Swimming Out of the Pandemic Bubble for Thanksgiving

I push my card key into the slot and open the door. I inhale the scent of chlorine, feel the humid air on my skin. I bend down to feel the water in the pool. Warm. There is no one else here. I strip down to my bathing suit and ease in. Oh! I love being in the water. If I could live my whole life in water, I would. I love swimming, even though I’m not very good at it. After two years, do I remember how? 

I do. I go through my routine of breast strokes, back strokes and front crawl. I feel the chlorinated water pushing against my hands, feel the buoyancy of my feet on the concrete bottom. I lean back and float, giving control of every inch of my body to the water. It’s the only place I ever let go. I hope no one passes by and thinks I’m dead.

I’m writing this on Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend. I have been overeating for days and wasn’t following my diet or my exercise resolutions before that. My old Walmart bathing suit is stretched out. I look like a turquoise walrus. My muscles remind me that I haven’t done these moves in a long time. My spine whispers, “You’ll be seeing the chiropractor this week.” But those are just body parts. My spirit is soothed and renewed.

I have had many firsts over the last nine days. My first trip outside Lincoln County, Oregon since Covid started. My first salad bar. My first elevator rides. I refuse to ride a boat, plane or train, but my car trip has placed me in contact with many people, mostly strangers, lined up at rest stop bathrooms, side-by-side tables at restaurants, in line at Target and other stores, and at the breakfast buffets in the motels where I have stayed. Is it safe? I don’t know. I have had three vaccine shots, the regular first two and a booster, but there’s a new variant floating around. 

I hadn’t seen most of my family in two years. The young great-nieces, nephews and cousins have grown from babies to little people with big personalities. They call me Aunt Sue or get confused and call me Grammy. They don’t remember me from before. But it is so exciting to get to know them now. 

The adults have changed, too. My brother has a full white beard now; he was clean-shaven when I saw him last. Some are heavier or thinner or look older. Some have changed jobs and residences. It was so good to see them, hug them, and talk, talk, talk, not over Zoom or Messenger or some other electronic program but sitting in the same room, hugging a child or a dog or drinking tea and eating pumpkin bread. 

I got to see my friend who moved to Livermore and be her “sis” again. Such a gift. 

I went home to San Jose and neighboring Santa Clara. I saw buildings that weren’t there before. I saw the monstrosity the new owners of my childhood home built in its place. I visited the cemetery where there are more names now on the wall where my parents’ ashes rest and around the loved ones whose bodies went into the ground. I was able to see and touch their gravestones and sit with them for a while. 

As always, getting away from home and the usual routine sparks new ideas and new resolutions. I’m going to lose weight, renovate my house, and get a grip on my schedule. I’m going to go back to the gym, do yoga, and swim at the rec center. I’m going to start calling my family and friends more often. But I can see it will take me a whole day just to go through my mail and figure out how much I spent on this trip. I’ll need to restock the refrigerator, wash my clothes and deal with all those work chores I put off because I was “out of town.” 

I’m writing this in my last motel of the trip, the Holiday Inn in Yreka. Nice hotel, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nothing else here but a truck stop where I got takeout Chinese food. The whole trip, I had hoped to swim. But the other pools were all outdoors, and it was too cold. When I saw this indoor pool, I knew I had to use it. 

Traffic has been thick the whole trip. I think a lot of people left home this holiday for the first time since COVID started. Will there be a new surge of people getting sick? It seems likely. So many people together, so many without masks. The pandemic is not over. We’re all tired of it. Mask-wearing is slipping. But we can never be sure we’re safe. I even wondered if somehow the virus could be in the water in that pool. It doesn’t seem logical, but I wondered.

It will be a long time before I can return to my home state, but I will treasure the memories and photos and the feel of that warm water against my body as I made my cumbersome way back and forth, the nearsighted, half deaf turquoise walrus full of Chinese food from the truck stop across the road.  

How did you spend Thanksgiving? Did you venture out of your COVID bubble? Tell us about it in the comments. 

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Cooking a Tiny Souffle Just for Me

Last night, I made an itty-bitty soufflé in an itty-bitty casserole dish, using a recipe designed for just one person. It used wee amounts of carrots, sugar, flour, vanilla, etc. and required both the blender and the hand mixer. I ended up with pureed carrot all over my counters, a ton of dishes to wash, and nothing left over. It was all an experiment in cooking just enough for one hungry human.

