I was recently asked to share my retirement wisdom with a group of teachers who are in the process of being put out or putting themselves out to pasture. I was able to retire extremely early (at 51) and predictably I’ve done a horrible job of acting like a retiree, but I was able to muster a Top 10.
Learn how to sit still. (It’s not bad–after seven years I can almost do it. See above photo with retirement aids. Only two of those glasses are mine.)
Learn to say “no.” (Passed along from the great John Kelly.)
Learn something new every so often. (I’ve been teaching myself the history of women in abstract expressionism.)
Learn not to procrastinate in doing what you always wanted to do but never had time to when you were teaching. (Franz Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Also: PROJECTS.)
Learn how to keep a toe in the educational pond. (You know you love it; you WILL miss it; this is an education town. I’ve been tutoring and teaching at Stephens College, mentoring at Battle High School, and supervising teacher interns for Mizzou–let me know if you’re interested in the latter of those, because they are looking for social studies and science supervisors.)
Learn to let go of your bitternesses. (Admit it: we all have them in this profession. Savor the bounty and vanquish the memory of soul-thefts.)
Learn that you may have dodged some bullets. (George Frissell told me several times over his crispy bacon and fried eggs: “We got out at the right time.” He may well have been right; it’s up to the kids now.)
Learn, however, that you can help this business be better. (How? By staying informed, voting intelligently, and JOINING MRTA (the Missouri Retired Teachers Association)–you know there are kleptocrats who want our retirement fund.)
Learn that you will miss the water cooler (though I sincerely doubt you will miss PLTs or whatever the hell they’re acronymed now). (You simply need confidential informants. No, I’m not telling!)
I shared this on Walnut Lawn’s memorial page, but I thought I should share it here, too. You become very close to some folks during your life, and there are some things you just want to be sure are known widely about them. Also, I screwed up a quote on the memorial page and couldn’t edit it…
Mike and I had many talks over the years, and he was a very, very funny conversationalist–about the only person I LOVED talking to on the phone. But when the hard rap on swilling beer, watching sports, and playing rock and roll quieted, we often turned to the necessity of growing up. Mike’s sister Becky shared with me the other day that he was a deep thinker, and he WAS–especially when it came to the meaning of being a man. We returned to that topic as if it had gravitational pull; in fact, we talked about it in our fifties (as perhaps befits two guys who would not give up Converse All-Stars). We both had fathers with high expectations; we both regularly questioned whether we measured up.
It’s funny: you see men walking around every day–adult males who look like men. But many of them (maybe not enough of them) keep working on it for years without being satisfied, still feeling like a kid, never considering themselves bona fide men. It’s our own INTERIOR version of the one where parents always see their offspring, to some extent at least, as children, no matter how crotchety they get.
However, the fact is, Mike became an excellent MAN a long time ago, though he was so self-effacing he could be hard to convince. He firmly, quietly, and methodically paid off his house. He was loyal and hard-working at his job. He was a very faithful friend and one helluva groomsman (he gave my wife’s grandma a 45-mile ride home before the reception was over when she had vehicular problems). And? He was the best by-God dad I’ve ever witnessed demonstrate the art of parenting. From the time London was old enough to absorb a lesson to the last time we saw them together, my wife Nicole and I always marveled at the firmness, consistency, persistence, and–most of all–demonstrative love with which Mike spoke to and treated his son. I choose the word “demonstrative” very deliberately, because it’s been said we guys occasionally have a little trouble with that. Not Mike. He could say “I love you” like pattin’ for a dance, and he meant it–and he always let London know it. When we’d praise him for such excellence, he’d always remind us of a particular weak spot he needed to work on.
One of my favorite memories of the two of them is when they came up to Columbia for London’s baseball tournament. We got to see the kid pitch and remain totally poised during a rain delay, then react to some struggles on the mound with perspicacity. I hadn’t really had many conversations with him at that point, but while waiting in a grocery store parking lot for Mike to return with some grub afterward, we started chatting, and I was immediately impressed with his dry wit and eloquence (about math, yet)–and his ability to needle his dad as skillfully as Mike had always needled us. He seemed very much like his father’s son, if not quite as animated.
