No artist has had a bigger lifelong influence on me than Patti Smith. She showed me a new way of being when I was a struggling teenager and in the four decades since has remained an example of how to move through the universe pursuing your artistic dreams and personal values. I’ll never forget the first time we connected in real life: I just about lost it when I hit play on my answering machine and heard her voice. I first interviewed her back in 1995, when she was just beginning to perform again after taking a long pause to raise her kids, and then mourn her husband; that became my one and only Village Voice cover story.
It had been many years since we last spoke, so I shrieked once more when I listened to a voice mail at work and it was Patti. She is the only celebrity I know who responds to interview requests by calling journalists directly, rather than scheduling an interview through flacks. I happened to be in a small Minneapolis town in the midst of a cross country drive when I called her back, and as I left her a message, a train drove by, blowing its whistle. “Nice train soundtrack,” Patti texted me.
We eventually had an hourlong, somewhat discursive talk, the highlights of which made it to my Los Angeles Times story. As in ’95, she’s back from another pause – this one pandemic forced, not lifestyle chosen — and I felt honored to be the person chronicling her return. We talked a lot about the climate, but none of that discussion made the story. “We’re living in the midst of enormous, enormous crisis environmentally, in every way, whether it’s flooding or drought or fires,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for us as a species because the only way it’s going to work is for us to globally respect…. And I feel for our children.”
This week, from Tahoe to New Orleans to the Northeast, Americans are struggling under the devastating effect of Anthropocene folly. Smith, who has had two of her few shows since 2020 cancelled partially or completely because of severe summer storms, seems to be a bit of a rainmaker. As my husband and I drove to Pioneertown to see her Aug. 31 show at Pappy & Harriet’s, the sky darkened and suddenly, there were flash flood warnings in the middle of the desert, during a mega drought. The outdoor show was postponed a half hour; only a little rain fell, but the wind was powerful. Patti took the continued disruption in good humor, accepting mother nature howling in the mikes as unexpected backing vocals.
Still, it was all a little unnerving. As the world knows from her infamous performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan, Smith has a habit of losing her place; there were a lot of forgotten words and misstarts at Pappy’s. Also, a lot of laughter between her, her son Jackson on guitar, and Tony Shanahan on piano, bass, guitar, and vocals. The hipster honkytonk is one of my favorite places in the world, so it was amazing to see her there, in such a small venue. Her voice is stronger than ever, so deep and rich. Still, it was a bit of a ramshackle performance. Patti admitted she was wearing her “pandemic pants”: bleach stained, loose, and comfy. The crowd loved her, she loved them back.
Friday at the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills – another one of my favorite venues – they played an almost identical set, but it was a totally different show. Flea joined on bass, giving the band a bottom they needed (though I still missed Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty). Smith’s messy braids were gone, though a couple times during the night, she started to plait her long salt and pepper locks again. So were the pandemic pants – but she did have to button up her fly after the first song, “Grateful.” It was a perfect California night, the palm trees and hillside behind the band lit up like a fairytale grotto. Patti was still joking and informal; when Flea left the stage at one point, she explained he had to pee. But there were only a couple stumbles. Patti was on fire. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her deliver as note perfect a performance as her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “1000 Miles Behind.” Smith is well celebrated for her shamanistic performance style and poetic lyrics, but she is not as appreciated as she should be for the timbre and power of her voice. She also covered Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun” and dedicated her reggae song “Redondo Beach” to the late Lee Scratch Perry.
By the end of the evening, for a rendition of “Land” that was a bricolage of itself, Smith seemed to be in a trance. Even Jackson looked at her with a mix of awe and concern. Seeing her perform with her offspring beside her and still be so unapologetically herself is another life lesson she has given me. You could see in the eclectic, female-friendly audience how many of us have followed Patti into, as she puts it, the “sea of possibilities.” (Though she told me in the Times interview that she can’t swim; does this mean she has never actually pissed in a river?)
She closed both shows with the song that has become her most celebrated anthem, even more than “Because the Night” (which she also performed): “People Have the Power.” Once the pied piper of misfits, Patti Smith is now, as she likes to call, herself a worker. Happy Labor Day weekend.