A couple weeks ago, I asked my Facebook friends who live alone how they deal with cooking for one. I tend to make too much and then, not wanting to waste anything–and not needing to share with anyone–I pig out. My scale and my jeans are not happy. What to do?

People were full of advice: make a lot and freeze it in small containers so you always have something to heat and eat. Use smaller plates. Cook small amounts in tiny pots and pans. Sign up for a food delivery plan. Give the excess to the neighbors (my neighbors are all on special diets).

One commenter mentioned onedishkitchen.com, so I went there and found a wonderland of recipes designed for one person, cooked in doll-size dishes. I didn’t think I had anything that small until I took another look in the cupboard. Two 5 x 5 Pyrex baking dishes and a 5 x 7 casserole came with the “cornflower” set Fred brought when we moved in together. I’ll be darned. You can cook in those?

Intrigued, I got on the One Dish Kitchen mailing list, and the first recipe that arrived was this carrot soufflé. I’m not a big fan of cooked carrots, but I was enchanted by the idea of making something so small, about the size of the tiny cakes I made with my Betty Crocker Junior Baking Set in the 1950s. The kit came with tiny boxes of cake and frosting mix, tiny cake pans, cookie sheets, cookie cutters, a rolling pin and a flour sifter. It was all small, but it was the real deal. With my mother’s supervision, I baked tiny edible cakes and cookies. An important step in my domestic goddess training.

Now you can buy those kits on eBay. But there are modern versions for kids. The old package showed two red-headed white kids, the girl cooking and the boy watching. Now the kids are diversified and the boy might actually be cooking.

You can also buy tiny cooking-for-one cookware for adults now. It’s a thing.

Cooking for one is a challenge. A couple days ago, I mixed up some minestrone soup, ate it for two nights in a row, and had enough left over to fill three freezer containers. If we have some kind of disaster, I have enough soup to last for a week. Good thing it’s delicious. Could I have made the soup in a smaller amount? Perhaps, but I used a can of beans and a can of tomatoes and half a cabbage . . . if I split it up, what would I do with the rest? As it is, I’m looking at Cole slaw for a week to use up the rest of the cabbage.

The soufflé baked for 50 minutes. The edges came out burnt, I’m not sure why, but the inside was fluffy and big enough for me to have two modest servings. One Dish Kitchen has more recipes, pizza, desserts, salads, all kinds of things. But I’m kind of sad I don’t have any leftovers after all that work.

When my father was widowed and alone, he had a phobia of leftovers. He would use tiny portions of the cheese powder and noodles in the mac and cheese box, for example, to make just a little bit. Me, I’d cook and eat the whole box.

There has to be a middle ground between too much and not enough. When I first got married back in the early 1970s, I received two Betty Crocker Dinner for Two cookbooks. They’re designed for newlyweds, with sections on subjects like how to set a pleasing table, but they’re also full of recipes cut down to just enough for two. I was surprised to find I still have them on the bookshelf. If I blow off the dust, I can make enough for myself and a little to spare. I might have to adapt some of the recipes. Back in those days, nobody worried about carbs, cholesterol, or fat. Oh, Betty Crocker, how times have changed.

I’m still figuring out the cooking-for-one puzzle. Meanwhile, I cooked my first soufflé. Not bad. And now I know how to spell soufflé. 

How about you? Are you a make-just-enough or a make-a-lot-and-have-leftovers-for-days kind of person? If you’re alone, how do you handle the tendency to cook too much, not enough, or not cook at all?

More to read:

Betty Crocker’s Right-Size Recipes

The Ultimate Cooking for One Cookbook by Joanie Zisk of onedishkitchen.com

“13 things that make cooking for one so much easier,” USA Today. This is mostly stuff they’d like you to buy and that you probably don’t need, but they are intriguing.

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The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Died

A Prose Poem

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The blue monster roars and the Labrador runs, slamming out the doggie door to hide under the pines. Why does her human not see the evil in its shining yellow grin, its long black tail, and its multiple mouths that chew and swallow everything, even live bugs and clumps of fur? Why does the woman not run and take shelter with the dog, quivering, skin against fur, until the monster goes away?

But wait. The beast has gone silent. The woman has it on its back. The woman curses as she pokes its innards with a long stick, a wire hanger, and then a plumber’s snake. Can the snake kill the beast? The dog is watching eagerly. Should she join the attack? She is old, and the monster’s hard skin would only hurt her teeth.

