Love to the swimming body

-5124 jlh ready to lapCR

Once afloat, pulling the water in familiar strokes,
you will forget about what it took to get here:
the annual oh-my-god-how-round-you’ve-gotten
work of donning the suit, stunned at the cleavage
you would have died for as a flat-chested teen
on the synchronized swimming team, horrified by
wobbles of flesh on upper arms and legs.

Then reminding yourself that’s one reason
you swim at 9 on summer nights—no one else
in or around the pool—and you stop the
useless recriminations. Remind yourself that
this body is, after all, a garage for your soul,
and your job is to love it no matter what, till
death do you part, and to put it in the water,
dammit. You always feel better when you swim.

Because the pool, after being closed for three
months to an unseen virus, is at last open,
and you have learned that you must take
advantage of every opportunity to swim
your 20 laps. Numbers are on the rise.
It could close again. Soon.

Because swimming, for you, is seasonal,
means summer, means four months, if you’re lucky,
in this outdoor pool in your watery routine
of various strokes, sculls and eggbeaters
under a Delta breeze, should it arrive, or on
the sultriest nights when droplets dry
on your face in seconds.

You take the four steps into the water
for the first time in this rollercoaster year,
this upside-down, how-could-this-happen year.
It’s warm, as it should be after the thermometer
hit the century mark today. Yet the water
always looks ice blue in the diffuse light.
You jog in place, acclimating, before you adjust
your goggles, lower your shoulders and
feel yourself lift off, finally weightless,
at home in the old motions, pulling for
the other side.

-5137 jlh between lapsCR

(Photos by Dick Schmidt)

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First haircut after quarantine

(for Susan Stewart)

Feels like the first time, as the old song goes.
Foreigner’s first album dropped in 1977, me
a freshman in college, equal parts curiosity,
intimidation and hormones, hiking the university
to which I commuted daily—my parents entrusting
me with their old Toyota, which I parked
at the far end of campus, absorbing one of my
first important pieces of learning with every step:
A college parking pass does not guarantee
a parking space.

It was the first time in college, freed from
the must-do/can’t-do of high school, ready
to try on my big girl journalistic wings,
at the same time questioning everything
I thought I knew about my chosen major:
What made me think I could do this?

A decade later, returning to teach at that university,
after doing time on a few newspapers but before
a wire service and a magazine claimed me,
the mantra returned:
What made me think I could do this?
As it has every semester, before every plunge
into cold water, the reminder that every
class is a first time for all of us in the room,
to remember beginner’s mind, how good
it is for the soul, if not the nerves, to start over.

And now, sitting in Susan’s chair after four months,
it, too, feels like the first time—both of us masked,
only one other stylist and customer in the place,
sheets of heavy plastic hanging like vertical dropcloths
between chairs. She squirts sanitizer on her hands,
and I follow. She aims the thermometer gun
dead center on my forehead without touching it,
pronounces an acceptable number, leads me
to her chair, one that I and hundreds of others
have occupied for years.

In the four months since I’ve sat here, the world
has shattered. People like Susan with brooms and
dustpans are sweeping up the pieces, creating
barriers no one wanted in the name of safety as
people who have never been safe because of the color
of their skin are showing us there’s no going back,
we must now do the thing we think we cannot do.

Look at your curls, she says taking her usual position
behind me, flipping them up at the back of my head.
I trimmed a bit, I confess, as I imagine many of us
who sit here have, and I know it’s uneven,
needs a good cut, but I rather like it.

In the mirror I see her eyes crinkle above her mask.
Me, too, she says.

We both know I usually have her trim me short
for summer, but for the first time I can remember,
she says, Let’s leave it a little longer.

I hope she sees the smile in my eyes, too.
Let’s, I say.


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Digression: Teaching at home

remote teaching

For my students at Sacramento City College, who survived the spring 2020 semester

Thank God, for the social media post written
by some teacher as despairing as I who said,
It’s not teaching; it’s damage control.
To which I hollered at the screen,
No shit, Sherlock! and which, under other circumstances,
might have helped but now, no soap.
Which is, I realize, a reference to money, not soap.

Though, really—soap? Forget the stores bereft of
hand sanitizer, toilet paper, soup, pasta, meat
and, in the first week of quarantine, all frozen food.
Soap is the answer, they say. Soap is the savior,
liberally applied to hands (don’t forget between
the fingers) under warm water, two minutes
of serious washing… and did we not know how
to properly wash hands before? Did we need
instructional videos?

But I digress.

What I need are students to reappear, those who’ve
vanished into hibernation, which we should all be
emerging from now that it’s trying to be spring.
But from what I read on social media that they’re
As they should be. They’ve had their young worlds
upended—as yes, we all have, every bloody bit of humanity
on the planet—but they have no spare tires around
their middles to carry them through crisis. They are
flailing in deep water, using every stroke they know to
stay afloat. (As am I with overwrought metaphors.)

As am I, reaching into the void of cyberspace to
try to find them, engage them, assure them that they’ll
pass, just finish these assignments, I’m not giving new
ones, hang in there, keep going. And occasionally my
radar pings—a response!—to reveal a plaintive
email from a student struggling not with classwork
but a recent breakup on top of an aborted semester
and a worldwide pandemic, asking the unanswerable:

Will everything be OK? How do I go on?

And somewhere, deep in my own despair over
the ending of what I recognize as my insulated
bubble of a world, I reach inside my beating-too-fast
heart and let words spill through my typing fingers:

You’re already OK. You really are.
You’re breathing and walking around.
You’re already strong and successful.
You’ll be even more so with every year.
Love will come again. 

And then—after I send my long-winded response,
along with the video of people in isolation singing
“You’ve Got a Friend”—I worry that it sounds trite,
something a grandma might send in a cheesy
birthday card. But she writes back, says she’s
lifted by it all, and I can breathe again.

But I digress. Which, as another student
who briefly surfaced said, was new to her.
I never knew what digress meant, she wrote.
I just liked the sound of it. You used it in class
and I looked it up and now I know.

So there. Amid my floundering damage control
I taught one person something useful and
helped another find a bit of hope in darkness.
It helps, a little.

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Everything I know about being afraid*


Demonstrators in downtown Sacramento May 31 protest the death of George Floyd six days earlier. (Photo by Sara Nevis/

For my students of color on the front lines, June 2020

It’s not the fear itself I fear.
I’m afraid that I won’t listen well enough
to hear your hearts, to have patience
as you tell me what is it to be you in this moment,
to hurt and rage in a world that doesn’t see you
for you, doesn’t value you for you
as I hope I do. As I hope you know I do.

I hope I have told you how much the world
needs your voice, your perspective, stories
only you can tell—even when you’re telling
the stories of others. I hope I have told you
I see you, value you, appreciate your goodness,
your compassion, your determination.

You, marching for the first time,
you, carrying a sign with aching arms,
you, hoarsely shouting in cadence with others,
lending your voice, your heart to a cause
many of us hoped would no longer require
your participation. But it does. It calls you
as it has called others for generations.

And your righteous anger is more than
a loud outcry. It is right—right now.
I am not afraid to say that.

But I am afraid for you. I want to put my
old white lady teacher body between you
and anyone, any group of ones, who might hurl
rubberbulletsflashbangs and any manner
of harm at you.

Because you are the face of what the world
is dying to become—the old order on the way out,
the new one laboring to be born. It is a long,
bloody struggle, 400 years of trying to be embraced
as worthy, as equal, in this experiment of democracy
for some, still not for all.

Fear, that insistent teacher, whispers
that this will never end, though I will,
that you will not see a day when you can
live in the world unafraid.

But, it seems to me, you have taken fear
by the hand, marching daily into the fray
with it tagging along like a reluctant little
sister/brother. You do not cast it aside,
nor do you let it lead.

You give me hope—
you, recording this moment in history,
you, with signs and allies of many colors
on the front lines.

You, the steadfast, the wholehearted,
you, fists raised, voices lifted,
you, the mighty calling for justice,
you, whose strength is going to
—please, God—
transform us all.

*The title comes from a line by poet/essayist Audre Lorde from “A Burst of Light: And Other Essays,” a series of diary entries.



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Dr Steve Simmons ladder

Steve Simmons in rural Merced, California, checking a nest in 2010

For Dr. Steve Simmons
Sept. 14, 1941–June 1, 2020

2009 2122

Daughter Deanne helps her dad

You have been trying to depart for days,
propped up in a strange bed in the living room
that no longer looks like home, except for
loved ones, both two- and four-footed,
who wander in and out—

as you do, trying to find breath, release,
as images swarm behind your closed eyes
like bees leaving the hive or birds departing
their boxed nests, the ones you tended
for decades, hauling the gangly ladder
through pastures, propping it next to tall poles,
climbing up, peering into your handmade artificial
nests, counting, retrieving, banding young ones,
making notes, moving on to the next.

2008 4214 kestrel fledge

Dr. Steve bands a kestrel fledge, 2008

And now, on final approach to the great liftoff,
you cannot summon the strength to shake out
damp appendages, flap hard and ascend,
though, like the nestlings, you try.
Haven’t you been growing wings all along?
Hasn’t this lifetime with feathered beings
prepared you for flight?

You have no thought when it happens:
In the right moment, your chest bursts open
to a heartbeat of flapping feathers,
a wood duck readying for exodus.
Now all you must do is rise, glide, soar,
wing your way into what comes next,
focusing only on the clear blue of up.

