My red state is still arguing over masks. But it’s not about Covid-19 anymore.

A mask discarded on the side of a road in San Rafael, Calif. In some parts of the country, people are still fighting over masks even as they have stopped worrying about the pandemic. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

What can we do about vaccine hesitancy in rural America? I have some ideas, and I wrote about them for The Washington Post.

You can read it here:

The hidden pandemic

You can read the full article in the May issue of Kentucky Monthly here:

I highly recommend Jessica Lahey’s new book for everyone, especially parents, teachers, and school administrators. It would also be great for book clubs!

The Purple Box

This week marks the 22nd anniversary of Columbine, America’s first mass school shooting.

Two senior boys shot twelve students and one teacher to death, injuring 21 more by gunfire before turning their guns on themselves.

On April 16, Reuters reported that since Columbine, 2,000 Americans have been killed in mass shootings and that we had more deaths from firearms in 2019 than car accidents. The column is titled “A timeline of mass shootings in the U.S.” because we have so many mass shootings we need a timeline.

In one of his many recent interviews to promote his new book, former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was reminded that 20 first graders were slaughtered by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut while he was Speaker. “Back when Newtown happened,” he said, “we couldn’t find common ground with the other side. Hopefully there is some common ground to be found…. because frankly this is heartbreaking. I think it’s embarrassing our country to the rest of the world.”

Revisionist history. Headlines from Speaker Boehner’s tenure commonly read “Boehner Opposes New Gun Control Bill” (Jan. 2011) and “Speaker Boehner Won’t Commit To House Vote on Gun Control Bill” (Apr. 2013).

In the last month alone, eight Americans were shot to death at a FedX facility in Indiana; a retired NFL player shot and killed a doctor, his wife, two grandchildren, and two air-conditioning technicians working at the doctor’s home in South Carolina; four were shot to death at a real estate office in California, including a nine year-old boy; a man killed ten people, including a police officer, in a Colorado grocery store.

Aaron Smith, who covers the firearms industry for Forbes, reported in December 2020 that since Newtown “federal gun control laws have barely changed. The gun industry continues to produce assault weapons and high-capacity magazines without additional federal restrictions. Gun sales are on the rise. Mass shootings have also risen this year, even with much of the country under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.”

There are so many places innocent Americans can go to get shot: grade school, middle school, high school, college, movie theatre, concert, nightclub, warehouse, office, high school football game, massage parlor, gas station, hair salon, Congressional baseball game, birthday party, airport baggage claim, amusement park, restaurant, shopping mall, grocery store, your own house.

To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, so it goes, and so on.

To paraphrase John Boehner, Congressional Republicans’ political impotence is an international embarrassment.

I recently stood in the parking lot at Kroger in Lawrenceburg talking to a friend’s husband, a gun owner, about the good guy vs. bad guy argument. “What a joke,” he said, pointing at the store. “If I walked in there hellbent on shooting a bunch of people, you know what I’d do? I’d pick out the good guy with a gun and shoot him first. Now I’ve got two guns and everybody’s running and calling 911. The chance of some yahoo, with all that adrenaline pumping through him, shooting me before I can kill at least a dozen people is cowboy fantasy.”

Yes, open carry is legal in Kentucky. This is the law. “It’s my God-given right!” the 2nd Amendment junkies scream. And according to Everytown for Gun Safety, gun suicides and suicide attempts cost Kentucky an estimated $2.8 billion each year. Kentucky ranks 15th in the nation for the highest rate of gun suicide. Sixty-six percent of Kentucky gun deaths are suicides.

Is gun suicide our God-given right, too? How very Christian of us.

Twenty-two years later, on this horrifying and all-American anniversary, when I Google the word “Columbine” the first three suggestions are Columbine shooting, Columbine flower, Columbine shooters.

My daughter graduated high school six weeks after Columbine. My daughter just turned 40.

A year ago this week, Newtown mother Nelba Marquez-Greene tweeted the photo below, writing, “There is a purple box, in a rarely opened closet in my house, of my daughter’s clothes. The clothes with the bullet holes she was wearing the last day she breathed. It’s tiny, b/c she was only 6.”

When women are hunted

I wrote a column for The Post today after seeing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram video recounting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

As always, thanks for reading.