Little by little. I keep telling myself that. Take it slow. Patience is not this patient’s virtue. I want to run, dive, swim underwater as long as I can hold my breath, and then do the crawl straight out to the horizon until I don’t feel the cold of the Pacific anymore. That’s my usual mode of immersion — well, okay, I do more of a shuffle-for-stingrays than a run. But lately, nothing has been usual.
My biggest fear about having surgery was not being able to swim. You might as well lock me up in a dungeon if you are going to deprive me of water. It’s my exercise, meditation, therapy, habit, and habitat. Keep me on land too long, and I dry out like a slug.
So when I first stuck my toes back in the Pacific after four weeks of exile, I could feel my flesh rehydrating. As I walked gingerly through the wash, the life force ran up my legs to electro-charge my failing heart and douse my brain with dopamine. Two days later, when I had worked up the courage to submerge, I lifted my feet from the earth and lay my body horizontal on salt water. The pain in my core vanished. Freedom from gravity, from the planet’s pull on mass, from the weight of the upper half of my body stacked on the lower half, released my poor, pulverized nerves. The cold Cabrillo water, with its healing salt crystals, worked its medicinal magic. I had been worried that swimming could hurt me, but instead — like it always does — it was my cure.
When I returned to shore from my first wade in the water, a shiny white object beckoned from the wet sand. I thought at first it was a shell, but it turned out to be a different piece of animal: the bone of the top bill of an aquatic fowl, like a duck. Of course, there aren’t generally ducks in the ocean. Gulls, herons, cormorants, pelicans, egrets, sandpipers, and willets — the local species — all have very differently shaped beaks. The mystery bone is a strange, macabre gift but beautiful: delicate, ivory, dotted with pinhole calligraphy. Another masterpiece by Mother Nature.
For the last five years, Mother’s Day has been bittersweet for me, as it marks the anniversary of my mom’s death. I wrote this back then, but have never published it, until now. Cherish your mother, while you still have her.
Part 1: Murder of Crows
Everyone was nesting. Nesting and fighting. It was that time of year. Specifically, it was the day before Mother’s Day. Mother’s Eve.
On the day Mom died, the crows outside were teaching their young to fly. The babies were good sized but scruffy, sporting a bad case of bed head not unlike that favored by my own pubescent boy. The most airborne they could manage was a two-foot hop on spindly legs. They bobbed like awkward adolescents. As if fledging weren’t difficult enough, there was also the small issue of survival. Robin sized, the young crows were getting too big to hide safely from critters looking for a lunch — dogs, hawks, cats, coyotes — which meant for Ma and Pa, the transition to independence was an exercise in volume. Crows are awesome nags. Over the past week the constant loud cawing had become background noise to me, drowned out by the sound of my own troubles.
Then my aunt pointed them out, as we sat around, waiting for the mortuary to pick up Mom’s body. “There’s two baby crows out there; we’ve been watching them all week,” Colleen said. “That’s their parents yelling now.” I tuned in, and sure enough, they were making a hellacious racket amid the careful silence of the senior community where my mother spent the last 19 years of her life. I looked out the kitchen window and the young ones appeared more like grackles than crows, skinny and awkward, feathers not sleek and shiny like tar but matte and ruffled. One had gotten its way to the top of a tall shrub, but finding nowhere else to go after this herculean task, it was afraid to jump down. “Fly fly fly!” parent crow yelled. “How how how?” tween crow cawed back. It was a generational standoff, there in the shrubbery groomed by men in wide-brimmed hats to provide a green privacy curtain for the community’s gray-haired residents.
The crows were something fun to show Cole when he got there, something besides a dead human body, his first. After her stiff, lifeless form, so skinny, bereft of everything, mouth and eyes open in her forever last breath, how alive and animated the crows seemed, like comic, slapstick silent movie stars — though not silent at all. When I was growing up, we had an 8 mm reel of a short starring Heckle and Jeckle, two animated male crow buddies: classic avian bromance. We used to watch this black-faced odd couple prior to viewing family movies, on those rare occasions when my dad would set up the movie screen and projector and we’d gather to share family memories: that time when a brush fire almost took our Valley home, which I don’t remember at all because I wasn’t born; or our first pet, the runt mutt Tinkerbell, who I do remember, so fondly — clapping, “I believe.”
