My friend called me, her voice tinged with panic. “Do you think we should do this, with the Delta variant and all?” We were planning to fly together to a women’s fitness camp on the western slope of the Rockies that we both had attended several times in past years.
I reassured my friend. “We are all responsible adults. The people are all women we’ve known for years now. We’ll be outside most of the time.”
“Ok, I just needed to hear that.” We continued with our plan that she would drive to my house the night before our trip, meeting me and my sister, and the three of us would be driven to the airport early the next morning by my Personal Travel Consultant, AKA husband.
It happened that my son came down for an overnight visit the evening before the other women arrived, and he stayed working from our upstairs “office” for the day until joining us for happy hour and dinner the eve of our departure.
“You’re going to be sharing eating space with a bunch of people you don’t know? And just taking their word that they’ve been vaccinated?” My son was so upset that he jumped to his feet and had to walk up and down on the street outside for several minutes to settle down. He and his family had been to a party a couple of weeks earlier where “everyone was supposed to have been vaccinated, but the hostess called us the next day to let us know that a guy who left just ten or fifteen minutes after we arrived had just reported testing positive for COVID-19. So we were all exposed.” His faith in folks’ “word of honor” is badly shaken.
But I need to go. I need to look at something different out the window, preferably something more than 30 feet away. I need to hear some different voices. I need to vary my diet from the familiar favorite offerings of my Personal Chef (AKA husband.) I need to stop reading about chaos in Afghanistan, earthquakes in Haiti, flooding in Tennessee, overwhelmed hospitals in Florida, hurricanes in Louisiana, wildfires in the Sierras, and attempts to overthrow the governments in Washington DC and California.
When he returned to our back patio, I tried to reassure my son in the same way I had reassured my friend. He listened, and then smiled with resignation.
“Mom, I have just one thing to say to you,” he said. “Make wise choices.”
A friend invited me to visit for a few days at her time share in San Francisco, so of course I accepted with alacrity the opportunity to look at different walls and a different neighborhood. The time share was located at the Worldmark by Wyndham, right in the middle of Dashiell Hammett country, around the corner from where [Spoiler Alert!] Brigid O’Shaunessy killed Miles Archer in “The Maltese Falcon” (the movie scenes showing Humphrey Bogart striding past the hotel play in an unending loop in the lobby).
Getting into San Francisco was unexpectedly easy. I can’t get used to the lack of traffic on a summer afternoon going into the City (and maybe I’d better not get used to it – how long can it last?) I breezed up the scenic 280, cut over at the airport connector, scarcely touched the brakes on the Bayshore, cut over on 280 again past the ball parks, took one left at 3rd, a second left at Bush, and I was beckoned into the Sutter-Stockton garage directly across from the hotel. Wow!
Note to out-of-towners: Even the municipal parking garages in San Francisco will seem outrageously expensive to you coming from anywhere else but maybe New York and Washington DC. Best to come into the city by train or BART or shuttle and rely on the excellent (even during COVID-19 conditions) public transit system. If you have to come by car, plan your activities so that you can leave the car in the garage one day, using public transit to get around, and go all the places the buses don’t go on the same day without re-entering the garage until you are done. Every in and out costs $4, while a full day maxes at $44.
It’s become a cliché to compare living in the year of COVID-19 lockdown to the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is doomed to relive the same day over and over until he gets it right. I’ve certainly had that feeling, as Laundry Day seems to come around faster and faster, and the only difference from week to week is what color sheets I put on the bed.
But hey! We’re getting through it, right? I’ve been waiting for the New Normal for a while now, with the anticipation of looking forward, rather than looking back at How Things Used to Be. But this week I had an unsettling discovery which challenges that anticipation.
Like many people, I keep a stack of unread magazines in the bathroom which I am going to get around to reading sooner or later. During lockdown, I made a lot of progress. This week, near the bottom of the unread magazine pile I found an issue of Time from summer, five years ago.
There was a two-page photo spread showing a scorched playground swing among the smoky ruins of a school, one of at least 2400 homes and businesses in a community destroyed by a wildfire.
A lead article talked about how to achieve equity and inclusion for black students at colleges and universities, using the line “Black Students Matter”.
Another article featured edible cutlery as a way to keep plastic waste out of landfills.
An op-ed article discussed how to help your children interact with and understand artificial intelligence.
