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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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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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Blue Wave

Blue wave

Photo by Sue Maralit

I have been on a wild goose chase. Literally. I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps in Wisconsin in the summer of 1984, and our job one day was to walk through the wetlands chasing Canadian geese. We started at one corner of a swamp, about a dozen feet apart – socially distancing decades before that was a thing. At the opposite corner was a net. It was molting season so the birds could not fly. As we trudged through the mud in rubber boots – sometimes up to our chests in muck – we moved closer together, pushing the flightless creatures further down the funnel until finally, they were trapped in the net. The hunt was for their own good: The captured geese were tagged for research and released. We hosed and showered ourselves off afterwards. We were teenagers. Being filthy was fun.

Now, I know how the geese feel. The country, state, county, and city have been driving us into tighter and tighter quarters. First they told us to stay indoors except for exercise. Then they closed every open space where we could exercise: the parks, the beaches, the marinas, etc. Instead of giving us ample places to social distance, they have driven us into crowded neighborhoods and streets. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles has not shut down roads to give pedestrians added walking areas. Where I live, San Pedro, I am surrounded by public spaces where we used to be able to walk for miles with minimal passers by. Now, to give myself and my dog the exercise and sunshine we all need if we are going to stay healthy and keep our immune systems up, I have to walk on hard sidewalks, ducking into the road to keep six feet from other walkers, on promenades filled with all the other people driven into this urban net, that the city keeps tightening.

The Los Angeles Times recently called on state and local governments to reconsider their stance on closing public spaces. Some counties, such as Ventura and Orange, were open this weekend in time for the first hot days of the year. Sadly, not the county and city of Los Angeles. Having made the mistake to shut the beaches to begin with, they have now created a dangerous bottleneck situation.

This is Southern California. We live here for the sun, the air, the oceans, the mountains, the desert. We need the outdoors like Las Vegas needs casinos and New Jersey needs golf courses. We are a people who swim, surf, run, ride bikes, paddleboard, kayak, skateboard, sail, and fish. Activity defines us. For many of us, to not be able to partake in these sports is an assault on our mental and physical health; this is not just emotion speaking, this is science. And believe me, there is enough room in and near the Pacific Ocean for us to keep six feet apart — if governments would just open all the beaches, instead of forcing us into a few. It’s not only science, it’s math.

As Dr. Shana Jordan, a family doctor on respiratory duty, neighbor, and avid surfer, recently wrote in a letter to Mayor Garcetti: “The ocean is not a contagion zone. No two surfers or swimmers or paddlers would ever be within six feet of each other. This is nonsense. The government is swiftly losing credibility among outdoors people, particularly surfers and runners. I understand that enforcement is made so much easier with blanket park/trail/beach closures. But without nuance it is barbaric and idiotic.”

Sure, some people are going to be stupid/reckless/forgetful and not socially distance. So control the crowds. Do what Hawaii is doing: Don’t let people hang out on the beach; let them access the beach and the ocean for exercise. Limit the numbers who can enter the sea by keeping parking lots closed or restricting access. If Home Depot can figure out how to socially distance shoppers, can’t Parks and Recreation do the same for recreators? Patrol the beach for people violating the rules. Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the bushel.

The last weekend Cabrillo Beach was open, it was a gorgeous day, and after weeks of restricted movement and rain, lots of people did turn up. It was early in the shelter-in-place restrictions, the parking lot was open, and families with small children stuck at home were desperate to do something with their kids. Rangers cruised the sands in four-wheelers politely reminding people to social distance. They were nice; they complimented my dog. Not everyone listened to them, I’m sure, but most people did. The situation could have been improved with more planning, clearer rules. Instead, by the end of the week, all access to all beaches and parks was closed. Period. That’s not government, that’s dictatorship.

Fact time: coronavirus is deadly, it’s highly contagious, it’s scary. And we in the US were not prepared for a pandemic. From the national to the local level, American governments have had to rely on social control because they have not been able to provide the social services that are the number-one factor in controlling the deadly outbreak. Five months since Covid was first identified, Americans still do not have free and widespread testing for the virus and antibodies, personal protective equipment, contact tracing, etc. Support for hospitals, the unemployed, parents with children stuck at home, small businesses, schools, etc., has been slow in coming and too little too late.

Our leaders have instead relied on us to keep each other safe – and we have been pretty damn good, overall. The infection rate in California is 104 per 100,000, less than one tenth the per capita rate in densely populated New York. It’s higher in LA, but that is largely because of infections in nursing homes, tragically. Our curve is flattening, and it was never close to the dire numbers Governor Newsom predicted early on. So why, instead of loosening the reins, do they keep wanting to tighten them? Could it be they did this not for our protection but for their own hunger for power? Or that they are misdirecting us from their continued failure to provide adequate testing? I swear Mr. Perfect Hair Newsom gets a gleam in his eye when he warns us infection rates will go up if we don’t be good little children and stay glued to our screens.

LA County Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer recently said, “We know it’s best right now for us Angelenos to stay home, or stay outside [in] your own yard or your own neighborhood.” First of all, that’s the definition of a paternalistic, or maternalistic, government attitude. Secondly, not all Angelenos have yards. One of the reasons Covid-19 is affecting impoverished and minority communities with more deadly power is because people there tend to be crowded into smaller spaces with less access to public land. Third, I would like to stay in my neighborhood, but my neighborhood is closed, so I keep having to go elsewhere, where it’s more crowded, to exercise. Open my neighborhood, and I’ll happily stay put.

Florida and Georgia have opened their beaches. Michigan is letting people fish again. When will Californians be freed?

People are starting to go nuts. Instead of bringing us together, the virus is driving us further apart – literally, of course, but we are not only socially distancing, we are philosophically, psychologically and emotionally distancing. The go-outsiders roam manically, ever further, looking for room to move, venturing into dangerous territories to get the nature they need. The stay at homers lurk on social media shaming their neighbors for, I don’t know, kissing their children. There’s a woman in our neighborhood who walks around calling people into the police, even though she herself is not sheltering in place. Yesterday, ironically, we had to call the police on her because she purposely coughed on my husband and harassed our food delivery person, after we told her to stop her snooping. Early in the restrictions, one of the many locals we used to see every day at the beach stood desolately in front of the yellow tape, surfboard under his arm. A former cop, he shook his head: “They’re going too far. You go too far, there will be social unrest.”

We’re seeing that around the world now. I worry that despite every horrible thing Trump has done wrong, Democrats – and I am one — are driving people straight into his arms by making ours the party of fear, the party of no fun, the party of no freedom. Instead of the party of empathy, of support, of leadership.

I jumped into the ocean the other day for the first time in months. In seconds, it was as if the heavy coat of tar and dust that has weighed me down was rinsed off, and all that day – and still now – I felt joy again. I knew I was hurting, but I didn’t know how bad.

Push free-ranging animals into tighter and tighter quarters for a month, then turn on the heat lamp, and see what happens. And remember, we are not molting so we can fly, straight into the sun if we have to.

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“Black & Blue” Revisited

Upon the reissue of the Rolling Stones’ album Black and Blue, Edward Helmore of The Guardian interviewed me about the controversial ad campaign for the album. As I told him, it was an ad that backfired at the time and hasn’t aged well. Oh bondage, up yours!

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The imbalance of nature

The animals are taking over the beach, and they are hungry. With humans now banned from the spaces their tax dollars fund, critters are free to roam. Giant flocks of grebes and terns have made the inner and outer waters of Cabrillo their home, holding cacophonous mating gatherings — yes, orgies — day after day. Skunks roam the beach and hills brazenly, toddling across the sands. A fox trotted down the middle of Stephen M. White Drive midday. Skinny, it looked not liberated, but desperate. The animals here are dependent on human waste for their food, and they are starving. The sky may be enjoying its respite from pollution, but the critters that have learned to coexist with us are now on their own.

Rid of mechanical noise, the sound is magical. I find myself shunning human music in order to listen to the birds. Our neighbor, an adult male somewhere on the autism scale who is an avid birder, has taken it upon himself to try to feed all the gulls, crows, ravens, and squirrels in the neighborhood. We constantly hear birds landing and walking across our roof, the gulls’ pink webbed feet sometimes visible through our skylight.

We inherited this virus by violating our relationship with wild beasts, and we are not the only critters paying the cost. The balance of nature is off.

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Separated from loved ones

My husband turned 60 yesterday. For months, we planned a big celebration in the desert. Friends were flying in from Michigan and Miami, three houses had been rented, we had reservations for 15 at Pappy & Harriet’s, our favorite saloon, in Pioneertown. For the out of towners, we had a week’s worth of activities planned: trips to Hollywood, a Dodger’s game, kayaking in the ocean, etc.

Then COVID-19 blew that all to hell.

Cancellations of birthday parties are small potatoes compared to the other consequences of the pandemic — to little things like economic collapse, depression, illness, death. I feel more sorry for all the poor teenagers robbed of their quinceanara parties than for Bud. I’ve been trying to focus on the positive in my writings because 1. there is so much anxiety and alarm out there already, and I feel no need to add to it, and 2. I know my family is incredibly privileged. We and everyone we know are healthy. Bud and I both still have incomes. We have a gorgeous panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean from our living room. Until this weekend at least, we could easily go to Cabrillo Beach — our front yard — and walk the dog, paddle, and swim if we wanted to brave the cold water. When the county shut down the beach Thursday, that was a knife in our hearts. But at least we can still look at it.

So it sucked for Bud that his party got cancelled, or hopefully, just postponed. But we made the most of it. We sneaked onto the ocean in our kayaks early in the morning, and enjoyed a beautiful paddle around Angel’s Gate lighthouse. After all, what better way to practice social distancing than to put the ocean between you and the rest of the world? Afterwards, we warmed up in our sauna, then took a nap. While we were sleeping, gremlins — actually, friends who were supposed to join us in the desert — tacked a big birthday banner to the outside of the house and left Bud a giant bottle of Jack Daniel’s, among other treasures. We made do.

One of the other reasons I’ve been relatively sanguine about life under lockdown was because I took a blow to the heart early in this whole mess, and I had to learn to cope. I was scheduled to fly to Wisconsin to visit my father in early March. A dutiful daughter, I was determined to travel even as flying seemed a sketchier and sketchier idea. Then, the day before I was supposed to leave — March 10, the day my son turned 17 — the nursing-home industry announced new guidelines restricting visitors to all facilities. Three months after I last saw Dad, I had to cancel my trip. I don’t know when — or if — I will ever see him again.

Dad has Lewy body dementia, a form of illness similar to Alzheimer’s but worse. His time left on this planet is precious. When I last saw him, in December, he thought I was his mother, if he “recognized” me at all. But still, he held my hand tight when we watched the Christmas carolers serenade his floor of the memory-care unit where he has been since November. He can’t communicate, or comprehend, but he can smile and sing — and snap and rage. He is still in there somewhere. You can see that in the video his wife sent of them singing “Happy Birthday” to Cole. At first he doesn’t understand what’s happening, but as Judy keeps going, his face fills with happiness and he tries singing along too. I played it for Bud yesterday.

It breaks my heart to think poor Dad can now  see no one but his caretakers at the nursing home, that these relative strangers feed him, clean him, dress him, put him to bed at night. He may not have known me, but he always smiles when he sees Judy and their standard poodle, Roi. He hasn’t felt the sun on his face in months and sleeps alone every night — if he sleeps, which he often doesn’t. It’s a terrible fate for the man who has always been there for me, through scraped knees and graduation and marriage and divorce and children.

I am desperate for this to be over, so I can see my father again. Once that’s possible, I’ll be on the first plane to Appleton. I pray he can hold my hand again. People who die of coronavirus die alone, because they are not allowed visitors. The separation of families during the time we need them most is one of the worst aspects of this terrible moment in time. Scott Simon wrote a powerful piece about this “consequence that’s harder to categorize” for NPR’s Weekend Edition on March 7.

I understand, of course, why nursing homes can’t allow visitors. I know it’s for the greater good, including my dad’s health. So I made my peace with the terrible cost of COVID a few weeks ago — weeks that already seems like an eternity.

Still, when I’m looking out on the Pacific, the ocean that my Dad grew up on and loved, I’m thinking about him.

 

 

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When life gives you lemons

It’s an era of firsts, and Sunday, I did a couple things I have never done before.

1. I pruned a lemon tree.

2. I climbed the lemon tree in our backyard.

If these seem like trivial feats, let me tell you about our lemon tree: Thorns that seem to be made out of steel stick more than an inch out of the bark. They hurt just to look at. It’s an ornery old tree with gnarled limbs and thick-skinned fruit that Eva Gustavson, the opera star who lived here for more than 50 years, dubbed “stingy.” It’s also our biggest tree, and it’s kind of what the French call “beautiful ugly.” We have never seriously trimmed it in the three years we have owned this property.

So Sunday, I went to town. The tree’s canopy was thick with dead branches that were so dry I could snap them off. Old lemons were rotting on the branch, and some of the leaves had black and white blight. I’m the kind of person that when I start a job, I go deep, so I literally got into that tree. Along with the decay, there were also green shoots and pink and ivory flowers. It smelled delicious. I snapped twigs and clipped branches and knocked moldy fruit down. By the end, my arms were scratched and bleeding and my foot, still recovering from its summer injury, ached.

But the tree looked liberated. No longer crabbed and cranky but open and green and full of light.

No this is not a metaphor. People are not branches. But we live in unprecedented times, and should celebrate noble firsts.

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