2010 2953 kestrel flies

Releasing a kestrel, 2010 (Photos by Dick Schmidt)


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Annie’s 11th birthday

Annie Ariel

Annie and Ariel (Photos by Uncle Dick Schmidt)

Every time I see this kid, she’s taller. All of 4-feet-8, her mother says, as Annie outgrows another wheelchair. On her 11th birthday, Annie is a picture of a healthy, happy kid, with snazzy nails painted in alternating colors of pink and purple because this girl loves pink and having her nails done. Her coal black hair is pulled into a sleek ponytail, which bounces as her mother wheels her over bumps to a lone picnic table at Ancil Hoffman Park for cupcakes and presents.

Uncle Dick and I were two of three grownups and one baby invited to an outdoor celebration at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend to celebrate this child who continues to amaze everyone she meets with her fortitude, bright mind and killer smile.

If you don’t know the story of how Annie and Nikki Cardoza became a two-person family, you can read about that here. Nikki asked me to accompany her to China in June 2016 to bring home a child Nikki had met years earlier when Nikki had volunteered at orphanages in China. She was adopting Annie and needed an extra hand—in every way—with a child who was thought to be 7, though no one had any idea of her actual birthday.

HBD cupcakeFor on May 22, 2010, a skinny, infant curved in a backward U shape was found under an overpass in Changsha, China. She was taken to Butterfly House, a children’s hospice in the city, where, against all odds of survival, this starving child with cerebral palsy, was nursed and loved back to life. She was given the age of 1, as well as her Chinese name Long Xin Zi (Joyful Purple Dragon) and her English name, Annie.

On June 20, 2016, Annie became the daughter of my friend, Nicole Cardoza, and their life adventure together began. As they approach their fourth anniversary together, they, too, have been sheltering in place for two months, as Annie attends school and does work online and Nikki, who works for the literacy nonprofit 916 Ink, works from home.

Annie, who cannot sit up by herself, walk, speak or take food by mouth, is a smart girl with amazing expressive capabilities—among them a communication board that looks like an iPad attached to her wheelchair. She looks at and can land on dozens of words and phrases to have the computer say “thank you” or “sleepy” or, yes, “happy birthday.” communications boardShe’d just had speech therapy earlier in the day, and it takes a lot of energy to communicate this way, so we didn’t hear a lot of words in the computer’s girlish voice. But Annie’s grin does a lot of talking because, as the song from the musical bearing her name says, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”

And, when Nikki asked Annie whether to have cupcakes or presents first, Annie exhaled her “ha” (“yes!”) to “presents.” Smart girl.

Annie says yes-0687cr

Annie says “yes!” to presents.

Nikki invited Dick and me to the tiny gathering, along with her good friend Mari and her daughter Montserrat. Nikki and Mari met as journalism students at Sac State after Nikki returned from China and finished a bachelor’s degree in government.

Annie Nikki Marie baby

Revealing a new mermaid bathing suit and orange coverup for Annie as friends Mari and Montserrat (on her mom’s shoulders) look on.

And when I posted some photos on Facebook about her birthday, Annie got love and best wishes from around the world. From Anne and John Macpherson, who then lived in Hong Kong (now returned to their native New Zealand) and hosted us in their compact apartment: “Happy Birthday beautiful Annie. You have bought so much happiness and joy and I hope your birthday brings the same to you!”

Annie whale-0721cr

The gift of Bailey—a beluga whale who temporarily loses echolocation due to a concussion in the movie “Finding Dory”—prompted Nikki to say, “It’s all about echoloCATION!”

And from Lyn Gould in England, the R.N. and founder of Butterfly House hospice in Changsha that saved Annie: “Happy birthday dear Annie, so joyful to see you being blessed with family, friends and LOVE. You are such a blessing to so many — you do my heart good XXXX.”

So many people who’ve followed Annie’s story sent best wishes, too, and I’m grateful to all of them. This kid is beloved by those who know her and by so many who don’t, as is her mama, who is the very definition of fortitude and determination. It’s not easy to be a single parent to a kid with disabilities, and Nikki perseveres over tremendous obstacles every day.

Jan Dick Nikki Annie

Uncle Dick, Aunt Jan, Nikki and Annie (photo by Mari)

After presents, we turned to cupcakes. It turned out that no one had to worry about the possibly germy effects of blowing out candles on Nikki’s homemade cupcakes (nicely topped by two single candles that look like 11). It was breezy enough that we had to surround Annie so Nikki could light them, and then, as we finished singing “Happy Birthday,” the wind neatly extinguished the candles.

And though Annie has trouble swallowing and is fed differently, she can mouth some soft things—Popsicles are a favorite. So, it turns out, are cupcakes.

Annie NIkki cupcake-1045cr

It took her a little while (I stood next to her, eating my cupcake and showing her my goopy tongue moving… don’t make the kid laugh while she’s eating, Aunt Jan), but Annie used her tongue to masticate that sweet stuff and swallowed it just fine. Yay!

Annie cupcakes-0998cr

Dick and I are delighted to continue to be a part of Nikki’s and Annie’s extended family. This little spring celebration of the life of one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, who has survived so much and keeps on keepin’ on, left us feeling hopeful even in these most difficult days. Like all of us, Annie misses her friends at school and Nikki misses her work colleagues, but we’re here. We’re persevering, too, and celebrating the little milestones of life, grateful for every one.

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eCP-copy studio

This guy would’ve been 68 years old today, and I can’t quite wrap my head around that… nor the fact that he died 19 years ago.

I’m still grateful to you, Clifford Ernest Polland, “my photographer,” for following me around on assignments, for loving me, marrying me, continuing to love me even during the years we lived apart—and remaining, from beginning to end, first and foremost, my friend and now companion spirit.

You often come to me in dreams where I find you knee high in a stream, rod in hand, whipping line and leader overhead in a graceful 10-2 arc, letting the fly land lightly on the water’s surface. And you turn and grin at me, standing on the shore, with a “Heya, Toots.”

And I awaken, knowing we’ve just had a visit, you on your side of the veil, me on mine.

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Graduation 2020

•jlh 2020-7561

It was my next door neighbor Christine Cross’s idea. She called to me a few days ago from as she was hand watering the proliferation of foliage that is her front yard, “Jan! The Man will host graduation on Friday.”

That made me smile. I’d just pulled into my driveway and gotten out of my car when I heard her. “Yeah?” I said.

“Well, you know, so many students can’t attend a ceremony this year,” she said.

I do know. Some of those disappointed students are mine at Sacramento City College. I told Christine that, and she looked sympathetic. -The ManI love The Man, her 6-foot-tall manikin butler whose greenish face looks like something out a horror movie. He’s a fixture at Halloween when Christine turns the yard into (depending on the year) a graveyard with mummies rising from the ground, a witches’ coven and, one year, a vampiric beauty shop. The Man gets dressed for Easter and other occasions, too, often with signs and accompanying set pieces. Maybe she was a set dresser in another life.

I went back in the house to the computer where I spend so much time these days, and in a few minutes, I heard my doorbell. I went to peer out the door to see Christine. I opened the door and smiled at her.

“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “If you give me your students’ names, I’ll put them out with The Man, too.”

I immediately loved the idea. “Great!” I said. “I’m meeting with them tomorrow. I’ll check to see who all is graduating.”

-Jan porchThe next day I Zoomed as my co-adviser Randy Allen and I do twice a week with the students of the Express, the Sac City online news site. We haven’t had a print paper for a year, which turns out to be a convenient thing in quarantine. These students have been tearing up the turf for the last two months, reporting on all things COVID-19 as they pertain to City College students, faculty and staff. Randy and I are so proud of the work they’re doing.

Now the semester is almost over, and we can’t gather with them, as we usually do in late May, in Land Park for a farewell picnic. Everyone seems sad about that, not least me.

To cheer myself up, when I was out on other errands, I went to a dollar store to see what they had in the way of graduation swag. I found a graduation 2020 banner to hang behind me in my home office at our final Zoom session next week on what should have been commencement day. Masked, alone in the aisle, I chose tall plastic cups, lanyards and rubber ducks with 2020 grad messages on them. I didn’t know how I’d get them to the graduates, but I figured I’d ask them for home addresses and drop them off, if necessary.


Chairs waiting for graduates

Christine was out decorating for two days before Friday, blowing up pink and black balloons and festooning her gazebo in the front yard. “I’m gonna have The Man in his ‘gown,’” she winked at me, and I knew he’d be attired in some creative way, “and I’m gonna set up chairs with each of your students’ names on them,” she said.

“That sounds great,” I said, and it did.

It turned out that I had no idea how great until I ventured out to the street Friday about noon after a couple hours of working online. There was The Man wearing his mask and draped in a plastic graduation tablecloth cape next to five black folding chairs about six feet apart, not only bearing each of my students’ names but also a silhouette of someone in cap and gown.


Photos by Dick Schmidt

Crepe paper had joined the balloons on the gazebo, and there were wrapped “presents” in between each chair, along with facsimile diplomas and a box that said “gloves” on it. A table in the driveway held an open book spray painted gold (one of my former phone books I’d donated), along with flowers and happy graduation signs.

It was breathtaking, the lengths to which Christine had gone. I took photos. I wiped away tears. And then I went inside and uploaded the photos to my laptop and then to a site we use to communicate with the Express staff. I named the graduates and invited them to come by to see The Man and their names on chairs Friday or Saturday.

One of my former students and editors-in-chief, Danielle McKinney, came by Friday to help me (as she’s done for weeks now) organize my life and home office so I can work more effectively in it. (Dick has taken to calling her Wonder Woman.) And, though she graduated in December and has transferred to Sac State, it turned out that she was supposed to be part of the commencement ceremony, too. I presented Dani with graduation swag, and she prepared some for her fellow grads.