After he had given me a big hug, and then given the sobbing Jerry a hug that I’m not sure even registered with Mom’s devastated beau, and looked at Mom, and felt I don’t know what, Cole went to see the crows. He loves animals. At Mom’s there was almost always some fauna to see: rabbits to pretend hunt, lizards to catch, or lately, birds to watch at the feeder/bird house we had given Jerry. That was one of the first things my son did actually, was climb up on a step ladder and look into the porthole doors of that handmade wooden house, checking for chicks.
At some point that morning, when time seemed to pause forever and yet I wanted it to never resume, it dawned on me that the crows were even louder than usual. Looking out, I saw two small white dogs chasing one of the young ones. At first, I thought they were Colleen’s twin Westies, enjoying a bit of naughty untended fun, but then I realized they were someone else’s errant pooches. The crow was hopping desperately down the street while the dogs lumbered lazily after it, tongues lolling — big fluffy idiots. Overhead, the parents screeched and dove. Here lies the problem with making a perennial racket: When you really need folks to hear you, they can’t because they have tuned you out. You’ve cried, er, crow.
Looking in vain for an absent owner, I chased the dogs away from the poor bird, which seemed terrified and exhausted. The predators acted hapless, like their goal had been not so much to kill as to have a bit of harmless play: canine rebels without a cause. The adult birds were in a state of apoplexy, screaming their heads off. I doubt they ever realized that I had saved their offspring; at that point I was just another tormentor who had entered the scene, another demon from which their child had been saved by their noisome agitation in this period of parental hell.
Five days later, I was back at my home near the beach in San Pedro. I heard the familiar hacking cry and looked up to see a good-sized hawk being chased by a crow. There was something about this bird’s call that was not a threat but a summons, and sure enough, other crows appeared from all directions. They immediately perceived the bird of prey that had landed in the top of my neighbor’s palm trees and proceeded to turn the tables on it, making it their victim, repeatedly dive bombing the beleaguered raptor as it slid down a frond, trying to find shelter from these avenging black missiles. There were eight crows; who knows if they even knew each other, or if they just instinctively answered the summons, that caw of “Hawk! Hawk! Hawk!” raising their protective hackles, sending their adrenaline surging as they flew to defend one of their own. Had it already stolen a baby? Or had it just been casing the joint? There was no forensic evidence, no corpse in its talons or feathers in its beak, as it perched in that treetop, trying awkwardly to hide from these annoying adversaries who were inferior in size, intelligence, and beauty, but at this moment, superior in number and volume. For at least five minutes, the crows swarmed and the hawk cowered. Gradually, lesson delivered, the black birds peeled off one by one, until just a lone sentinel remained, on a window ledge nearby, keeping an eye on this ruffian and occasionally sounding a harsh warning: “I see you. I’m still here. Don’t you even try it buddy. Let this be a lesson to you.”
A brief moment of peace, and then the hawk flew away, sailing right over my head, its underside a geometric portrait in brown and white, one lone crow in pursuit.
For the past few weeks Jerry had been obsessed with the birds that came to the bird feeder/house, which I had bought for Mom’s birthday: a wooden, ramshackle bungalow with a short platform around it for seed, hand crafted by my neighbor. It had taken months for Jerry and Mom to figure out how to make the cute but not necessarily practical structure work. At first, when we placed it on top of the wall around their patio, it had been quickly overrun by squirrels who, like the crows attacking the hawk, suddenly converged out of seemingly nowhere. For a long time after that, it sat empty; a couple of times, they tried to get me to take it back — another item Mom was casting off, as she unloaded earthly possessions. Even before she was dying, Mom constantly denied herself pleasures — she was part of that stoic martyr generation of women who came of age in the 1950s, when women were taught to subordinate their needs to the household’s. You’d offer her a drink and she’d ask for a cup of warm water then sit and sip happily.
Finally Jerry’s tenant put the rustic house on a pole and voila, birds galore. The creatures weren’t particularly interested in taking up residence, but they loved to hang out and have tea, so what we had thought was a bird house with a feeder accessory became a feeder with a domicile backdrop. Little birds, big birds, brown birds, red birds: they came every day like clockwork. Jerry didn’t know what kind they were, so Cole gave him Sibley’s bird guide for his birthday in April. Even then, Colleen and I had to look them up for the onetime teacher. My brother and I were frequently amazed by the seemingly simple, everyday tasks that seemed beyond this Word War II veteran’s grasp. Maybe it was because he was so old; then again, you would think that after almost a century on this planet, things like ordering food for delivery would not be completely novel concepts that he had never encountered, in his strange, sheltered life as an only child and confirmed bachelor. Jerry constantly blamed Mom for infantilizing him because, it was a tired refrain, “she did everything for me for almost 20 years. I’m helpless because she wouldn’t let me lift a finger.” But once she was no longer around to scapegoat, Jerry started to realize that maybe, in fact, she had been doing everything for him because at 93, he was no longer capable of doing much himself.
