Cloister Commentary, Day 184: The End of Summer, 2020

Louis has not been an easy dog. In fact, I have often joked that raising a human would have been easier–a few times, I wasn’t joking.

We adopted him from the Central Missouri Humane Society after he and 40 other puppies were rescued from a hoarding situation. Nicole and I both recall he was two months old at the time, and only later did we grasp the trauma he must have experienced. From the beginning, he has been both intensely fearful and a fierce resource guarder (which extends not only to bowls of food but the food providers), a loving, playful companion but also a tightly wound, hurt boy who can come uncoiled in a split second with clacking teeth. He’s a bit of a poster pup for “Fight or flight.” As such, we have done everything in our power to love him, keep him healthy, convince him he’s safe, and shield him from situations that could trigger his more aggressive instincts. We have not always been successful in the latter two strivings, which were enough to convince us he required minute by minute vigilance.

Yesterday, as I watched him stubbornly refuse food (and thus medication), struggle to get himself off the floor, out into the yard, and back, and snore wheezily from his suffering lungs, I realized that today, the last day of summer, was likely going to be his last. But the immensity of time, care, vigilance, patience, understanding, forgiveness, inventive problem-solving, and so much more we devoted to Louis, I also realized, added up to very deep love. We’ve watched several pets pass on after spending their lives with us, we have dearly loved ’em all, but I think that’s why this one’s been the hardest.

Streaming for Survivors:

Sometimes you feel like lashing out. (I’ve had little sleep in the last four nights, so forgive me.)

Cloister Commentary, Day 183: Palliative Care

Louis, in healthier days.

Nicole and I spent the day tending to our ailing dog Louis. Pain and anti-nausea meds had him wiped out for part of the day, and he is having difficulty getting up from the floor and not falling flat after walking around the yard, but he had enough vitality to indicate that he still doesn’t like cats and really likes ice cream.

He’s also having a lot of trouble defecating due to his bad hip, which is frustrating because he’s struggling with gastrointestinal issues. I’m sure the pet owners among my readers have thought this, too, but it stabs my soul to realize that these friends of ours understand keenly something isn’t right, that they can’t do what they used to–Louis was basically doing all of his normal stuff less than a week ago–but probably don’t understand what’s causing their loss of power. It really hurts to consider their confusion–and to possibly see it in their gaze. Louis is also not wanting to eat, which makes administering palliative meds a struggle. On top of all that, we slept maybe two hours the night before just watching him and grieving.

But it wasn’t a completely fraught day. Nicole is an amazing cook, and she made both a terrific Tex-Mexy chili with Sweet Earth plant-based ground and a spice mix my brother Brian and sister-in-law Myra gave us, and an adaptation of a “comfort recipe” my mom made several times in the weeks after my dad passed: Parmesan-encrusted portabello mushrooms, rosemary baked new potatoes, and fresh asparagus. Jane makes it with chicken breasts, but–shhhhhh–I like the mushroom version better. Additional palliatives of our own were Tecate, Speyburn single-malt Scotch, ice cream (Louis shared with us), books, music (South African jazz) and frequent hugs. And the weather was gorgeous–thank the stars.

Did we think about the passing of RBG? Of course we did, but if 2020 is anything it’s the year of stress-strata, and that stress was a layer beyond what we could reach. It will be there after the inevitable moment comes and goes.

Streaming for Survivors:

Alicia was there for me again yesterday.

Cloister Commentary, Day 182: Cancer Sucks

That was a day.

I should have known when police searchlights and cherry-tops beaming through our front window woke me up at 3:45 a.m. that the day would be less than jubilant. They weren’t looking for us, but that might have been better than what was to come.

Cancer sucks. We lost Nicole’s mom to brain cancer in 2013, and our 12-year-old border collie Louis was diagnosed with lung cancer yesterday. We’d taken him to the vet thinking he was having some joint issues, which he is having, but there was more. We brought him home with some palliative meds; our veterinarian isn’t completely sure how long he has–but it would appear not much. I’m sure I will tell a story or two about this very complicated dog in the coming week.

And of course cancer was in the national news in a none too comforting way.

Kinda takes the air out of commenting.

Streaming for Survivors:

Imported jubilation.

Cloister Commentary, Day 181: On Brock’s Block

Big highlight of the day–I visited with my old Hickman English Department and Academy of Rock colleague Brock Boland during his lunch hour. Brock is the kind of colleague who can make the worst school day survivable. His sense of humor and knack for entertainment are well-known, but his wisdom and ear are equally impressive; he and I both recently lost our fathers, and we shared some of our recent experiences, which lifted me considerably. We also enjoyed Cajun Crab House’s fried catfish (him) and Royal Red Shrimp (me) lunch specials. I didn’t know what the heck the latter was and ordered it strictly for that reason. It’s basically a bagged shrimp boil with new taters, corn on the cob, and sausage. What it was was delicious. Miss ya, Brock!

