Cloister Commentary, Day 12: Take a Deep Breath

Well, March is gone. Take a deep breath, friends.

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 ZoĆ« 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.

Cloister Commentary, Day 1: Happy Anniversary, Here’s Your Pandemic!

My good friend Ken Shimamoto, probably remembering that, in 2012, I began documenting daily what I then thought was my last year of teaching, suggested yesterday I do the same for this science (non-)fiction fix we’re in. That seems overwhelming, but I’m going to take his advice and just write what comes to mind and not fuss.

My head is daily spinning. Its preoccupations have grown from the immediate (“What’s the best way to teach these kids remotely?”) into the long-term (“When will I see my friends and family again, and how will this change us?”), from the rational (“This too will pass.”) into the paranoid (“How will we be exploited this time?”). My revelation-flickers have been both comical (“I need to at least have a stretching routine!”) and horrifying (according to Brecht-Weill, food is the first thing morals follow on). I have more ideas than I know what to do with, but for once I actually have plenty of time to do them, so to speak. In a weird way, and I know I’m not alone, in the explosion of change I feel more alive and more clear-eyed; for a second time in recent memory, a big national scab has been ripped off, and it is time to deal or die. But then there are also kitty litter boxes and windows to be cleaned! Don’t scoff at mundane rituals: what the tortoise sees as sustenance, the hare hops past unwittingly.

I’m lucky to be cloistered with my soul mate–it is our 28th wedding anniversary today. We have always liked spending time with each other and have hardly been averse to seclusion, so we seem to be well-equipped for the task at hand. Reading together in silence we both find exciting, we share music and viewing preferences (reggae and Rickles roasting yesterday), and we are immune to each other’s imperfections (#snorers). But the first 7-10 days of this adjustment have brought us to the necessity of rituals–not just exercising, but writing, meditating, working (new kinds of work), and especially helping. We’ve joined a local Facebook group that is networking concerned citizens in order to help each other and wrestle with COVID-19, and a crowd-funded effort to keep our local healthcare heroes well-fed seems to be in the offing. I’ve volunteered to mentor local students (kids or adults) who need reading or writing help, because I am not sure classes will ever resume in person before summer.

One of my biggest worries is if, as a nation, we are equal to the level of personal discipline required to arrest this virus as quickly as possible. All I can do is make sure I’m trying and succeeding.

From Mary Oliver, some worthy words:

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last! / What a task / to ask / of anything, or anyone, / yet it is ours, / and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.

And: Streaming for Shut-Ins.

Cloister Commentary, Day 2: Humbled

I was talking to my dad on the phone the other day; he’s 84 and Mom’s 82, they’re down in southwest Missouri, and we’re keeping close tabs on them, of course. I was expressing my concern, when he very evenly, very matter-of-factly, very stoically replied, “Well, it’s just nature’s way of thinning out the population.” The wisdom of an elder: so comforting. But…yeah. Perhaps we require some humbling, just as a reminder of our essential insignificance to the overall works.

Speaking of, I am really enjoying the budding of the plants in our landscaping this year. I did the fall clean-up and pruning myself, and apparently didn’t KILL ANYTHING! But watching those buds pop out made me a mite envious: they’re outside opening up to the sun and sky, we’re hunkered down inside and…well, we don’t need to close up, for certain, but you know what I mean. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Mary Oliver. We did walk the old pooch up the block to drop some books off at a neighbor’s curbside loaning library (on Leslie, if you’re curious), but I locked us out of our house–during a pandemic, well-played! Fortunately, a friend has our spare key and we were able to recloister ourselves.

Yesterday was also our wedding anniversary, and we celebrated with the following: a great “quarantine concert” on Facebook by Edward Hamell (he’s playing another show Thursday we will also check out); some powerful music from the Sahel (see below); a couple beers; breakfast dinner (poached eggs, bacon, fried taters, grapefruit–I ate that under duress–and waffles with real maple syrup); and a further episode in Hulu’s adaptation of Celeste Ng‘s LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. Not bad for being locked in with each other.

Rituals are good. And necessary.