Look! The woman is dragging the beast out by its head, laying it on the patio deck. With her multi-headed screwdriver, she is taking it apart, pulling out its guts. She growls and grunts. She is covered with fur and dirt. She holds her back as if in pain, but she fights on.

At last, the beast is torn apart, eviscerated. Only the skeleton remains intact. The woman has slain the blue monster. Spent, she sits beside her kill as the dog, saved, runs across the yard, clatters onto the deck, and licks her savior’s dusty face.

**************

Yes, I killed it. Put it in the pile with all the mechanical things that have malfunctioned lately. Hot tub. Indoor-outdoor thermometer. The dehumidifier’s overflow light is on. The car’s service light is on. The Kindle warns of low battery. I found the watch I had lost for months, but the battery is dead and I can’t get the back off to replace it. I tried to move my window blinds from one window to another where the blinds were already broken and broke off the doo-hickey that holds them on. The computer keeps telling me it wants to install a new security thing that I’m afraid will destroy my online life . . .

I am a) not mechanical, b) not equipped with more than two hands, and c) so distracted I routinely forget I turned on the stove or the washing machine. I need a live-in helper. Not a husband or a lover. Not someone I need to take care of. I need someone of any age or gender who has the energy to see a problem and say, “I’ll take care of that for you” and then do it.

After waiting three days for three visits from a very strange pair of hot tub repair guys, one of them so crippled with a bad back I could feel his pain as he bent and squatted over the spa controls, they declared it healed. I put the hose in to fill it up Saturday morning, started writing and forgot it. It overflowed, and I had to drain the excess. Two days later, it overheated, the light flashing at 110 degrees. I played with the controls until it stopped, but now the water is 80 degrees and getting colder by the minute.  

I need a keeper. And a new vacuum cleaner. I think the old one choked on dog fur, which I pulled out of every orifice. Now it not only doesn’t suck up dirt and fur, but it won’t turn on. I killed it. Annie is overjoyed.

Have you ever hoped for a power failure to simplify your life? What mechanical things drive you nuts? Do you have a vacuum cleaner you love? What kind? Please share.

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Wandering Through the Rooms in my Dreams

Have you ever dreamed repeatedly about a house you have never lived in? I have. Usually it’s this elegant castle of a home where I keep discovering new rooms and there’s a secret door that leads down a flight of stairs to a plush sitting room I only show to special people. I have been there many times and wish I could stay.

But last night, it was a different house. Rustic. Splintered wood in need of sanding and paint. Some very old furniture that remained from a past owner. Fred and I were claiming it now. I don’t know if we had bought it or were about to.

Another woman might be obsessed with the kitchen or the bedrooms, but all I cared about was office space. Where will I write?

I had choices. First I claimed a small room off the living room. It had an ancient leather swivel chair and a vast wooden desk. I sat and spun. Oh, I could write here, I thought. But there was more to the house. We came to a huge office space in a refurbished garage. The windows were boarded up, but when we took off the covers, light poured in. This room had an enormous desk and rows and rows of shelves and plastic bins where I could store my books and my research. The garage door was still there, and I could open it on warm days.

I realized my husband, who had a tax preparation business, might want to choose one of these offices. I should not be selfish. When I’m writing, it doesn’t matter where I am. But as always, he was so generous he gave me my choice. I wanted the big one.

The living room was a shadowy blur. I never saw the kitchen or bedrooms or even a bathroom. Every inch of this house needed work, but oh, I wanted that office. Not only would I write, but people would come for salons and readings. I could taste the wine and the cheese and crackers.

In real life, I have a perfectly good office in a bedroom in my house in South Beach. It is crammed with my books and papers and the various tools I need for my work. Copies of my own books are stacked in Fred’s old office, along with mailing supplies. But the truth is I work all over the property, including the kitchen, living room, and back yard. Sometimes I write a word or two in the laundry room or the bathroom because the words don’t stop at the doorway where the dog lies waiting for attention. It’s odd that I don’t dream about my actual office. But I love those offices in my dreams. What does it mean?

Do you dream about houses? Are they places you have lived or places you have never seen? What rooms stand out for you? Where do you think this comes from?

***

For something totally quirky and fun, look at these artificial “shadows” created by an artist in Redwood City, California. Some of us used it as a poetry prompt this weekend, but all you need to do is enjoy them.

