Category Archives: Life During Lockdown

What my students taught me during the pandemic

I wrote about my experiences teaching at Zoom university for two and a half semesters, the parts I never want to do again, and the parts I hope to hold on to forever, for LMU Magazine.

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Daddy’s girl

Me, Dad and toy cat

I saw Dad today for the first time since December 2019. I’m the second visitor he has had since Covid struck. I was booked to visit him last March and the day before my flight the country started shutting down nursing homes. It has been a nightmare ever since.

The virus swept his SNF but fortunately not his floor. He had no visitors for 8 long months. He has advanced dementia so didn’t know what was happening but I’m sure he felt it, he missed familiar voices and touches.

Fortunately he was in good hands and we can FaceTime with him every week. Thanks to his good care and the vaccine I was finally able to visit him. I had thought I might not ever see him again. He stopped recognizing people before the pandemic but I do think he felt something when I came in and grabbed his hand and told him I was there. His body started shaking and he held on to my fingers. Later, after I spoon fed him lunch, I made a stupid joke and he laughed a big HA then kept chuckling just like he used to. Dad is still in there somewhere and I’m so happy I get to see him again.

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Mi casa es tu casa

Lake Superior sunset

Eh, not so big.

Note: For varying reasons, 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 29: Every year when we journey to Michigan, there is always that thrilling moment when we first see the Lake. Usually, we get it driving up from the south: topping a hill we see a dark blue horizon, almost indistinguishable from the sky. Smudged, indigo, almost invisible, it’s not an object, it’s an expanse.

My husband and I have been trying to prepare our grandson for the enormity of Lake Superior. Like most people, Shine thinks of lakes as small bodies of fresh water where you can see the other shore. We’ve seen a lot of those on our cross-country trip, especially in Minnesota — land of 1,000 of them, after all. (But who’s counting.) We’ve explained that Superior looks more like an ocean, like the Atlantic and the Pacific, which he knows well: no land on the other side, as far as you can see.

Because we are coming in from the West this trip, we first see the Lake in the port towns of Duluth/Superior, as a finger of water between ore docks and marinas. “There it is: Lake Superior!” Bud and I exclaim. “Eh, not so big,” shrugs Shine, ever the skeptic.

It is not until we get that northward view from the hill on M64, and then arrive upon the Superior shore itself in Silver City, Michigan, that he really sees the Lake — and is finally suitably impressed. Still, “eh, not so big” becomes a running joke of the summer.

Ashland Food Coop

Evidence of the pandemic has been unavoidable on this trip, constantly made palpable by presences (masks, radio commercials for online education, “closed” signs on stores) and absences (seats at restaurants, international travelers, traffic). Less evident have been the other seismic crises and changes affecting our country, namely police violence against black bodies and the resulting protest movement. In Los Angeles, the uprising had largely eclipsed the pandemic for weeks before we left town. Black Lives Matter signs, or their close kin, were everywhere, on stores, cars, homes, lips, and airwaves. I don’t think I’ve seen one BLM message since I left California — so I was elated to find a rainbow flag with the message “Everyone welcome” at the food coop in Ashland, Wisconsin. Finally, a sign of progress.

I haven’t even seen Biden signs across these nine states. Trump signs, yes. The only good news I can offer in regards to this admittedly unscientific evidence of America’s current political state is that there are fewer Trump signs than four years ago. Still, the change that seems necessary and inevitable on the coast is at best a whisper in the heartland — and that scares the shit out of me. Much work needs to be done if we are to wrest this country out of the hands of a maniacal hatemonger, and it won’t be achieved through silence.

We arrive at our cabin around 5 p.m. I’m always amazed just how beautiful this tiny house, with its natural edge pine siding echoing the waves of the lake 50 feet from its door, is. Built by Bud, it is filled inside and out with small tokens of love and beauty, from driftwood door handles to an Italian chandelier he salvaged from a Greek client to a leaded glass window we found at Habitat for Humanity in Miami.