The rest of the day was spent scheduling Zoom tutoring appointments, in fact, my favorite kind: helping Steph Borklund’s students with their film genre essay assignments. She’s a smart, warm, enthusiastic prof, and we’ve been teaming up for years. Also, our 12-year-old border collie Louis is ailing, so I kept a very close eye on him. I am not going to speculate, because it’s 2020.

Miami went up two games to zip on the Celtics. Could we have a Heat-Nuggets final, 2020? Please?

Streaming for Survivors:

Would you care for a musical tour of “The Old, Weird America”? Tired of “The New, Weird America”? Traverse one of the best discs of six of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music–this one’s country blues dominated. Be sure to lean forward on “Prison Cell Blues.”

Cloister Commentary, Day 180: Sammy and Rosie FINALLY Get Laid

I know I’ve been wearing you out not only on the NBA, music, books, eating, and mourning, but also, lately, on Albert Camus’ book The Plague. I know it might sound insane to read THAT book right now, but if you have been taking this pandemic seriously, it can make you feel less out of sorts. Though Camus was mostly writing about a different kind of plague than COVID-19, that different kind of plague is perhaps more damagingly in effect right now. I’m re-reading it and it has had a calming (not reassuring) effect on me. As his narrator describes how the citizens of Oran respond to the virus that’s hit them, you’ll find many points of commonality with your own experience–I promise. And it’s not a doorstop tome: it’s an absorbing 300ish pages.

On a less ponderous note (perhaps), I: a) lost my campus ID when it apparently flopped out of my lanyard (I hate those with a passion, which compounds the absurdity), though there’s only about 100 feet where it could have landed that I’ve retraced thrice (I suspect one of the crumbsnatchers in Stephens’ early ed program found it and ate it); b) received my used VHS copy of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in the mail; c) tried to help Nicole bake a plate of enchiladas and, in doing so, attempted to RE-shred some jack cheese; and d) intentionally slept on the couch in the “TV room” to watch our dog, who is showing signs of age that are bedeviling him.

Streaming for Survivors:

For the formalists in the house, and fans of Illinois power pop.

Cloister Commentary, Day 179: All Too Evitable

Only my hatred of the inevitable, and delight at seeing the inevitable rendered unexpectedly evitable, could induce me to root for a Kroenke-owned venture, but such is life in the NBA bubble: I would happily witness a Denver Nuggets ride to the championship; there, I said it. But, truth be told, I’d be happy with any of the remaining four teams winning: the Heat, because I love their youth, team chemistry, defense, and spirit–damn, they would be a great Finals match with the Nuggets!–the Celtics, because I really wanted them, configured much like they were then, to beat the Cavs two years ago when they went Clipper-cold in a seventh game (I also like their youth, team chemistry, defense, and spirit), or even the Lakers, because as a colleague and I recently agreed, LeBron-Hate is a symptom of a very American reality-denial virus, and his winning a championship with a third different franchise as the key player (I love Big Shot Bob, but let’s be serious) is something, um, a certain cigar-smoking, golf-playing, bet-addicted, former-Hitler-mustache wearing person never did.

Reader, sorry I’m wearing you out about something as relatively insignificant as basketball in this entry, but IT GIVES ME JOY, we all need a source of that right now, and you’ll just have to endure it. As a long-time fan, I am luxuriating in the following: the level of play, the nail-biting aspect of so many of the playoff games, the various stories in the making–and the fact that, if fans who are not in support of social justice and don’t like people of color as anything other than athletes are going to watch NBA Bubble Playoffs, they are going to have to look at and listen to healthy messages all game long.

Streaming for Strivers:

I should be more humble in my joy-bounty, but I (and you) also have music.

Cloister Commentary, Day 178: Grogginess Redeemed

I awakened at 3:45 a.m. from dreaming about my dear friends Janet and David and couldn’t get back to sleep. Nicole was already awake (Sunday Night / Monday Morning Educator Syndrome), so we caught up on reading, meditated and went on a long neighborhood walk–we’d alllllllmost gone back to sleep at 5.

Going into work, I was groggier than if I’d just had a colonoscopy (sorry–hey, I’m due…grrrrreart!), but after having my temperature taken by the executive assistant to the school president, who is very kind, and working my way Get Smart-style into my office, I settled in for work. And I had some: a paper challenging left brain -right brain theory to proofread and comment on, a Zoom conference with one of my outstanding summer school students and her academic advisor, then a Success Center staff check-in (also on Zoom). I also went for 15-minute campus walk during my lunch break–it was a gorgeous day. As I left, I stopped at the library counter to talk NBA and politics with my colleague Dan Kammer, a conversation I was grateful was not on Zoom.

Culture Report:

Books: We always try to read Columbia’s annual One Read. I was skeptical when I perused a few descriptions of this year’s choice, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Books about aristocrats are not normally my cuppa. However, Towles’ wit and style immediately won me over, and it’s more relevant to this project than I could ever have imagined.

