Catching Up, Still

We are just back from a trip to the West Coast. “We” meaning my wife and I. “Just” meaning, keeping with the currency of JDBlogs, almost a month ago.

The getaway to San Diego was the first big trip of the pandemic for Mary Jo and I, and it went largely without incident. Cross-country air travel in a once-a-century viral apocalypse is easy, really, if you get to the airport three hours before your flight, mask up as if you’re heading into outer space, bring along enough hand sanitizer to create an oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, lean as far away from every human within punching radius, and pretend a lot.

**”Yay! Everything’s back to normal. Nothing weird or stressful about any of this!”**

Masked-to-the-max and treating all we met en route as if they were so many Pandemic Marys, Mary Jo and I flew to Cali — it’s what cool Cali people say, I hear — to see the boy, who’s marking his first anniversary as a license-carrying, tax-paying resident of the Golden State. We knew that we’d be good once we got there. We are, after all, vaxxed to the max. Luke’s vaxxed. His girlfriend is, too. They’re not going into the office. They have a pretty limited circle of friends, being as they’re newcomers. And, you know … pandemic.

Being there, it turned out, was no sweat. It was the getting there that was a little dicey.

In the end, we rolled through the Atlanta and San Diego airports relatively easily, the kid was there to pick us up on time, and when we weren’t locked away in our hotel room, we spent plenty of time in warm, open air. When it turns too warm in California, of course, the state always has an abundance of places to sit out of the sun and to relax, or enjoy a stupidly expensive meal. It was great. We barely thought about spiky viruses and infection rates until we jumped on the plane to come back.

Luke and Mary Jo at San Diego’s Balboa Park, circa 2009

When Luke was maybe 11 or so, we made our first trip as a family to San Diego. We’ve been to California a few times since; to the Bay Area and Yosemite, to the central coast and Big Sur. Last fall, Luke and I drove out to get him settled in his for-now home.

For all its troubles — ask any Republican; California has plenty — the state remains a destination for many people. Despite all those problems, it’s not a hard sell.

After our now-traditional stop at In-n-Out — forget the trendy blowback against the place in recent years; it’s a solid, amazingly affordable (for anywhere) burger-and-fries joint that we’ve always enjoyed — we drove up to Luke’s apartment in Carlsbad and proceeded to do our thing for a week. We ate a gas-station burrito in a parking lot — and it was outstanding. We walked the beach and pier in Oceanside (^top^), visited a couple missions (including San Juan Capistrano, a short drive north), went to the zoo, ate an Italian meal in Encinitas and a breakfast burrito in San Clemente (more al fresco dining), watched the paragliders on a gorgeous afternoon on the cliffs at Torrey Pines, sat on a park bench on another outrageously fine afternoon in the enviously beautiful seaside town of Del Mar, walked around Little Italy in San Diego, and spent as much time as possible with the boy and his girlfriend, both of whom — being adults now — fit us into their work week as best as they could.

It’s a strange time, as we all know. But … what’s to be done? You put on your mask, you watch your back and your front and your side and you move forward as best as you can. Carefully. On eggshells. That’s just the way it is.

The strange part: It’s so commonplace now.


We were walking down a street in San Juan Capistrano one early afternoon, heading to the car after touring the famous mission there. SJC boasts one of 21 missions that run from San Diego north to Sonoma. They are a treasured piece of old California; the arched walkways, the red-tiled roofs, the quiet courtyards, the lovingly restored churches with wood-beamed ceilings and hand-painted accents. They’re a reminder of what California was in 1769, when the Spaniards built the first mission on El Camino Real, before the gold rush, before the influx of all those seeking sun and fortune, before Cesar Chavez and farmworkers, before Hollywood and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Silicon Valley, before the Dodgers and Giants and Rodney King and Elon Musk.

We approached an older couple on the sidewalk on our way to the car. The woman looked up, passing, and said to me, “Nice shirt.” Quick thinker that I am, I threw out a speedy, “Thanks,” before Mary Jo turned and looked at me.

“I wondered about that shirt when you put it on,” she said.

At first, of course, I had no idea what she meant because, in that second, I had no idea what I was wearing. I mean, really. As if I put any kind of thought into a t-shirt I wear on vacation.

You know what I think when I put on a t-shirt?

1) Is it clean?
2) If it isn’t, does it smell?
3) If it smells, does it smell really bad?
4.) If it smells really bad, does it really smell that bad?

I didn’t know what I was wearing, so I glanced down and, probably four steps after the woman had blown by me, I knew exactly what Mary Jo meant.

I knew that I had just had a close encounter with a right-winger.

I bought this shirt (<) years ago. I’m guessing 10 years ago. Minimum. I bought it out of a shopping cart at a Sam’s Club in Alpharetta, along with a handful of others, for something like $2.99 each. They were lightweight, the designs looked (I thought) pretty cool, and I needed some t-shirts. I guess all mine were dirty.

I had no idea that, a decade-ish later, the simple act of sporting an image of the American flag would become a political statement stronger than what I intended, which was, “Hey, American flag. Looks good on this tee.” I had no idea — and, in my defense, few did at the time I bought that thing — that the American flag would one day be co-opted by conservatives in our country. Hijacked. Shanghaied (that’s got to be politically incorrect now, right?). That wearing a flag, however stylized, would somehow lead someone to assume that the wearer held right-leaning political views.

It may seem like a leap to assume that our friendly California passer-by was offering up a verbal high-five to someone she perceived as a brother conservative with her “Nice shirt” comment. In the second that Mary Jo mentioned it, my first thought was, “Nooooo. You really think …?”

But of course that’s what happened. Because these days, in our country, that’s how people are. That’s how people think. Everyone — Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Librarian, Contrarian, Rastafarian, Pastafarian — will assign to you a political viewpoint depending on how you choose to display Old Glory.

If you wave a flag or carry one or fly it from the back of your car or wear a t-shirt from a warehouse bargain cart with one on it, you are — unless, perhaps, it’s the Fourth of July — most likely a conservative. Right wingers think that, and so do lefties, according to at least one poll, which rings pretty true to me. People of all political leanings associate the flag more with Republicans than Democrats (though most report they don’t automatically associate it with either party). It’s just a fact.

It’s absurd, of course. America is full of patriotic Democrats who are proud to wear the flag or wave it. Conversely, it’s not as if simply wearing a flag makes you a patriot. Those weren’t all great Americans at the Capitol on January 6. A lot of them were thugs wrapped in the red, white and blue.

Still, that’s America in the 21st century. Even something that should be unifying is anything but.

I wonder now what I should have said there on the streets of San Juan Capistrano when the nice woman took me for a fellow Republican-in-Arms.

I could have replied, “Thanks. Go Joe,” or, “Thanks. Biden 2024, right?” and raised a fist. That would have shown her that the flag is not the exclusive property of conservatives. That being a proud American doesn’t automatically mean being Republican or conservative. If I had been quick enough to assess the situation properly, I could have said something like, “Thanks. Vote ‘No’ on the recall,” or “Thanks. Keep Newsom,” to counter her assumptions.

I guess, though, if I was being perfectly transparent and honest and non-confrontational in that second, what I probably shoulda answered was simply, “Thanks. It was clean.”


Politics, like the virus, infects us all, at damn near every intersection of our lives. I know previously apolitical people who now are frothing-at-the-mouth infected. They’re zombies who just keep coming, who don’t take reason or logic or an axe in the head for an answer.

As everyone knows, these days, nothing gets the political froth going like the virus.

The politics of public health hit home several weeks ago when, as the delta variant pulsed throughout the U.S., at least a couple of my basketball-playing brethren began to worry about the whole close-quarters, sweating on each other, huffing and puffing nature of our reawakened Wednesday night game. Some of the regulars, quietly, weren’t showing up. One of the younger guys, in his 30s with a couple kids at home, began to wear a mask while playing.

I fell into the role of semi-commissioner of this outfit a couple years ago after the real commish, my neighbor Mike, moved to Philadelphia and passed on the mantle (in the form of the key to the gym) to me. So a few weeks ago, I broached the subject of a vaccinated-only game with Mike (who, thank goodness, is back), and he agreed that we needed to try.

A few weeks in, the whole honor-system game — it’s not as if we’re checking vax cards at the gym door, but we definitely asked that everyone be vaccinated — has gone surprisingly well. But, as would be the case, we have had at least a couple blips. Two guys, in particular, bowed out. Both guys enjoy playing and both, in the first rule of pickup ball, aren’t obvious asses on the court.

But for whatever reasons (and we’ve heard them all), they declared that they’re not getting poked, even if ball depends on it. And so in a cold, cruel world with me as co-commissioner with at least partial custody of the key to the gym, they’re out. They don’t like it. The co-commishes don’t like it. That’s just the way it is.

We are now back, 12 or 13 of us, fully vaccinated and still fully incapable of playing anything resembling real basketball. We’re passing and shooting and rebounding (well, sort of). We’re scoring once in a while, pulling old muscles, missing a lot of easy layups. We’re throwing up a lot of airballs, turning the ball over at an embarrassing level … and worrying a lot less about getting sick or getting someone else sick. It’s great. But it’s also sad.

Basketball buddies against basketball buddies. Flag-wearers against fellow flag-wearers. Americans vs. Americans. That’s where we are in the fall of 2021. Still. Still.

What was it that the great Californian Rodney King said so long ago?

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