Cloister Commentary, Day 72: A Defiant One

With COVID-19 cases swinging up, we decided to pick up are groceries curbside yesterday. The crew at Hyvee was very efficient, and we bought the fruit of four local enterprises’ labor at the Farmer’s Market: Uprise Bakery, Happy Hollow Farms, Thoenen Produce, and The Veggie Patch. Good stuff!

We also celebrated our Keystone Kitten Junior’s first birthday, even though it’s actually today. He shared a can of soft stinky salmon stuff with his mom and dad, his three best friends, and the two feline sentinels who watched over him and his siblings after they were born on our back deck. Nicole put a candle in the middle of it, and Junes sizzled some whisker-tips, but it was fun for all.

Jr Birthday

These times are full of dread. Even stoics I know are airing morning anxiety. I’d like to thank that old Parkview Viking rascal Stephen Fischer again for sending me a video (see below) out of the blue that lifted a heavy cloud of my own to a much higher elevation. I wish I’d taught that guy; his two brothers were a pleasure in class, as well. We teachers do frequently wish we could have taught people we didn’t get to.

One of my future students in the coming Stephens College virtual summer school program emailed me that she had broken a front tooth and might miss our first class. a) I was actually delighted by the missive, because I’d been fretting about how ready students were to “arrive” and communicate; b) I reassured her all would be well; I know how she feels since I broke my two fronts in sixth grade, and I simply wrote her a reply that summarized our first class; and c) the command of written communication her email demonstrated has me looking forward to her first essay. I always tell worried friends that I don’t “grade” correspondence–but with current students I occasionally make an exception.

We closed the day with Clarence Brown’s 1949 adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust. The film was shot in Oxford, Mississippi, and nearby Holly Springs National Park, and has historic resonance: Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernandez plays the lead role of Lucas Beauchamp, and in so doing may have been the first black man to peer at us from the screen from a position of independence, equality, and defiance. His performance is electrifying, and Claude Jarman, Jr., as the young boy Chick, impresses as a very complex white adolescent. Highly recommended–if you can find it.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

Some strong aural medicine for struggling spirits.

Cloister Commentary, Day 71: “LIBERAL P**SY!!!!”

Nicole and I gathered safely at Hickman with our friends Susie, Kendra, Henry, and Paige to discuss a possible memorial project for Susie’s husband George Frissell. We stood around the labyrinth that George helped bring into being for a fallen comrade a few years ago, and weighed the details. It was very nice to be in the company of a small group outdoors on a beautiful morning, and we made excellent progress. In some ways, Paige may have replaced George as the Kewpie Griot: before we left, we took an amusing and varied dive into Hickman’s past.

We were out twice today and of course wore masks. The last couple of times I’ve done so, I’ve thought about someone in Nashville I read about who did the same and was screamed at for being a “liberal p**sy,” and wondered if that might ever happen to me. “Liberal p**sy” does not accurately describe me (quite), but I know what someone who would feel the need to scream that at me in public would mean by it. The thing is, I realized, that’s like screaming “MUSIC LOVER!!!!” at me. “Yes, and?”

In the evening, we took in the documentary AKA Jane Roe, and I’m very glad we did. I learned much, including things I didn’t want to know, but needed to. It’s streaming on Hulu.

I woke up again at 3:15 (!!!) thinking about Minneapolis and wondering if my Stephens students already know what to do Monday morning at 9. We shall see.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

Playing in my head for the last several hours, one of my all-time favorite rap rekkids that I now must foist upon you all…

Cloister Commentary, Day 70: “Familiar”

It was Nicole’s last day of school, but I am sure she would say it did not feel like the others. She had several Zooms (I will be glad when that’s out of my daily vocabulary); however, the familiar bittersweet release teachers feel when students file out for the summer did not pervade. Usually, we crank up Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over,” Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” or Gary U. S. Bond’s more formally titled “School IS Out,” but we drifted into the odd but satisfying combo of dirty martinis and George and Tammy’s greatest hits. We also mourned the fact that no one has as yet created the perfect Wynette album that inimitable, fabulously sultry voice deserves. She never found the perfect writers to create for her, and she didn’t write much herself, but an A+ record–yes, I know most of you don’t care about records anymore–lies in the ether ready to be compiled. We also marveled at how the greatest country singer of all-time always humbly deferred to Tammy vocally (and to great effect!) on their duets.

I am closing in on finishing Octavia Butler’s chilling and too-relevant (how I wish it weren’t!) Kindred. I’ve never read a more effective time-travel novel: the blurring sensation the main character experiences while being thrown back and forth between 1976 and 1819 was familiar to me yesterday in an extremely immediate way. This is yet another book I wish I could have taught, and which should be in every citizen’s library.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

“Rome, Georgia / Athens, Texas / and Paris, Tennessee….”

Your turn.

“The Cantos”: Brother Lee Frissell on George Unleashed in Italy

The lovely photo Susie posted yesterday of George and me walking in Venice last summer brought a memory of George vividly to mind.

Susie [George’s wife], George, Susan and I loved Venice. Although we’d been told the food was not as good as in the rest of Italy, our guide turned us on to some fantastic little local restaurants that were probably the best places we ate in Italy, and that’s saying something. The food everywhere was beyond description. Venice has its own version of tapas, eaten from a countertop–very simple, very delicious and very cheap–that she introduced us to. Each little restaurant had its own delicious wine.

Even George drank.

We had four young women guides on our trip–-one in Rome, two in Florence, and this one in Venice. All were excellent, including her, not least for her food tips, but she had a hard time suppressing her scorn for Americans and loathing of tourists. At one point, she blurted out to no one, apropos of nothing, “I HATE tourists!” We took it in good spirits and were even sympathetic, because the place was utterly overrun by people in baseball caps traveling in packs down the tiny corridors. The day after we left, a cruise ship slammed into the main dock. I wish they would ban those damn things.

We actually liked her, and were amused by her disdain for Americans. At St. Mark’s Square, she explained to us, “There was this guy named Napoleon. Maybe you’ve heard of him.” She scolded us for drinking bottled water instead of going into a taverna and asking for a glass of water (as if we’d know to do that). She constantly lectured us about how, after the war, the CIA had undermined the Italian Left, giving rise to the Mafia, the scourge of Italy to this day.

We completely agreed with her, but she couldn’t believe we were politically sympathetic. She seemed not to take our comments in that regard seriously. We were just…Americans. We might as well have had on MAGA caps.

Venice has a legendary history of jurisprudence, and when she learned that my wife, Susan–Frissell boys have a weakness for Susans–had been a public defender in New York City, she commented, “Venice had public defenders in the 15th Century. The U.S. didn’t even have them until the 1960’s.”

Despite being a former litigator, Susan, is a lot like George temperamentally, and took this in good graces, holding her tongue (and, after all, the guide was right.)

The guide did mellow a bit toward us on learning this about Susan, and made it a point to show us many of the storied courtrooms (and dungeons) in Venice.

She then asked what the others of us did (this at the very end of two solid days with us). When she learned George was an English teacher, she made the mistake of taking him on about poetry.

“Have you ever heard of the American poet Ezra Pound?” she asked. “He loved Italy and lived here for many years.” (Unspoken: “To get out of the United States.”)

“Yes,” said George, “He was a fascist and a vicious anti-Semite.”

She was stunned. “No, no. You don’t understand. In his youth, Mussolini was a socialist, and that’s when Pound supported him.”

I couldn’t resist jumping in. “No, he loved Mussolini’s fascism because he thought it restored the grandeur of classical Italy. He was also a big fan of Hitler. He spent the war in a prison for the insane in the U.S.”

George took it from there: “He would have been executed as a traitor except for the impassioned intervention of many great poets, including Jewish poets like Allen Ginsburg. He was an important poet, but he was a despicable man.”

She was utterly speechless, the tour ended on that note, and I’m sure she headed straight to the Italian Wikipedia.

We headed straight for an Aperol spritz.

Then, we vegged out for a week on the Amalfi Coast in a beautiful villa Susie found, and slurped limoncello made by our 87-year-old host.

Even George drank.

George and Lee

“A F@#cking Psychiatrist”: A Frissellian Reminiscence by longtime friend David Markus

The George Frissell I Knew

I first met George in 1980 when we were both in our late 20s.  His brother is my sister’s husband, and my first impression was that he was almost nothing like his brother, who was erudite and opinionated, with a finely tuned sense of humor and an affable, unabashed assertiveness about him.   George, on the other hand, was kind, unassuming, empathetic and, as I came to learn despite my first impressions, full of intellectual passion and possessed of a rich sense of humor—in those ways actually quite like his brother.

I encountered these qualities in George over a period of 40 years at family gatherings at Big Wolf, a family lake house in upstate New York, annual trips to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness, and occasional visits to one another’s homes.  On every one of these occasions, George and I would have a thoroughly good time. He taught me about the great singers and songwriters of his youth in Texas (Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, and John Prine are now among my favorite artists). He would recite their lyrics with a reverence others might reserve for Shakespeare or the Bible.

