s Day Reflections: COVID-19 Vaccine 2nd Jab and More

This morning I got my 2nd COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Health Care Support Services Building (HSSB)—just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, as luck would have it. Sena got her first shot yesterday and is scheduled for her second next month. I forgot to wear green, which worried me a little while I was waiting in line when the lady ahead of me poked a lot of fun at a guide for the same sin. He pointed to something bright green on the sole of his shoe, which I didn’t inspect too closely, and which didn’t pass the lady’s inspection.

After my first shot last month, I had some swelling, soreness, redness, and itching in my left arm which didn’t limit my activities. Today, the nurse affirmed that my symptoms after the first shot were not uncommon and that I might have more symptoms after my second shot—or none at all. Like my first experience, the process was very smooth and fast.

I didn’t pay much attention to the type of vaccine I got. I felt lucky to get it. All three, Johnson and Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer are effective. According to a recent news report, about 88% of Americans who got the first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine completed the 2-shot series, based on a CDC study of 12 million people.

In other important news, just this past Sunday I spread crab grass preventer and fertilizer on our lawn. On Monday, I shoveled snow from our driveway. Sena assured me that the snow would not hinder the lawn treatment. In fact, things are greening up nicely for St. Patrick’s Day.

The robins have probably been around for about a week. I noticed a robin standing in the street Monday while the snow was coming down. It was mesmerized and seemed to be thinking like me, “Just my luck. Now what?” But the robin didn’t have to shovel a driveway. Luck comes and goes.

I nearly got a 29-hand playing cribbage with Sena last night. She nearly always wins. The odds of getting a 29-hand are 1 in 216,580. In my hand I had the jack of spades and 3 of the four 5 cards. All I needed was a spade 5 cut card, which I did not get. Some players think cribbage is 2/3 luck and 1/3 skill. You need both.

Me and the robin keep looking for the warmer spring sun, and any other good fortune which is coming—and not dependent just on luck.

Big Foot Bought Shoes!

You’ve heard of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast by Orson Welles on The Mercury Theatre on the Air? Some people thought it caused a panic but it was introduced as just part of the radio program way ahead of time.

Well, I’m announcing way ahead of time that this post about Bigfoot’s purchase of a pair of Oxfords is just fiction so you don’t rush the shoe stores with your video equipment and lord knows what else.

You should also not storm the Terry Trueblood Trail looking for the cryptid’s footprints, although I think you might still be able to see them. They weren’t just footprints when I filmed them. It was as though someone or something extremely big and heavy, wearing shoes, had sunk into the concrete sidewalk with each step. That part is non-fiction.

We’ve walked the trail a half-dozen times over the past few years but we never noticed the footprints until just recently. I don’t think the sidewalk is newly poured, but it’s more likely than Bigfoot going for a walk on the trail. Then again, I’m used to seeing animal prints in sidewalks. They’re not shy about walking in wet cement—but things which wear shoes usually are.

It just so happens there have been reports of sightings of Bigfoot in Iowa, believe it or not. Nobody has ever captured one or even seen any dead ones. Some people think they’re not animals per se, and may be able to escape detection by jumping between space-time dimensions. Maybe that’s why the footprints abruptly stop on the trail. I wonder if it hurts to do that.

I can’t explain Bigfoot at all, much less why it would buy a pair of shoes—or where it would buy them. There would be a lot of excitement if it bought the shoes. People would faint in the aisles and the checkout person would be skeptical of an intergalactic credit card.

Maybe Bigfoot is an expert shoplifter, especially if all it has to do is leap between dimensions to escape the proper authorities. It could be that the reason why they knock on trees is to tell each other where the laziest shoe store security officers work.

When you figure all this out, let me know.

Live Together

There are lots of reasons why humans find it difficult to live in peace with each other. I don’t pretend to understand them. Artists are sometimes better at capturing the differences we have; not so much about how to overcome them.

There’s this really brief scene in the movie Men in Black (MIB) 3 that I notice every time I watch it (which is every chance I get). It’s in the MIB headquarters where young Agent K is questioning Agent J, who has traveled back to the year 1969 in order to prevent the killing of Agent K by the Boglodite, Boris the Animal, who has also traveled back to 1969 to kill Agent K in order to prevent having his arm shot off by Agent K, being arrested and sent to the LunarMax prison on the dark side of the moon.

Agent J uses a time travel device to “time jump” from the top of the Chrysler Building in New York City with the help of Jeffrey Price, the son of the man (Obadiah Price) who invented the time device. Agent J time jumps, reluctantly, after Jeffrey warns him not to lose the time device because if he does, he’d be “…stuck in 1969! It wasn’t the best time for your people. I’m just saying. It’s a lot cooler now.” This is, of course, a reference to racism in the 1960s.

Anyway, while Agent is chasing Boris the Animal, who has just killed the alien Roman the Fabulist, young Agent K captures Agent J and hauls him back to MIB Headquarters for questioning. The young Agent O interrupts to warn young Agent K that Agent X, the boss, is really upset about the Coney Island incident in which Boris kills Roman.

Now all that is to highlight the short exchange about the Coney Island incident that happens next between Agent X and young Agent K. Agent X stops by his desk and in front of Agent O and Agent J, asks “Any casualties?” Agent K says “Yes, Roman the Fabulist.” Agent X looks scornful and snarls, “Any human casualties?”  Both Agent K and Agent O wince and look down at the floor as Agent K says, “No sir.” It’s an uncomfortable moment because you realize that Agent X doesn’t seem to value any life unless it’s human. I could find lots of quotes from the movie on the web except for these.

Later in the film, when young Agent K decides not to neurolyze Agent J as he begins to trust him, he says “I knew Roman. His wife cooked me dinner once, and while it was not pleasant, he was my friend.”

It’s subtle but I think the implication is that alien life is just as precious as human life. And by extension it means that all life is precious and it’s too bad we can’t somehow learn to live together, regardless of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and other differences. MIB 3 is by no means a social message type of film but there are references to at least race relations in the film, even if they’re only framing gags, like the scene with the two cops stopping Agent J because they think he stole the nice car he’s driving—which he did but “…not because I’m black.”

This post used a big buildup for making a point which might seem to many people, as Jeffrey Price said, “…like little blip on the historical radar.”

But, in the broader context of us all learning how to respect and live with each other, that’s a pretty big blip.

Messages of Hope on the Terry Trueblood Trail

Spring was in the air as we took a turn around the loop of the Terry Trueblood Trail. There was something different about it since we were there in late December. The wind was not as blustery. What leaped out at us were messages of hope written on the sidewalk in brightly colored chalk. The messages said things like “This Way to Greatness,” “Enjoy That View,” “Go Go Go,” and “Stay Strong!”

Along with these written messages were other signs of hope. One of them was a beaver slapping its tail in an unfrozen section of the lake, near its lodge. Snow-white geese and gulls sat further out on the ice, heads tucked in their wings—for now gathering strength before thundering into the sky.

It has been a long year. The pandemic of coronavirus and corrosive social and political upheaval exact a heavy toll on the spirit. It’s hard to see beyond what is callous, pathetic, and catastrophic.

The walks along the Terry Trueblood Trail are often healing, even if only in a small way. It made me wonder who Terry Trueblood was. I found a description of him on the web. Among his many accomplishments, he was Iowa City’s Director of Parks and Recreation. The Iowa Park and Recreation Association unanimously renamed its highest professional award the “Slattery/Trueblood Professional Award.”

Terry Trueblood was a very dedicated professional but more than that, he was devoted to his family. He had a great sense of humor. He was compassionate and generous. He was fair, honest, and was “the definition of integrity.” He “benefited every life he touched.” There are no signs in life pointing the way to greatness. Terry Trueblood found the path anyway.

It’s easy to ignore or deplore the countless common stones we find. We need to see the rare diamonds of hope in the spring.

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