Flipping through Sibley’s, Colleen and I were quickly able to determine that the small brown birds with the red heads and chests were house finches. There was a family of these, parents and two young ones. They were the friendliest of the feeder’s guests, flying in to snack even if you were out on the patio watering Mom’s succulent collection, just inches away. There were towees too, and one day a mourning dove, and then the last time I was there, a crow, perched right on the patio wall, eyeing us up. While Mom was still alive, Jerry would go out in the morning and whistle, and the birds would come, and he would give them food. Sometimes they would even follow him to his car. They were quick learners, these gated community birds; they knew to follow the hand that feeds them. Feeding the birds was one task he took care of himself, while Mom, in serious decline by this point, sat in her armchair, watching and smiling. During that last month, Mom and Jerry would perch in front of the sliding glass doors and look out on their winged visitors, enjoying the patio view and each other.
After Mom died, Jerry fell out of the habit of feeding his feathered friends. When I’d go over to see how he was doing, or to take care of all the tasks that accompany death, or to spend hours seeing which of Mom’s hundreds of clothes fit me, I’d ask if he had put seed out yet, and he’d shake his head. “No, I just haven’t been doing that.”
It wasn’t just the birds that were breeding that spring. On Mother’s Day, I looked out the windows of my San Pedro apartment, on a world without my mother in it for the first time. The half-moon of Cabrillo Beach lies just across the street from our apartment, and the blue-gray of the Pacific fills most of our picture window. That morning, 24 hours after Mom drew her last breath, dolphins were cavorting in the bay, little babies and their parents, splashing a joyful riposte to the dreadful irony that that holiday will now always hold for me. They were calling to me. I put on my half-suit and ran down to the ocean. Our neighbor was there, picking up stones, and gamely jumped in with me. I know the water was freezing, because my generally tough, athletic companion told me so, but I suppose I was numb; it felt cleansing and glorious, with no apparent temperature, the salt water tingling and holding me up, baptism in an ocean of tears.
A couple mornings later, the dolphins were back, and I paddled out in my kayak to join them. They jumped, dove, and did back flips all around me, the little ones trying out all the ways their bodies can move in the water, the parents bobbing and dancing too — that kind of fun is contagious. I noticed that when they’d swim by, as they went back and forth through the kelp beds, one adult would always hang back, keeping sentinel, a black eye in a gray head fixed benignly but steadily on me. The babies stuck close to their parents when they traveled, so that you would see them come out of the water in tight pairs, one big one followed closely by one small. I sat there for a half hour among them, forgetting my sorrow, seizing the moment, grateful for their companionship, to be briefly let into this family.
Part Two: Commencement
My mother died the morning of commencement at the university where I had just been granted tenure. I could tell she had lost her iron control because she would have been pissed if she had realized her inopportune timing. Normally, I would have been — well, not happy — but would have seen getting out of having to attend commencement as a silver lining in a terrible storm. But this year, former President Bill Clinton was our speaker, and presidential candidate Hillary was in the audience, and Mom and I were both excited about my employer’s position in this important historical moment. A former history teacher, Mom could discuss the minutiae of American politics pretty much up until her dying day, brain tumors be damned. She followed our crazy election avidly — every debate, every news-show appearance, every Trump idiocy. She was convinced Hillary would make the best president not because she was a woman — though I know that thrilled her — but because the former Secretary of State and Senator had the political know-how and connections. “The president has to make hundreds of appointments in the first few weeks in office, and that determines her success,” she said over and over. “That’s where Obama got off on the wrong foot: He didn’t have the right people in place.” When Clinton wins in November, I thought on that first Motherless Day, it will be a bittersweet victory for me, because the woman who raised me to be a feminist won’t be there to celebrate.
