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Making the most of a COVID situation

How some UVA notables found comfort and escape in a hard year

UVA lacrosse coach Lars Tiffany spends a Saturday morning in January chopping and loading firewood for Start a Spark, a Virginia nonprofit.

Adam Ewing

After a year of isolation for some and the loss of regular activities and outlets for most, UVA alumni and notable people around Grounds found some comfort and escape in books, music, movies and the woods. Here are the good things that have helped them through.

Escaping through laughter

Dean of Students Allen Groves
Dan Addison

UVA’s Dean of Students’ office had no downtime in 2020. “Normally summer is when I try to make sure that everyone on my team gets to take some time off,” says Allen Groves (Law ’90), associate vice president and dean of students. “That just didn’t happen.” 

Groves found some escape in humor writer David Sedaris’ latest book The Best of Me, a collection of his most popular stories from previous books. After a day of Zoom conference calls, Groves, a longtime Sedaris fan, enjoyed skipping around the book to read his favorites before diving into not-so-familiar essays. “It’s humorous, it’s light, it’s really perfect after a long, tough day,” he says. 

And the milestone of turning 60 in August prompted some reflection, including about the music of his youth. Groves was a big fan of Jefferson Starship as a teenager. Miracles and White Rabbit are two favorite songs. “It’s fascinating how we remember the lyrics to all these songs even though we haven’t heard them in a long time,” he says. “Your brain is still developing at that age, and these songs have such a powerful imprint on you and take you back to a specific time and memories.”

Analyzing film, wandering worlds

Jamelle Bouie
Aspen Ideas Festival

Not much changed, workwise, for Jamelle Bouie (Col ’09) in 2020. The New York Times opinion columnist and CBS News analyst had already been working from home. Though he did now have another person underfoot—his 2-year-old son, whose day care wouldn’t reopen until the summer.

But Bouie kept busy, cooking family dinners and, with his wife, watching more than 200 movies, as they ran through films by director or genre. The at-home film festival wasn’t just about escapism. Bouie likes to be an active movie watcher, sussing out the intent of the director or how individual parts of a film were built. “Thinking critically about visual art is something that I don’t have training in,” he says. “So, this has been a way to train myself to do that, and it’s been a lot of fun.” 

On his list was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which he’d last seen in college. Watching it again in 2020, he appreciated it even more. He noted references to multiple genres, from 1950s Hollywood musicals to crime and prison dramas, and homages to other films, including Lawrence of Arabia. “You see so much of Lee’s influences in addition to his own stylistic stamp,” Bouie says. 

Also on his list was Batman Returns directed by Tim Burton. In it, Bouie found references to German expressionist films like the 1927 science fiction drama Metropolis and the 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu, among others. “In addition to it being a wild and insane film,” he says.

And when he had a few minutes to spare, Bouie would wander around the game world built in the classic The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on his Nintendo Switch. “It’s truly an escapist game,” he says. “It’s one of those free-roaming games where you can literally do anything.” 

Time in nature

Emily Swallow
Courtesy photo

Emily Swallow (Col ’01) is part of a franchise that brought plenty of escape for the rest of us—The Mandalorian. The actress plays the Armorer in the smash hit Star Wars series on Disney+. Her character coined the Mandalorian creed: “This is the way.” “I feel constantly like a kid again,” she says of the experience.

In 2020, the way toward some respite from the headlines for Swallow included time spent in nature and a virtual Shakespeare salon. With stages and film studios shuttered, Swallow and her husband Chad Kimball, a Tony Award-nominated actor, traveled between Florida and Washington state to visit family. As they drove across the country, they stopped to hike in national parks, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Arches, and listened to audiobooks on the road. “We did a lot of the stuff we never have time for because of the nature of our work,” she says.

A favorite book was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. The Pulitzer Prize-winning personal narrative is about Dillard’s yearlong journey through Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. “That has really helped me when my brain does go into overload, because it’s just so connected to nature,” Swallow says. 