After London started school at Mizzou, he came over once to eat lunch and change the oil in his whip as Mike had taught him; he kept his tools with us. While he toiled and I prayed he wouldn’t ask me for help, we had an even more enjoyable conversation about hip hop, which wasn’t always Mike’s bag, and the kid really knew his stuff (Earthgang fans, holla!). But, more important, the kid’s depth of thought and easy politeness felt very, very familiar. And–he did extremely well on a philosophy paper I had the pleasure of reading; those are not easy for seniors, not to mention freshmen. Deep thinker.
Yep, Mike was a bona fide man, and London’s well on his way. I’ve taught kids for 37 years and they’re no day at the beach in the classroom, much less at home. If raising London were the only thing Mike had ever done extremely well–it’s not–he passed the dang test. I wish he were going to be here to witness his son’s future exploits, but, folks, he did the heavy lifting.
That reminds me: to paraphrase a rock and roll sage who knew his time was short, Mike’s just dead–he’s not gone. He’ll live on in the way London moves through the world, where he will be sure to be pushing himself to meet his father’s example. Thing is, he’ll be meeting it in the pushing, not necessarily the outcome.So long, Mike. You done good.
The memorial was perfect. Our hearts continue to be with Mike’s friends and family.
Yesterday, I bombed my first Zoom class. Must have been something in the settings, but everyone received the invite, only one showed up as intended, I had to re-invite the rest, then only three more showed up after that, then I had to create a new session for the remainder, and only one made it to that (I only have six–it should have been a breeze). Plus, though I’d prepared them fully, my Bluetooth headphones wouldn’t stay connected (?), it was colder than a welldigger’s ass in the mancave, the cat kept interrupting, and…well, these kids aren’t exactly balls of fire at 8 am in person, but they were mos def cazsh on screen. At least I tried everything I could think of! Back to the drawring board…I don’t take many naps, but–it must have been the stress–I went down like a controlled detonation in the afternoon and woke up feeling drugged. It took me two hours, a disc of a Springsteen bootleg (“Roxy Night 1978”), Nicole‘s incredible red beans and rice with tasso ham, some ice tea, the news, and a neighborhood walk for me to fully return to the land of the living. While asleep, I dreamed (like I frequently do) of very mundane, everyday labyrinths. Does that make sense?
I am wondering what my Facebook friends are watching during their own sheltering in place. First episode of Ozark, Season 3 was better than I expected; I go back and forth with High Fidelity, mainly because of (plus) the lovably downbeat and charming performance of Zoë Kravitz and (minus) her character’s/the show’s weird idea of desirable men (Clyde’s OK but in reality would a woman like her give him a sustained glance?). The show also gets points from me for shining some brief but well-deserved light on Jerry Swampdogg Williams.
I was also delighted to be recognized as a good influence on a former Hickman student (early 1990s) who is now an outstanding school principal. Over 10 years later, I served as his subordinate in the short-lived Kewpie Tardy Office, where we laughed a lot but frequently bitterly.
Streaming for Shut-Ins:
Here is a good way to get to know (if you don’t) the music and mind of the sorely missed Gil Scott-Heron.
Made our second successful foray to the grocery store. Again, I stayed in the car, so I only heard about it. Nicole found some pretty amazing veggie burgers made from mushrooms and risotto. They were created in a lab by a Dr. Praeger.
FaceTimed with my parents and told them the “welding mask” joke, Ed Hamell. As expected, it was followed by three beats of stunned silence. Next time: the penguin joke.Listened to two vintage recordings by the late Ellis Marsalis, who did not leave behind many. Another musician snatched by the Coronavirus.
Cleaned out a filing cabinet and found a pristine copy of the Columbia Tribune from the day Pierced Arrows made the front page.
While reading Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, I realized, considering the world through the eyes of the 42-year-old protagonist and identifying with him, that I was thinking I was his age. I’m 58. Had to make some adjustments, needless to say.
Acknowledged that Kleenex needs to be close at hand if we’re going to keep watching the national news at 5:30. But I have to say Lester Holt, with his intense gaze, meaningful pauses, and respect and concern for all, keeps me coming back.
Conjured this analogy: Ozark is to Breaking Bad as John Popper is to Paul Butterfield.
Among the last things my dad made before he passed were two record crates. The guy loved to work with wood out in his shop, and lived to make things for friends and family. Despite my frequent recent attempts to whittle down my vinyl collection, it had returned like an enriching cancer and overflowed probably 100 or so outside its containment, so I’d asked him if he could knock a couple out for me. He carefully took the measurements of one of my existing crates, and a few months ago excitedly told me he’d finished them. This damned pandemic initially kept me from retrieving them, and I’d just loaded them into our trunk minutes before the accident that ended his life. Believe me, they were solidly and carefully built.
I’d put off sliding records into them until yesterday. Seems like an easy thing to have done quickly, but, see, I have a system: my stacks are fairly deep, so if I file new stuff into them, they can easily disappear before I’ve fixed them in my memory. Thus I have a separately alphabetized “new acquisitions” stack, the freshest additions to which I keep upstairs (along with regularly refreshed selections from the main stacks). Isn’t this fascinating? The problems had been twofold: one, the new acquisitions stack had grown larger than most folks’ total collection (if most folks had collections), and two, a symptom of my mourning has been I just haven’t felt like doing much other than what I have to. And I was just avoiding it.
Anyway, I decided to buck my ass up and make sure Dad’s work had not gone for naught, and chose to integrate the new with the old. Figured it’d take an hour or so; labored from about noon to 4:30, with a break for lunch–my back’s screaming at me right now. The record room is also “the kitten room” (I don’t have a choice), so Junior and Smokey were scrambling around discombobulated, especially since I was using their observation tower as a staging area. Of course, in the process, I came across items I’d almost forgotten about–Aura with Lee Scratch Perry, a live Wilson Pickett bootleg from the ’60s, two Slade albums–and somewhere a Johnny Bush album got swallowed up unalphabetically and resisted my strivings to locate it. But–’tis done, Dad, and your two sturdy ones are bearing the heaviest load. Thank you.
Streaming for Survivors:
Born in a favela, she just turned 83 and has a new single out, a musical middle finger extended at Bolsonaro whether she intended it or not. An international treasure. This is her most recent record.
Mike Rayhill and I were both born in conservative Missouri towns in 1962, lived under the watchful eyes of fathers who expected the best, played high school sports seriously (he wrestled, I hooped), attended and graduated with the Class of 1980 from what was then Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, loved rock and roll and Budweiser, and often got tripped up in self-doubt. We had significantly different views on Prince, golf, and pro wrestling, and Mike was an artist while I could only love the arts, but we only really fought once (a damn poker game!) and resonated as brothers always. He roundly approved of my chosen soul mate and proved a great friend to her, too.
Mike was on the far end of a successful career in printing, had found Angel, the love of his life, after a long search, proudly watched his son London bloom (under his close and wise gaze) into an outstanding scholar, athlete and human, graduate from high school, and excel as a college freshman, and through constant diligence and skillful frugality owned free and clear his own house, no easy task these days. The fruit of his meticulous labors had ripened for his enjoyment when pancreatic cancer snatched it away last week. His wife, son, and friends will carry his spirit forward, but never forget, folks, that life isn’t fucking fair.
I can tell you a million stories about Mike, but this is a moment that captures a side of the man I will deeply miss.
Mike and I became fast friends at first meeting (discovering our mutual appreciation for the Minutemen at a Washington Street party in Springfield), and later became roommates for a few years in the late 1980s. One day as I returned home, Mike met me with great urgency.
“DJ Philly Phil, you’ve got to tell me who does this song!”
Then, doing a little light-footed twist and accenting the rhythm with his hands–almost like he was conducting an orchestra (friends will recall this charming nuance of his)–he burst out in song:
“GIVE me just a little more TIME!”
Unfortunately, I had not then nor have I since heard every song ever recorded, and these were not the days of YouTube, streaming, OR the simple Internet, so I replied, “Well, that was wonderfully performed, but nope…I have no clue.”
Mike was not to be denied. He wanted to own the record. “Yes, you have heard it. It’s on oldies radio all the time! OK, now listen!”
He repeated his previous rendition with spot-on accuracy. “Now, did you hear how I sang the word ‘time’? The singer turns that word into a little cry at the end of the line! It’s great! He really needs a little more time! Now, listen!”
Again, he repeated his passionate orchestration, underlining the syllable in question with an upward wave of his hand.
