Yellowstone at half mast

Antelope social distance

Sign at entrance to Grand Teton National Park

Note: My husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.

June 26: There are signs of the coronavirus everywhere. Store mascots and yard animals wear masks. A notice at the entrance to Grand Teton National Park shows antelopes social distancing. In Las Vegas a masked showgirl on a billboard announces, “Until it is safe to take off our clothes, we will remain dressed.” Covid-19 is taking the strip out of the Strip!

So even though it seems like a distressing number of people in what was once the wild West are not taking the pandemic seriously, this is not the same country I’ve driven across for decades. Still, I wish people in Wyoming were wearing masks more than they were in Utah. The state with a rodeo-rider mascot seems to be taking the threat of aquatic parasites more seriously than that of human viruses; we get stopped three times in one day to have our kayaks checked for foreign hitchhikers. Not all of the government officials wear masks.

Human ingenuity at a Wyoming road stop

In Yellowstone National Park, the effect of the pandemic is stark. With the hotels closed and dining halls open only for takeout, America’s pride and joy is at half-mast at best. After all, with no young people from Asia to work in the park, who would staff the facilities if the park system wanted to open up — which it wisely doesn’t. It’s strange not to hear the babylon of international travelers along the waterfall walkways. But with half the traffic and congestion, maybe this is the way the wilderness area should always be. Animals are always bold in Yellowstone, but it feels like we see more than ever this visit: mountain goats, elk, buffalo, pronghorns, many of them quite young.

Young elk at Mammoth Hot Springs

I’ve been coming to Yellowstone since I was a child, traveling with my family, pulling a camper trailer across America. I have a deep soft spot for this place and its myriad of natural wonders: lakes, rivers, waterfalls, geysers, plains, mountains, bright-blue geothermal pools, and of course, so many animals. We at least drive through here every year on our way to or from Michigan. This year, at the time of our visit, cabins with bathrrooms and campgrounds are the only overnight facilities open. We rent a cabin near Lake Lodge. We are traveling as self-sufficiently as possible so we cook our own dinner and breakfast on the little briefcase barbecue my son got his dad for Christmas. Our stovetop espresso maker, a few sausages, and bagels fit perfectly on its top. We do break down for a couple rounds of to-go drinks from the Lake Lodge bar. There are limits to our social-distancing restrictions.

Yellowstone is actually the first place on our trip where we see people really taking the virus seriously. Hardly anyone patronizes the gift shop; people wear masks inside and outside (somewhat), and generally hikers step off the paths to let each other pass.

I realize we all have our own risk-taking calculus governing our response to the virus. Age, health, preconditions, economic class, race, ethnicity, and geographic location are all contributing factors. I am more adventurous than my friend with thyroid problems, more anxious than my 17-year-old son. Some readers might think I’m crazy to have ventured to Yellowstone at all; some park visitors might have wandered why I stood so far from them as they attempted conversation. Of course it has become clear how political ideologies are also fueling responses that should be based on reason and science, necessity and caution. I can’t say we had to make this trip but the need seemed to outweigh the risk, and we are being extremely careful; masks on every time we enter any building or are around people, gobs of hand sanitizer every time we climb back in the truck. I try not to judge how other people handle their own calculus, but as the surge in cases that has paralleled our journey makes clear, I just don’t understand how governments can be so concerned about contaminated watercraft when they don’t even mandate masks.

But as we drive through the magnificent scenery, I’m reminded how our national park system is one of our country’s greatest achievements — that we are a nation that does value the earth it is built on, even if we have lost our way.

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Welcome to the Pandemic Road Trip

Note: My husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.

June 25: I know, we’re crazy: We are driving cross country during the worst pandemic of the century. (“Worst pandemic of the century so far,” Homer Simpson whispers in my ear.) It’s our annual road trip, from our home in Los Angeles to our cabin in Michigan, where my husband was born and I have summered for 50 years (!).  In the past half-century, you can count on one hand the number of years we have not spent time in the Upper Peninsula. It’s our individual and combined Ground Zero, our happy place, our Walden, our home. Nonetheless, we seriously considered not going this year, for what I thought was an obvious reason: that five-letter and two-digit word, Covid-19.

But there were compelling reasons: Number one, my mother-in-law’s failing health. Heart attack, heart surgery, stroke, carotid artery surgery, kidney stones, etc.: She has suffered a litany of ailments in the past few years, and my sister-in-laws have shouldered the burden of care. Also, Bud’s daughter is there, his siblings, his friends. And I am hoping against hope that I might get to see — at least through a window — my father in his nursing home in Wisconsin. Usually, summer is the time my immediate family and my extended “Lake family” of friends convene here in Michigan. This year, I don’t know if I will see any of them.