The cabin that Bud built.

Above the door on the inside is a sign that I had bought on LA’s Olvera Street for Mom, a sign she had told me she always wanted, and that I inherited — along with the land on which we built this cabin — when she died: “Mi casa es tu casa.”  Imagine if this familiar welcoming Spanish phrase were America’s and Americans’ motto, hung at every portal to and in our nation: My home is your home. That was certainly Mom’s philosophy, as a public high school teacher in a small Midwestern town, and the philosophy Bud and I try to carry with us wherever we go, as we cross a country we still believe is great, albeit imperiled.

Welcome home.

Coda: The day after our arrival in the Upper Peninsula, we got drive-through coronavirus tests at Ontonagon High School. Not wanting to bring the pandemic to a county that at that point had yet to have a single verified case, we quarantined until we got the results two days later: negative. Sadly, Ontonagon County did get its first case a few days after that — but so far, just the one.

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Singing sad sad songs

One silver lining of Covid-19: cheap gas in Minnesota

Note: For varying reasons, 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 28: Our last night on the road, we stopped in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. On our way to the hotel, we picked up a pizza from a lakeside restaurant. For a moment, I had a fantasy of normal life. The two-man band at the outside bar was playing Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” a song I love. I wanted so much to go in, have a drink, sway to the music, chat with the locals — as if there were no pandemic keeping us all apart, just music, pizza, beer, and good times.

Then the band finished the song that I will always associate with another apocalypse — “tall buildings shake, voices escaping singing sad sad songs.” Standing outside on the sidewalk with the dog, I was the only person who clapped. Because the bar may be open, but it is empty. Just because the orchestra is still playing doesn’t mean the ship isn’t sinking.

We had a long day driving across Montana and North Dakota — always a relentless stretch. “North Dakota killed me,” said a German biker we picked up one year at the Cowboy Bar in Medora. He was trying to ride cross country, but the long empty highways of the Peace Garden State (?!) did him and his bike in, and we wound up giving him a ride to Billings. We stopped in Medora as usual this year, but instead of breakfast at the Cowboy Bar, we made lunch at a park outside of town — which was just as nice in its own way. The town was too full of tourists, too empty of masks. Like Utah, Montana, and Wyoming, North Dakota has seen a rise in coronavirus cases.

But as we entered the Midwest, we began to see a shift. The ideology of freedom was replaced by the practicality of health. Minnesotans were wearing masks, or at least not looking at you strange if you were wearing one. Unless, of course, they were singing sad sad songs.


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Let it snow


Snow Shine

Note: For varying reasons, 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 27: My grandson, Shine, turned 9 shortly before he joined us for the summer. Born and bred in Miami, he has been exposed to a lot: art, Caribbean and Latin culture, hip-hop, cutting-edge cuisine, the beach. But our five-day, 2400-mile journey is opening his eyes to things he had previously not even imagined — when he can tear his eyes from his smart phone, that is. Kids these days can’t see the forest for the screens.

I’m guessing that if Shine has one single takeaway memory from this unanticipated summer, it’s his introduction to snow.

We prefer the northeast gate in and out of Yellowstone. The stretch of flat plain ringed by mountains provides some of the most dramatic animal spottings — we’ve seen wolves, grizzlies, mountain goats, and a honey badger here. On the other side of the gate, the Beartooth Scenic Highway takes you on a zigzagging course back and forth through Wyoming and Montana up to almost 11,000 foot high: above the treeline, among the clouds, to where in the middle of summer, you can still find snow.

Forewarned, Shine had been anticipating winter in June for days. “Pull over, pull over!” he kept asking as we glimpsed more and more white patches. but we knew vaster stretches of snow lay ahead. Finally, at the top of the world, we came to a valley where the frozen water nestled the blacktop. Beyond excited, my grandson put on his sneakers for the first time in weeks, and stepped into his first snow.