His love for the spiritual side of life constantly shined through, too, his conversation turning to Buddhism, Hinduism and, very frequently, the many religions of India.  Perhaps too frequently.  I finally had to forbid George to use the word “India” in my presence.  Peacemaker that he was, he acquiesced. I don’t think we ever had cross words.

Sometime in the early ‘90s, when we had each parted ways with our first wives, we became devoted wingmen in our pursuit of female companionship—especially at Big Wolf Lake in the summers—and a good deal of competitive teasing ensued.

The ribbing was mostly me alluding to his fashion sense—or lack thereof—which, I tried to explain, risked becoming a fatal hindrance to our efforts to impress women. He would ask what I was referring to exactly.  I would reply, “Cargo pants, dude!  Women are not drawn to men wearing cargo pants!”

I have never met anyone more devoted to this specie of trouser. Long and short, trim and baggy, bland and less bland, George wore them all, at all times, unabashedly, often with pockets bulging despite the considerable physical encumbrance this might pose in the closing phase of an amorous initiative.

One night, two female companions spontaneously agreed to join us for a moonlit splash in the lake.  But we soon realized that if George jumped in, the contents of his cargo pants would sink him instantly to the bottom.

I wondered if this obstacle might be turned to our advantage: “Ladies,” I inquired, “why not enjoy our aquatic frolic unencumbered by attire of any sort?”  Our companions were game, so we discarded our clothes instantly, to seek modesty, as one does in these circumstances, in the water itself.

But we quickly realized there were only three of us splashing about.  It was quite dark, but, looking ashore, I could see George moving around.  Despite my exposed state, I ran out of the lake to see if he was okay. I found him hopping around with his cargo shorts tangled above his knees–the pockets were so stuffed, he couldn’t get them off! “Dude,” I said, “get all that crap out of your shorts or you’ll never get out of them! Hurry!”  I then watched as he divested his cargo pants pockets of the equivalent of a Costco warehouse.

Fortunately, our companions had not lost patience with us, and could not see what went into George’s preparations, so we were able to join them in the water for what continued to be a delightful evening. I must confess, though, that George had a special mystique that served him well with the ladies that no errant fashion choice–not even cargo pants– could extinguish.


George’s sartorial preferences and unique charisma are not the subject of my favorite story about him.  Neither does this story capture any of his passion for ideas, travel, and music, nor his love of philosophy, religion, history, or arcane statistics. In fact, the somewhat violent overlay of this tale couldn’t be further from George’s pacific essence. This is just a memory that makes me laugh whenever I conjure it up.

Caveat: This narrative would be better captured in video form. As many of readers will know, George moved with a distinctly cinematic quality: his gait was slightly awkward, despite his muscularity and athleticism. He was a nine-letter man at Beaumont High, an assertion he once humbly shared with me, and I immediately fact-checked to discover was quite true.

And there was of course his verbal style, a steady flow of questions and commentary on virtually any topic of our time: “Hey Dave, could the Cardinals have possibly won the ’67 World Series if Bob Gibson had not started the seventh game despite having only two days’ rest? He hit a homer in the fifth.”  Or “Hey Dave, who ranks higher in your pantheon of western literary heroes, Homer’s Odysseus or Larry McMurtry’s Augustus McCray from Lonesome Dove?”

So, imagine if you will, a short bald white guy (me), walking down Mission Street in San Francisco with Georgie, wearing cargo shorts and low-cut hiking shoes. It’s the mid-1990s, and the Mission is still a slightly tawdry reflection of Mexico plunked down on the south side of San Francisco.

We’re taking in the scene, tasting tacos, browsing the variety stores with their colorful piñatas and Loteria cards.  I treat us to a couple of strawberry horchadas, which George is eagerly slurping down, when a bedraggled lady, probably in her 40s, strides briskly by, hair tousled, clothes disheveled. It’s my impression that she has been trailing behind us for a block or two. As she passes, she steals a prolonged, searching glance at George. I think to myself, “Damn, it must be those cargo pants again!”

We keep walking. I notice the woman has now ducked under an awning, eyes still fixed squarely on George. I ask him if he knows her, or was this just his animal magnetism at work again? He laughs me off.

Then out of nowhere I hear her shout, apparently directed at us, “Are you a f#@king psychiatrist?”

