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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Grocery Roulette

“Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant filled with odd little waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don't always like.” Lemony Snickett, pen name of American writer and musician Daniel Handler

   How are things where you are??? Here in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) of the United States, the Army National Guard has been called in to assist Washington State with its pandemic response, along with California, and New York over on the eastern seaboard. We in Oregon are under a Shelter-in-place order with 30 days in jail and a $1200.00 fine possible although that will occur as a last resort.
This became necessary as people incomprehensibly got into their vehicles and flocked to sites of natural beauty like Multinomah Falls and the coast, 98 miles away, to hang out in the several hundreds, because you know, if you are on a suggested self-isolating order in your county why not drive to another county and take a chance at sharing Covid-19 with them? I know the same thing occurred in Britain yesterday, for the same reason.
   I found it necessary to go out for groceries yesterday. I checked online and Safeway opened at 6 am, Fred Meyers at 7 AM. I opted for Safeway and at 6:15 AM I pulled into the car park in the pre-dawn dark. The doors were locked and a note said they would not be opened until 7 AM as they are using the hour from 6-7 in the morning to clean and disinfect the store each day. I looked inside and I could see employees wiping down everything is sight. I should have just waited there...
   I allowed impatience to guide me a fifteen minute drive through downtown Gresham to Fred Meyers--a large box store. There were only seven of us waiting in the car park at 6:30 AM. By 6:50 the entire side of the parking lot was full of cars. People parked in the pearly grey dawn, got out with their shopping bags and I noticed three distinct things: they were all senior citizens, many were disabled, and most wore either masks, gloves, or both. Then a curious thing happened. These vulnerable people clustered at the locked doors of the store in a large group! It was eerily like a scene from Dawn of the Dead Zombie Apocalypse.
   I waited ten minutes until most of them had disbursed and then grabbed my grocery bags and headed inside. It took me about thirty minutes to fill my cart and buy some of what I needed. The shelves were mostly still empty; only four packages of boneless, skinless chicken limited to 2 packages per person. Plenty of packages of chicken wings, legs and thighs with the skin and bones still in them.
   I discovered that women and men maneuver their shopping carts differently. Women are more careful. They look to see who is around them and gently swerve around each other. Men just plow through assuming they have the right-of-way. As I was standing in front of a mostly empty shelf looking for tinned fish, a man without a mask or gloves squatted down very close to me, brushing my leg as he reached for something on the back of a bottom shelf.
   "Hey! You are too close, Please move back."
   "Gee," he said as he scratched his head, "I didn't think about that."
Really???? I got the hell out of there ASAP and decided to swing by Safeway near our apartment for the missing grocery items on my list. I drive down Powell Boulevard and usually turn left on Powell Loop to take the shortcut back home. The Loop was blocked by multiple police vehicles with fire trucks and EMT rigs behind them. I carried on to Safeway and was pleasantly surprised. The store was nearly empty, the air was redolent of disinfectant, and the shelves and coolers were fully stocked. As I shopped I noticed employees removing the skirting panels on refrigeration units and disinfecting underneath and behind them. Safeway has instituted a Tuesday and Thursday 7-9 AM shopping time for seniors and other vulnerable people. I brought latex gloves with me and I put them on after I loaded my groceries on the belt to pay for them. I pulled my debit card out of my wallet , inserted it into the machine with my left hand, punched in my phone number, said no to a donation, and no to cash back, and then punched in my PIN with my right hand. I pulled my card out with my left hand and returned it to my wallet, and then removed both gloves to load my bags into the cart. I have no idea how often those debit card reader machines are cleaned but I wasn't taking any chances!
   I took the back way to our apartment; as I turned onto Pleasant View Drive, I looked back down towards Powell Loop and a school bus was pulled off the road, hazard lights blinking with a road hazard sign blocking the lanes. Beyond it were scores of Police, Firefighters and EMTs in clutches around their vehicles. I looked for news of the incident later on but never did find out what had transpired.
   Back at the apartment I unloaded groceries and the girls took them inside while I parked. I sprayed my hands with sanitizer, opened the apartment door, sprayed the outside handle, closed the door, sprayed the inside handle and my hands again. I pit my coat and my clothes in the wash and took a hot shower. I have a dry cough--but I've had it for several months along with a slightly phleghmy cough I always have every morning due to post nasal drip, but I find myself monitoring the rest of my body responses throughout each day. This is the first time in my entire life when I have been frightened to enter a grocery store, aware that my actions and my choices could result in my death or that of someone I love.