“Mike, I got nuthin’.”
“I’m deeply disappointed in you, Philly Phil.”
He loved that song; talk about the passion, he might have said, because he was quietly about that (and he had R.E.M. on the brain). That dude could needle your ass painfully, but he had a tender heart.
I could have done some research, but those were busy days. Also, I don’t listen to the radio much, but soon after this episode, I finally heard the song. It was just as Mike sang, performed, and explained it: a plea, and like Mike’s feet had done in his demonstration, the music bounced. But the jock didn’t identify the damn song, so I was still holding air.
Fast-forward a couple years. I’m living in Columbia, Nicole and I are blasting some New Orleans rhythm and blues as is still our wont, and we’ve got one of Rhino Records’ three great NOLA volumes on the turntable. We have it turned up loud, and the needle hits The Showmen’s smilingly defiant rock and roll anthem, “It Will Stand.” Suddenly, listening to General Johnson sing “Don’t ya nickname it! / Fact, ya might as well claim it,” I flashed on the facts: that’s the guy! Then, I hit the books–General Johnson went on to lead The Chairmen of the Board, and–sure enough!–deliver “Give Me Just a Little More Time” with that plaintive panache.
I immediately called Mike. “I got it! I got it! Chairmen of the Board and General Johnson do ‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’! They have a greatest hits CD–“
“Sorry, DJ, I found the 45,” he interrupted. “You really let me down. I think you’re a little overrated, man! You’re no Casey Kasem, ya punk!” I laughed, but it did make me sad that I’d delayed his robust gratification and been ignorant of an obvious classic.
Last August, Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. No, life is not fair, but in Mike’s case it really, really wasn’t. In January, as he was preparing for the inevitable, he asked me to help him find a home for his records, inviting me to keep anything I wanted. I brought his crates home, Hitt Records here in Columbia agreed to help us, and I began sorting them. Among his 45s, along with lots of Elvis and some demos of the first recordings of his band The JimBobs, was “Give Me Just a Little More Time.”
I kept that one.
That title is stabbing me as I write. It’s always going to remind me of Mike’s joy for music, his witty and contagious animation in acting out his enthusiasm for everything from pro wrestling to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and his love for his friends family and life in general. That love, in his unique fashion, quietly caught the bordering-on-desperate urgency of Johnson’s vocals. As we all should catch it if we fully understand how fragile and ephemeral life is. Mike passed away yesterday morning in the arms of his wife Angel, who caught that wonderful urgency and knew exactly what it was worth.
“Life’s too short to make a mistake. Let’s think of each other and hesitate! Young and impatient we may be, There’s no need to act foolishly. If we part, our hearts won’t forget it– Years from now we’ll surely regret it….”
I really can’t bring myself to say much about the day, other than Nicole and I enjoyed another day working together from home (which I think we both considered as healing), and we were both horrified and sickened by two events: the ruling in the Breonna Taylor MURDER case and some other people’s president toying publicly with the idea of not leaving office peacefully should the country’s vote call for it. We were surprised by neither event; however, not being horrified and sickened by them would have indicated something amiss with our inner workings, so I am glad we were not inured to their import.
Yesterday felt like a return from another planet. We celebrated the anniversary of Nicole’s arrival on this plane with a walk in magnificent November weather, Bloody Marys, a painfully short game of chess in which my bride did a great Beth Harmon imitation, some classic soul music (Ann Peebles, Joe Tex, and Otis Redding), a Zoom with our boon pals in Springfield and Seattle, and a variety of dips and stuff. I guess we were plumb wore out, not only from the day but the previous week, as we retired at 8 p.m.
Streaming for Strivers:
A great lost rap concept album by a sharp old pro.
Nicole was working in her office during the day, so I was left to my own devices: swept the basement, organized the recycling, finished that danged Basquiat biography (it ended up being pretty good), finally sampled a few minutes of the Hendrix DVD that came in the new “Live in Maui” set to see it was more for solo or duo viewing (verdict: not just for Jimi junkies!), did research on high PSA levels since two straight blood panels indicated that was my story, and took a nap. The best I can do, really, with a free day in COVIDland.