We both turn and look at her. George, ever the gentleman, not wanting to draw attention or reproach to this clearly troubled person, turns and walks on. I drop back, just to keep an eye on the situation.

Then, suddenly, she sprints by me, screaming at the top of her lungs, “You are a f@#cking psychiatrist. I knew it!” She pulls up right behind George, swings back her right foot, cocks it 90 degrees and delivers a mighty hammer blow squarely across his backside.  George staggers forward, then turns to face her, aghast, at which point she shrieks at him again. He whirls and begins sprinting down the street in full Beaumont High track-team mode, calling out, “Dave, Dave! Run for it! She’s out of her mind.”

I look at the woman and she just grins, shakes her head, and murmurs, “Fucking psychiatrist.”

Meanwhile, George is still sprinting down the street, not the wisest thing to do given the heavy police presence in the neighborhood, but I take off after him anyway. When I catch up, we are both out of breath.  I ask if he’s okay and, as he rubs his butt, I can restrain myself no longer and burst into laughter.  Soon I am in hysterics, unable to scrub from my mind the sight and sound of the lady’s foot landing so squarely on George’s hindquarters.

George, ever George, laughs too. “Here I come all the way from Texas to the city known for peace and love,” he says, “only to get my ass kicked.”

Then he smiles and adds, “But, as Gandhi said, one must become as humble as the dust before he can discover the truth.”

Cloister Commentary, Day 69: Weaver Bird, Weave!

It was a nose-to-the-grindstone day. We both put in a full day of school work. Nicole will be “done” with 2019-2020 after tomorrow, though the dust of this school year will billow forth into the decade, and though a public school teacher’s work is never truly done. She had several virtual meetings. My summer school work starts Monday, and my on-line classroom is ready after I hammered on it one last time.

We’re far away, but we welcome Madison and Logan Dickens’ new child Presley into the world. This is not the most worry-free time to become parents to a newborn, and we wish them the very best. They are made from tough stuff, and they’ve got terrific support, too.

The Hulu limited series Mrs. America has ended–and did it stick the landing on the final chord it strummed! If you love modern United States history, have an interest in women’s political movements, and just appreciate smart writing and talented acting, you should watch its nine episodes. They’re inspiring, and we can’t wait to read the book that served as the creators’ road map (Divided We Stand, by Marjorie J. Spruill). And, yes, I promise, I won’t mention it again.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

Soundtrack for a landscape.

“This morning I woke up in a curfew
O God, I was a prisoner, too.
Could not recognize the faces standing over me.
They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality.

How many rivers do we have to cross
Before we can talk to the boss?
All that we got, it seems we have lost–
We must have really paid the cost.

That’s why we gonna be
Burnin’ and a-lootin’

…Weepin’ and a-wailin’ tonight!
(Ooh, can’t stop the tears!)
Weepin’ and a-wailin’ tonight!
(We’ve been suffering these long years!)”

Cloister Commentary, Day 68: Steppin’ Out

I have written here before about Love Coffee, a shop in Columbia that supports its citizens with disabilities by training and employing them. Like many small businesses, the enterprise is struggling under the heavy hand of the coronavirus. We dropped in again and ordered a mess of delicious offerings (I highly recommend the brioche cinnamon rolls and the pecan rolls and the muffins and the quiche and the chai). If you are in Columbia, you might think about dropping by, too.

We will be getting tested for COVID-19 next Tuesday at Hickman High School courtesy of the state health department. If you’re interested, you must register. I also made my first blood donation appointment since we started staying home, so I guess you can say I’m steppin’ out.

I’m almost done writing material for my summer comp class. I hope it doesn’t drive us all mad. Are they all gonna know to Zoom in via Canvas at 9 Monday morning?

Do you ever catch fire with an artist? I’ve loved Miles Davis since before I turned twenty, but an outstanding bookmy friend Phil Freeman wrote and sent me a copy of has me aflame with Milesmania. Yesterday was the anniversary of Davis’ birth, and I probably listened to 3-4 hours of his exciting and still surprising electric music. I also had my nose in the last Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings for an hour, even though I purt-near have the book’s 1,646 pages memorized. I miss those guides, dammit. They had a slightly European-skewed perspective that one just couldn’t get anywhere. Check out their recommended core jazz collection, helpfully extracted by the hard-workin’ Tom Hull.

Nicole and I drove out to Capen Park to hike up to a spot George Frissellonce showed us. As we began to get out of the jalopy, the skies poured down rain. Maybe this weekend, as part of a bigger hike?