It is never convenient to die, but there were other cruel ironies in Mom’s timing. Commencement for LMU students was commencement for me too: The last day of my commitment to the university for 15 months, as I embarked on my year of learning — my first sabbatical, and my first year as a newly tenured associate professor. I was one day away from being free to come see her every day, to take care of her during her last transition, to get some closure to our tight but often fraught relationship. Instead, I spent her last week torn between the frenzy of the end of the school year and her precipitous decline, leaving her in the care of others, almost failing to be there in the end. I missed her last breath.
Mom was first diagnosed with cervical cancer in October 2011. I found out a day before my birthday. I recall that the next day, not only did I have to go to work, but we had a dreaded department meeting. It was a dark, gray afternoon, and as we sat in the Dean’s conference room with its view out over Marina Del Rey, it was as if there were no membrane separating the leaden sky, the grumpy gathering, and the mood inside me.
Mom fought an incredibly long and heroic fight against her mutating, mutinous cells. But I think she knew from the beginning it was hopeless. She was diagnosed with a particularly virulent strain of cancer known as serous — serious without the I, but quite serious in fact. Normal survival rate is about a year. Mom lasted four and a half.
She had major surgery within weeks: a radical hysterectomy, which means not just the ovaries and what was left of her cervix after a hysterectomy decades ago, but everything around them, including the entire endometrial sac plus some lymph nodes for good measure, were removed. I was with her at Saddleback Valley Hospital, and she was very brave and practical about everything, as always. She hated to be a bother to anyone, and had a way of finding the positive in everything, up until the end. I used to know when she was ready to conclude a conversation because she would proclaim, “It’s all good.” The phrase signaled the discussion was closed, happy ending assured verbally if not actually. Time to hang up. The morphine after the hysterectomy made her sick. “It’s all good.” Chemotherapy stole her fingernails and hair, but the latter came back a handsome dark brown, so “it’s all good.” In two years, the cancer returned to whatever remnant of her reproductive system remained, but the doctors were able to blast it with radiation, so “it’s all good.” Then a hacking cough turned out not to be a flu but spots on a lung, which a surgeon was able to remove along with only one third of that organ. “It’s all good.” A few months later, the cancer was in her lymph nodes. “It’s all good.” Before they could radiate those, they found it in her spine, a large mass so close to her central nervous system the doctors couldn’t believe she was walking. She had to cancel her trip to join her children in the Midwest — her first in 14 years — in order to have emergency radiation, but she was amazingly asymptomatic, so “it’s all good.” Only more tests revealed it was also in her brain, and so although after every treatment, she had sworn it would be her last, she would now follow the spine radiation with brain radiation. Nobody was even thinking about the lymphoma anymore; that was small potatoes.
Every stage was cruel, painful, a cavalcade of indignities and aches, but the pinpoint brain radiation was the worst. Mom wore a sort of harness helmet custom made from hard white plastic to fit the contours of her skull and hold her motionless, like some sadistic torture device. Her head was locked backwards into place with her mouth open, and she said it felt like she was drowning in her own blood and saliva — like she was being water boarded for 30 minutes. I went to all three of those treatments with her, and each time she came out crying and pale, needing to sit in the lobby and collect herself — my brave, strong, practical, stoic mom.
It’s all good.
There were good days, weeks, months, even a year at first, in between recoveries and relapses. She and Jerry flew to Japan and took a cruise of China, though she spent much of the vacation taking care of her nonagenarian companion, holed up in their cabin trying not to get sick like most of the rest of the passengers. We even took a weekend trip with them out to the desert, spending the night at our friends’ pistachio ranch. Jerry had given Cole a couple of old pellet guns and he really enjoyed sitting outside watching Bud and Cole shoot cans. And he loved the visit to the wolf sanctuary, where one large canine became obsessed with licking the top of Jerry’s head — maybe his gel tasted good. That was when Mom’s cough first sprung up. We thought maybe it was just the dry desert dust that sent her into a paroxysm of hacking. She had to sit down and missed seeing some of the beasts. I think that was her last vacation.
One year ago, after the lung surgery and before the lymphoma, we also got her out to one last show. Mom loved musicals. She had performed in them in high school and I think always harbored a secret dream of being a star of stage and screen. She used to sing, in the kitchen, doing dishes. Cast recordings occupied a prime position next to our record player, and by a young age, I knew all the words to Oklahoma, South Pacific, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course, I couldn’t sing like Mom could, as she rather cruelly told me the first time I auditioned for a show myself; I had a “sweet voice,” she said, but I couldn’t really carry a tune. That was one of the few times I can remember Mom ever crushing a dream of mine — well, that, and disabusing me of my adolescent dream of romantic love.