Anyone else out there more beset than usual by thoughts of how the rest of the billions currently breathing are navigating this? When I start thinking about that, and reflect on my blessings–I’m coming back around full circle here–it brings me a sense of near-relief of how very minor my suffering and anxieties (right now, calculating what many months of this could be like, plus a danged pinched nerve in my hip that almost cripples me at times) really are. That may sound strange, but there it is. Comforting. The world doesn’t revolve around me–it takes a little pressure off.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

This group recorded a beautiful album inside a dwelling in Bamako while outside a militant human plague was running rampant–it will inspire you. I can’t share it, but this performance might motivate you to seek it out.

Cloister Commentary, Day 3: Pandemic So Real

It was inevitable under these circumstances that I’d face up to the facts, and yesterday I just up and did so–I needed to organize my CDs. Yes, I still have CDs (do I!), and I have a system: in order to help Nicole stay aware of new acquisitions, I keep them out of the general stacks (yes, there are stacks…see below) so they don’t disappear. At the end of the calendar year, I then integrate them into the collection after thinning the library out a bit (with the help of Kylie and Taylor at Hitt). Except I forgot to do that in early 2019, so I had two years’ worth of CDs to integrate. Had I sold enough to make room?


No. People who’ve done something similar will probably understand why I moved backwards from the Zs, but, unfortunately, Dizzee Rascal, Busdriver, and Buck 65 now occupy an overflow cubbyhole until I make more space. Those aren’t new acquisitions; in the process of shelving the new ones, they got bumped.

Yes, this is boring–but it’s all about control. I didn’t jump to it consciously, but I know that’s why I did so yesterday. Like yours, I bet, my mind has just been toggling relentlessly back and forth between the immediate present and the possible future, and I needed a regulator on that damn switch.

Elsewhere in the day: we started reading Alex Kotlowitz’s NEVER A CITY SO REAL (the city is Chicago, and we were inspired by having seen Steve James’ new documentary CITY SO REAL, which was inspired by the book); now that I have a yawning yawp of time, I can sample some podcasts, and I LOVED Zadie Smith’s appearance on Desert Island Discs; we had a Messenger conference call with our friends Kenny and Gwen Wright; we chuckled through episodes of KEEPING UP APPEARANCES (on BritBox) and KEY & PEELE (on Hulu); and we sampled a touch of Jim Beam Double Oaked.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: The Staple Singers, always good for Sundays and spiritual reinforcement, even for heathens.

Cloister Commentary, Day 4: A Marathon, Not a Sprint

This was a bit of a rough one. Nicole and I had decided several days ago to limit ourselves to two hours a day of COVID-19 news and research–this is a marathon, not a sprint–but it was difficult under the circumstances to disengage. The situation was not helped by a press conference we watched. The speaker was not the least bit inspiring, encouraging, or reassuring; in fact, he appeared unfamiliar with public speaking; inexperienced in either reading from a text or talking extemporaneously and authentically to his audience; at sixes and sevens when reaching for vocabulary (a septuagenarian, one would think by now, would have acquired a decent sized one by default); and unable to convince himself, least of all his audience, that his predictions about time were realistic. I felt shame and embarrassment for him (and us, to a degree), and as I reached for the remote, the local news station abruptly broke from the conference as if reading my mind. Oh yes, too, we were further depressed to see the agents of disaster capitalism stretching out their bony, abandoned-by-God fingers to claw more money into their coffers at such an opportune time (for them).

BUT. Simple pleasures.

Twining’s Irish Breakfast Tea (I have it in the afternoon). “Flipping the house”; we have a dog that’s hostile to cats upstairs and five cats downstairs, and we frequently reverse that. Starting new Benjamin Franklin-inspired journals. Reading about union victories in Chicago in the past–and yesterday (look it up!) Talking to a very cool teacher named Kelly Penn on the phone. Going for a walk in the sunshine. Eating very green and buttery peas for the first time in a long time. Finishing a book, and adding a new one to my stack, thanks to my ward councilman Mike Trapp. Admiring the parallel hijinks of Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut. And, of course, applying some musical salve…

Streaming for Shut-Ins: Thanks, Matthew, for the nudge! It’s not the full record, but the track is almost 25 (dazzling) minutes long. This musician evokes OTHER worlds:

Cloister Commentary, Day 5: New Normals

Some new normals:

We thought we’d try ordering groceries remotely from HyVee and picking them up. The first available time slot was six days away.