Music: The new EP by the band The Human Hearts, Day of the Tiles, really hits me where I currently live (in a world on fire). It’s really smart and passionate; in fact, it’s veins are open. It apparently has a connection to Mountain Goats, a band I admire without quickened pulse but about which I am not a adept.

Shows: Unlike seemingly the series’ entire audience, we are not won over by the HBO adaptation of Matt Ruff’s terrific tome Lovecraft Country. We have not given up on it–we are big fans of the source–but continue to feel it’s a little dumbed down, suffers from kitchen sink disease, and lacks even a modicum of subtlety. Last night’s episode had its moments, as they all have, but was more jarring against the tone of the original narrative. And, believe me: I was down for this series. Seriously down.

Food: I can eat 50 stuffed poblano peppers.

Streaming for Strivers:

Currently residing (unfairly) in the where-are-they-now file.

Cloister Commentary, Day 177: Draggy Magic

More from Albert Camus’ The Plague (1948 Stuart Gilbert translation):

“The evil that is in the world always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, is not the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Other exciting news?

*We halfsie-splitsied some bagels from the downtown B&B Bagel Bakery (asiago cheese v. everything, with scallion cream cheese).
*We Zoomed with family and friends.
*We happily revisited Ron Howard’s Beatle documentary Eight Days a Week (did Nicole and I originally see at Ragtag, or did George and I see it there, or did we all see it there?), and enjoyed it even more than we did the first time. What a time, what a band; I’m thinking Nicole may need to read Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles.

Streaming for Survivors:
The draggy magic of this album fits my Monday morning.

Cloister Commentary, Day 176: Dr. Rieux’s Neighborhood

The other day, I had a Facebook exchange with an old friend about reading during this pandemic–it’s difficult, because it’s hard to concentrate for numerous reasons. Even I, who reads 4-5 books at a time, sometimes with ugly noise cranked on the stereo, find myself living out Lou Reed’s words, which haunt me: “Every time you try to read a book / You can’t get to page 17.” But…it’s essential to hunker down. It pays off. I think Pynchon once wrote that the key to our current problems is in the literature of the past; Faulkner wrote that the past isn’t gone, it isn’t even past; and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t keep reading, because I’ve lately vowed that I’m not arguing politics or history with anyone who isn’t well-(widely, omnivorously, deeply, compassionately)read. If you’re going to be well-read, you can’t ever stop plumbing the wisdom of our sages.

Case in point: a passage I read yesterday in Albert Camus’ The Plague, a book I’m re-reading after first feeling it rock my world in Winter 1983 in a “philosophy in literature” class at what was then called Southwest Missouri State (this is from Stuart Gilbert’s 1948 translation):

Dr. Rieux: “[S]ince the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence…?

Tarrou: “…Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all….”

Rieux: “Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”

Tarrou: “No reason, I agree. Only, I now picture what this plague must mean to you.”

Rieux: “Yes. A never-ending defeat.”

This may seem grim, but it can also seem (in fact, I think it is) heroic. The plague in question is both literal and figurative. You really should read it–a new translation is due out soon.

Elsewhere in the day, Nicole cooked an amazing pan of baked chili poblanos, and we, still on a Beatles wave, watched the very McCartneycentric Yesterday (hell, he could have written it). It was cute, and we both enjoyed it.

Streaming for Survivors:

Who says there ain’t no decent hip-hop anymore?

Cloister Commentary, Day 175: Beatles and Books

Two very memorable occurrences.

At the beginning and the end of a Friday at the end of her first week of virtual teaching for the 2020-2021 school year, Nicole had a to give herself a dose of John Lennon and The Beatles. This led to a full-on, high-volume barrage of Fab Four until late in the evening, and we’ll be watching Beatles movies today. I asked her if anything special triggered her choice, and she simply said, “They make me feel good!” There are deniers of things wonderful as well as horrible; I’ve always enjoyed watching Beatle contrarians labor to try to explain why they weren’t any good. Their joy is difficult to gainsay, in particular. Beer and Moscow Mules were also involved.

The second thing was a Facebook post by my friend Duncan Parks. I taught Duncan, always sharp and witty, when he was knee-high to a grasshopper in middle school, then later when he was a high school student. Mr. Parks was apparently doing some cleaning yesterday when he found an old red English textbook that he received from me when he was a Smithton Wildcat. He posted a picture of it, which instantly reminded me that I’d rescued the whole batch from the incinerator that year, 1) because the selections were excellent; 2) because I’ve always liked textbooks as a resource (as opposed to the focus of a class); and 3) because I hate waste. Also, it gave me pause to again reflect on the fate of physical media, a mental exercise that’s becoming an obsession.

Streaming for Survivors:

Let’s wave goodbye to the great reggae singer Toots Hibbert, who just stepped on a rainbow.