-danielleAnd then the texts began flying around the ether between Dani and four of her Express buddy graduates-to-be. She told me this and eventually said, “They want to come by at 3 p.m. Is that OK?”

It was perfect, and I called Dick to see if he could come serve as graduation photographer. He’d just photographed a friend’s daughter who, like Dani, had graduated in December after eight years in community college and was looking forward to the commencement ceremony. They all met at City College, and Dick took photos of Lauren, in cap and gown with her Early Childhood Education diploma, and of Lauren and her parents, Pam and Steve.

And at 3 p.m. Friday four punctual young journalists arrived: Kelsey, Rose, Sara and Ben. Kelsey and her mom drove in from Elk Grove, Ben from Davis. Dani and I joined them, and Dick came to document the occasion. I dug out my cap, gown and cowl and put it all on. I doubt that I’ll ever wear it in a commencement ceremony again. But it’s a proper outfit with a mortarboard that fits my head and a green and gold cowl (Sac State colors… go, Hornets!) that I purchased several years ago so I wouldn’t have to rent one for commencement.

-lineup by steps

Appropriately garbed for graduation 2020.

But I don’t often wear the professorial outfit. For years I’ve volunteered at graduation ceremonies with the staff who put on the event. They don’t wear caps and gowns; they wear SCC T-shirts (I have a nice collection now). We help at the gym where the graduates gather before the ceremony. They’re asked to sign a long scroll that goes in a college time capsule for each year, and then they don their caps and gowns. Staffers stand by with bobby pins and advice on tassels (you wear it on the right until the president tells you to move it to the left, signifying that you are a graduate of Sacramento City College) and directions about how to line up. They fill out name cards that they’ll present before they walk across the stage with directions on how to pronounce their names.

One year I was asked to accompany a visually impaired student into the stadium and to her seat, then crouched nearby on the track so I could walk her to the stage. She crossed it herself, shaking hands with the college president, and I met her on the other side. She was in tears, so happy, and so was I.

-Jans hands out swag

Jan hands out graduation swag.

And then the students begin the long walk to Hughes Stadium, the football stadium built in 1928, in two parallel lines. They stop and line two sides of a sidewalk near the North Gym and wait. Before long a line of robed and capped faculty and administrators walk between the students. There are cheers and hugs, and then, after the faculty head for the stadium, the students follow.

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Graduate Express reporter Sydney Roll

I played in high school and college bands for years, drumming or cymbaling through more choruses of “Pomp and Circumstance” than I can count. City College has a recording of it, so it’s a good version, but several years ago I was surprised, as we staff folks walked in with the students, how choked up I got listening to that repetitive song that used to drive me nuts. Because when the graduates walk in, their families and friends in the stands on the home team side stand up and cheer and holler. The graduates wave and grin, and then, I forget how tired I am at the end of another academic year. I forget how long it takes to read all those names (and kudos to my brave faculty colleagues who read them perfectly). All I can see are those shining faces of college graduates, many of them the first ones in their families to claim that distinction.

-Sara group selfie

Express photo editor Sara Nevis (left) engineers a team selfie.

My graduating Express editors showed up Friday unrobed, uncapped, a come-as-you-are mini celebration—one in a long dress the color of burnished copper, another in cutoffs, still another with bare midriff and flowing harem pants. One of them came Saturday on her way to the first day of a new job. Each arrived with a mask, which they temporarily put away for photos. Each of them is unique in life and in their writing. I can identify their voices on the page without looking at the byline at the top of the story. That won’t always be the case. These students, like thousands of others I’ve taught, will fade into the background with time.

But I don’t want them to. Like parents wanting to preserve their babies in that sweet state, I want these students to stay just like this, as they are in those chairs, beaming and proud, the rest of their college careers ahead of them… not to mention their real lives.

-grads table

(From left) Rose Vega, Sara Nevis, Kelsey Brown, Ben Irwin, Danielle McKinney

Perhaps that’s why the tears leaked from the corners of my eyes. I’ll miss them something awful. But we want them to go on to become polished professionals with fulfilling careers and futures. We nurture them for a time, and then they fly to the next challenge.

One more academic year and I will retire from this college teaching life. I’m ready in so many ways. But looking at these faces, knowing these good people who have been my students, all of them—even the ones whose names and faces are a blur somewhere in the recesses of my mind—has shaped me, sustained me, frustrated me, enriched me and made my heart swell with gratitude.


My super creative neighbor, Christine Cross, who designed and arranged Graduation With the Man for my students.

As I wrote in a poem I’ve given for years to students on the last day of class:

Thanks for being here, students—
without your warm bodies
in hard chairs each week,
without your pens scribbling,
turning mute paper into vibrant voices,
without your smiles one moment
and puzzled looks the next,
I’d stand up here speaking
to indifferent air, adding
carbon dioxide for no reason—
just a talker,
not a teacher.


4047 the man & jan grad group CONDcr

(From left) Jan and the Express editors: Kelsey Brown, Danielle McKinney, Ben Irwin, Sara Nevis and Rose Vega


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The record player

Peanuts record playerThis week a surprise gift arrived from myself. This may be one of the great things about forgetfulness—sometimes I order things online and when they show up, I’m pleasantly surprised. Oh, look, vitamins! What’s in that soft bag? Oh, a new Peanuts robe! And what’s in that big box? I didn’t know, was too busy to look, so it sat for days in my dining room on a chair often occupied by a cat.

I finally moved it to the dining room table, took up scissors and opened the packing box. I was honestly surprised to see on another box the words “Peanuts Crosley.” When I opened it, encased in a big plastic bag was another vinyl yellow suitcase-like item with a black zigzag across the top. I squealed like an excited kid at Christmas.

“My record player!” I enthused.

Here’s the thing about online shopping. Not only do you order the new blue flannel robe with little Snoopys dancing all over it, you also, on the same site, search for “Peanuts” because you are a big fan. Have been since you first could read those comics that showed up every day in the newspaper. Became a bigger fan after you got to interview those comics’ creator, Charles (“call me Sparky; everyone does”) Schulz, at his Santa Rosa ice rink in the early 1980s.


A newer Zamboni at Schulz’s ice rink in Santa Rosa.

Fell into deeper adoration when Sparky offered you a ride on the Zamboni. He drove. You froze as the big machine slowly swept the ice on the rink during a break. If he’d asked you to run away to… well, anywhere with him, you would have in that moment, despite the fact that he was very happily married and old enough to be your father. As well as the father of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and all the Peanuts gang.

Anyway, when you’re online and a Peanuts record player made by Crosley (one of the original manufacturers of radios in the 1920s) pops up for what seems to you a reasonable price, you go for it. And so here it was.

This was not an impulsive buy. Every semester when I teach mass media at Sacramento City College, I spend a week or so on each of the seven forms of traditional mass media. (Can you name them? I’ll wait.) When I get to recordings, I have for some years brought in an old record player that belonged to Heide, one of our late writing group members. I have no idea how she came to have it, since it’s a 1980s kids’ record player with Michael Jackson’s 20-something face on the lid. But she did, and after she died, when I was helping her friend and executor clean out Heide’s house, I came away with a number of unusual items—the huge dictionary, circa 1900, that rests on Concepcion Tadeo’s book stand in the loft, for example—and the record player.

As kids, my best friend next door Sue Lester and I used to sit in her parents’ spare bedroom and play mostly LPs for hours (she who introduced me to Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles, among others). I had a collection of 45s at home that I shared with my sister. We’d inherited many of them from our older cousins and our aunt, each one held upright in a rectangular metal contraption with upright narrow wire slots. In each slot sat some of Dede and Pat’s 45s (their prize Ricky Nelson records, for example) as well as some that had belonged to their mother, our Auntie Lo, the church pianist/organist (“How Great Thou Art” and other hymns), and some that Donna and I added—the Carpenters, Herman’s Hermits, Barry Manilow.

Each semester I set up the record player in my classroom with the collection of 45s next to it and put one on—usually “The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wolley because my students have never heard it, and it was a big hit with my sister and me as little kids (“the one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater”). My students look at me with expressions I can never quite read—surprise, amusement, who is this wacky teacher?—and I invite them over the course of the class session to play a record whenever it strikes their fancy.

purple people eaterThe problem earlier this semester was that Heide’s record player went on the fritz. Its little speakers fuzzed in and out, and we couldn’t hear the Purple People Eater. I was so disappointed. I apologized to the class and resolved then to get a new record player, though I hope to retire in a year. Then I forgot about it.

But in my fuzzy, still-working-too-much-from-home state, the record player issue had migrated to the back of my brain until I ordered the Snoopy robe and checked out other Peanuts offerings. Sparky Schulz came swimming into my consciousness, and I smiled. He was a genius about marketing his characters, starting in the 1960s. It’s really what made him rich and built the ice rink, more than the comics. And all these years after his death, I’m still a sucker for Peanuts merch.

So I unwrapped the record player, set it up on the kitchen counter and plugged in the cord. I went for the 45s and pulled a new-to-me album off the top—the original Broadway cast recording of “The Music Man” from 1959. I’d bought it on ebay and, after learning the condition of Heide’s record player, had decided not to play the nearly pristine records until I got a new machine.

After I found the little round insert that plays the 45s (because this machine will handle 33s and 78s, too), and realizing that the reason it wasn’t playing was because I had to remove the plastic protector from the needle, I put on the first record in the set. Then Meredith Willson’s great overture came up from the little speakers—much better quality than Heide’s old record player—those 76 trombones booming out at me.

I know that music well. My mother had the LP of the cast album that we played on my parents’ stereo for years. She had all the Broadway musicals, ones we never saw until we were older and made occasional trips to Sacramento to the Music Circus where we finally watched real people singin’ and dancin’ to songs we’d heard only floating up from records.

“The Music Man” was the first musical I played in a ragtag high school orchestra (with some local grownup musicians brought in to up our game), assembled by our band director, Tom Blackburn. I was thrilled to be a percussionist reading that music for the first time, though our little orchestra was nowhere what I’d heard on the record. That was OK. I stood in back, counting measures of rest, humming, resisting the urge to burst into song, tickled when I got to play.

Buffalo Bills Music Man REDO

The Buffalo Bills with Robert Preston behind them in “The Music Man.”

Now I wiped away happy tears and sang along as the little discs spun on the Peanuts record player. I sang as the original Music Man himself, Robert Preston, serenaded Marion the Librarian, and I harmonized with the barbershop quartet my parents so admired, the Buffalo Bills, as they sang “It’s You.” And later in the musical they Lida Rose’d behind Helen Cook, the Broadway Marion, singing in counterpoint, “Dream of now, dream of then, dream of a love song that might have been.” Such a duet… or would it be a quintet?

The old songs on the new record player made me so happy in this fuzzy state of in-between where we find ourselves these days. I stood in the kitchen and played 45 after 45, singing and forgetting for a while how stressed I’ve been—working like crazy, doing a mediocre job at “teaching” (more like crisis management), trying to help students even more stressed than I. But now I had a different reason to plop myself back at the computer: I needed more old records of musicals!

Now I’m looking forward to the surprise of packages in the coming weeks that will deliver the songs of “South Pacific” and “The Pajama Game” and “Wonderful Town” and “Singing in the Rain.” And yes, some Herman’s Hermits singles. Just wait’ll I let loose with “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World).” The cats will likely go hide.

My childhood BFF Sue, now a veterinarian in Nevada City, is gonna want to come over. Or maybe I’ll pack up the record player and the singles and, when we can travel freely again, take them to her house. She might even tolerate “Purple People Eater.” We’ll put on a few early Beatles singles, we vintage boomers over 60 reliving a bit of the ’60s.

Most of all, I can’t wait to share the new record player and some classic Broadway musicals with my future mass media students. With luck, I’ll see them in a classroom next semester. I won’t mind if they chuckle and look at me funny. I just want to see their faces sitting in desks in rows and try to remember all their names. I’m gonna sing and make ’em laugh… oo! Because I’ll soon have that song (from “Singin’ in the Rain”) on a vintage record, too.


(*The seven forms of traditional mass media, in chronological order of their creation: books, newspapers, magazines, recordings, radio, movies, television. As I tell the students, I don’t consider the internet its own medium but a channel for all media… though there are scholars who disagree on that point.)

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Trader Joe’s, store #175, Sacramento, Monday, April 13, 8:35 a.m.

jlh rds Burr's after vacay-7-28-17

Us at Burr’s Fountain, July 28, 2017

Wearing the new, cute mask a local writing friend made—deep violet pansies on a black background—my glasses were already steaming up before I hit the produce aisle. I was almost able to walk right in to my favorite grocery store, but a store employee (whose face I’m sure I’d recognize if the bottom half wasn’t swathed in black) stopped me before I hit the door and guided a red cart toward me. I never use carts. I held up the reusable bags Trader Joe’s taught me to use when this store opened in my neighborhood years ago.

“I know that I have to pack up my own groceries,” I said because I’d done so a week ago.

He shook his head. “Can’t use those now,” he said kindly. “We’ll give you paper bags.” Pause. “For free.”

I didn’t say I pride myself on not having to use your bags and save a tree, or a small part of one. I didn’t say I don’t know how to judge the amount of purchases in a cart. I can carry two of my bags when full, which is how I know when I’ve bought enough. I didn’t say this is all I can carry to the parking lot next store behind Burr’s Fountain, my favorite ice cream/sandwich joint that closed 18 months ago, the place where many of you employees park now.

I started to put my bags in the red cart, thinking I’d fill them up there, but he stopped me. “Maybe you can just carry them on your arm.”

He was polite and trying to be helpful, but I got the message: My bags and I are dangerous now. Even though I was one of the harmless-looking oldsters in the store in the 8–9 a.m. shopping hour—never my usual time to be in any store, much less out and about, if I can help it. Age has its privileges, but only a few.

I held up my new mask in a plastic bag and smiled at him. “Should I…?”

“About 80% of our customers are wearing them,” he said. “And we all have to now.”

Why that did it, I’m not sure, but tears sprang to my eyes as I slung my empty, poisonous bags over one arm and awkwardly affixed my mask, which promptly began to fog up my glasses even though I affixed the little metal strip over my nose.

And so I entered my favorite store unable to see and in tears.