So almost exactly a year before she died, Mom, Cole, and I saw Matilda at the Ahmanson in Downtown Los Angeles. Mom was feeling good and looked amazing, decked out in a black-and-white shift — very Mary Quant — with a matching hat shielding her face from the midday sun. Not only could my mom sing, but she had an eye for chic fashion — she cut quite a figure before the students she spent decades teaching at a rural Midwestern high school. At her suggestion, before Matilda, we walked to Philippe’s, a vintage deli that she used to frequent, back when she was a young woman working at Bullock’s Department Store. There was no highway separating Downtown from Chinatown back then, and the stroll was much easier and more pleasant — LA was still a walking city, not the autogeddon fallout shelter of today. Now, you walk across endless concrete over multiple lanes of freeway that spew exhaust at you, with little greenery or scenery, just trash and the occasional homeless encampment.
Inside the restaurant though, time had stood still. Philippe’s specialty is French dips; you order from a counter — beef, lamb, pork, pastrami — then take your lunch back to long communal tables or, like we did, upstairs to smaller wooden ones. Mom reminisced about her years as a teenager and young adult in LA, especially that period when Dad was off in the service and she was a graduate student at UCLA, earning a Master’s in Education — freed from her family, temporarily unattached. On the way back, we stopped in Chinatown and bought dragon fruit. Mom marveled at this bright pink produce that’s good for digestion and one of Cole’s favorites. Then we let the boys run and do parkour in Pershing Square and the fountains of the Ahmanson complex. It was a long walk — for LA — on a warm summer day, but Mom didn’t tire at all; she was always a fast walker. In pictures of that day, we are all happy and smiling. But she is tiny; I look ginormous next to her, and I’m 5’3″. Her lifelong health consciousness had turned into a sort of anorexia exacerbated by the disease eating her cells. At the end she was skin and bones.
Her body dwindled but her mind was strong. She staved off death for so long but when it came, it came much more quickly than we expected. Although she had been under the care of hospice nurses for months, she not only never left home, she never slipped into a coma, went on a morphine drip, used a wheelchair, or moved to a hospital bed. All those last stages of death from cancer that are so horrible for the sufferer and those who care for her, Mom mercifully missed. She was still using the toilet, still talking, still walking with assistance, up until the night she went to sleep and never woke up.
Five days earlier, she had fallen in the living room, cracking her head on a sharp edge of furniture as she went down. I got the call from Jerry as I was riding bike on a beautiful Sunday. It was a call I had anticipated and dreaded: Their efforts to maintain their independence were clearly over, if Mom had lost her equilibrium, or broken a hip, or worse. By the time I made the hour drive to the hospital, Mom was patched up and ready to go home. Amazingly, nothing was broken and there was no concussion, just a nasty wound clearly visible on the scalp that had never gotten its hair back after the last chemo.
Uncle John and Aunt Colleen came to stay with them, and on the days I didn’t teach, I spent the nights as well. It was a lot of people in a two-bedroom unit with little privacy, and Jerry — in denial about Mom’s condition up until the end — seemed slightly put out by this family he considered invaders. Under Colleen’s care, particularly the massages that brought relief and blood back to her legs, Mom briefly rallied. She was effusive when I talked to her on the phone on Wednesday. But by Friday, she could barely be roused. Hoping to make commencement, I had just returned home to San Pedro after two days with Mom when Colleen called and said she thought I better come back. I picked up fresh clothes and drove back down the 405. On the way I called my brother, Brett, who had booked a ticket a month ago to fly in from Minneapolis in a week. “I don’t think you should wait. You had better come now,” I said.
But Mom woke from a long nap and got up again after I arrived at her place. We walked her to the living room, where she sat in her chair, sipping one of the protein drinks that had been basically her whole sustenance for months. She was alert enough to be surprised that I was there. “What are you doing here?” she asked, confused but happy. “Why is everyone here? Uh-oh, is something going on?”
“No,” we assured her. “We just want to be with you.”
“No, something’s going on,” she said. But she seemed pleased, delighted, like maybe we were throwing a surprise party for her.
