A Jerk and a Joke: Shopping Adventures in the Time of COVID-19

Grocery Shopping

When we realized our supply of dog waste bags was dwindling, I knew it was coming. When our fresh veggies, Splenda, veggie stock, and coffee started to go, we began making a list. When my husband announced he needed to pick up an important prescription, well, it was time to face the music. We needed to go shopping. You know, during the deadly upswing of a global health crisis.

The last time we stocked up on groceries, we went to each store together. Oh, how things change in a matter of weeks. Now, it’s too risky. Not just for shopping, but for a lot of things.

Our local officials recommend wearing masks when out in public. We’re supposed to clean everything we bring into our home with sanitizer wipes. There are conflicting reports about social distancing; some say six feet is adequate; in others, it’s nowhere near enough. And COVID-19 has crept too close to home already. My husband and I both know people who are sick.

So yeah, we needed to re-evaluate how to go about grocery shopping. We decided the safest way for us to shop right now is to divide and conquer: my husband goes to the first store or two, picks up whatever he can from our list, and then I make a second trip out to look for the items he couldn’t find. We figure this strategy limits the amount of time we spend as individuals in the world that we once knew laid back, beautiful San Diego and has now morphed into a truly terrifying episode of The Twilight Zone.

After my husband brought home round one of our haul and we’d properly cleaned and stored our groceries, it was my turn. I took my Prozac, strapped on a homemade cloth mask, donned some plastic gloves, hiked up the hood of my hoodie, and drove to Von’s looking like I was planning to rob a bank.

Let me tell you, it was an adventure.

During my hour-and-a-half away from home, I experienced prime examples of both of the goodness and the baseness of humanity. Let’s start with the negatives so we can end on the positives, yeah?

As I moved through the grocery store, it became immediately apparent that either people are quite bad at judging six feet of distance…or fear wins over patience the majority of the time. Sadly, I think the latter is most likely.

With a safety-first mentality and a personal dedication to practicing legitimate social distancing, folks should wait a full six feet away for shoppers to vacate certain areas before reaching in to get the green bell pepper they so desperately need, right? But fear makes us take risks – and it’s way sexier than safety.

It’s human nature to want to get the hell out of a potentially threatening situation as soon as possible. So, despite the invisible elephant in the room that is COVID-19, we get close to each other. We reach around folks to scoop up groceries to lessen our time in the store. Ultimately, we’re risking our health, and the health of others, in order to obtain  things we think we need. Either consciously or subconsciously, we’re putting the sum of its parts ahead of the collective whole.

And while that was more of a philosophical observation, I also observed some straight-up nastiness.

Due to the large number of people shopping yesterday, their larger-than-usual hauls, and the social distancing measures put into place by Von’s, checkout lines cascaded down the vast majority of the aisles of the store. Entirely expected, right?

While wandering down the cereal aisle in search of bran flakes, I heard a male voice boom, “Do your damn job!”

I blinked, startled. But yeah, this was happening. A man in one of the checkout lines was berating the folks working at Von’s. (Who, by the way, were doing an absolutely incredible job. I watched them wipe down the conveyor belts, point-of-sale transaction stations, and all surfaces in between each customer. They were doing their best to keep people distanced. They were hustling. They were offering free bags to those who needed them. I can’t imagine how stressful their jobs are right now.)

Y’all, this man was loud. It was clear he wanted to be heard. But…did he seriously think his complaining would magically transport him to the front of the line? Oh sir, I’m so sorry, I see you’ve been waiting. Please, cut in front of all of these people who are being patient and waiting their turn, because you matter so much more than any of them.

A manager came over and told the man he needed to get himself under control and lower his voice. If he didn’t, they would kick him out. This guy was seething. I could feel the bad mojo pouring off him half an aisle’s length away. I honestly was afraid he’d start throwing punches. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, he abandoned his basket and walked out.

To play devil’s advocate, maybe this guy was having a terrible day. Maybe this pandemic has touched him personally. Maybe this Von’s experience was a symptom of a larger issue.

But people who work in grocery stores are literally saving us right now. They are helping. They are putting themselves at risk. They are allowing us the privilege to stock up so we can stay home and hopefully never come into contact with this virus.

I know it’s stressful and scary, y’all. But don’t bite the hand that feeds you. If you do, someday that hand will turn up empty.

Blessedly, my shopping adventure concluded with a much-needed dose of positivity!

As I was loading groceries into my car, a white-haired woman in a RV rolled up next to me, leaned out her window, and asked if I wanted to hear the “ridiculous joke of the day.” Um, of course I did!