I am grateful for neighbors like Dave Huggler and Shireen Razavi. Just talking to them makes you feel like you can weather any local storm.

This is the first commentary I’ve written on computer–the rest I’ve thumbed on on my smartphone. I think we’re all lucky I’ve been doing that, as with this trusty keyboard I feel I could just peck on til noon.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

What I’m listening to right now. I have WORN this album OUT.

Cloister Commentary, Day 67: Early Tea Time

Third straight morning awake at 3:15. Could be my new obsession with Twining’s black and green teas. Especially black: Lapsang Souchong, English Breakfast Bold, and Irish Breakfast (green: Matcha). Like to never came out of the fog until I zombie-walked the Bear Creek Trail and Nicole served me the all-purpose cure: fresh tomato and mayo sandwich on white bread. I will try not to mention them again, but it’s [someone else’s] homegrown tomato time, and we always have Blue Plate reinforcements in the cupboard.

Body report: I was sore just from doing stretches Sunday. I do not know why, as I’ve been reduced to bone, fat, and atrophied stuffing. I dared to stretch again and that helped.

We both love the work of director Billy Wilder, so I don’t know why it took us so long to check out 1951’s Ace in the Hole. Kirk Douglas’ performance as the most cynical and opportunistic newsman in cinema history is still electric and frightening, and the location shoot (in Gallup, New Mexico) and sets are mind-bogglingly great. Plus, the viewpoint on group behavior seemed vaguely familiar. Anyone else having HD problems when streaming shows? I assume it’s a matter of staying inside.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

Today is Miles Davis’ birthday, but I’ve been celebrating early.

Cloister Commentary, Day 66: Afraid of The Braid

I think both of us would say our favorite moment yesterday was reading with the cats downstairs in “the office.” Junior is still oddly “afraid of the braid”; when Nicole simply flips hers, that kitten’s like shot out of a cannon. Accompanying our time was Fela’s The Best of Black President, Volume 2, and besides having Cleocatra glued to me, I had the work of two of my favorite writers, Octavia Butler and Louise Erdrich, in hand. My reading is starting to recover from sudden loss: I managed a little over 100 pages and suffered much less drift than the last four days.

We waited too late to partake of live Shakespeare from The Stratford Festival (via YouTube), but we did finally take in Judy. “She wore out,” Ray Bolger said at Garland’s funeral, and Renee Zellweger did a convincing job of illlustrating both that and the flame that was snuffed. I may have to seek out a book.

My gut is still churning regarding my upcoming virtual comp class for Stephens. It’s a week away, I’ve taught comp for 36 years, I’m totally prepared in terms of course material and my on-line platform, I’ve been using educational technology since ’02, I am normally chomping at the bit to be unleashed on students, but for some reason the specter of appearing via Zoom, trying to communicate my energy, manipulating digital controls, striving to get to know my students so I can individualize a bit, wondering what part of me will be missing from my presentation, and fighting the light reflecting off the lenses of my reading glasses just gives me the fan-tods. I need to accept it; if I want to teach decently in the fall, I’m gonna need to have it down. Yes, I’ve done it before, back in April, but it felt like an emergency and only three-four students showed up each session (I had a very small class as it was). I hate this boorish sentence but I will say it to myself: “Get over it.”

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

On Memorial Day, I always think of this great jazz violinist, who fought in the Vietnam War.

Cloister Commentary, Day 65: Chez Nicole


Breakfast – toasted avocado pita with purple cabbage and green onion.

Lunch – fresh tomatoes from Thoenen Produce (Osage County), Blue Plate mayo, and Wickles Wicked pickle chips on white bread.

Dinner – totally, arrogantly, deliciously vegan gumbo with a Happy Hollow Farms (Jamestown) butter leaf lettuce salad.

No, we ate at Chez Nicole all three meals, but thanks for asking!

I also finished the longest “short book” I’ve ever read, Brazilian novelist João Ubaldo Ribeiro‘s Sergeant Getulio. 140 pages of nearly-fine print taken almost to the page margins, in stream-of-consciousness narration with minimal paragraphing, it was a wild Rabelaisian ride that put me through my paces.

We closed the day with Netflix’s Studio 54 documentary, which revealed a very unique friendship and told its story solidly, even bravely. I didn’t hate disco back then–in fact, verily I did disco myself–and we both love it now. It’d be nice to be able to gyrate and sweat in the midst of one’s people right now.

Oh yes: Steve Earle’s Ghosts of West Virginia is in the year’s Top 10 best albums, just so you know.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

“Different” is just fine.