In her living room, we watched two of her favorite musicals: Funny Girl and Victor Victoria. It occurred to me how in some ways, these films represented her children: her unconventional daughter and gay son. She loved Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews and the characters they portrayed, funny girls playing funny girls. They were the kind of women she emulated, sharp and humourous and glamorous and loved, but mostly, independent.
Mom had slept most of the day but seemed so happy now, watching favorite flicks in the home she had made for herself after her divorce from my father. Were we indeed throwing a party for her? We tried to seem festive. As it got late and Jerry suggested going to bed, she slipped into a confused state. “Sure, we can shoot this scene later,” she said. Then, she began talking about costumes. Her closet was her wardrobe, filled with chic dresses, pantsuits, and satin robes, and Mom was getting ready for her final scene. Shirley McDonnell always wanted to be a musical star, and I like to think she went to sleep believing she was one, a dream from which she never awoke.
After decades of snubbing female artists and increasingly ignoring artists of color, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made an impressive course correction yesterday. Of 16 nominated acts announced, seven (43.75 percent) are solo female artists or all-female acts. If you count the number of individual performers nominated – ie, the five members of the Go-Go’s plus Mary J. Blige, Kate Bush, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner and Carole King – women account for almost a quarter (24.44%) of all nominees. Admittedly, that’s still not parity, but it’s a great deal better than the 7.63% of total individuals inducted since the hall was founded in 1986, or the 3.45% of the class of 2020 that was female: Her name was Whitney Houston. Turner and King, if inducted, would become the second and third women to be inducted into the hall twice (they were previously inducted with their former male romantic and artistic partners). It’s about time.
The hall has also reversed its slide away from being an institution that began with almost half non-white artists to one that, in the class of 2020, had less than 15 percent people of color. Almost a third (31.11%) of this year’s individuals nominated are non-white; if you count by act rather than individual, more than two-thirds (68.75%) of the acts include POC.
Even if it’s not the all-female ballot I suggested in 2019, this is still probably the highest percentage of female acts ever nominated to the hall. There were a few years when the hall inducted a slate that was around a quarter female: 28.57% in 1999, 25.93% in 1996, 24% in 1995. Interestingly, the ‘90s were a time of high visibility and activism for female musicians; possibly the hall’s choices reflected that feminist consciousness. And that era’s sheroes – Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, TLC, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Hole, L7 –are becoming eligible for nomination themselves. Queen Latifah is past due. There are no female rappers in the Rock Hall.
Numbers tell an important story, and the extremity of the figures that I have been crunching for the last decade, in articles for Salon, Goodreads, and Billboard, got people’s attention. Even the hosts of The View were spouting my statistics last nomination round, and an amazing army of podcasters, bloggers, and social media activists took the fight to a level of erudition and specificity that left me in the dust.
But this year’s nominees are not just a relief quantitatively; qualitatively, it’s a pretty damn good list. The diversity of styles – hip-hop, punk, metal, pop, new wave, hard rock, soft rock, medium rock – show that the committee has taken to heart Ice Cube’s induction speech of 2016, in which he said rock’n’roll is not a style, “it’s a spirit.” Beyond the stellar female choices, the committee finally acknowledged rock’s global role by nominating the late Nigerian Afrobeat artivist Fela Kuti. (Though sadly, they left Kraftwerk – arguably the hall’s biggest repeated snub – out this year.) After years of controversy over whether hip-hop acts should be included, they nominated Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Rage Against the Machine, and Blige. (Kiss this, Gene Simmons.) And they played to us old punks with the New York Dolls, thank you. Yes, there are still too many dudes-with-guitar acts – five. Those groups’ multiple members throw off the individual nominee count, skewing it white and male. But I understand they appeal to their own demographics, so let the metal fans have their Iron Maiden. Or their Rage. But not both.
After all, what’s good about this ballot is its expansive embrace of popular musical culture. To me, that’s what rock’n’roll was, at its best. I know the music – like most American culture — harbors a hideous history of racial and gender appropriation. Elvis was King but Big Mama Thornton has still never been nominated to the rock hall. But I also know there was an integration that happened at the Moondog dance parties, at studios such as Stax, on regional radio and even on the charts that offered an aural vision of a different kind of united states. One we need more than ever today. In Eric Lott’s words, there is love and theft. So for once, the nomination announcement made me not want to give up on rock and its Cleveland institution. Now let’s finish the job: As Janet Jackson said in 2019, “Induct more women.”