Thursday, March 19, 2020


"I don't think pandemics make us afraid of death, I think they make us afraid of oblivion. They force us to grapple with the futility of effort. Also they make us barf which isn't fun either. Wash your hands, cover your coughs, and find a way to hold in balance, the futility of effort with the necessity to struggle." ~John Green, American author (Looking For Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars).

   Without an adequate response an epidemic can develop into a pandemic, which generally means it has spread to more than one continent. An important thing to remember is that people and gorillas, horses, duikers, pigs, monkeys, chimps, bats and viruses: we are all in this together. It is time for humanity to let go of the ancient idea that we are somehow separate from nature. Covid-19 is not a wake up call; we are way past that. The majority of humans have not been paying attention. We are now, but too many are waking up to the wrong reasons and behaving like the virus that is hunting us.
   Thursday March 12th I listened to an emergency radio broadcast featuring the Governor of the State of Oregon, the Oregon State Public Health Officer, and the Mayor of Portland. We were told that all schools were closing, self -isolating was required, and electric, water, sewer, and rubbish will stay on whether or not folks could pay their bills. The White House also released a notice that the country was now functioning under a national emergency. It was time to get serious about Covid-19.
   I had been seeing and hearing reports of panic buying and hoarder shopping taking place in various countries already struck by the virus and in some States here as well, but I shrugged it off reasoning that if I didn't panic and waited a few days, common sense would no doubt prevail and I could calmly go about my weekly shop for the four of us. With the emergency notice, I decided on Friday the 13th to go out early and get groceries for the week. I vastly over-estimated my Gresham, Oregon neighbors. a light snowfall over night and that morning didn't help.
   Portlandians and their suburban neighbors absolutely melt down if there is 1/8th of an inch of snow on the ground. That alone will trigger panic buying at Coscto. As I cautiously set off on the main road I was shocked as people drove like they were drunk; weaving around other vehicles gong slower, and speeding way too fast in a 35 MPH zone down hill with wet snow accumulating. I drove the quarter mile to Safeway grocers and the parking lot was rammed! I joined the queue and finally pulled in to a parking space. I grabbed my bags, locked my car and walked into the store.
   There were no shopping carts left! The last one was being fought over by a young mom with two small children, from whose hands a large, beefy bloke was trying to wrest it. People coming in behind me went to her aid. I continued into the store and headed for the toilet paper aisle because we actually need a six roll pack! I walked into hell. People had their faces covered with scarves, bandannas, and medical masks, panic shining form their eyes like a fever. They were bumping into others with their cart, shoving, and knocking down aisle displays. There was shattered glass and splattered food in almost every aisle, with store employees frantically attempting to keep people from driving their carts down those aisle and through the mess. I quickly left and decided to drive to Fred Meyers which is a large box chain grocers. It was exceedingly crowded there too but controlled chaos ruled, with store employees out in the aisles to assist and to keep an eye on behavior.
   No loo roll at all! As I stood looking at the bare shelves, a woman came up next to me and surveyed the scene. We began chatting about how ridiculous this hoarding behavior was; how that behavior was now forcing those of us who were attempting to remain calm into buying more than we needed immediately as well, in case others simply stripped the stores bare. I said I guessed I would try Coscto next. She replied, "Don't bother; I just came from there. You know things are serious when Costco's shelves are empty." All right then...
   I rolled my cart over to the diaper aisle and decided to stock up in baby wipes. There were two shelves left. A couple came up behind me and the wife said, "Oooh! baby wipes will work in place of toilet paper." Her husband sighed and said, "No honey we can't use those; they don't flush." I said a quiet prayer of thanks as they moved on. I stopped using loo roll years ago, only using compostable baby wipes and I always place them in the rubbish bin and empty it regularly. I bought $40.00 worth of baby wipes for our two bathrooms and four people. The pack of 56 wipes I would pay £1.00 for in the U.K. sells in the U.S. for $3.59 each, which quickly adds up when buying a case.