It was our movie night, so we picked up a veggie Zeus at Tony’s Pizza Palace-Columbia and tried out Netflix’s Wu Assassins on a tip from The Week. Two episodes in: B+. Perfect for simple entertainment and martial arts satisfaction.
A few days over a year ago, my friend Ken Shimamoto messaged me, suggesting that I document here my days under the unfolding pandemic. Eight years ago, I’d done the same during my last year as a full-time public school teacher. That had worked out pretty well, but I wasn’t so sure about this undertaking: it was instantly clear to me that, while I never found teaching English repetitive, the limitations of a cloistered life might not make interesting reading. Nevertheless, on this day in 2020, I sallied forth with this commentary, hoping for the best.
I didn’t feel the need or ability to be a reporter on the world’s struggles. I was happy to comment when our life within these walls intersected with the endless turbulence outside of them, but mostly I just wanted to capture (for Nicole’s and my reflection later on, to possibly encourage others who might be frustrated, for your entertainment) how we got through days where we couldn’t go anywhere or see anyone safely. Because I’m a helpless music nut, I tried to offer the adventurous an interesting and inspiring full album stream on YouTube; likely, more than a few have been pulled for copyright reasons by now. I hope along the way readers found it wasn’t a warrantless pursuit.
Looking back, I’d not have dreamed I’d arrive on this day minus a father, a best friend, a canine companion, a brief feline addition to our entourage, and a little faith in my fellow citizens. None of those losses but the last was due to COVID-19; they just made keeping one foot in front of the other that much more difficult. Perhaps the urgency of staying disciplined helped us deal, I don’t really know. I just know LOSS was the defining word of the experience.
I was worried about contracting the virus. Instead, in 12 months, I enjoyed three electrocardiograms, two echocardiograms, two sleep studies, a colonoscopy, and a prostate biopsy. I gave blood twice until those processes resulted in medication that pretty much forbids that–I’ll never catch up to George Frissell’s 270+ pints.
Life certainly wasn’t all horrible. If I had to be trapped, it might as well be with my soul mate and ace companion. We live in a library, so feeding our heads and hearts would have been easy even without the Internet. We are both educators, and, though that task has been a major struggle, even that provided us some fuel–the summer school class I taught was essential to my recovery from a lightning-strike death. I talked to my mom almost every day, and saw her and my brother far more often than any year since I left home. And even if it was from a distance, I was buoyed up by citizens under attack refusing to lie down and fighting back. Their fights were seldom futile, either. We’ve got a long, long way to go, but the pandemic hasn’t broken us all the way down.
I read at least a hundred books and listened to hundreds of records, and hyped them in these commentaries. That was not to boast: they’ve always been integral to my intellectual and spiritual survival, plus? Once a teacher, always a teacher: modeling good reading habits is essential, especially now (the habit seems endangered). We also likely ate 100 curbside meals. I know, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie and all, but local restaurants desperately needed the support, and the money pandemic life saved us demanded helpful reinvestment. Somehow, I avoided those extra COVID pounds.
Zoom? Thumbs up. I had a head start with it prior to the pandemic with guest speakers at Stephens, but I’m thankful it let me hear and see my family, friends, and flying saucer support team on a regular basis, and it’s a great birthday idea! I’m still mastering it as an educator, but the student teachers I’m supervising teach me a new trick every observation.
I wrote these from a position of privilege that kept me safer than most, gave me bubbles of serenity within which to write, and provided me the sustenance that insured me time. I wrote most of these with my right thumb, on my phone, in bed, under early morning lamps, during half-hours in my office before work, on the back porch, riding in cars (I regretfully edited one while driving), while eating, waiting in doctors’ offices–well, you get it. I transferred them all to a blog that maybe the local historical society can use (and that you can access–see below–to catch up, if you’re interested). Ultimately, I feel like the result was worth the effort. I know the pandemic is not over, but with our second vaccination scheduled Tuesday and today being not only our anniversary but a nice round annum, giving my thumb a rest is a decent idea.
Ken, thanks for the push (you push a lot, the right way). Nicole, thanks for the love and support and the hosting of this commentary via daily tags. And my little passel of readers, thanks for sampling this–I hope you were seldom bored. As I often told my students when we talked about adult life, it’s wrestling with routine and mastering monotony that are the secrets of endurance, and I sincerely hope we passed that test.