At least I have my grandson. The novel coronavirus has caused all sorts of novel plot twists in people’s lives, and for my husband and I, it has meant taking care of Shine, 9, only child of my stepdaughter Kenda, this summer. After four months of home school and care, his parents, in Miami, must get back to work. So unexpectedly I’ve gotten something I have wished for but never thought would happen: I’m co-director of Camp Gramps. Shine has only been to visit his Michigan family once, when he was an infant. It is time he meets them. So not only are we driving through nine states and half the breadth and depth of the country during a pandemic; we have a grade schooler with us.

Road dogs

Road dogs Shine Hoover and Alexander Hamilton

We are not completely insane. While it is not why we are going, the thought of leaving  a county that is constantly in the news as a Covid hotspot, for one that has yet to have a single recorded case of the virus, is certainly appealing. (Update: The first case was confirmed over the July 4 weekend.)

The 2,000 miles in between are admittedly a deterrent. Yet in general, the route has so far been  refreshingly virus free, especially compared to LA. Sure, on the infection maps, there are a few orange and red hotspots, but they can easily be driven through — don’t even gas up. We are driving, not flying, and we have planned a trip with as few interactions with people and surfaces as possible. We have a picnic basket and cooler full of food. We are carrying a special purple coronarivus backpack, full of masks, sanitizer, gloves, wipes, etc. We love to experience the American West every summer. But this year, we will enjoy it primarily through the truck windows.

Provisions

Still, if there is one lesson I would want to convey at the end of our journey’s first day, it’s this: Don’t go to Utah.

We stopped just across the border in St. George, one of our usual haunts, perched as it is amid the beautiful red and black rocks of canyon country. But I was shocked when I entered the gas station/Burger King. The usual Mormon broods of seemingly endless blond children always freak me out, but this year they were like pandemic panic horror show poster children, as they filled the tiny bathroom — no social distancing, nary a mask in sight. At the food-ordering line, I had to ask them to back up. Maybe Utahns have so many children they consider them expendable, but I value my only grandson.

Basically, no one in Utah wears masks. Not the desk clerk at the La Quinta Hotel in North Orem, nor the guests, nor the gas station attendants.

No wonder the infection and death rates in Utah are rising — as of June 25, 164 per 100,000 and 5 per 100,000 respectively. The test positivity rate is even more alarming, currently 13.2% and rising.

111 in the desert

Don’t go to Utah.

We loved the scenery as usual, though found the highway surprisingly full. But we sprinted to our hotel room and will slink out in the morning. Here’s hoping the people of Wyoming are a little smarter.

 

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This is not a pep rally

A protester in San Pedro June 6

On Saturday, June 6, San Pedro, California, had its first large gathering in response to the protests that have swept the world since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. There had been smaller protests, in front of the San Pedro police station and city hall, but this morning event was the first to draw several hundred people, in  a march from the police station to city hall, followed by speeches. It looked like a demonstration; there were “I can’t breathe” posters and chants of “No justice, no peace.” Some social media commentators called it a Black Lives Matter protest. But that activist organization was not involved in Saturday’s event. Instead, it was organized by three unlikely bedfellows: The NAACP, the Los Angeles Police Department Harbor Division, and the office of LA City Council member Joe Buscaino.

Organizers hailed this as a breakthrough alliance. But skeptics — and I am one — feared that this was not a breakthrough coalition, but a cooptation. First, the march was channeled (literally, they walked down Channel Street) on to empty roads where there was no chance to engage onlookers or passersby or generally make an impact, which is pretty much the point of a march. One of the participants was controversial police chief Michael Moore, who led his officers into violent confrontations with protesters in LA earlier in the week and at one point blamed those protesters for Floyd’s death. Buscaino, a former cop, is against the cuts to the police department already agreed to by Mayor Eric Garcetti, let alone the foremost demand of BLM: Defund police. Indeed, no concrete changes were demanded or offered at the rally, except for a call to vote for change in November (agreed). Instead of singing “Lean On Me,” “Alright,” “We Shall Overcome,” or even, I don’t know, “This Land is Our Land,” a woman wailed “The Star-Spangled Banner” — as if we were at a political convention, or a football game.

The “Unity Rally” suffered from a serious existential crisis. Many of the participants were visibly and vocally disappointed by the speeches and the presence of Moore and other cops; indeed, speeches by anyone with a badge were largely drowned out by protesters. “This is not a photo op,” they chanted at Buscaino. “This is a protest!” they shouted at the politicians. “This is not a pep rally!” they shouted — incredulously — when the NAACP’s Cheyenne Bryant ended the event by thanking folks for coming to, yes, “a pep rally.” Most people around me turned away in disgust at that point. One young man jumped up and started speaking to the crowd about his dismay with the speakers’ failure to address the real issues of systemic racism. Many stopped to listen to a voice that finally spoke to the real message of this movement.