   I was shocked at the empty aisles: no kitchen roll, tissue, bottled water, bread, convenience foods such as canned chili, and Kraft Mac and Cheese, Ramen, pasta, milk, prepared spaghetti sauce--all shelves were empty. People were lined up by the fresh meat section because the entire frozen meat and chicken section was bare. I considered the situation and noticed that no one was buying the Bison meat so I stocked up on ground, steaks, and roasts, with a few other essentials; plenty of fresh fruit and veg too, and I cook from scratch so we will be okay. I guess this is a time to consider Crohn's disease a blessing in disguise because the Gluten Free and vegan products remain on the shelves.
   That evening my foster daughter Mary went out to look for loo roll, two percent and lactose free milk, and cat food. She had to visit four stores to get everything. She picked up two-20 lb. bags of food for the cats and my daughter-in-law Kelli ordered two bags of specialty dog food online as the dog has multiple allergies. We also stocked up on cat litter, keeping some of the extras in our cars for storage.
   Each day now we all check the latest news upon waking. My daughter Shiery works four 12 hour shifts a week as a medical technician at an assisted living facility with a frail at-risk population. Her usual commute time is forty minutes to drive fifteen miles. Nationwide now the emergency law is that no visitors are allowed at these facilities except medical personnel or families if it is end-of-life. Shiery fears that a mandatory lock-down will be called while she is at work. The governor of Oregon announced last night that she is considering this very step. Shiery is also at-risk herself with two auto-immune diseases and Diabetes. My daughter-in-law Kelli works as a pharmacy technician for a large wholesale pharmacy chain which fills large orders for assisted living facilities. She has a an hour commute across the I-205 bridge and over the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington, across the river from Portland. We fear that Washington or Oregon will close their border while Kelli is at work and she will be stuck away from home. She too is part of the at-risk population with Type I Diabetes, asthma, and Psoriatic arthritis. As far as that goes, I am also at-risk for being older and having two auto-immune diseases. I keep my trips outside to a minimum, grocery shopping early in the morning or late at night when it is least busy. 
   I went out last night at 8 pm to round up my week's shopping. There were only a handful of us in Safeway; all older or disabled. We were all smiling at each other as we politely kept our six foot distance, carts swerving gently around one another, folks patiently waiting down the aisles for other folks to get something from a shelf and move on. As I was stopped in an empty aisle to find Parma strained tomatoes, I suddenly felt someone right behind me. I whirled around to find a young 20-something on her phone, obtusely focused in on looking for a product, right at my knees. I wanted to shout, "FFS back up and give me my six feet you self absorbed child!" I gave her a look and quickly moved on out of the aisle.
   Viruses are tricky things. They are not really alive. They can build a protective outer walls around themselves and go dormant--sometimes for thousands of years--until just the right environment presents itself and then they magically wake up, open their border walls and begin infecting hosts and they are constantly evolving as they exchange DNA with prospective hosts. I figure I am going to contract it at some point along the way. Let us hope Covid-19 evolves into something less virulent and not more deadly. There are news reports already that Influenza H1N2 is now stalking those that are recovering form Covid-19 but whose lungs are still fragile.
   In the meantime there are blessings to be discovered in all this. With the world population either in hospital or cocooning itself in mandatory isolation, and the lack of world traveling and tourism, nature is beginning to show us how it can recover when humans are not overwhelming and assaulting the environment constantly. The canals of Venice are clear once more. Venetians can see fish swimming in the water, and swans and dolphins have returned. In China, people can actually see blue skies for the first time in years without the ubiquitous clouds of pollution that blanket the country. In Italy, France, Spain and China people can again hear birdsong in city centers.
   As we stay home and self isolate I offer you these virtual ideas for entertainment, enjoyment, and stretching of your minds:

