Notes on a Satisfying Retirement

Taking a break from my retirement itinerary.

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. Learn to say “no.” (Passed along from the great John Kelly.)
  3. Learn something new every so often. (I’ve been teaching myself the history of women in abstract expressionism.)
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.)
  9. 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!)
  10. Learn. Just keep learning.

P. S. Invest in a pill organizer.

Cloister Commentary, Day 362: When the Rain Comes

We awakened to pouring rain, flashing lightning, booming thunder–and some dude screaming epithets into the pre-dawn dark from the driveway next door. Nicole thought it was happening in her waking dream, but alas it was not.

We celebrated St. Pat’s with soda bread and a pint of music from that talented nutcase Van Morrison and The Chieftains (their team-up is passionate and evocative), with a Pogues chaser. Somehow it was fitting that I ran out to the truck through a thick downpour and drove to work accompanied by more sudden flickers of electricity. It may have been St. Pat’s (and Biden Bucks Day for some), but the main news was horrifying and unfortunately nothing surprising.

My recurring tutoring appointment did not materialize inside the Zoom Chamber, so applied myself to two alternate tasks (damn, I have the to-do bug!): attending to more fine details regarding a scholarship George Frissell’s family is giving to an outstanding David H. Hickman High School senior in May (thanks to many donors via GoFundMe), sprucing up my office further (updating my monthly Top 10, dusting books–first time I’ve done that, rearranging furniture for imaginary visitors), checking in with my teacher interns’ host teachers about their stellar mid-term progress.

When I got home, I had to mop some water out of the basement “Kitten Room”–we need a sump pump. More rain’s on the way. We squeezed a long walk in between downpours, discussed a home improvement future, ate more corned beef and cabbage, read and scrolled, and faded into Hypnos’ land with a couple of episodes of Kim’s Convenience. You may have noticed I use the simple teacher-trick of repetition quite frequently in these commentaries–on purpose. This show is consistently entertaining.

Streaming for Strivers:

Spoon ‘n’ The Brute. Their chemistry made my day and night yesterday, and is gonna make it this morning. Jimmy was Arkansan; Webster was KC-born.

Cloister Commentary, Day 359: An Imaginary Limerick

The cloudy, rainy gloom continued but it did not affect our positive momentum. Nicole whipped up a great batch of corned beef and cabbage, and as usual plated it superbly (it’s always photo-worthy, but I dropped the ball and it’s too late now). We could pretend we were in Limerick, though without the drams and the Shannon rolling by. I helped a student edit an upcoming piece (we hope) for Stephens Life and had a wide-ranging conversation with my former student from the wild and woolly early ’90s of David H. Hickman High School, Joseph Kenney. Joe was a student like I wish all of mine had been: passionate, outspoken, fearless, hungry to learn, accepting of others’ differences, and hilarious. We talked about Columbia’s Antioch Church; the continuing influence of Mr. Frissell on both of us; