Cloister Commentary, Day 127: Brontë and Basketball

My week hanging out with my mom is coming to a close (though I shall return soon). We’ve had as much fun as you can have in a pandemic, and I’ve witnessed her one-woman mask-making factory in action. Melissa Hague and Nicole have recently provided yards of raw materials that will keep the factory humming.

We capped the week with some Mexican food and an unusual evening of viewing: we split up Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 quietly intense adaptation of Jane Eyre with 90 minutes of an NBA preview, which Mom actually enjoyed and I was more impressed with than I’d anticipated. I thought I was well weaned off sports from three months of fasting, but after seeing what the league’s done to help its teams deal with COVID-19 and its players address social injustice? I’ll bite. And if you haven’t seen Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska circle each other in that great, brooding Brontë-take, please do so post-haste. ‘Twas my second viewing, and I had no regrets: in fact, one day I want to venture through Derbyshire, where it was filmed, as well as check out Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire.

Also, Mom had a dinner margarita poured for herself before I had done so for myself. I had secretly restocked provisions earlier in the day but she sniffed them out. You have to move quickly to beat me to that elixir. Funny, but I think my dinner idea was triggered by having listened to David Berman’s “Margaritas at the Mall” in the morning while I was futzing with my car stereo (see comments).

Streaming for Strivers:

It’s not a “full album,” but it’s about a half-hour of a great front man’s trademark get-up-and-get-at-it. He’s been to France, so you just dance, ok?

Cloister Commentary, Day 126: Earthseed Graphics

Took a long early-morning walk into the Monett countryside listening to Rolling Stone writer Joe Levy’s Spotify playlist, “Uprising 2020.” That was better than three shots of espresso, and lasted longer.

Nicole, Mom, and I Zoom every morning for 10 minutes or so before we get on with our days. Yesterday, though, we got pretty engaged in our subject matter and almost talked for an hour. And here I thought I was done with Zoom “classes” for a while. For myself, I think I just miss my wife a wee bit.

Graded the first wave of research papers that arrived from my summer school students: three As and two Bs, plus they had some zip to ’em. They aren’t due til Sunday night, but today’s authors are of the TCB variety.

Started two new books, a so-far nice bio of the contagiously joyful and mischievous jazz master Fats Waller (written by his son) and Duffy & Jennings’ second graphic novel adaptation of an Octavia Butler novel, Parable of the Sower. If any of my readers know that book, well–you’ve probably thought of it once or twice since March. The team has an adaptation of Parable of the Talents on the way.

My mind and body forced me to nap in the afternoon, but I was ready to go for a nice dinner with Mom and my chosen brother Greg Carlin. We spent a good three hours talking about Monett family trees, his health-wrestling, complicated dogs, and oblivious neighbors. As a lineman (not the football kind, the electrical kind), he interacts with a cross-section of the public in their home environments, but when he discusses certains folks’ unusual living habits, he is never mean nor does he consider himself superior to them. That’s the sign of a good man.

Streaming for Strivers:

For this instrumentalist, an album could not be better named. The band’s pretty talented as well.

Cloister Commentary, Day 125: Cat Herding Sheep

Only eight times this many days will be 1,000. February seems over a year in the past, but eight times this many seems like it could happen in a snap. Does that make any sense?

But for the grading of research papers, my Stephens summer school stint is over. I remember neurotically pacing back and forth, wondering if I should take the job on, then if I would like it, then if I would suck at Zoom–and it’s already over, and I’m in for next summer. If there is a next summer: what really sucks is that some valued colleagues at Stephens have lost their jobs so the institution can survive, and the mess we’re all in isn’t going to make continuance a snap.

I have a scarily-bearded cousin who’s more like an uncle named Jim Hague. He is a septuagenarian with the motor of a five-year-old (what age has the highest-running motor?), and yesterday he showed up to finish repairing Dad’s old riding lawnmower. This particular job has been an obsession with him, and he toiled in the ninety degree heat from 1 p.m. to about 7 p.m. He was so desperate to complete the task that he asked me to help him, which is akin to asking a cat to herd sheep. I didn’t break anything, got my hands dirty (it was FUN!), and test-drove the thing without impaling it on the sweetgum tree. Jim and I don’t agree on very much, but no one has been more helpful in the aftermath of my father’s passing. For awhile, I was worried I might have another relative’s demise on my hands, but after Mom hosed him down and he ate some cookies, he was good as new.