1.The NASA Media Library: the entire media library of NASA--all photos and videos, are available for free online. Indulge the budding astrophysicist in yourself or entertain your inner star seeker!

2. Story Time From Space! Check out this amazing online site that has astronauts at the Space station reading children's stories such as Astronaut Annie, Kalifa and Ahmal Go to Space, Max Viaja a Marte, Lucian Braving the Deep, and other interesting titles. This is a great site to entertain kids.

3. 500 Museums! There are five hundred museums around the world aavilable for you to wander through online, including the British Museum in London, The Guggenheim in New York, The National Art Gallery of Washington DC, the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, The National Musem of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, Korea, The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, The Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil, and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City!!!

4. Seattle Symphony Live Broadcasts. This web site offers information and schedules of shows/music as well as how to view the live performances on Youtube and FaceBook.

5. Open Culture! Open Culture brings together high-quality cultural & educational media for the worldwide lifelong learning community. Web 2.0 has given us great amounts of intelligent audio and video. It's all free. It's all enriching. But it's also scattered across the web, and not easy to find. Our whole mission is to centralize this content, curate it, and give you access to this high quality content whenever and wherever you want it. This website offers free access to 1500 free online courses from top universities, 1150 free movies online including classics, film noir, Indies, Westerns and many more! You can access 1000 free downloadable audio books, 800 free ebooks for Kindle, iPad and other devices, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), many of which leads to certificates or statements of completion though not degrees. A "$" indicates that the course is free, but the credential costs money. Learn 46 languages online for free and access 200 free kid;s educational resources with video lessons, books, apps, websites and more.

6. The National Film Board of Canada. To access free films please find the word AVAILABILITY on the page tool bar and click the arrow so the menu unfolds. "Free" is one of your options. Currently this site offers free short films (5-30 minutes) featuring First Nations and Native Americans under Indigenous Cinema. This is a fabulous resource, especially for those of us who like documentary films.

7. The Paris Opera! From 17 March, the Paris Opera will be putting its most beautiful shows from its archives online free of charge. From Don Giovanni to Swan Lake and The Tales of Hoffmann, there are many great classics to see or rediscover from home. The website can be viewed en Francais or English. Their schedule of upcoming events is available on this web site and includes: Don Giovani, Manon, Das Rheingold, Die Valkyrie, and other performances.

8. The Monteray Bay Aquarium! You may have had to cancel your spring vacation, but you still can (virtually) visit the aquatic animals housed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Peek at the groups of jellyfish and sharks, do some bird watching in the Aviary, follow the African penguins as they waddle around, and catch a glimpse at the pulsing moon jellies all through the institutions’ free live streams. And for close-ups of the species, head to Instagram. (via Laughing Squid).

9. Storyline Online! The SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s award-winning children’s literacy website, Storyline Online, streams videos featuring celebrated actors reading children’s books alongside creatively produced illustrations. Readers include Viola Davis, Chris Pine, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, James Earl Jones, Betty White and dozens more.

10. Grow Forage Cook Ferment! This web site is a fabulous resource for recipes and Youtube videos showing how to make Mead, hand made soap, herbal salves, Chickweed Pesto, and loads of other interesting and helpful things.