A week ago on a weekday afternoon I stood in the long line running down the outside of the building where customers also stood six feet apart. The line moved surprisingly quickly, and I was in the store in about 15 minutes. Then they allowed me to fill my own bags at the checkout stand where the employees wore gloves but not masks.

“We can’t touch them,” the young woman said about my bags, the ones they persuaded customers to bring when the store opened years ago by having a contest. If you brought your own bags, you’d fill out a ticket, and at the end of the week, they’d do a drawing for a bag of food. You couldn’t choose the food—they did it for you—but it was good stuff. I won once and felt like I’d hit the lottery.

This morning I pushed the red cart around the relatively empty store, and sure enough, everyone I saw was wearing a mask—mostly the ineffective-for-germs cloth kind. One customer, a man, was wearing an N95 mask, but he was the only one. I wondered if he had them in his garage or wore them for work since, like toilet paper, they’re impossible to get.

I hung onto my cart for dear life, like the other older women in the store, feeling as if I was walking through thick sludge in a bad dream, one in which I’d gone to my favorite store and everyone was wearing masks, avoiding each other like, well, the plague, and there was no toilet paper to be had, even at 8:35 on a Monday morning. (Fortunately, I didn’t need TP.) I got what I needed as quickly as I could as always, periodically taking off my glasses to let them defog. The man at the door had said that some of the young women employees had some anti-fog goop, and I thought, oh, yeah, so do we—with the masks and snorkels Dick and I take to Hawaii. What might that do to coated plastic lenses, though?

Crackers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots. Persian cucumbers for snacking. Three big gala apples. Two boxes of almond cluster cereal for Dick. Chicken pesto wraps for lunch and rosemary chicken and rice for dinner. Peanut-butter filled pretzels. Didn’t need hummus or Monterey Jack cheese sticks for the writing groups, though I did get chocolate-topped shortbread cookies because Dick likes them, too.

I pushed the red cart to the checkout stand area. Stood at a taped yellow X on the floor more than six feet away from the man in front of me who was at the counter paying for his groceries.  When it was my turn, a young checker whose smile I could not see pulled my cart toward her and put out a hand. “Wait there,” she said, and I did as she unloaded my cart with gloved hands and ran each item over the reader. Another young woman standing a decent distance away arranged my purchases into three paper bags. I wondered how I’d carry them to the parking lot next door—all those veggies are heavy.

When the bagger finished, she backed away from the counter all the way to the checkout stand behind her, as did the checker, who beckoned me forward. I stepped up to the little machine that takes the card and inserted it as usual. But I had to think about my pin number, which I ordinarily punch in without having to pause. I looked around for a second to get my bearings. I noted the other oldsters like me (surely I’m the youngest of them here, I thought, at my whopping 61 years and 7 months). Then, somehow, the pin number arrived at my fingertips. I juggled the card back into my wallet, shifting my useless, germ-y bags again, and then I was free to push the red cart outside into the morning.

I had to leave it there, of course, as two red-coated employees with the TJ’s logo in masks and gloves stood ready to wipe down my tainted cart. I managed two paper bags in one hand (thank goodness for their sturdy handles), one in the other and began the trek to the car.

As I walked past the large plate glass windows in the front of the former Burr’s, I stopped and looked in, as I often do. I sighed at the sight of the now dusty, deserted place where Dick and I and so many friends and loved ones had gone for fresh turkey sandwiches that Jim Burr sliced off Brannigan’s turkeys raised in Woodland. Where Dick had taken his mother before she died for those turkey sandwiches. Where his favorite sandwich was the hot dog, sliced vertically in half and laid on sourdough with lettuce and mustard. Where I’d happily eaten the tuna mix on sourdough that Jim Burr cut into three pieces—the ladies’ cut—sometimes as I graded papers solo at a four-person table. Where I’d consumed who knew how many gallons of Jik Jak ice cream in frosts—shakes with soda water and ice cream.

This global disaster has been hard on us all. We are all suffering together, though alone, some more than others. Neither I nor my loved ones are or have been sick. We have the trappings of privilege—good jobs or retirement; nice, secure homes; our own cars and the ability to go to the store, if we wish; friends we connect with by phone or online, and access to far too much information. I am working at home, trying to get 120 community college writing students through the last month of their curtailed semester. I am beyond fortunate in weathering this storm, and I am grateful.

Still. When one lives long enough, the accumulated losses pile up, the unshed tears flow, and the heart breaks a little more. We are in a time of enormous global change, of cosmic transformation, a moment after which nothing will ever be the same again. The old ways are dying; new ones have yet to be born. And in this liminal space we are floundering.

I set down the bags and yanked off the pretty mask, stuffing it into the pocket of my pullover sweatshirt. I looked again at the booths where we used to eat and drink and laugh.

Then I picked up three paper bags, made my way to the car and drove myself and my groceries home. All by 9 a.m. on the 25th day of Sacramento County’s shelter-in-place order.


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