A second op-ed article worried about how the aging of the Baby Boomers would impact our society, especially if they are siloed in retirement communities and lose engagement with their communities.
The lead articles discussed the need to reform our tax system in order to narrow the wealth gap and the lack of political will to address our crumbling transportation systems. The entertainment section featured an article on the retreat of movie and television drama into endless fantasies where magic and superpowers prevail over reality.
In short, if you changed a few political names, updated the titles of the books, movies, and TV shows, and overlooked the lack of mention of pandemics, there was almost nothing in the magazine that couldn’t have been written this week. I have the horrible suspicion that once I am out of lockdown, the New Normal could just be 2016 over and over again, until we get it right.
There are still a few magazines in my pile, even older than the copy of Time from 2016. I’m going to wait a bit before I look at them, though. If we are stuck in a Groundhog Decade, I don’t think I want to know.
You’re going to Texas? Disbelieving intonations in the voices of the friends in my writing group. Underlying unsaid: that place with the Neanderthal governor who is letting people take off their masks and hold wild parties. After all these months of care, are you nuts? My children disapprove but are too loving to say so. After not having seen them for almost a year, I’m visiting my brother and my oldest friend. At least they have both been vaccinated, but not my brother’s much younger wife, nor his 12 year old son. At least with my friend I will be camping outside most of the time. At least with my brother we will spend much of our time outside at my nephew’s Little League games.
At any rate, here I am on an airplane. Traffic to the airport was minimal, carryon bags avoided check-in lines, security was only minimally delayed due to 6 foot separation requirements (scrupulously observed through security, I observed, but not in the long queues at Starbuck’s and Chick-fil-a once I was in the terminal.) The one inconvenience: many of the water stations were boarded up: it was a long walk from security (Opposite gate 22) to the nearest water station (opposite gate 18) and back to departure gate 23.
Once on the plane, I received help from a masked guy in front of me to heft my carryon into the overhead, tucked my backpack under the seat in front of my window seat, after stuffing my water bottle into the incapacious pocket in front of me (no airline magazines, I note.) Adjusted my double face masks, made sure my hearing aids had not become dislodged, eye-smiled at the young woman who took the aisle seat (no center seats filled). She had beautiful eyes with unbelievably long lashes. They might even be real. If you are going to be masked, it helps to have knockout eyes.
Not as much banter as usual from the Southwest attendants. They flashed a card showing my options for beverage. Declined. Later passed by with a tray of pretzels. Declined.
Up over San Jose, sprawling in its patchwork of green space, industrial parks, cookie cutter suburbs and apartment complexes, limited-height skyscrapers constraining as always its ambitions to be recognized as one of the country’s Top 10 cities. San Jose is always pedestrian Martha to San Francisco’s passionate Mary – which makes Oakland what? Maybe Lazarus, come back from the dead. Then over the snowy Sierras, past a big lake which must be Mono Lake, then down into desert country, a lengthy river cutting canyons through aridity until it is abruptly stopped at a dam. Seems there is enough to water snaking through the landscape for people who need it, but we know every drop will be claimed by multiple stakeholders.
The inner window of the plane is plastic. The outer window has a little circle of ice crystals surrounding a tiny peg which somehow must attach the outer tempered class. Same thing on the window just behind me. I wonder how that works. Tiny ice crystals flake off from the circle and stay scattered within4 “.
Outside a layer of cloud, lumpy where a thunderhead is trying to break through. Seat belt sign is on. I break out my neck pillow, my second magazine. Back in thetravel groove, as if I’d never left it.
Setting up for Thanksgiving was difficult this year. I brought out my late mother-in-law’s harvest-red paisley tablecloth and the bin full of Thanksgiving cornucopias, fake fruit, and fold-out turkeys for decorating the table. Since we didn’t need to put any leaves in the table, I had to fold the cloth under at both ends to keep it from dragging on the floor, and we only had room for one cornucopia and one turkey. What’s the point of polishing the silver and setting out my grandmother’s crystal candleholders if it’s just the two of us?
But the two of us are important. I realized how thankful I was that I wasn’t eating Thanksgiving dinner alone. I got out the silver and the candleholders.