And she got into Shakespeare again, joining a weekly salon over Zoom where she stretched her creative muscles as she read scenes or worked on sonnets with other actors. “It’s been a constant for me,” she says. “I’ve crisscrossed the country numerous times now. Every time zone. To have that to come back to every week and just dive into Shakespeare and this language and see what people are bringing. It’s just delicious and such a relief.”

Family time

Emily Giffin
Emmanuelle Choussy

For Emily Giffin (Law ’97), 2020 was a time for family. The author of multiple New York Times bestselling novels, including The Lies That Bind, which came out in June, lives in Atlanta with her husband and three children.  

“I feel guilty saying this, but in some ways, this pandemic has brought a lot of silver linings to our lives,” she writes in an email to Virginia Magazine. “We sit down to have dinner as a family every night because our schedules aren’t as frenetic. We talk more. We’ve become more introspective. Time has slowed down in many ways, and what greater gift do we have than time?”

Together, they found time to dive into documentaries such as The Social Dilemma, which covers the impact of social media, and All In: The Fight for Democracy, which stars voting rights activist Stacey Abrams and looks at voter suppression in the United States. And they escaped into fictional worlds with shows such as Schitt$ Creek and The Crown. Though, Giffin adds, “I can’t get the others on board with my royalty obsession.” 

As Giffin began to write her next novel and use her own platform to promote causes and political candidates she felt strongly about in the fall, she also made time to read books like Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, I’d Give Anything by Marisa de los Santos and You Were There Too by Colleen Oakley. And she turned back, nostalgically, to R&B music of the 1990s, the soundtrack of her law school days at UVA, she shares.

“There’s never been a better time to consume and enjoy art, whether for escapism or enlightenment,” she writes.

Fire playlists

A.D. Carson
Dan Addison

As 2020 wore on, A.D. Carson, assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south at UVA, developed two playlists. Music for the End of the World came first, with everything from Marvin Gaye and Mary J. Blige to rapper D Smoke. Then came Fire Emoji, a more upbeat list with tracks by rapper Sa-Roc and R&B singer H.E.R., among others.

Last year, finding motivation was critical for Carson. He lost family members and friends, as he also taught and put the finishing touches on his latest album, i used to love to dream, the first rap album to be peer-reviewed in an academic press. Therapy also was vital, he says.

A favorite on his playlists is Lockdown by Anderson .Paak. The song is about the rapper’s experience protesting in Los Angeles after the police killing of George Floyd. “It gets me up,” Carson says. “It makes me kind of want to move.” 

Get Away by Big K.R.I.T. also gets regular play. The song by the Mississippi rapper is all about blocking out negativity, Carson says. “It’s like I’m going to turn off everything, tune out everything and find a way to glow,” he says. 

Feel-good music

Monica Wright Rogers
Courtesy photo

Former WNBA player Monica Wright Rogers (Col ’10), UVA’s all-time leading scorer, returned to Grounds in 2019 to become assistant coach of the women’s basketball team. And when the season ended in March, she hunkered down for a big reason: She was pregnant. She gave birth to her first child, a boy, in July. 

During those months, Rogers wondered how best to spend her time. “Part of me was like I need to make sure I come out of this better than when I went in,” she says as her son coos nearby. “The other side of me was saying, ‘You just need to turn off and do what you can, but don’t try to force yourself to overachieve in this moment.’”

Music, particularly with feel-good vibes, was a diversion from the stress of a first pregnancy during a pandemic. Reggae singer Koffee and Nigerian singer Davido were top picks. So was R&B artist H.E.R., whose song Do To Me was on regular repeat. “My husband is Jamaican, and it samples a Jamaican reggae song,” she says. “It’s just upbeat. I would just walk and pretend I’m in Jamaica.”

And Sunday Best by U.S.-based duo Surfaces also got some play. It’s all about finding ways to have a great day despite the challenges. “It’s the best song to listen to right now,” she says. 

Chopping wood

Lars Tiffany
Adam Ewing

Lars Tiffany, UVA’s men’s lacrosse coach who led the team to the national championship in 2019, spent a lot of time chopping wood in 2020. Missing daily connections with his players, Tiffany found joy while cutting trees and splitting firewood at his own home and for neighbors and friends. Soon, he got involved in Start a Spark, a Virginia nonprofit that gets firewood to those in need.

“I think I’ve found this is really what resonates for me,” says Tiffany, who first started splitting wood as a kid growing up on a 250-acre ranch in rural central New York state. “I show up. I cut firewood. I help split the firewood, and I made a couple of deliveries. … Man, it feels really good.” 

There’s a satisfaction in the physical accomplishment of slicing through stacks of wood and helping to keep others warm, he says. And at a time when he felt powerless, with games and practices on hold, it gave him purpose. 

“There’s only so much reward that can come from the Zoom calls while I’m standing in my kitchen,” Tiffany says. “This has been fruitful for emotional empowerment.” 

If he’s in his kitchen, he’d rather be cooking. Tiffany started cooking more for his family, finding joy in making new dishes, in 2020. He often turned to recipes on the internet. But he also would leaf through his father’s copy of Joy of Cooking for inspiration. His father, who died two years ago, owned a popular steakhouse near Syracuse, New  York. “It has my dad’s handwriting in there,” he says, “and I love that connection to him.”

Decompressing and creating

Vashti Harrison
Courtesy photo

At one point during 2020, Vashti Harrison (Col ’10) counted many of her children’s books on The New York Times bestseller lists, including Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History. But, despite the acclaim, 2020 offered some time for Harrison to decompress with no pressing deadlines or book tours scheduled. “It was mostly just a time of creativity,” she says.

She read books such as When No One Is Watching: A Thriller by Alyssa Cole for research—to see how Cole built worlds within her book, as Harrison works on her own projects. “The part that’s fun is just going on an adventure with these people,” says Harrison, who is working on a new animated TV series, among other projects.

And after the police killing of George Floyd, Harrison read and reread several books on social justice and racism. “I wanted to hear very smart, articulate people express these ideas in a way that I could process and internalize, because so many things were happening at the same time,” she says.

A favorite is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. The young adult book is adapted from Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning, which is about race in America. “I was really thinking about how Jason was reforming these ideas specifically for young people,” she says. 

And when she just needed to sing out loud, it was songs from Ungodly Hour by critically acclaimed R&B duo Chloe x Halle. “I’m always in awe of their vocalization,” she says.

Focusing on grace

Leland Melvin
Courtesy NASA

Leland Melvin (Engr ’91) has traveled out of this world to the International Space Station twice as an astronaut. But like many of us, Melvin stayed much closer to home in 2020 and worried that his work—giving motivational talks—would dry up. 

He had nothing to fear. The retired astronaut’s message of resilience, covered in his book Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances, was more popular than ever via Zoom and other platforms. “People want an inspiring message,” says Melvin, whose NASA portrait with his two dogs regularly makes the rounds on social media. 

In 2020, he gravitated toward focusing on grace. His mother’s name is Grace, and he’s even named his van Grace. The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life by Sarah L. Kaufman resonated. “We get so focused on the stuff we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Melvin says. The book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic is about living with grace when you’re forced to live with it, he says. And he revisited Days of Grace, tennis superstar Arthur Ashe’s memoir. 

“To live with grace is powerful, where things don’t knock you off your feet,” Melvin says. “You do it gracefully. I think that’s a message for all of us through this time.”

Exploring meditation

Jack Salt
Courtesy photo

Even before March, 2020 had already been a tough year for Jack Salt (Col ’18, Educ ’19), the center on UVA’s 2019 championship men’s basketball team. Lockdown reached his home country of New Zealand just as he recovered from a six-month bout with mono. A few months later, a serious knee injury delayed his plans to play professional basketball there. 

But his recovery period from mono helped prepare him for what was to come. He’d already gotten used to being on his own. And meditation, in particular, has been critical for Salt as he worked on recovery—physical and mental. 

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by neuroscientist Sam Harris, has been an important text as he explored meditation in the last year. “He’s been really good for my mental health,” Salt says. So has Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, by former NBA coach Phil Jackson. “That one was perfect for me,” Salt says. “He’s big on spirituality and meditation, and he’s a pretty good basketball coach. For me, to tie my newfound passion with meditation and how it translates over to basketball, I really enjoyed reading that.”