And here it is, ladies and gents, a truly corny joke delivered by this sweet stranger who just wanted to spread a little laughter during a crisis.

White-haired woman: Can you name the stinkiest pencil on the market?

Me (after a brow furrow and pause): You know, I don’t think I can.

Lady (after a dramatic pause): The number two!

Y’all, she sang that punchline with unmitigated glee in her voice. She was cracking herself up, and she certainly cracked me up, too! I applauded her as well as I could in my plastic-gloved hands and thanked her for the laugh. After that, she simply wished me a good day and drove off.

It was a brief interaction, a minute tops, but I needed it so badly. I wonder if she could tell. Or perhaps she’s just a woman with a hopeful spirit and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

But her kind gesture reminded me of why we’re staying home, despite how hard all of this has been and will continue to be. Humans can be great. Interactions with other people can make our days. We naturally crave community.

Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 is making everything really hard. We’ve started losing people. Everyone’s mental health is compromised. Quite frankly, we’re all living with trauma right now. Our existence, individually and collectively, is a fragile thing.

But on the other side of this, I hope there are still sweet souls who approach complete strangers armed with Dad jokes. Because those people, they remind us that this life—this life together—is worth fighting for.

Postmodern Jukebox’s Show is a Reminder of the Good in This World

IMG_20151210_144524

Yesterday, I spent an embarrassing amount of time practicing deep breathing and convincing myself that everything was going to be okay and it was irrational to let my anxiety take hold. You see, my boyfriend and I had tickets to see the incredible Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ) at the House of Blues in San Diego. And even though I was ridiculously excited to see PMJ live, I was also a little terrified.

In light of the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in recent weeks, I’ve been on edge in public, heavily crowded places. It’s safe to say my anxiety has gotten the best of me a number of times. I find myself regularly scouting exits, determining how I’d escape in case of an emergency. My talent for imagining worst case scenarios shifts into overdrive. When this happens, I instruct myself to down a rationality cocktail—calm down, think clearly, turn off the newscasts, live in the moment.

That last part of the cocktail, live in the moment (and sometimes “live your damn life, Tiffany!”), is the most important ingredient. It’s generally what gets me out of the house and out into the world. Because you can’t live behind closed doors paralyzed by fear, especially when people and music and performance and the bustle of city life are the things that make you happy.

Vintage dress

Because I’ll take any excuse to wear this gorgeous vintage dress from Bad Madge – and red lipstick, of course!

So, I put on my vintage, sequined, 1950s-style frock, hooked my arm in my boyfriend’s, and strolled the few blocks downtown to the House of Blues, where a line for the show wrapped around half the city block. The show had sold out. And I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

If you haven’t heard of PMJ yet, I’m about to introduce you to your new obsession. The brainchild of the incomparable Scott Bradlee, PMJ is an antidote to the over-produced, Auto-Tune-dependent, repetitive music that you generally hear on the radio. It’s also a time machine. PMJ takes Top 40-style hits, changes up their arrangements so they sound like something from yesteryear, and then pairs dynamite singers with dynamite musicians (and sometimes dancers, too!) to bring the re-envisioned song to life. Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” morphs into a New Orleans soul song. Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” turns into a James Bond theme. Maroon 5’s “Maps” gets a vintage 1970s soul makeover. Rihanna’s “Umbrella” transforms into a Singin’ in the Rain-style tune—with tap dancers and umbrellas! Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty to Me” becomes a vintage klezmer—with a rap in Yiddish.

Often, I like PMJ’s covers more than the originals. And it’s not just the gimmick of this concept, the novelty of the act. The songs are thoughtfully crafted and brilliantly executed. And holy crap, the talent involved in this project is off the charts! PMJ works regularly with dozens of insanely gifted and dedicated musicians, and their videos (which premiere on a weekly basis) and concerts feature a revolving door of talent.

Last night, Casey Abrams, Haley Reinhart, Ariana Savalas, Joey Cook, Maiya Sykes, Blake Lewis, and Sarah Reich opened the show with Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” performed in the style of the roaring 20s. I was immediately smiling from ear to ear. The anxiety that had sat in my gut all day drained out of my body. And I danced, because I couldn’t keep still. The music and the energy were so infectious.

During their individual performances, Casey wowed us with his luscious man bun, gravelly vocals, phenomenal upright bass-playing skills, and, of course, his New Orleans-style take on Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One.”

Haley flirted with us through a swanky version of Britney Spears’s “Oops, I Did It Again,” and then completely slayed a cover of “Creep,” the PMJ video I believe she’s most known for.

Ariana won me over with her hilarious antics (this woman is the definition of a modern burlesque performer—humor, sex appeal, pipes, character), not to mention that Jessica Rabbit-inspired performance of “No Diggity.”