My parents ordered toilet paper from China.

Even though I’d had peanut butter toast five days in a row, I missed it.

My daily project yesterday was cleaning out three drawers I hadn’t really LOOKED at in earnest for several years. Discoveries: an MRE a 7th hour student gave me probably 15 years ago (Who was it? He’s on the tip of my mind and it is jambalaya, so he had to be cool!) (Yes, I thought about opening it!); Louis’ old chew rope; the Crocs Nicole had been looking for all last decade; a static gun; about 50 headphone adapters; a bumper sticker reading “Evil men you will know because they will be honored by statues” (or something like that) and attributed to “YOUR BROTHER”; Tyler Keith‘s mysterious and wonderful Apostles cassette EP (I have #29 of 60 made) that is lovingly protected in a cloth case (see photo below–I’m playing it again today) with a still relevant message; a little flashlight with the power to stun; and a CD of some orchestra playing U2’s greatest hits that Kit Webster and Ryan Wood bought me to annoy me even more than their presence in my classroom was already doing. Need something to keep you busy and provide surprises? I recommend this task.

Keith Kassette

My friend John Schooley is frequently the source of amusement on Facebook. His witticisms are bereft of coats of candy, and the other day he jokingly withdrew his recommendation of Studs Terkel’s truly great HARD TIMESand replaced it with an admiring Business Times story about a band that went on tour in a Mercedes Benz. However, his mere mention of Terkel’s book sent my mind down on economic rabbit hole that I only found my way out of after calling my dad, who was born in the midst of The Great Depression.

These days are full of triggers.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: Remember Cornershop? I knew you would. Well, they have a really nice new album that I would like to link in toto but cannot, but here’s a highlight:

Cloister Commentary, Day 6: New Day Rising

Things change so quickly.

I’d just set up regular Tuesday Zoom meetings with my freshman comp students at Stephens, and emailed them an update (their last undertaking is a research paper). I signed off by acknowledging that none of us really knows what is going to happen past April 14, when we were slated (but I doubted we’d be able) to return to campus for in-person work. I came back upstairs after hitting “send” to learn that Stephens’ campus operations had just closed down for the semester, and graduation had been moved to August. What a surreal situation for students, and it’s certainly the first time I will not be able to say “So long!” to a class in person. I’ve seen quite a bit, having taught in each of the last four decades, but this truly is novel.

It’s really too late to try it now, but, though I was initially resistant to videoconferencing every day, I am fascinated by how a Socratic seminar might work in that mode. Some of the temptations that can untrack a discussion would seem to be eliminated. If I am assigned a class next semester (I always teach a music-focused comp class in the fall), I’ll have to assign my students an album to listen to and annotate (or let them pick one), and give a virtual Socratic a spin.

Also, I received a review copy of Sasha Geffen’s GLITTER UP THE DARK: HOW POP MUSIC BROKE THE BINARY from the University of Texas, and the introduction and chapter headings alone convince me it could be a great required text for my fall class. Geffen is smart and brave, and her style would be challenging but enjoyable for first-year students. Funny thing is, I was alerted to it by Hannah Ewens, whose great book FANGIRLS (along with her virtual guest appearance in both my ’19 fall classes) had convinced me I needed to use IT–I certainly can’t (or at least shouldn’t) assign both. Or maybe I could…

But who the hell knows what next semester is going to look like.

Is anyone else out there watching either LITTLE FIRES EVERYBODY or HIGH FIDELITY on Hulu? Nicole and I are, and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Stimulus package: ’bout time, BUT keep your eye on the ball. Myself, I am afraid to look at it closely. Kleptocrats were involved.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: This full album speaks for itself.

Cloister Commentary, Day 7: The Old Normal

A mere week has passed–actually we’d been cloistered for maybe three days when I started writing–yet, though I’m not a meme dude, I must steal this from one Nicole found (I’m paraphrasing):

“In the rush to return to normal, take the time to consider what aspects of the old normal are worth rushing back to.”