None of this dissent made the coverage of the “Unity Rally” in The Daily Breeze and the Los Angeles Times. Reading their accounts, I had to wonder if I was at a different event. As a journalist and a scholar of journalism, I can’t say I was shocked: Mainstream news outlets typically report the perspective of the powerful, not those speaking out against power structures. Sometimes the erasure is structural; reporters hang out by the stage, instead of in the crowd, and miss the true story. But at Saturday’s event, you had to be deaf and blind to miss the shouts of the protest against the rally.

All this said, there was an incredibly moving moment that did bind everyone there — a moment that lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck. Bryant asked everyone to take a knee, the  gesture made famous by football player Colin Kaepernick (one of the pioneers of the protest against police violence for years now, whose work is finally being vindicated; the NFL finally had to admit it was wrong to censure him and others). Cops, protesters, politicians, parents, kids, blacks, whites, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latinx — everyone that I could see kneeled. And for almost nine minutes we were quiet. Mostly. After several minutes that seemed like an eternity, in an act of spontaneous improvisational street theater, voices rang out:

“I can’t breathe!”

“Get off my neck!”

“Mama!”

The final words of George Floyd exploded from the crowd. Staring at the ground, I began to sob. I could hear others crying around me. It was a powerful gesture that has been deployed at protests around the world. Eight minutes and 46 seconds is a long time. Long enough to take a man’s life, just because you can.

As the crowd rose, they started another chant, again, one not led from the podium: “A silent cop is a bad cop.”

I am not against dialogue. I understand that you sometimes have to sit down with your enemies if not to negotiate change, to make them change. For 8’46”, everyone in that plaza — including many police officers — had to to contemplate one man’s dying moments at the hands of another.

Gestures can be powerful. But they can also be easily imitated. What America needs is not gestures, or even words, but action. Action like that the Minneapolis City Council said they would take Sunday night: To not merely cut the police budget, or defund the force, but to disband them.

This is of course exactly what the LAPD fears, and why at this point, they need to listen to the people, more than the people need to listen to them.

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Anthems and change: A Turn It Up! IG Live event with Shana Redmond

TIU IG LIve

Join UCLA Professor Shana Redmond and I in conversation June 9 about the soundtracks of social change, from “We Shall Overcome” to “Fight the Power” to “U.N.I.T.Y.” to “Alright.” A Turn It Up! Tuesday Instagram Live eventa!

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Solidarity on the streets of San Pedro

BLMLA protest San Pedro

People protest peacefully in front of San Pedro police station June 2, 2020.

There were silver Priuses and white SUVs. A fire truck, two garbage trucks, public works trucks, an ice cream truck, a city bus, and several semis honked their horns as they drove by. One rig’s blast sounded like a train whistle, long and loud — that got our adrenaline going. Lots of men in pickup trucks honked or raised their fists, even the one in a big white four-door with an American flag flying from the tailgate and a Trump sticker in the window. “He must be driving his dad’s car,” my friend Sue said. Even some police cars honked. A majority of the traffic passing the San Pedro police station Tuesday afternoon between 3 and 5 showed their solidarity with protesters waving “Black Lives Matter” and “End Systemic Racism” flags. They signaled support either with their horns or with their fists, thumbs, or fingers in peace signs. Many drivers admittedly were handicapped by their efforts to keep one hand on the wheel and one on their cell phones filming. There were only three voices of dissent, from a thumb down to a disturbing “Fuck Floyd.” Some protesters misheard one shout as “Fuck you!” but in fact it was “Fuck yeah!” I could see the joy on the driver’s face.

San Pedro BLM protester

No justice, no peace.

We were a small crowd — about 50 — but given that this was the first protest in often conservative San Pedro since the murder of George Floyd, our presence was significant. And with every passing honk, shout and fist pump of support, we provoked a loud and clear message to the police standing outside watching us, or sitting at their desks inside the station: People have had enough. The horrific video of Floyd’s death has galvanized a worldwide protest movement against police brutality and white supremacy. President Trump’s warning on Monday that he would send the troops to clear the streets was the straw that broke the back for those of us still paralyzed by pandemic fear. He pushed folks like me off the fence/couch and out to the streets to show these protests aren’t about violent extremism: They’re about making long overdue change in our country.

San Pedro steps up

San Pedro steps up. Photo by Sue Maralit

The demonstration was peaceful. Police officers waved hello as my friends and I walked up to join the line of protesters and I flashed them a peace sign. There were people I knew there — all local San Pedrans — and mostly, people I didn’t. We were a notably diverse lot, trending young and female, but my friends and I are all in our 50s. Next to me was Paul, a retired longshoreman; Erin, mother of children in San Pedro High and Dana Middle schools; and Catherine, a young woman with long purple braids. We were black, brown, and white; first-nation, European, African, and Mexican — a “broad coalition,” as President Obama says. The only infiltrators I saw were not from the far right or left but a few Jesus freaks offering the typical crazy — but admittedly timely — apocalyptic rhetoric. There were the usual socialist worker party folks hawking their wares (ironically). After all, Pedro is a union town, land of Harry Bridges and Joe Hill. Artists and activists handed out signs from the punk Pedro printers Calimucho: “Together we are stronger” over two fists clenched together, designed by Ruth Mora.

San Pedro BLM protester

Solidarity in a union town

It felt surreal and thrilling to be out with people again, after months of sheltering in place. Almost everyone wore masks, though social distancing was imperfectly practiced. We came in peace and we left in peace, as curfew neared — and the feet and knees of us olds started to ache. The officers waved goodbye and we waved back.

Graphic from Calimucho Screen Printing

Graphic by Ruth Mora, from Calimucho Screen Printing

The only scary moment of the whole afternoon was on the drive back down Pacific Avenue, past the Sixth Street business district. Stores were boarding up their buildings and a group of scary musclemen in San Pedro Fight Club T-shirts looked menacing and out for trouble. The idea that any of the peaceful protestors at the cop shop or down the street at the city hall building were going to bust some glass and steal, I don’t know, T-shirts was laughable. Remember, violence in this country historically and right now comes from the vested interests and the police who protect them. If nothing else, the protest forced locals to spray paint “BLM” on their makeshift window guards; even if they were just trying to keep vandals away, the message was there this morning, on building after building: “Black Lives Matter.”

Black Arts Matter

Marquee at Warner Grand Theater, downtown San Pedro

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No Mercy

USS Mercy leaves Port of LA

We watched her sail in and we watched her sail out. The USS Mercy Hospital Ship left Los Angeles today after almost seven weeks. I’m glad she was here, and I’m even happier to see that she is no longer needed.

When the Navy ship arrived March 24, California was in early pandemic panic. Five days earlier Governor Newsom had predicted 25 million Covid-19 cases in the state by May if aggressive measures were not taken. Instead, we are just shy of 75,000 confirmed cases today. Granted, aggressive measures were and are being taken, and that has undoubtedly saved many lives. Still, the hyperbole of Newsom’s prediction has helped fan the fires of virus disbelievers.

Better safe than sorry, sure. Almost everyone welcomed the Mercy as a symbol of hope and unity, of state and federal governments working together — well, except for the nutball train engineer who tried to ram it. This is an unfortunate byproduct of overheated rhetoric: conspiracy theorists will run the train of misinformation right off the track.

In the end the 1,500-bed life saver treated 77 patients. She was more of a tourist attraction than a facility. But we were honored to welcome her to San Pedro, and no offense sailors, but we hope we don’t have to see you again.

USS Mercy arrives

The USS Mercy passes through Angel’s Gate into LA.

 

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In my element

Tomorrow I get to return to the place where I am literally in my element: the ocean. Los Angeles County beaches reopen for activities in the morning; I am grateful to the state, county and city for letting us see the light of day. I sincerely hope we don’t blow it; I’ll be social distancing and wearing my mask — when I’m not in/on the water, that is. I’ve been imagining tomorrow’s schedule for weeks:

7 am. Get up and take the dog for a nice long walk down at Cabrillo. Used to doing this at least twice every day, Alexander Hamilton has been perplexed why we have been walking every direction but the most obvious one — toward sea, sand, and sky — for the last two months. I suspect he will feel close to as much joy as I will when we stride past the beautiful mission-style beachhouse and say hello to the inner harbor.

8 am. Pull the kayaks down to the shore and paddle off. Waves and weather permitting, my husband and I plan to pack a lunch and spend a long day out on the water. We will be hundreds, if not thousands, of feet from other human beings, but hopefully not from the dolphins, seals, and maybe even whales. We may jump in and swim/snorkel. Bud will fish.

Sometime in the afternoon: Pull back ashore. Swim.

3ish: Reluctantly drag our butts back on land so the dog can get his exercise — at the beach again.

6 pm: Dinner.

8 pm: Evening walk on the beach. Who knows, maybe there will be bioluminescence?

Next day: Same thing all over again, but on the paddleboard.

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