During the next half-hour, he went through most of the arsenal of snow activities: snowball fight, snow angel, an aborted attempt at a snow man. We drove a little further to a hill and got the boogie board, on its journey from the Pacific Ocean to Lake Superior, out of the truck. One push and he went unexpectedly far down the mountain slope: a champion first sled ride. But two speedy descents were enough: as any veteran sleigh rider knows, going down is easy, but trudging back up will take the wind out of you, especially in the high altitude.

Snow isn’t the only first of this trip for Shine. He has never been on a multi-state, multi-day road trip before. Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan: these are all new states for our grandson. Deserts, mountains, plains, forests: These are far from his Florida landscapes. Ideally, we would stop and savor these special firsts, go for a hike, swim in a lake. But this is scarcely an ideal year. We are trying to make tracks, to limit our possible coronavirus exposure as much as possible. So this aseasonal romp — one kid alone in a melting tundra — is our voyage highlight.

There’s one other thing we can usually count on from Beartooth: mountain goats. We saw them for the first time in our lives on our first trip through here about 10 years ago, and now we see the herd almost every summer. They didn’t disappoint us this year: A couple dozen white animals grazing several hundred feet away, kids and all.IMG_5409

On the other side of Beartooth, at the bottom of these august mountains, is one of our favorite stops: Red Lodge. It’s a small ski town that’s almost a tourist trap but decades away from Jackson Hell. Downtown Red Lodge is just a few blocks long, the whole town a similar width. In front of almost every business is a wooden bench encouraging travelers to sit, relax, socialize, people watch. This evening, while people were out, many of the benches sat empty.

In Red Lodge, we did something we used to do on a weekly basis, but hadn’t done since early March: We ate at a restaurant.

The Carbon County Steakhouse is probably the main reason we visit Red Lodge every year, especially since the bookstore closed. (According to Neil Gaiman, this means Red Lodge isn’t truly a town.) Specifically, the cowboy coffee sauce makes it our foodie destination. The syrupy glaze sweetly complements a Montana ribeye, and despite my love of animals, I love a good steak. We knew we were at least going to order takeout from the steakhouse. But we also love the atmosphere there, particularly in the courtyard out front. So when we saw that they had only a few tables set up outside, spaced at least six feet apart, we decided our dreary motel room was no setting for a fine meal — even if we had given it a thorough wipedown upon our arrival.

The steak was of course superb, as was my honey sage bourbon cocktail. But I was shocked when I realized the staff was not all wearing masks. We had the same waitress as last year, and she was concerned too. She told us that though the state had not mandated it, the restaurant had decided that everyone would start wearing masks next week, as the Fourth of July weekend marked the start of the real summer season. As she said, the workers are the ones being exposed to travelers from all over America, many of them seemingly unconcerned about the diseases their unmasked faces could spread. So the proletarian are asserting their safety themselves — beginning next week.

This is my main concern as we make this pandemic road trip: It is one thing for voyagers like us to take our lives into our own hands, whether it’s to sightsee or to bring family together or to take care of a loved one or to go somewhere where social distancing is a given or to do something besides sit in the house with your bored kids for yet another day. We should do all we can to not expose the workers who make our journeys possible along the way, and that means wearing masks and even  gloves, keeping six feet away, using credit cards not cash, and washing, washing, washing. Many businesses are happy for our patronage. As he walked around the lobby wiping doorknobs and surfaces, the

One kid alone in a melting tundra

desk clerk at a our Red Lodge motel told me he was glad they had reopened because two months of being cooped up with his teenage kids was not bringing the family closer together. But businesses do not want our germs.

Besides, what looks more Western than walking down the main street of a mountain town than a family of three with their faces half-covered by bandanas.

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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 bathrooms 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 the damage clear, I just don’t understand how governments can be so concerned about contaminated watercraft when they don’t even mandate masks.

Still 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.


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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