That’s a motto I can live with. Before I even saw the meme, I’d found myself taking inventory: I need to write more, we need to eat out less, we need to be more engaged with both our immediate and more broadly local communities, I need to not just shove things in drawers and forget them for 15 years, we need to rattle the damn cage for a better disaster safety net, we need to fight to ensure the most vulnerable among us are accepted into our arms and protected–wait, this is getting dangerous…

We struck out for the grocery store, though I just rode shotgun and read in the car. When we got home, we put some time into making sure everything was clean, and the whole ordeal was so stressful drinks were in order. If you must know, we had a “Tequila” Sunrise made with Maker’s White (a bottle of which was another of our cleaning discoveries earlier in the week). Pretty effective.

I can’t urge you enough, if you’re a music fan, to support “virtual” live concerts. Unsurprisingly, they are growing in number, and, thanks to programs like Facebook Live, you can “attend” them with friends. Speaking of safety nets, the average musician does not have much of one in the best of times, so do your part to support them in these critical ones (most have a PayPal link through which you can pay for the privilege)–and pledge to do a better job when we get out of them. I am going to do my level best.

We checked out TIGER KING on Netflix, at a couple friends’ urgings. Neither Nicole nor I are sure we need to spend our finite seconds of life staring at that. That is all. We had wanted to watch the Folger Theater production of MACBETH currently offered free on YouTube, but the resolution seemed foggy. In the end, we settled for “Key & Peele” re-runs and glimpsing our filth uncle John Waters on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Streaming for Shut-Ins: the terrific debut album of one of the greatest ’80s-’90s bands you may have never heard, or heard of.

Cloister Commentary, Day 8: In Vanessa Shanessa Style

As Vanessa Shanessa Jenkins would say, what was occurrin’?

An early morning nap.

Phone calls to cancel things.

A grilled cheese sandwich made with Blue Plate Mayo instead of butter.

Dead Moon, the Minutemen, Dramarama, and original garage rock blasting from the speakers.

Cats boxing 19th century style.

60% approval?

A board game.

More rain.

Mr. Show re-runs (oh, Senator Tankerbell…)

Thunder and lightning.

A late night power outage…

Power outages aren’t just power outages anymore.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: In their prime –>

Cloister Commentary, Day 9: Remaining Bacon

This was the final weekend of our “Spring Break.” Right. Break as in we are trying not to.

Yesterday, we decided to treat the day as if we were really on vacation. We had a terrific late breakfast of fried potatoes, poached eggs, grapefruit, and bacon. I am the bacon fryer, and fry it to the George Frissell Honorary Crispy Level of almost-burnt. In addition, we tried the mysterious Maker’s White in a Bloody Mary, and that didn’t work so well. We switched to our favorite vodka, Buffalo Trace’s Wheatley’s, for the next one, but we spaced them out. Our breakfast was backed by Rhino Records’ outstanding girl group comps, and that went over so well we just keep rockin’ the girl groups into the late afternoon. Good for what ails you!

After reading for several hours (yes, we would normally be reading on a spring break), we switched to the long-running BBC podcast, Desert Island Discs, and greatly enjoyed the Bruce Springsteen and Keef Richards episodes. I have struggled at many junctures with the Jersey Flash, but I have also loved him mightily at many others. What it’s come down to is the great Band line about Spike Jones: “I can’t take the way he sings / But I love to hear him talk.”

We couldn’t roll with our peeps, but we could check on them. I texted my homies Brock Boland, Choppito Blanco, Janet Marsh and Moncory Dampier to see how they were doing. I recommend it to you as a daily practice.

I had fried all nine pieces of our remaining bacon in the morning so we could properly say farewell, we hope permanently, to that magical but problematic meat with a BLT for dinner. Slathered with Blue Plate mayo, accompanied by Backer’s sour cream and onion chips and Wickles’ Wicked Garden Mix (you haven’t lived til you’ve tasted sweet-hot pickled cauliflower), these BLTs were the bomb.


We had intended to “hang out” with the Ragtag crew and virtually enjoy GHOST RIDER, then “split” to “check out” stellar Hickman grad Shea Spence’s band’s virtual concert–but, alas, it was not to be. We had arisen before the crack of dawn and went down like a cheetah hit by one of Stan’s tranquilizer darts. And we are, I think it’s called, OLD.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: a mesmerizing modern girl group album.