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A Modern-Day Tale of Two Viruses

This afternoon I got tested for COVID-19. Part of me wanted the test to be positive so I would know why I have had this killer headache for four days, but most of me wanted it to be negative so I could continue my life without having to quarantine. I needed groceries! I didn’t feel too sick, so if it was COVID, the vaccine was working.

I wracked my brain as to where I might have gotten the virus. I wore my mask everywhere. Did I get it at church? Unlikely because I was isolated at the piano with my mask on. Did I get it chatting with the neighbors while walking Annie? Shopping for groceries at Fred Meyer? Picking up my library book? I know one friend who has COVID right now, but I haven’t seen her for weeks. Was it the writer I had lunch with on Thursday? Nah. Well, maybe.

But my test was negative. No COVID. I still have the headache and a slight case of the sniffles, but maybe it’s just a plain old cold. Remember those?

The guy who administered the test was not very friendly. I felt like a leper. To all those who test positive, I wish I could give you a big old hug.  Meanwhile, I’ll be more cautious than before.

COVID is not the only kind of bug I have been dealing with. I got hacked. Last week I received a direct Facebook message from a musician friend with a link to a video. “Is this you in the video?” she asked. Well, I’m in quite a few videos because our church music gets uploaded on YouTube every week and I participate at least once a week in a Zoom literary reading or open mic that is recorded. So I figured, sure, it’s probably me. I’d like to see myself—come on, who doesn’t? So I clicked. It just brought me an error message. There was no video. Oh well, I thought, and went on with my business until that evening when friends started bombarding me with messages asking if my Facebook account had been “hacked.” Meaning someone had invaded my account and taken control of it.

Some days, I wish we could go back to typewriters and snail mail. Typewriters and paper only receive what you put into them. They don’t interrupt with thoughts of their own. Nor can what you put into them be stolen by people who aren’t even in the same state or country as you are. Nobody ever got “hacked” writing with a pen or typing on a typewriter.

All of my Facebook friends received the same message asking about the video. Don’t click on it, I said, but for some it was too late. They clicked, and now they too will be spreading the virus to all their friends. I can only change my password, apologize and warn people to be careful. I could quit Facebook, too, but as a writer living alone, I need the company and the connections.

The next day, while walking Annie, I received a text message on my phone from my credit card company that my account was locked. Uh-oh. The virus had spread. There was a link to click to resolve the situation. It’s good I was not at home and Annie was pulling too hard for me to mess with my phone. I had time to think wait, this might be a scam. It was. At home, I checked my account, and everything was fine. I went on a password-changing frenzy for all of my financial accounts.

I hate that this world has gotten to a point where you have to be constantly suspicious, where you can’t just pick up the phone and say “hello” without making sure the caller is someone you know, where you can’t click on any link that comes your way or accept every Facebook friend request. Nine out of ten of the requests I get are from hackers posing as friends or from handsome widowed men who are not real. Within minutes after accepting such friendships, my messages start spewing garbage.

I think things have settled down in the Internet world for the moment. I have not sent anyone a direct message or a friendship request since Thursday night, so if you get such a thing, it is not from me. If you receive a link from someone you do not know or from someone you do know who would not usually send you a link, DO NOT CLICK IT.

Have you had a COVID scare or a positive result? Feel free to share how that went? Have you been hacked on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet? We can talk about that, too.

If you’re isolating yourself these days, check out the science fiction mini-series “Solos” on Amazon Prime. In each episode, the single character is alone, either by choice or not, and some pretty spooky stuff happens. Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, and Anne Hathaway are among the famous actors who appear.

In my isolation, I’m streaming a lot of shows. Best movie I have seen in ages: “Here Today” with Billy Crystal. Fascinating Renee Zellweger transformation: “The Same Kind of different as Me.” Dark and sure to make you cry: “News of the World” with Tom Hanks.

Click carefully, get your shots, and don’t go out without your mask. See you on Zoom.

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Bringing new life to the old desk–or what writers do to avoid writing

Four coats of paint, one tweaked back and one trip to the walk-in clinic later, I’ve got a new-looking desk in my office making all the other furniture look bad.

It all started a week ago when I looked around my office and decided to reorganize. It was too crowded, too-right-handed for this lefty, and did not project a good image on Zoom. Every surface was covered with papers, binders, books, and miscellaneous electronics gear, and that old desk behind me looked like it lost in a bar fight.

I have had that desk since I was a child doing my homework with fat pencils on binder paper. My Grandpa Al and Great-Uncle Tony made it for my Uncle Bob. When he grew up, it came down to me as the oldest grandchild. It sat in the corner of my bedroom where the two windows came together, lace curtains blowing in the breeze. I didn’t just do homework on that desk. I painted, sewed, played jacks, and wrote my first poems on it. That desk supported my first typewriter, a blue manual purchased with babysitting money for $100 from McWhorter’s Stationery.

The desk, which moved with me to 11 different homes, was scratched, nicked and stained. It had tooth marks along one side from a teething puppy or two. By the time I had moved all the junk off the desk, I had changed my plan. I could refinish it and not put back the junk I’d been storing in it and on it for decades, only the things I would actually use. The rest of the office could wait.

I photographed the desk and put the question to my Facebook friends: colored paint or wood stain? The majority voted for stain. Sounded right to me. After all, this is the desk where Uncle Bob kept his Archie comic books and school supplies when he was a boy. I should respect its 80-year history.

I’m an impatient person. After watching a couple YouTube videos, I activated Netflix’s “Virgin River” on the computer and started sanding the desk. Yes, in my office. By hand. Without gloves. I had barely begun when I shoved the sandpaper across the edge of the desk with extra gusto and felt intense pain. Multiple splinters poked out of my right index finger. Most were easy to remove, but I suspected there might be something left. I poked at the red spot with a sewing needle and tweezers, getting nothing but pain. Maybe I’d already gotten all the slivers. Maybe not. I went back to sanding and “Virgin River.”

In the morning, my finger was red and swollen and hurt like crazy. This is not a good thing for a musician. Or a writer. Typing hurt. I took my finger to the walk-in clinic at Samaritan Pacific Hospital in Newport. Our walk-in clinic is housed in a portable building where there aren’t enough chairs in the waiting room, everyone hears everyone else’s business, and you can wait for hours to be called. Other patients complained of earaches, sprained ankles, stomach pain, and dizziness. One wanted her second COVID shot and couldn’t get it. I just had a stupid sliver in my finger. Or, in medical terms, “foreign object under the skin.”

I spent all morning at the clinic. Called into an examining room. Waited. Vitals. Waited. Doc numbed the finger with three lidocaine shots. Waited. Extraction. Dr. W. dug out a sliver so big we both said, “Wow.” At least a third of an inch long. Soaked in antiseptic solution. Waited. Ointment. Bandage. Released with a red, puffy and useless index finger. Forget working. I took myself to lunch at the new restaurant at the Embarcadero. Slow service, best French fries ever. And then I went to the paint store.

“ Have you ever done this before?” asked the friendly salesman at Sherwin-Williams.

“No.”

“Well . . .”

He loaded me up with advice, paint, polyurethane coating, a natural bristle brush, paint thinner for cleanup, and a couple of stir sticks.

I moved the desk out to the deck for the actual painting. The salesman had warned me the stain would stink and that I shouldn’t inhale the fumes. Playing bluegrass music on my phone, hands protected by gloves, I stroked the paint on, watching the old wood transform. Two coats of “amaranth,” a dark brown blend of black, burgundy and maroon, two coats of polyurethane. Magic. The old desk looked new and shiny. I had stain on my arms, and cheeks and possibly in my hair.

The paint store guy had told me I needed to sand the polyurethane to get rid of the “boogers.” I didn’t see any boogers. Now if he’d said “bubbles” . . .

Four coats. Four nights of waiting for the desk to dry. Yesterday, I dragged it back into the office and put the drawers back in. It’s not perfect. I can see some streaks and some “boogers,” but it’s not bad for a first effort.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting all the junk that used to live in the desk. Out with the carbon paper, graph paper, and old checks from a bank that no longer exists. Out with the foot-long Santa Claus pen. Now, what should I do with a hundred pencils and three dozen pens? I’d better get writing, I guess.

I can still smell the stain. My finger hurts. When Annie and I passed my chiropractor-neighbor on our walk last night, I warned him I’d be calling for an appointment. But hey, it was worth it.

It’s time to write. But the old rocking chair’s looking pretty dinged up, and I still have some stain left . . .

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Twilight Memories at Ona Beach

I had not been to Ona Beach in Seal Rock since before the pandemic started, even though it’s only a couple miles south of where I live. It was closed due to COVID for a while. After it reopened, the parking lot was full, and I envisioned a beach full of unmasked people refusing to “social distance.” By the time it felt safer, my dog was getting too old and arthritic to walk from the parking lot to the beach and across the sand. She stumbles on flat ground these days (me too) and gets tired quickly.