The day after Thanksgiving we usually start decorating for Christmas. I dragged the artificial tree out of the attic and found the outdoor lights in a box behind them, buried under a year’s worth of odds and ends. We have this light-stringing business down. The lights are put away in orderly coils labeled “Garage”, “Kitchen Window”, “Front Porch Swags”, “Porch Eaves”, “Living Room Window”. The cup hooks which hold the strings are painted white to blend with our trim, so they become invisible out of season. My husband has taken apart my garden shuffle hoe to devise a tool which enables him to lift the strings onto the cup hooks with minimal trips up and down a ladder.
As we arranged five over-size lights on the lemon tree in front of our picture window, I mentioned “The only trouble with these big lights is that they block the view of our tree inside from anyone passing by. “
“We don’t do it for the neighbors, we do it for us,” he answered.
Just then our neighbor, who happens to be Jewish, walked by. “Putting your lights up again!” she called out. “It always lifts my spirits when I see your lights go up each year!”
“Mine too!” I called back, trying hard not to smirk at my husband.
The lights and the tree are for us, but they are also for others. At least a few times a week during the holiday season I know we will be driving around different neighborhoods looking at holiday light displays. And each display tells us something. Whether it is the flickering candles of Dewali, blue and white lights surrounding a menorah, old-fashioned multi-colored incandescents strung along the eaves, dazzling LED displays zigzagging up and down the tree branches, or even Darth Vader and Yoda wearing Santa hats and battling with red and green light sabers, someone in this house is reaching out to let us know a little bit about who they are.
In this difficult time of separation, custom and tradition are comforting. So we will put up our Christmas tree, even though our four- year- old granddaughter can’t come to help us decorate it. I’m hoping someone else’s granddaughter might walk past and see our tree, and that it will make her smile.
Our favorite getaway spot, just an hour and a half from the busy Bay Area, has been the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove. This historic retreat was originally a YWCA leadership camp , with historic redwood buildings designed by Julia Morgan, who also designed many of the buildings at William Randolph Hearst’s La Cuesta Encantada in San Simeon (AKA Hearst Castle). The Center is nestled amid cypress trees and sand dunes just across from Asilomar State Beach on the quiet side of the Monterey Peninsula, separated from touristy and cutesified Carmel by the gorgeous twisting 17-Mile-Drive along the Monterey coastline. .
For the first part of the Lockdown, the Conference center was commandeered by the State as a place to quarantine people who had been exposed to the virus. After the first surge, the center was emptied and sanitized, but its conference business had dropped to zero. It reopened to the public only a few weeks ago. D and I were desperate to get away from our same daily rooms, and reserved a night. That week the wildfires blazed up, and the Air Quality in Pacific Grove was rated Hazardous. We rescheduled. Two weeks later the fires were contained, the air had cleared and we were on our way.
Usually the Conference Center is humming with conferees, who might include quilters, nutritionists, corporate retreaters, and many other groups. But there are usually a few unfilled rooms which are available at reasonable cost to the non-conferring public at the last minute. If you have breakfast in the Dining Hall you will sit at whatever table is not filled, and be liable to have an interesting conversations with whatever genial strangers share the table. The Lodge is full of teenagers waiting their turn at the pool table or conferees scanning brochures about local activities, or picking up souvenirs at the Park Store.
But that was Before.
As we drove in, the parking lots were nearly empty. The lodge itself was posted with the first of many signs notifying visitors of curtailed services. “Lodge open for check-in from 2PM to 8PM.” It was 3PM, so we entered . The cavernous lodge was empty except for the young lady at the reception desk and one computer jockey at a well-isolated table. The room was posted with signs saying “[fill in blank] is not available to guests at this time.” (e.g. swimming pool, lodge fireplace, park store, pool table, piano…). The brochure stand was empty, but we invited to hold up your phones to a QRcode to download information. The Dining Room was closed also, as were the bike rentals.
All the same, it was a wonderful getaway. We could sit on our balcony among the cypress trees and look out to a sparkling ocean. And when we walked down to the beach, we saw that there are some family pleasures that even COVID-19 cannot close down.
In the Before, I was used to taking a commuter train up to the City, then catching a trolley across town to my son’s apartment, where I would give my son and daughter-in-law a break while spending quality time with my pre-school age grand-daughter. Of course, you can see the Red Flags popping out all over this scenario now. But with pre-schools and offices locked down, the need for a break for the harried parents has been greater than ever.So twice a week we Skype Story Time.