The complete list of 2021 nominees:
Mary J. Blige
LL Cool J
New York Dolls
Rage Against the Machine
Research assistance provided by Schuyler Vanderveen and Yemayá Williams.
I like to experience the sea from multiple planes. Diving in, I visit a hidden world, where humans are guests and the life forms more fantastic the deeper one plunges. Swimming on the surface, my view is the point where water meets air, which I share with paddling birds, frolicking dolphins and the occasional curious pinniped. Standing on a paddleboard, I can gaze down into the ocean and watch those same creatures as they dive underneath me, or I can look far to the horizon to where the cerulean earth bends out of sight. Sitting in a kayak, I’m on the water but not in it, at sea level but dry. By kayak, I can cover more miles more quickly than by other routes. Saturday, I paddled to the lighthouse.
As my friend Heidi and I pulled our boats into San Pedro Bay at the Cabrillo Beach boat ramp, an osprey wheeled overhead. I took it as an auspicious sign, pun intended. These brown and white hunters are my favorite birds primarily because, like me, they love the water. There’s one, and sometimes two, that hang out near the ramp, perhaps hoping for catch dropped by fishermen. They also like to patrol the inner curve of the outer beach, right outside my windows. I love to watch them hover in place, their wings cupping the air, meaty legs aimed toward potential prey – treading air like we tread water. Their dive is quick and sudden; its force can take them all the way below the surface. Sometimes I see them fly by with fish dangling from their talons, bringing home the bacon, so to speak. This is another thing I like about osprey; they are pescatarians. They basically just eat fish, sometimes a frog or eel that maybe they mistook for a trout. So even though this osprey is circling over a flock of coots and scooters, unlike an eagle, it’s not hunting other birds; it wants what they want – fish.
There’s a slight chop on the water, so we’re unsure how far we should go. We head toward the Lane Victory, the merchant marine vessel docked at the entrance to the main channel into the port. Just off the pilings, a sea lion is repeatedly jumping in circles through the water, like a cat chasing its tail.
There’s no wind or current and the waves are harmless, so we decide to cross the bay to the harbor entrance. “To the lighthouse!” we two feminist professors exclaim, and giggle at our literary joke.
Angels Gate Light has marked the entrance to the City of Angels for 113 years. Perched on the end of the rock jetty that protects Los Angeles Harbor, it’s an elegant black and white building that was refurbished several years ago. On this day, after the rains have rinsed the air, it seems to positively gleam against the blue sky and water. Also known as the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse, its light and horn keep the giant cargo ships from running into the jetty. For them, it marks the entrance to the port; for Heidi and me, it’s the exit to the open sea.
We paddle past the lighthouse into the Pacific, just for a look. The waves are still big out here. To our left the ocean is a parking lot of cargo ships waiting for a port berth. COVID infections and restrictions have slowed the unloading process on the docks, and record numbers of ships have been left waiting. A couple weeks ago 55 of these giant container ships had to navigate 17-foot waves. Please politicians, give essential workers their vaccines.
Staring straight south it’s nothing but blue on blue. There’s something about looking out on the ocean from the edge of land that opens a person up – especially after months of limited mobility, of sheltering in place, of lockdown. The options are endless here; it’s the “sea of possibilities,” as Patti Smith sang on the song called “Land.”
Then a fishing boat comes racing in from the ocean, passing too close and too fast. Behind us, a majestic wooden ship, the Zapata II, has all its sails flying and is coming up remarkably quick. I paddle back to the lighthouse to get out of the way, but the wakes from the two vessels merge around me and suddenly I’m pitching up and down, waves breaking over my bow, feeling like a very small vessel in a very busy urban port.
Back in the bay and, literally, even keeled, we take one last look around before retracing our, er, steps. The view from the kayak is like being in the bottom of a landscape painting. To the east, the mountains are dressed in a thick layer of snow. The white triangular arches of the new Gerald Desmond Bridge that connects Los Angeles to Long Beach are architectural echoes of Big Bear. Below them the red and white cranes of the loading docks also reach to the sky. We’re sitting in the ocean, looking up at snow-covered mountains and the engineering marvels of one of the world’s busiest ports.
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 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.