Joey delivered the damn cutest rendition of “Hey There, Delilah,” complete with ukulele and accordion accompaniment (and yes, she played both). Her performance reminded us all what it feels like to fall in love the first time.

Maiya took us to church singing “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” and then catapulted Adele’s new single, “Hello,” into another stratosphere.

Blake attacked “Radioactive” with gorgeous vocals, beat-boxing, and enough dapper flair to inspire us all to go out and buy a pageboy cap.

And then there was my dance/girl crush, Sarah Reich, who is giving voice to the art of tap dancing and making it relevant again. She is a consummate performer, making the most difficult steps look easy and flawless, a huge smile on her face at all times. And when you can match a drummer beat for beat (yeah, she can and she proved it during the show), you know you’ve got one hell of a tapper on your hands.

Scott Bradlee took the stage halfway through the show to thank us for supporting PMJ and promised they’re just getting started. He asked if he could play a little piano for us, requested artist suggestions from the audience, and performed an impromptu piano mashup of Michael Jackson, Queen, Billy Joel, Elvis Presley, and MC Hammer.

And I can’t fail to mention the infamous Tambourine Guy, Tim Kubart, who intermittently exploded onstage, tambourines rattling, and performed with the exuberance and joy commonly reserved for “hyperactive” kids—a joy I feel like we’re told to abandon as soon as we reach a certain age, because it’s silly or inappropriate somehow. Personally, I think we need to bring that joy back. I’m happy Tim and his irresistible energy are an integral part of PMJ’s show.

The full cast brought it home with a cover of “Such Great Heights,” and the song swelled in the House of Blues as if these six singers were, in fact, a full chorus. Scott came out onstage and attempted shuffle stomps alongside Sarah. Casey whispered something to Haley between verses and she laughed. The whole crowd swayed and danced.

And I can’t remember the last time I felt that happy.

I didn’t realize how deeply I needed last night’s PMJ concert until I was slow dancing with my boyfriend to their encore, a sweet, simple version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” happy tears streaming down my cheeks. After weeks of being on edge and sinking slowly into a state-of-the-world-inspired depression, my heart was light. I felt joy bubbling up in my chest. There was suddenly a place for this holiday season in my heart, which is usually “the most wonderful time of the year,” but has seemed overshadowed by sadness recently.

Last night, PMJ was a beacon of hope for me—and probably many others in the audience—an important reminder that the human spirit, the good in this world, going out to live your life, and the unity inspired by music are far more powerful than fear.

Teddy Bears and Tears: My First Trip to Mingus Mountain Academy

Mingus

A dusty, unpaved road in the hills of Prescott Valley leads you to Mingus Mountain Academy, a court-appointed rehabilitation facility for troubled girls aged 12-18. Last Wednesday, I jostled along in the van with two ex-convicts and two enthusiastic Gina’s Team interns to the campus. In the back of the van, we towed trash bags filled with stuffed animals, cookies, and candy canes. For the girls of Mingus, Christmas came early, just like it does every year.

For the past five years, Gina’s Team volunteers have traveled to Prescott with donated stuffed animals and treats to inspire the girls of Mingus and spread a little holiday cheer, which is something they need in spades. Many of these girls have struggled with addiction, domestic issues, living on the street—you name it, they’ve probably experienced it. And they’re babies—grade, middle, and high school kids who are struggling to get it right.

So you can imagine how a small gesture, like a stuffed animal (and the people who care enough to give them), can make a big impact.

In the gym, we unloaded the stuffed animals—teddy bears, unicorns, gorillas, and more—across six fold-out tables. We lined them all up so they could smile at the girls sitting on the bleachers across from them, an assembly of cuteness and cheer.

Some of the girls came up and introduced themselves, with proper handshakes or heartfelt hugs. Some surveyed the tables, mentally picking out their new friend ahead of time. I fell in love with all of them immediately.

Sue Ellen Allen, ex-convict and the co-founder of Gina’s Team, acted as our emcee, and the girls absolutely love her. I don’t blame them. I’m pretty sure everyone who meets Sue Ellen is instantly smitten with her. She’s 69, bold, beautiful, honest, and her charisma is palpable. Most importantly, she knows how to talk to these girls. She knows how to tell her story.

Sue Ellen has done time for securities fraud. She knows what it’s like to make a bad choice and pay dearly for it. And the girls at Mingus? They’re on the precipice. If they aren’t rehabilitated, if they don’t work past their issues—be it a broken home situation, a lack of self-confidence, an addiction, a psychological or emotional compulsion—they’ll continue the cycle and wind up behind bars as soon as they can be tried as adults.

So our job at Mingus on Wednesday wasn’t just to make these girls happy by giving them presents and boatloads of sugar; it was to inspire them, to applaud how far they’ve come already, to show them that even though they’re going through hell, there’s something on the other side of it: hope.

When Sue Ellen asked how many of the girls were experiencing their first Christmas sober or off the streets, about 90% of the girls raised their hands. And that’s when the tears started for me.

They continued as the rest of the volunteers who traveled up to Mingus—most of whom have experienced time in prison and have found hope and stability on the other side—spoke to the girls and shared their words of love and wisdom.

I’m proud to say that I added my voice to the chorus. I asked the girls how many of them had a dream or something fabulous they wanted to do with their lives. Again, about 90% of the girls raised their hands. I told them that they need to keep thinking about what they want, because those thoughts can turn into actions, and those actions can pave the way for the rest of their lives. They just have to believe that they can do it, that they deserve it, and that if they work toward it, they can make it happen.

I told them I would continue to think about each and every one after leaving Mingus. I’ve kept my word. I think about those girls and the energy of hope and rehabilitation that cloaked us all that day. I hear their voices singing Christmas carols. I imagine their smiles and know that they have so much promise.

I look forward to seeing them again. I hope next time I can share stories of what I’ve overcome and what I’ve been able to accomplish despite adversity and my own internal struggles. I hope that I can help just one of them feel like she’s enough and she’s got it in her to change her own life and reshape her destiny.

A dusty, unpaved road in the hills of Prescott Valley leads you to Mingus Mountain Academy, a court-appointed rehabilitation facility for troubled girls aged 12-18. I can’t wait to go back.

Last Night, I Went to Prison

Photo by flickr user "mikecogh." Note: not a picture of Perryville Prison.

Photo by flickr user “mikecogh.” Note: not a picture of Perryville Prison.

So, what should I wear to prison tomorrow?

Trust me, it wasn’t a question I ever thought I’d be asking, but I found myself emailing that inquiry to my good friend, Sara, a few short days ago.

Her response: I should wear something I’d wear to a casual business interview. Dark jeans or slacks were good. Minimal jewelry. And I might consider wearing a sports bra, because underwire has the annoying habit of tripping the metal detectors at the entrance. Beyond that, the only things I would need were my driver’s license and my copy of The Book Thief.

You see, I wasn’t going to prison because I was in trouble. I was going to prison as a volunteer, a book club volunteer.

When Sara approached me about volunteering alongside her at Perryville Women’s Prison, there was an instant tug in my belly. Half of that tug was nervousness, because let’s face it, I’d be going into a prison to interact with inmates. (And you might as well nickname me Ms. Paranoid—just ask my boyfriend.)

But the other half of that tug was instinct, something in me that said, “Yes, this would be a good thing. It’s something you have to give. Share your love for the written word. And do something that challenges you.”

Last week, I got the email from Sara letting me know that my background check had cleared, they were meeting next week, and the group was reading The Book Thief, would I come?

Last night, it smelled like a petting zoo when we got out of Sara’s car, because Perryville is situated just down the road from a dairy farm on the west, west side of town. The sun was setting, painting the horizon pink over the coils of barbed wire around us. Little squat buildings sat behind gates and uniforms. And there were women on the yard, walking around in bright orange clothing, probably enjoying the cooler weather.

We made it through the metal detectors without issue (go sports bras!), got our temporary badges, and walked into the cafeteria.

What came next was not the scene from a horror film. It was not an episode of Orange is the New Black. It was pretty, well, normal.

It was a regular book club, a collection of women who genuinely love the written word, who pine for it. Women who are intelligent and have opinions. Women who smiled at me even though they knew absolutely nothing about me. Women who I had an easier time picturing as mothers, sisters, and daughters than hardened criminals.

As we dissected the love letter to the written word that is The Book Thief and pontificated on the healing power of books, the women of Perryville shared with us that books help them to escape. The book club is something they look forward to. It’s a spot of hope in a blanket of bleakness.

And I realized that these women each have a story that led them to Perryville. Some are stories of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some are stories of terrible mistakes, the stuff of nightmares. Some are stories of struggle, addiction, and abuse. Some are about the women they used to be or the side of themselves they are fighting to overcome.

And I decided that we can’t let their stories end there. Prison shouldn’t result in blank pages for them.

So that’s what Sara and I and all the other Perryville volunteers are doing. We’re coloring these women’s pages with words and feelings and reminders of what it’s like outside the barbed wire. We’re making sure their stories continue to breathe and develop—so that when they get out, they can confidently continue to tell their stories and perhaps rewrite themselves into new, rehabilitated lives.

Last night, I went to prison. It won’t be the last time.

Are you listening?

downtown Phoenix

Yesterday, two important things happened.

My boyfriend sat outside from 2:30 to 8:30 pm in a parking lot near 2nd Avenue and Fillmore to photograph the same scene of downtown Phoenix during different parts of the day for a work assignment. Think time lapse but with photography instead of video.

I took him dinner around 7ish, proclaiming that we could have any asphalt picnic. Except there were ants everywhere. And the asphalt was still pretty dang hot at that time.

Instead, my boyfriend backed up his car and I was able to sit in the “trunk” of the hatchback, eating cold noodles and sushi while my legs dangled over the pavement.

Here’s the important part. People walking by stopped and talked to us.

I met a man named Andy who’s been in Phoenix for nearly 38 years, mostly working construction. Since he’s used to working outside in the heat and has acclimated to such, he’s earned a nickname: Old Lizard. He showed me a tattoo of his namesake on his arm, a gecko that looks like it belongs in a Geico commercial, though I’m sure it may be older than the commercials. Andy’s Scotch-Irish, he served six years in prison (though I don’t know what for), and he has a daughter who works internationally who he’s incredibly proud of. He was also involved in the construction of such historic buildings as the Westward Ho (the renovation) and the Chinese Cultural Center.

Andy stopped by and talked to us three separate times, and my boyfriend said he’d been by to chat earlier in the day, too.

One of the last things he said to me? “I really like talking to people—especially younger people—but a lot of times, they won’t talk to you.”

Another man who stopped to talk to us asked if we were praying folk. My boyfriend and I both said “no,” mostly, I think, because we misunderstood the question. I thought he was asking if we were representatives of a church doing church-work on that sidewalk.

Regardless of our answer, he asked if we would pray with him for his mother who has recently undergone hip surgery. Now understanding the larger situation, I said I’d pray with him. We never actually got around to that part, but he did tell me proudly that his mother was a Spanish lady who’d had six boys and no girls. “A tough woman,” he said, and I had to agree. Before he left, I asked for his mother’s name—Helen Avalos—and I said I’d keep her in my prayers.

All of this interaction occurred in less than an hour, between bites of buckwheat noodles and miso.

After we packed up my boyfriend’s gear, we migrated to the community lot on Roosevelt Row for a candlelight vigil hosted by City Square Church to honor those who’ve been affected by the violence that’s erupted in our community this week. A little background is probably needed here.

CandleOn Wednesday night, a priest at Mother of Mercy Mission was shot and killed and another badly beaten in what police are suspecting was a burglary turned bloody.

While terrible and disheartening, this act of violence isn’t the only one that’s hit too close to home recently. A couple days ago, a drive-by shooting near McClintock High School left three injured and the school in lockdown mode.

And this is just a taste of the weekly turmoil in the greater Phoenix community―which is just a snapshot of what’s happening nationally.

How many school shootings have been reported since Sandy Hooks? It’s an obscene number. 74.

The candlelight vigil wasn’t just for the priests who were attacked on Wednesday: it was, for all of us, a time to realize that violence in our communities is a pervasive issue; a time to grieve for innocent bystanders; a time for us to make our concerns known and to try to find some sort of solution.

Now, my two stories don’t seem to have a tie, but if you look a little closer, they do.

In discussions at the candlelight vigil, one resounding call to action became apparent. Pay a little more attention to the humanity around you. Offer kindness. Show people that you care.

Andy―the “Old Lizard”—told me that often people ignore him. They don’t want to talk. They don’t want to listen. And I imagine that’s because we’re afraid to connect with people that aren’t like us—who for some reason or another make us feel uncomfortable. We forget that everyone has a history and despite current circumstances, that history could be beautiful and meant to be shared. Every life holds some sort of purpose.

Perhaps we need to stop pretending to ignore the people around us―all of the people around us. Because you never know how much a conversation, a smile, a nod can mean to someone—perhaps someone who feels isolated and alone and who’s battling inner demons.

I’m not telling you to sit out on a curb late at night to converse with anyone who happens to walk by. I’m not saying this is an ultimate solution to a very large, very complex problem in our society. I’m not calling you a bad person for turning away or for feeling uncomfortable―that would be hypocritical.

But I am asking you to be more aware of those around you. Be aware of your impact, your ripple in the pond. Be aware of the power you possess for good. Because you never know. You never know.

Today, and hopefully tomorrow and the next day and the next, I challenge myself and others with this one simple question:

Are you listening?