It has taken awhile to get the hang of doing this. First I had to find story books suitable for Skyping. I burned through the collection of books that were left over from my kids much faster than I expected. My kids and my grandchildren had always settled on a favorite book, which they requested again and again. But not being side by side with the child, not being able to share pictures and point out details, meant I could only show the pictures, recite the text and hope that my little audience would stay tuned. I learned to imitate motion by zooming in on part of a picture, then panning out. This helped keep the pre-schooler’s attention, but after three or so readings of “The Box with Red Wheels” she demanded “A new story this time!” and soon it was every time.
I plundered every Little Free Library within a 5-mile radius for children’s books. But the books which end up in the Free Library are NOT the ones which were anyone’s favorites, and my little audience was quick to let me know when she didn’t like a story by burrowing under the couch cushions.
Fortunately, our local libraries hit on a brilliant idea for their limited availability during lockdown: they put together bundles of books – Toddler bundles, Picture Book bundles, Teenage bundles, etc. I could check out ten picture books at a time, a grab bag of possibilities.
I quickly discovered, though, that out of ten books only three or four would really be suitable for my little audience. Alphabet books held no interest. Books with a boy protagonist were less interesting to a little girl. Books designed to increase a child’s vocabulary (e.g. a lot of Richard Scarry) tended to have very weak story lines. And most disappointingly, many books with beautifully detailed illustrations were either too monochromatic or too finely drawn to be seen and understood on a computer screen.
Big hits include classic stories like “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, in editions with large clearly outlined graphics. Babar the Elephant and Curious George are warmly welcomed. Rhyming stories like “I Can Fly”, again with vivid illustrations and a girl protagonist, get repeat requests, as to thee simpler Dr. Seuss readers like “Bears on Wheels” with their goofy illustrations.
So we Skype along. My little audience is fiercely protective of her story time, not allowing Daddy or Mama to attempt any grownup conversation on HER time. And until we find a New Normal, I’ m keeping a list of beautiful picture books for when I can sit down side by side with my little audience again.
My sons have always gone camping together in September. The only miss in the last 15 years was the September that the younger son got married. This year any campground that was not already restricted by COVID-19 was shut down due to wildfires raging through the state and national forests. What to do?
Solution: Urban camping. We have a back yard which has a lawn. Occasionally wildlife (rabbits, possums, raccoons, an occasional coyote pack, an occasional deer) appear unexpectedly. And we have adjacent foothills so far unscathed by fire.
So we had a family reunion, properly distanced. The campers set up their tents in the yard (separate tents, properly distanced) and set off for a 16-mile hike which included a fair segment of asphalt and sidewalks, summited the local peak (Elevation, 2,812 ft) and a stop at a local pub able to serve a cold beer with outside seating.
Cooking out was pretty civilized, using our Smoky Joe for burgers, and sitting around our propane-fueled portable fire pit for after dinner cookies and conversation, six feet or more apart.
The next morning the guys settled for a breakfast of coffee and French toast made in our kitchen, rather than bacon and biscuits on the camp stove. We ate together on the patio, using single-use plates and napkins and utensils fresh from the dish washer.
No, it wasn’t the same. But it was still a slice of wonderful to see and hear my family together in real time, real space. I’ll take it.
Not enough to be locked down by fear of the virus. For two weeks I have been locked in, surrounded in my bayside bubble by wildfires raging out of control to the north, to the east, to the south, and to the west. The outside air has ranged from Moderately Unhealthy to Hazardous, as a high pressure dome presses down on our region, keeping the sea breezes out and holding the ash and soot in.
The beginning of the maelstrom was a week of record-setting high temperatures, punctuated by a freak lightning storm which lit over 600 blazes in tinder-dry brush. We had a week of relief from the heat, and then it returned, with temperatures a full 25 degrees above “normal” for this time of year.
At the same time, in other parts of the country the most powerful storm ever to make landfall made its way from the Gulf to the Atlantic shore. The Weather Service is all the way to Rene in naming tropical storms, and the hurricane season has not reached its peak.
How can anyone look at these events and not be afraid, not for their own personal well-being, but for our planet? I have grand-children. Scientists have warned for a decade that what I live through in these weeks will be the “new normal” if we are not able to change our destructive patterns of life.
If no other good comes from it, the pandemic has shown us that, if forced and if fearful, we CAN cut carbon emissions by 7% a year. We CAN move out of cars and onto bicycles or our own feet. We CAN live without the latest Something New.
And the trusting faces of our children and grandchildren tell us we MUST.