“Do you know what it feels like to be hunted? She’s only 31, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) does. In an astonishing Instagram Live broadcast on Monday night, she described in detail the scene on Jan. 6 — the feeling of being hunted by the mob from the Trump rally that began at the Ellipse before descending by the thousands on the U.S. Capitol. She frantically opened cabinets and closets looking for places to hide. She regretted wearing high heels, because how could she run?”

Link to continue reading.

What’s next

Diana goddess of the hunt, by Friedrich Stur

While I don’t know anyone who traveled to Washington D.C. after the president tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” it has been sickening, disturbing, heartbreaking, infuriating, and frankly dystopian these last months watching the on-line, social media brainwashing of some of my oldest friends.

Here is the story of one of those friends. I’ll call her Diana.

Diana is in her 50s, big smile, a do-gooder, healthy eater, extremely fit, white, religious, conservative, a grandmother. And until 2020, seemingly apolitical. We have not spoken much this last decade, keeping up with each other’s lives, as many of us do these days, on Facebook.

Last summer, seemingly out of nowhere, Diana started showing up on my Facebook page to debate politics. She wanted to know why people in my comment section, people she did not know, believed the “liberal agenda.” She sometimes became argumentative to the point I would just delete my original post altogether in lieu of letting the arguing continue.

I then noticed she’d started posting political content on her own page, which was unusual, posts about how Covid-19 was nothing more than the flu and how being made to wear masks infringed on her freedom. No, she wrote, she would NOT be taking any vaccine.

Come September, she shared a tweet from the president that read: The Democrats never even mentioned the words LAW & ORDER at their National Convention. That’s where they are coming from. If I don’t’ win, America’s suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, “Friendly Protestors.”

Then came the stream of posts about child sex trafficking with photos of Ivanka Trump, thanking Ms. Trump for “saving the children!” and writing about how it was time she and the “silent majority” made themselves heard.

After the November 3 election, Diana deactivated her Facebook account—a place that, prior to Summer 2020, had consisted entirely of family portraits, vacation montages, pictures of her dogs and her grandchildren—as well as her Twitter and Instagram accounts, and made a big pronouncement about moving to Parler.

I, too, opened a Parler account to keep track not only of Diana, but of other friends and vocal Kentucky Republicans who’d made a big show of ditching Facebook for Parler where they could be “free” and be “heard” and where they could follow President Trump’s biggest megaphones like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Jenna Ellis, Sydney Powell, Linn Wood, etc…. without “MSM censorship” as they tried to “stop the steal.”

I checked Diana’s Parler page almost daily. She didn’t post much of her own content and certainly no photos, but she often echoed (Parler’s version of the Like button) posts about how the election was being stolen, freedom from the liberal agenda, how Joe Biden would retire for phony health reasons by Summer 2021 to make room for that radical socialist/communist Kamala Harris.

Around Christmas, she wrote something like, “Keep fighting! We love you President Trump!” followed by a red heart and an American flag emoji.

A couple of days into 2021, I’d had enough of Parler. I couldn’t watch anymore. In the span of about six months, I no longer recognized the friend I’ve known for half my life. I deleted my Parler account.

Why am I telling this story? Because after the unspeakable, horrifying events of January 6, after the terroristic fruits of radicalization, I’m wondering what’s next.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing, you’ll recognize “what’s next?” as President Bartlet’s signature line. Okay, the fictional president would say when it was time to move on, time to take on the next big problem at hand, what’s next?

In her book “Surviving Autocracy” Masha Gessen writes, “The country that elected Trump was a country … that had already begun to damage itself in the way that Trumpism exacerbated. He preyed on the fear, he weaponized the hatred, and he filled the void left by the lack of vision. To reverse Trump’s autocratic attempt, we will have to abandon the idea of returning to an imaginary pre-Trump normalcy when American institutions functioned as they should. Instead, we have to recall that what undergirds the Congress and the courts, the media and civil society, is the belief that this can be a country of all its people.”

Donald Trump may have lost the election, but 75 million Americans voted for him. Almost half the electorate watched this vile, hateful, ignorant man for 4 years and said yes, more please. Donald Trump is leaving the Oval Office, but his followers remain. Followers like those who stormed the capitol. Followers like my friend Diana.

So what’s next?

What’s next, with a Republican Congress who cowers in fear of him and his followers, afraid for their lives and the lives of their families?