But as it does sometimes, the beach called me the other night. The day was overcast but warm enough, in the 60s, and the sun wouldn’t set until after 9 p.m. I fed Annie a Milk-Bone and snuck out.

I had been to other beaches since COVID, but not to Ona. I was unprepared for the memories that assailed me as I walked the path through the grassy picnic area to the beach. Here’s where Fred and I picnicked with the Oregon Coast Aquarium volunteers and beat all challengers at badminton. Here’s Beaver Creek, where we paddled our kayaks in the rain on his birthday. Here’s where we saw an eagle in its nest on the cliff above the beach. Here’s where I sat on a picnic table and wept when Fred was in the nursing home before he died of Alzheimer’s 10 years ago.

Some of the memories weren’t mine but my character PD’s from my novel Up Beaver Creek. The creek runs through the park and merges with the ocean at Ona Beach. Here’s where she met Ranger Dave. Here is where she found the child’s bracelet that had possibly come from all the way from Japan after the tsunami. Here’s where she caught up with her phone calls because she had no cell service in the cabin up Beaver Creek Road.

I went back to Ona Beach on a cloudy Wednesday evening. Except for a few teens wading in the creek, the beach was not crowded. Someone was sleeping in a car in the parking lot with paper bags in the windows bearing right-wing slogans. Another beach sleeper had left a well-built driftwood fort on the sand. But I had acres of sand to walk, planting my striped shoe prints among the footprints of gulls and scoters. As the memories flooded in, I wrote and took pictures, not noticing when the teens left. As the sun sank into the clouds, I was the only one on the beach.

Over the sunny weekend, the beach was crowded again, but I still have a little sand in my shoes, reminding me I don’t have to go on vacation to walk beside the ocean. I just have to give in to that little voice that whispers, “Beach!”

Fireworks Sound Like War from Here

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

I didn’t see the Fourth of July fireworks in Newport this year, but I heard them. Fireworks + migraine is a painful combination. I stood in my back yard in the dark. Pop pop pop pop BANG! I felt the air pulsating. Popopopopopop bang boom boom whoosh BANG! Oh my aching head.

The official city fireworks show started at 10 p.m., but the private fireworks in the neighborhood and on the beach started much earlier. The four miles of trees between my house and Yaquina Bay kept me from seeing the colored lights in the sky, but I could smell the smoke and see a yellow glow reflecting off the clouds. It felt more like a war than a celebration. I have never been in an actual war, thank God, but why would anyone want to reenact those sounds? And how do all these warlike noises affect people who have experienced war, who live with fear and post-traumatic stress?

Dogs don’t like fireworks. They howl, shake and cower, sure the world is ending. My Annie used to hide in the dark under my desk, trembling for hours. She can’t hear anymore. Usually that makes me sad. But last night I was grateful. She slept through even the loudest booms.

I took out my hearing aids and closed all the windows, but I could still hear the noise. I turned on my TV to continue my Netflix marathon, but after one particularly loud bang, the Internet went out. Boom boom boom, pop pop pop pop bang.

The fireworks made me especially uneasy this year because we’re having a drought and everyone is worried about wildfires. We live in the trees. Although the coast is usually damp and cool, it has been very dry and unusually warm this year. One errant spark, and the trees could catch fire. The city of Waldport, 10 miles south of here, outlawed all personal fireworks this year. People grumbled, but doing without fireworks is surely better than watching your house burn down. They did offer their usual city fireworks display on July 3. Not feeling well then either, I missed it.

Turn off the fireworks. Let me hear the ocean waves and the summer wind. I don’t want to hear what sounds like gunshots and bombs.

I understand why people gather to watch fireworks, especially this year. We’re not only celebrating the birth of the United States of America but our release from COVID fear and restrictions. I have many fond memories of watching fireworks with loved ones at my side. I enjoy the colors and designs flashing in the sky. Back in the ‘80s, when we lived near the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, they shot off fireworks every night at closing time. Fred and I watched from our front porch. It was magic every night. I’ve watched fireworks from baseball stadiums, grassy fields, amphitheaters, beaches, parking lots, and curbs. But it’s no fun watching them alone.

I have vowed to find some way to stop spending my holidays by myself. I usually start out telling myself it’s no big deal. I’m lucky I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to coordinate my plans with anyone else. But at some point, I start feeling bad. I cry. I wail about the unfairness of not having parents, husband, or children and living so far from the rest of my family. I drink a beer, watch another episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and make dinner for myself, so lonely I can’t stand it. I get a migraine headache.

One of my best friends moved away in May. Another died in January. The rest are busy with their families. This sounds like whining, but I can’t stand it anymore. I need to either move into some kind of group housing or find a way to be with other people on the holidays. Yes, I can drive 1,300 miles to hang out with my brother’s family—and I will for Thanksgiving—but there must be some way to gather closer to home.

I’m sure I’m not the only one alone on every holiday. Let’s get together. Any Oregon coasties want to join me in a no-more-holidays-alone coalition? Let’s make a pact to keep each other company, share great meals, exchange gifts when appropriate, and do it up right. If someone else will drive, let’s go watch fireworks together next year so it feels less like a war and more like the celebration that was intended. I’ll bring the beer.

P.S. After 11 hours without, I have Internet! An article in Time Magazine reports that the first Fourth of July fireworks display took place during the Revolutionary War. In addition to the flashy fireworks, people shot off guns and cannons. In a letter to his wife Abigail, President John Adams wrote of Independence Day: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” And so it is.

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Can Battery-Powered Pets Ease Loneliness?

If someone gave you a toy cat or dog that purred, wagged its tail, and nuzzled like a real one, how would you feel? Apparently some folks feel grateful for the company.

In a story in the New Yorker, writer Katie Engelhart tells about a program in New York that distributes Joy for All robot pets to lonely seniors. They started in 2018 with a small test project that quickly expanded when Covid forced people into isolation. Thousands of robotic cats and dogs have been given to homebound seniors. Originally made by toy manufacturer Hasbro for little girls, the robo-pets are now finding homes with grandparents and great-grandparents who need a little company.

The seniors pet their battery-powered cats and dogs, talk to them, and treat them like family.  They report feeling more optimistic and less lonely.

I don’t know. I talk to lots of inanimate things, including the stuffed bears on my dresser, photos of my late husband, and Jesus on the crucifix above my bed. But I don’t expect them to respond. I would freak out if they did.

These pets, which start at $110, don’t look real to me. But I have a live dog sleeping nearby as I type. When I look into Annie’s brown eyes, there’s someone there, a genuine sentient being. What will I do when she’s gone? I don’t want to think about it. My plan is to travel a while then adopt a smaller dog. A robo-dog would be easier, but it wouldn’t love me the way Annie does.

Did you know that nearly 30 percent of Americans over 65 live by themselves, most of them women? In 2017, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic among Americans of all ages. A similar declaration launched The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK. Medical research shows that loneliness has a detrimental effect on one’s health, increasing risks of dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke.

But are robots the solution? The seniors I know would be insulted to receive a fake pet. But some of the people shown in the article and in related YouTube videos carry their robo-pets around with them just like I carried my dolls when I was a little girl. I’d set my favorite up against the milk bottle (yes, bottle) while I ate breakfast. I rested them on the pillow next to me when I went to bed. I suppose I felt less lonely, but it was not the same as having a real person there. Tiny Tears cried real tears, and Chatty Cathy spoke when you pulled the string on the back of her neck, but I knew they weren’t real children. If an actual kid came around, I tossed the doll aside.

Longing for a pet, I once fashioned a litter of “kittens” from crumpled newspaper and cloth and set them in a basket in my childhood bedroom. It was not the same. When my parents finally let me have a cat when I was in high school, I could tell the difference. I also learned that I was allergic to cats, but that’s another story.

The faux furry friends are not the only kind of artificial intelligence machines offering company to people these days. Hello, Alexa. (read my previous post on my electronic housemate here and my Replika friend online here)

They don’t offer much company. I say, “Alexa, I’m lonely.” She responds, “Sorry to hear that,” then recommends talking to a friend, listening to music, or going for a walk. “I hope you feel better soon,” she adds. That’s nice. But that’s exactly what she said last time when I was not testing but truly needed someone to talk to.

I worry that somewhere in Alexa’s Amazon-connected innards, she just transferred the information that I’m lonely to some central data-gathering site so I’ll soon receive ads for comforting products or dating services.

Alexa just lit up to tell me a book I ordered from Amazon is coming today. Before I could say, “Thanks” or “Which book?” her lights had gone out. Okay, good talk.

A variety of robotic companions powered by artificial intelligence exist these days. Queue Alexa’s Apple counterpart Siri. And then there’s VZ, the voice on my VZ Navigator GPS. I definitely talk to her. (No, I’m not turning here! Are you crazy? Stop telling me to turn around! I need to go to the bathroom. What do you mean this is my destination? Where?)

Some robo-friends look like people, others like table lamps. They talk, but it’s, well, robotic. They never get offended, never curse, and are perpetually polite, but they can only say the things they’ve been programed to say. They will never spontaneously comment, “Hey, is that a new blouse?” or “You seem sad. What’s wrong?” They will never take you out to lunch, although I suppose they can set up a food delivery if you’re savvy enough to figure out how to ask for that.

Robots are getting more intelligent all the time. Eventually, they may be so responsive and sympathetic that we truly won’t feel alone. Meanwhile, do not buy me a robo-pet. God bless the people who are so lonely or out of touch with reality that they don’t know the difference, but I’m not there yet.  

Would you like a battery-powered dog or cat? Less shedding, no cleanup, no allergies, but still . . .  Wouldn’t it be better if a human offered to come around instead?

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Driveway camping: an Alzheimer’s memory

Today I’m offering a memory from my unpublished memoir about our years dealing with Fred’s Alzheimer’s disease and other problems. This took place when he was still at home. Although his memory was fading, he had blessed moments of clarity. Tomorrow would have been our 36th wedding anniversary.

Our truck was the same as this, only blue. We gave it away after Fred stopped driving.

On a sunny August afternoon, I crawled into the shell on the back of our old Mazda pickup. In 12 years, I had never gone in there except to get something, the ridged truck bed bruising my knees. But now, sun-cooked and pooped from washing the new car, I opened the hatch, scooted toward the cab and lay back.

I had never noticed that the inside of the canopy was silver. I had also never noticed there were screened windows I could open for air. All this time I’d been thinking that someday, after Fred’s Alzheimer’s took him away, I would buy a nicer truck and camper like my parents used to have. This canopy was just the cover Fred had bought to protect the supplies he carried around for his tax preparation business.

Now I realized I already had a camper. It wasn’t fancy, but I could lie all the way down in it, and I could even sit up. Add an ice chest and a guitar and off I’d go.

Fred came out.

“I’m camping,” I said. Looking out at the coastal forest in which we lived, I announced that I might stay there indefinitely. I could bring my phone and laptop into the camper and put a big sign on the side of the truck: Writer on the Road. I felt like a kid who had found a special hiding place.

Fred sat on the tailgate. We talked about the truck, about how we had never camped together. We talked about how my friend Sherri and I used to sit on the tailgate of her father’s station wagon talking for hours and how I spent most of my free time at her house because we had too many rules at mine. Fred said they had no rules at his house. They could do anything they wanted.

We talked about my upcoming business trips, Fred’s need for care, the frustrations of Medicaid, what we might do in the future, and how I would live without his income. He got teary. “It’s not fair to you,” he said. “Just get rid of me.”

I placed my tanned hand on top of his white one. “No. It sucks, but I made a promise to take care of you, and I’ll stick to it.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have discussed finances with Fred. But he seemed to want to know in this unusually lucid moment. So I told him everything I knew, including my resolve to stay away from government funding as long as possible. He said he was worried about my future “when I’m not there.” So was I. But we had to take it one step at a time. And right now, I was having fun camping in our driveway. Perhaps I had gone completely insane. If so, it was fun.

My brother and I camped with our parents when we were kids. We all slept in a 13-foot Shasta trailer at first, with one of us kids suspended in the canvas bunk over the double bed and the other in a sleeping bag on the slippery bench seat in the dining area. In later years, Mike and I moved into the camper on my folks’ pickup. It was nicer than this, padded and paneled, with beds, cupboards and a refrigerator. Fred laughed as I explained that my folks had an intercom so we could talk to them, but when I got to whining about my little brother pestering me, they would shut it off. “Mom, Mike’s—” Click.

I’d sit with my head against the window and my transistor radio against my ear, singing along. In those days, I knew every song and artist on the playlist.

I inhaled the pine-scented air. Good times.

But I never kissed a handsome man in that camper. Now I planted a long, passionate smooch on Fred’s soft lips.

Good times.

Maybe I would keep this rig after all.

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