I despise few things more than wasting food–I am a plate-cleaner to the manor born–but I was soundly defeated at dinner. I decided to give Mom a break from having to feed me and grabbed some curbside grub at The Southern Standard in Monett, but the delicious four-piece fried catfish plate I ordered was not accurately described on the restaurant’s menu: I double-checked, but nowhere did it read “For two.” Nor did it read “jumbo-sized catfish slabs.” My jaws creaked to a screeching halt at 3.5 slabs, I left a swamp of slaw on the plate, then staggered out of the kitchen to collapse on the couch. Too full to drink a beer or read? I’d not thought it possible, but it is. I am still full right now thumbing this out 12 hours later.

Streaming for Survivors:

One of the greatest alto saxophonists alive was born in Joplin, Missouri, 81 years ago today. Here he is.

Cloister Commentary, Day 124: Settling Dust

I knew the day would be pretty good when, purely by accident, my mom and I watched Buju Banton perform live on TV while we were eating breakfast. In some ways, it was a classic COVID-only moment.

‘Twas the second-to-last day of Stephens’ summer school program. Students are presenting the results of their research for their “final”; their last assignment will be a companion persuasive research essay, due Sunday night at the latest. Topics: trucker safety (that was actually the best and most interesting one!), protections for sex workers, the future of Mount Rushmore, body shaming in the fashion industry, and the effectiveness of masking in a pandemic. You’d think presentation assignments on Zoom would leave a bit to be desired, but I find I’m less distracted, and the presenters seem so as well. To be honest, I enjoyed them, and look forward to Round Two today.

I returned to my hometown of Carthage in the early afternoon to drop in for a few hours on my old friend Kevin Keller. We hadn’t seen each other in 35 years, so we compressed much info into our visit. Kevin could (and clearly still can) always be counted on for thought-provoking conversations, and his reflections on his time in Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem and at Missouri Southern and Carthage Junior High (as a language and TESOL specialist) were fascinating. He also once did one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen documented on Facebook: he shared photos from the journey he made around the country with his ailing mom, who is currently in a nursing facility which, for reasons I need not explain, he cannot visit. Kevin was a great host, all told; I even got a home-cooked Dominican lunch out of the visit!

With the dust having settled somewhat after my father’s passing, it is now quiet enough that the true coping and processing has begun. We had a few sudden visitations of sadness and yawning absence after I returned, but decided to fight it with Modern Family (which I’d never seen), Key & Peele sketches (Peele had been a hilarious guest in the Modern Family episode), and Little Fires Everywhere, which Mom liked enough for us to binge three episodes. I’ve read the book and already watched it once, and the series really holds up.

For the record, I’m very aware of spiraling COVID cases, spooky federal agents in one of my favorite cities, the grim struggle over school reopenings, the ongoing and necessary fight in our streets for social justice, the specter of vote-suppressing chicanery, and a demagogue thrashing like the shark at the end of JAWS–it may seem I barely acknowledge it, but on my mentor Ken’s advice, in this project I’m simply writing what’s occurring with us. Paralysis is almost a tempting option, but despite churning gut and teeming brain, I’m attending to what’s in front of me. Reader, see, you’re not alone. I’m glad I’m not.

Streaming for Strivers:

One of the biggest, nattiest, most universal dreadlocked youths ever born.

Cloister Commentary, Day 123: COVID Roulette

Once a week with my on-line class, we have an Open Zoom: I make myself available for twice the required time for consultation on classwork and anything else related to writing, lit, or college survival. I screen-share a YouTube playlist so music greets them when they enter, though sometimes they have to chat at me or unmute and yell to alert me to their presence.

One of my three students from California NEVER misses an Open Zoom, which is doubly impressive as it’s 6:30 am to 8:30 am her time. She always has terrific questions, she’s always enthusiastic about her work, she’s taking and aceing all four of our program’s courses for incoming freshmen, she loves writing–and she’s an equine major! Laughing, she told me yesterday that her parents recently asked her, considering all the work she’s been doing, if she was ok, and I’ve thought the same thing. After we dealt with integrating and citing quotes into research papers MLA style, we chatted about the class and the future for about 15 minutes, and I do hope that, sometime when life is less a game of COVID roulette, she comes to see me for writing tutoring. She’s hoping Stephens is opening as it is planning to next month, and, though I don’t perfectly share that hope, she’s already bought her plane tickets. This time reeks to highest heaven and lowest hell, but she’s been a beacon.

In the afternoon, Mom and I and her teacher pal Cathy visited the splendid country home of Madison and Logan Dickens. Madison’s like a granddaughter to Mom and a niece to me; she’s a smart, diligent school nurse and mother of two, and her husband can about build or fix anything. As she cradled her bowling-ball of a newborn Presley in her elbow-nook, she and her agile and avid older daughter Lilly gave us a fascinating tour of the spread.

Like a moth to flame: after months of being relatively painlessly being weaned off sports, can I resist MLB and NBA action?

Streaming for Survivors:

For you and your folks, me and my folks–and for the super stupid…

Cloister Commentary, Day 122: A Very Smart Phone

Advice for those who survive a spouse, partner, or parent: keep their smartphones active for awhile. Retrieving website passwords for departed loved ones is a well-known plague for families already not feeling so great, but remember: when you forget a password, what do you do? You have them send a link for creating a new password to your phone or email! Apply the same technique to your posthumous struggles–you just need to have the access to their phone.

This happened to us. My brother Brian and I beat our heads against a customer service wall for several days, trying simply to transfer ownership of an account from my dad to my mom, get a stray bill paid, and convert an autopay preference to paper billing. We didn’t have a passcode, we couldn’t answer a security question (What the hell was Dad’s favorite restaurant??? We tried umpteen thousand possibilities and still don’t know, and we’ve asked around!), having Mom present for the call wasn’t good enough, and the account owner (and stockholder) wasn’t, um, available to authorize any of the changes. Told we’d have to descend into the underworld (aka an AT&T Store in Joplin) to make any progress, I punched a couple of inanimate objects and in fuming futility sat down at the computer for some desperate password stabs. As I failed and failed, I looked at that “Forgot your password?” link, and gave birth to a Athena-like lightbulb: Dad’s phone was deactivated for calls, but still plugged into the wall! Within five minutes, I’d sent “Dad” a re-set link to his email, changed the password, replaced that dang security question, and solved the other issues. I felt like drinking to my own triumph, but it was only 10 a.m.

We did celebrate, however. I drove my mom to our old hometown of Carthage to visit with her best friends, Kay and Bruce Vaughn and the always-perfectly-named Sunny Michel. She hadn’t seen them since weeks before Dad’s death, and I felt privileged to witness their reunion. I had asked Mom how long she wanted to stay, and she’d replied, “Oh, we only need to stay an hour at most.”

We spent a deeply enjoyable three hours in conversation, than jammed Carmen McRae on the way back home. I hope I have friends like that when I grow up.

Streaming for Survivors:

Foolproof cure for the blues. This stuff will stomp ’em.

Cloister Commentary, Day 121: 63 – 54 – 5 – 44 – H

I am spending a week with my mom and yesterday hit the ol’ 63 – 54 – 5 – 44 – H trail that I could drive in my sleep. Broke in the new car stereo with mid-’70s Miles, Beatles, VU (’68 stuff–damn), Gary Stewart (yelled all the songs: I wish I could sing like him), and PE.

Road observations:

Had to stop at the Wal-Mart in Camdenton because I drank a cup of tea before I left. Plusses: all employees were masked, plus IF you are a dude, need to take a leak, and don’t mind sanitizing back in the jalopy, you can enter, do the biz, and exit without touching anything foreign. Minuses: maybe 2 in 10 customers were masked, and the rejiggering of the entrances and exits just seemed to create massive bottlenecks.

On I-44, I once again mourned the impending sale of “The Den of Metal Arts.” I’d always hoped that, one, some former students of mine would form a metal band and use a photo of it as an album cover, and, two, it would someday be converted into a metal recording studio or venue. It’ll probably end up an evangelical church.

As I passed 65, a maroon van merged onto 44 beside me, into a crowd of vehicles we traveled with for several miles. Spray-painted crudely and legibly on its driver side was “Honk if you love Trump!” No one honked.

We had a nice afternoon and evening. Mom and I got caught up, we chatted with my brother Brian on the blower, I Zoomed with my Sunday regz and my sweetie Nicole (who’s minding the feline farm), and we had BLs with fresh Ts. Closed down the day by watching the terse but somewhat trance-inducing Apple + series Defending Jacob.

I read a few pages of Michael Corcoran’s great book on Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits in Texas Music. I’m supposed to know a ton about American music, but how come I never knew the great pianists and singers Charles Brown and Amos Milburn were not only likely gay but also a couple? Amazing, cool–and damn difficult for their glory years.

Streaming for Strivers:

Speaking of Texas music…

Cloister Commentary, Day 120: Splash, So Long

I have had a decent portion on my plate lately, so I was happy to hand a very healthy certified check over to good ol’ Sharon Dothage at Hickman for deposit into our account for remembering our departed friend George Frissell. My first experience managing a GoFundMe campaign was pretty positive, but also nerve-wracking. Would I do it again? Depends.

Thanks be to McKnight Tire for bringing my ’93 Ford Ranger (formerly known as a Splash until I had the evidence removed–didn’t quite go with my image) up to long-distance travel-speed. They have treated that vehicle lovingly for almost 30 years, and after the new owner has them put a set of tires on it, they shall see it no more, and will eventually meet my Chevy. I hope they get along.

How many hours in a day can you read? Providing my damn phone is buried somewhere, I can get seriously lost in a book, but I happened to have my nose in an in-demand book I’d checked out from the DBRL that was, um, five days overdue, so I had additional motivation. Finished it with time to spare, which I used to…read another book.

The dark side of the day was learning that 30 fellow Stephens employees lost their jobs. I’m pretty convinced the leadership did everything they could to prevent taking that measure, but COVID-19 gives no quarter. Had we done a much better job refusing any ourselves–say, starting in January–we’d be in a better place now. But more and more it is appearing we are in a hell we had a hand in making.

Random shout-out: I was delighted to see one of my favorite administrators and edumacational wizards, Dr. Andrew McCarthy, yesterday. Andy’s smart, dedicated, hard-working, funny, positive, patient, and nice. What else could one require in an educator?

Streaming for Strivers:

How ’bout some snap, crackle, and pop?

Cloister Commentary, Day 119: Candles

Yesterday was a trying day, but I managed to vanquish the stress and arrest a darkening mood by focusing on the blessings I was fortunate to be provided by the cosmos, luck, proximity, curiosity, whatever:

A fresh and local cucumber, onion, and tomato salad. Nicole augmented it from an old favorite recipe of Jane’s.

A terrific essay on Halsey’s new album by my oldest freshman (24), who has grown so much as a writer in so little time.

A compilation of the diverse, lively, and clarion-calling songs of Texas singer and picker Blind Lemon Jefferson (I’m listening to it all over again as I thumb this out; also, see below).

A pair of books that made me forget everything but their worlds, one by the underrated Texas music writer Michael Corcoran, entitled Ghost Notes, which explores the work of such Lone Star masters as Arizona Dranes, Joyce Harris, Kenny Dorham, and The D.O.C., the other by multiple-award winner James McBride, Deacon King Kong, which traces the repercussions of a single hazily-conceived violent action on a Brooklyn day in ’69.

A candle. Yes, a candle. I like candles, what of it? This one emitted a ginger scent and it relaxed me while I graded papers. I’m thankful for the chandler who had the idea.

A trip to pick up pet food, groceries, and fresh produce–and drop of three of my mom’s homemade masks, two of her patterns, and three jars of Blue Plate mayonnaise to our friends named Ruffin.

A terrific meal from my former student Sonny Singh’s always-reliable restaurant India’s House. Their cuisine has been a weekly pleasure for us lately.

A simple change in routine: morning in the front room, with the sun coming up through the windows, evening in the “living room,” with a splendid nature video mirrored to the TV and neighborhood fools out of earshot.

A soul mate who kept calm when I was about to go volcanic.

I encourage you to stop today and count the ways you’re lucky if you’re hitting a snag. I concede that some readers may find it more difficult than I did yesterday, but I’m confident some crack in your life is letting light in.

Streaming for survivors:

This music is best appreciated leaning forward just a bit (speaking mentally, at least).

Cloister Commentary, Day 118: Up in this Mess

Things Nicole and I do up in this mess:

1) Finally spread the ashes of two fond ol’ cats (Carlos the Buddha Cat and Little Lola) out in the backyard.

2) Perseverate about the form of our future in education and the form of education in the future.

3) Drive aimlessly through town with the windows down and the stereo up (it was Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound) and feel like we’re on vacation.

4) Hang out in the backyard stringing solar lights from the swing and hiding cat food from the raccoons.

5) Move our pleasant evening reading into the TV room to distance ourselves from the screaming of our neighbors at each other and their loose dogs (“What is a leash?”), then turn up Bud Powell and once again revel in his genius.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

Also, our dog Louis discovered he can sleep soundly to this marvelous singer, who I think Missy Elliott knows about.