11. British Wildflower Finder. this comprehensive web site was created and is maintained by Roger Darlington, a friend of boater Chris Thorp (NB Ceiriog). It is brilliant and easy to use. I posted this specifically for all my British friends, family and loved ones. As you are out walking along towpaths or National Trust properties, or public walkways through the glorious British countryside you may come across a plant you don't recognize and this site may be quite helpful. xxx

12. Teaching young children the importance of washing their hands! I found this simple video the perfect teaching moment to illustrate to young children, the importance of washing our hands. To replicate it for your children and grandchildren all you need is a shallow bowl or plate, pepper, liquid hand or dish soap, and water. Explain that the pepper in the bowl is pretending to be a virus. Follow the video and watch young children become startled and amazed!

Finally, today is Les' 72nd birthday. We are remembering my Best Beloved at dinner tonight with one of his favorite meals: Three Sisters Chicken and Chorizo Casserole. Unfortunately I couldn't bake his favorite Carrot cake as we are half packed and in the process of moving to a new, larger apartment soon. Happy birthday baby! You are missed and loved, always.

Les at the dinette in April 2013. We were moored up on the Lea navigation just near Waltham. I love that look on his sweet face!

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Tale of the Tumbling Tumbleweeds

"And the wind blows, the dust clouds darken the desert blue, pale sand and red dust drift across the asphalt trails and tumbleweeds fill the arroyos. Good-bye, come again." ~Edward Abbey, American author and environmental essayist, 1927-1989