What’s next, to get us through and past Covid-19 and the shambles left by this monster and his arrogantly incompetent administration?

What’s next, after our own president gleefully radicalized Americans to the point they traveled to Washington D.C. at his behest and violently stormed our nation’s capitol, intending to stop the certification of a free and fair election?

What’s next, in an America where a 50-something, normally apolitical, financially stable, privileged grandmother can be rendered unrecognizable, brainwashed on social media in less than a year?

What, in God’s name, is next?

On friendship, and healing

The first time Ragan and I met in person. Photo credit: Phyllis Theroux

(This essay will run in the Lexington Herald-Leader over the Christmas holidays.)

“‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.’ ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness. Our president has zero compassion and, if he has any love at all, it is morally corrupt. John McCain was USNA 1958, a year ahead of me.”

Thus began an email I received after writing about President Trump’s disrespect of Senator McCain from Ragan Phillips—lifelong Republican, born 1936 in Anderson County, Kentucky, graduate of the Kentucky Military Institute and the U.S. Naval Academy—one of dozens of long, conversational emails we would exchange over the next three years.

“Dear Ms. Carter,” he first wrote in July 2017, “A friend of ours in California brought your work to my attention. There is an odd link between us. I grew up in Lawrenceburg and the Anderson News, in large part, influenced my career decisions. I now live in Ashland, Virginia, married to writer Phyllis Theroux. I think our political and social views have a strong positive correlation. You may find Edward Luce’s book ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism’ to be of interest. I am quite fond of large dogs, small towns, ice cream and honest people. I think we link on at least three of the four. If Phyllis and I should make it back to Kentucky, we would be delighted to take you to dinner.”

My friendship with Ragan runs contrary to everything we see and read. As the divisiveness and even hatefulness of the Trump presidency comes to an end, Ragan and I are proof that liberals and conservatives, even those of different generations, can get along, can find common ground, can even become the closest of friends, not through avoiding political conversation—which I would argue is and always has been a mistake—but by being willing to have the hard conversations regularly and honestly.

Like me, Ragan believed in the value of good journalism and local newspapers, and he could not understand the cult-like allegiance to Donald Trump, the rallies where crowds shouted inanities like “Lock her up!” and cheered when he called the press “enemy of the people.” This, he argued, had nothing to do with America or democracy or conservatism, and everything to do with the blind allegiance to and the worship of one cruel, wealthy, morally-bankrupt narcissist.

As one of Ragan’s emails stated, “Remember the old wisdom, “United We Stand. Divided We Fall?” Trump has turned that one on its ear to “United I Lose. Divided I Win.”

Which is exactly what we are seeing now as Trump continues to spread lies and conspiracy theories about an election he lost in order to keep us divided, in order to keeping bilking his followers for donations under the guise of needing money for “legal fees.”

Ragan and his wife, Phyllis, did make it back here to Kentucky. It was summer. I arranged for them to visit with the editor of The Anderson News, where Ragan had worked as a teenager, and we had dinner on our porch where we sat for hours after, in the dark, as he told stories about growing up here in Lawrenceburg and we talked politics. “I have a hard time thinking about $20B for a useless border wall,” I recall him saying, “when teachers in Kentucky, Virginia, and across the country are being so underpaid for doing the most important work in our economy.”

Sadly, it was also during this visit when Phyllis pulled me aside to tell me Ragan had a rare form of congestive heart failure. He died peacefully at home on March 26, 2020.

A couple years back, when his local newspaper went under, Ragan, in his early 80s and already ailing, started “The Ashland Hawk,” an online community newspaper, and we would often discuss his intentions and goals. He used every minute he had left to address inequity, school budgets, and racism.

I think about Ragan often. We were, as Phyllis called us, kindred spirits, a Republican man and a Democratic woman who crammed a lifetime of friendship into three short years. To paraphrase Forest Gump, I miss my great, good friend. And I am sad he did not live to see the end of the Trump presidency and the restoration of compassion, kindness, and decency to the Oval Office.

As we look ahead to 2021, may we learn from Ragan’s example in being willing to do the work, to have the hard conversations necessary to heal our divisions. Love and compassion—and friendship—are not luxuries. As the Dalai Lama said, we will not survive without them.

A 2020 kind of year-end book list

To say 2020 wreaked havoc on my reading habits would be an embarrassing understatement. From the week of March 10 on, I’ve whipsawed between can’t read a damn thing to reading obsessively to only ‘reading’ audiobooks to only memoir to re-reading old favorites like THE GREAT GATSBY, A THOUSAND ACRES, and OUTLANDER, etc.

I am all over the place. But you know what? I’m still here. And right now I’m reading this saga from 1977 because I somehow missed it back when I was the ripe old age of 12 and the town librarian wouldn’t let me check it out.

While in other years I’ve posted only books I’ve already read, this year I’m putting them all in the same stack: the books I absolutely loved and the ones I can’t wait to get to when I finish THE THORN BIRDS. There are so, so many great books out there right now.

I’m sending all of you love and light this Christmas season. Keep reading. Keep filling your time with art. And while I don’t know if I will be able to adhere to this, I plan to spend most of my 2021 reading a lot more books and scrolling a hell of a lot less ‘news.’ I even deactivated my Facebook page.

Here’s to the vaccine and Fall 2021. And books. Always, always books.

My Top 15 Audiobooks for 2020

I loved them all for very different reasons. But if I have to make a single choice? My #1 book of the year (audio or otherwise) is Lacy Crawford’s “Notes on a Silencing.” What a brave, enraging, heartbreaking, inspiring, beautifully written book. It has all the components that get me: stuffy private boarding school, institutional power vs. a teen student, the covering up of a crime, and most importantly the courage of a talented writer (decades later) choosing to tell her true story to, in Lacy’s words, finally “burn it all down.”

The lemons, the anger, the falling apart

Still Life with Lemon and Cut Glass, Maria Margaretha van Os, 1823 – 1826. Rijksmuseum

Tuesday afternoons, we would drive to marriage counseling in separate cars. We did this, we said, because it would save time if we met there straight from work. This sounded sensible. It was also a lie. We took separate cars because we were both so angry we could not fathom being trapped with each other in a car. What if he suddenly wanted to talk or yell? What if I wanted to talk and he didn’t want to listen? Worst, what if, on the drive home from therapy, one of us wanted to discuss … the therapy?

I was 26. He was 34. We would be divorced within the year. How fast it can all fall so irreparably apart.

This is how America looks to me now, post-election. Irreparably torn apart. We Democrats and Republicans had our big, final meetup on November third — Cast your vote! Make your voice heard! — and yet it seems everyone, no matter who they voted for, remains steeped in anger and resentment.

In George Packer’s 2013 National Book Award winner The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, he writes of how Newt Gingrich transformed American politics. Gingrich “saw that the voters no longer felt much connection to the local parties or national institutions. They got their politics on TV, and they were not persuaded by policy descriptions or rational arguments. They responded to symbols and emotions …. Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil.”

Add Facebook as an accelerant, and here we are. Like Trump himself, the Trump voter refuses to accept the election results; he will not be trapped in a Biden car where evil liberals kill healthy newborns and want to hand out free healthcare. And no Biden voter would be caught dead in a car flying a giant Trump flag with people who pack by the thousands into rallies, unmasked, screaming “Lock her up!” and “Fake news!”

So where exactly does this leave us as one America, trying to make agreed-upon, rational decisions during a deadly pandemic?

A friend calls to tell me about a recent Texas wedding she declined to attend. “They invited 250,” she says, the max the venue can hold, and when I gasp she adds, “but right off 75 sent their regrets, and two weeks out another 50 cancelled because of the virus.”

“So they still had 125 people,” I say, sounding as accusatory as I feel. “At a wedding. With multiple grandparents. In Texas, where cases and deaths are spiking.”

“After the wedding,” my friend says, “they posted pictures on Facebook. I looked real close and did not see a single mask.”

She then tells me about her aunt and uncle, both vocal Trump supporters. The aunt continues to believe the virus is a hoax, even after the uncle (her husband) died of the virus in this summer. The aunt now claims you simply need to drink a lot of lemonade and put lemon juice on everything. It’s all about the lemons! She saw it on Facebook somewhere.

Here in my little town, a woman sends me a photograph of a house shortly after Biden was declared the winner. They were flying an upside-down American flag and a Trump flag together. She is so angry, she says.

Just what Mr. Gingrich would want.

What Gingrich had started in the 1980s paid off. By “the millennium the two sides were dug deep in opposing trenches,” Packer writes, “the positions forever fixed, bodies piling up in the mud, last year’s corpses this year’s bone, a war whose causes no one could quite explain, with no end in sight: l’enfer de Washington. Perhaps he had wanted it this way all along. Politics without war could be rather boring.”

On January 20, Joe Biden (the supposed “boring” candidate) will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. In a Nov. 17 interview with CNN, Dr. Fauci tried for common sense across party lines. “You can continue to do activities which are good for the economy, but still adhering to the public health measures that we’re talking about. I just can’t understand why there’s pushback against that. They’re not that difficult to do. And they save lives. They save lives.”

Wait. What about lemons? Could somebody ask Dr. Fauci about the lemons?

The main thing I learned in marriage counseling is this: For it to work, you both have to want to be there, to listen, and to come to some fundamental agreements. You have to be willing to ride home in the same car together.

Are you willing? Am I? Because if not, how very fast this will all fall apart.

4 more years of this?

From my mother’s diary.


In the final days of presidential campaigns, it is American tradition to ask, Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago?

This year, how about we add a few: Are you happier than you were 4 years ago? Sleeping well? Getting along with your neighbors? Confident in the health of your family, in your opportunities? Have the last 4 years brought you joy?

The last time I went to a University of Kentucky football game, our seats were in the visitors’ section. Enemy territory, we joked. No big deal. I was with my 30-something son and a friend of his. Let’s call the friend Jake. Jake is one of those super-fans. He lives for game day and gets het up over every play, every possession. In the first half UK played well. Jake was happy. But after halftime, as the visiting team put more and more points on the board and it became clear we would likely lose, Jake grew visibly angry, making it a point to turn around and glare and jeer at the visiting team’s cheering fans.

When Jake started screaming obscenities at an elderly gentleman a few rows behind us, I’d had enough. We made for the exit and then endured one of those long, silent walks to the car, the kind where one person has ruined everyone’s night and we all just want to survive the drive home. It was Jake who finally broke the silence. I figured he was going to apologize. I was wrong. “Well that sucked,” he said. “Worst night of my life.”

I tell you this story because this is what our politics feels like in 2020. Hateful, angry, jeering. We are no longer Republicans and Democrats with healthy policy differences. We are winners or we are losers. We are good vs. evil. We are on the right team or the wrong team. And being on the wrong team in enemy territory can be scary. When I asked a friend on the main road to town why she hasn’t put a Biden sign in her yard, she said, “Because our bedroom is in the front of the house and people aren’t only stealing signs, they’re shooting them up.”

In these last weeks before the election — as we pass 220,000 Americans dead from a virus for which he has still offered no plan for mitigation — the president has shared no plans and no policies for the next 4 years. He has, instead, held large, reckless rallies, calling his opponents and the press criminals, his crowds chanting, Lock her/him up! about every perceived “enemy” from Joe Biden to Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan who was targeted by homegrown terrorists with detailed plans to kidnap and execute her.

Last weekend, as his army of supporters chanted “Lock her up!” about Whitmer, the president responded, “Lock them all up!” And the crowd went wild.

When asked why her father-in-law would condone such language following the FBI foiling a plot to kidnap and assassinate an American governor, Lara Trump dismissed it. “He was having fun at a Trump rally,” she said.

Yes, I thought. Fun. The president was having fun the same way Jake was having fun at that UK game. Opponent as enemy.

I’ve been re-reading Clear Springs, Kentucky Hall of Fame author Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1999 memoir. In the final pages are these words: “Lately she had been reviewing her life, reflecting on the hardships she had endured. She bridled at the way the women always had to serve the men. The men always sat down in the evening, but the women kept going. Why had the women agreed to that arrangement? How had they stood it? What if she had an opportunity for something different?”

How have we stood these last 4 years? Since when does an American of any political party agree to an arrangement in which our president cheers for the imprisonment of a perceived opponent? When did “Lock her up!” become funny?

Four years on, are you happier, sleeping better? Do you respect your neighbor, no matter the sign in their yard? Are you joyful, or have the Trump years turned you into some version of Jake, unapologetically angry? Do you want 4 more years of this?

To paraphrase Ms. Mason, this is our moment to reflect, an opportunity for something different.