   It is 347 miles from Gresham, Oregon to Spokane, Washington. The route takes one along the Columbia River Gorge and then Northeast up onto the Columbia River plateau and across several hundred miles of arid bush land and high desert; mostly flat but punctuated with basalt mesas and canyons. It is the kind of topography that seems empty a lot of the time and vast, sending one's mind back into the far past when there were no Europeans or their offspring on this continent. This is sagebrush and Tumbleweed country.
   A young, confident driver can make the trip in just over five hours; I have driven it in five hours thirty years ago but not anymore; it takes me eight hours now with several toilet stops, a couple of rest stops to put my seat all the way back and close my eyes for thirty minutes, and a lunch hour detour. I tell myself this is fine. It is perfectly acceptable. I am no longer young and I have health issues that make travel more nightmare than vacation. I hear boater Alan Fincher over in the U.K., after Les' death, cautioning me not to be so driven. His warning echoes in my thoughts frequently. 
   I made a trip up to Spokane last Sunday to spend a couple of days with a dear friend--one of the Wednesday Women--who has received a cancer diagnosis. We got together for lunch and to bask in the warmth of deep friendship in the face of frightening news. The weather forecast for Sunday from the NOAA (National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration) weather page included a Hazardous weather warning for Eastern Oregon, Eastern and Central Washington. High winds of 50-60 MPH and rain with snow mixed in higher elevations. Sigh...there was nothing for it but to begin the trip and hope for the best.
The "always-green" of Western Oregon. This is a shot of the Columbia River from an overlook about thirty miles East of Gresham. 
   I Left Gresham under roiling, dark clouds and pissing down rain with wind gusts in the 40's. A large storm front rolled in off the Pacific Ocean, ninety eight miles West of Portland and funneled the weather towards us along the Columbia Gorge. The winds picked up as I traveled 102 miles to John Day Dam, crossing from the always-green rain forest topography of Western Oregon into the arid brush land of Eastern Oregon. I stopped once already to rest my eyes for thirty minutes and the winds worsened while I checked my eyelids for holes. At John Day Dam, the rain fell away as I ascended onto the Columbia Plateau, but the wind increased and the car began rocking and vibrating in the high winds.
   Tumbleweeds appeared and I experienced a very strange phenomena: the dried, skeletal shrubs appeared to have come alive! They trembled in the wind, at the side of the freeway like shaggy, frightened animals waiting for a gap between cars in order to spin across the blacktop of two lanes and make it in one piece to the other side. Most of the Tumbleweeds were small and easily shattered against the front of the car but traffic slowed from 70 MPH to about 65. Then I came around a large curve and the wind changed direction, coming from directly behind both lanes of traffic. As I came out of the curve I was astonished (as was the driver in the lane next to me whose mouth dropped into an astonished O), to see tumbleweeds filling both lanes in front of us, racing along as though to some invisible finish line far ahead. We could not drive through them; we could only pace ourselves and drive along behind the spinning herd. Several miles on, the road curved again and the tumbleweeds continued to roll off the freeway and catch on the fencing separating our traffic lanes from those heading in the opposite direction. Soon enough the fence wore a prickly sweater of various size and colored weeds, giant sweater pills stuck to the fence for hundreds of miles. 
   Approaching Biggs Junction (yes you read that right!) the sky darkened appreciably as a giant dust storm kicked off, spreading for 118 miles of driving with the headlights on and a slowed speed of 50 MPH. It was like driving at night only the dark was a swirling blanket of dirt kicked up by the winds. Tumbleweeds still careened across the road and drivers were swerving to try and miss the larger weed balls. I finally merged onto I-82 and then crossed into Washington and onto Highway 395 North. Two large semi trucks had flipped over on the opposite side of the freeway and it looked like the apocalypse outside: dozens of police cruisers with lights flashing, the dirt-dark sky closing in everywhere and tumbleweeds shooting across the landscape like round mortars shot from a rocket launcher. Traffic was backed up for twenty seven miles all the way back into Kennewick. People were milling around in the flying dirt with shirts and scarves pulled over their faces; a crazy zig-zag of  headlights on stopped cars strung along highway 395 from the scene of the second overturned rig all the way back over the Blue Bridge into town. I kept a steady pace of fifty MPH and finally made it into Kennewick where I planned to stop for lunch. It was 1:58 PM, dark as evening outside and my Subaru Outback shuddered and shook with the wind gusts. The metal signal light post hanging across the road ahead bounced up and down as if an invisible hand was moving it. 
As you can see, the signal light arms are not exactly flimsy things. It takes a big wind to make those steel poles bob up and down like a a child bobbing for apples. 
   After lunch I struck out again and didn't see blue skies and true daylight for another forty miles after finally passing the last of the giant commercial agro-farms and packing plants that are spread across the face of the high desert, existing only because of the Columbia Basin Reclamation project. Begun in 1943, it services 671,000 acres, allowing fruit and vegetable crops to be grown on high desert land with irrigation from the mighty Columbia River.
   Tumbleweeds still bounced, swirled, raced and spun across the road and would continue for another forty one miles until I merged on to Interstate 90 at Ritzville. Two and half hours later I was heading down Sunset Hill into Spokane--a site for very sore eyes. 
  The visit was bittersweet. I love my Rise Up Sisters as the Wednesday Women are also called. We lost two of our number last year to the vicissitudes of old age. We do not want to lose another one. Spending time in the company of Kialynn, Rhea, Gina, (Marian and Rosemarie are dead now) has always fed my intellect. They are women of great thought, good deeds, and deep creativity. Time with them nourishes my spirit. 
The Wednesday Women, Left to right: Kialynn, Marian (seated), Lisa, Rosemarie, Gina (seated), and Rhea, 2013.
Mt. Hood from I-84 driving West, just outside of The Dalles, Oregon.
   I am happy to report that for the most part the drive home was a lot less harrowing. The sun was out, the skies were blue, and the wind was calm. Mt. Hood, a partially active strato-volcano and one of the tallest peaks in the Continental USA, appeared suddenly just West of Arlington. It looked like a tall white shark's tooth jutting up in the far distance. As I continued on Westward towards Portland, the mountain popped in and out of view, growing larger as my car ate up the miles. I was astonished at how the tumbleweeds seemed to have vanished from the landscape! Perhaps they are lying in wait down in the canyons criss-crossing Washington's central basin. 

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs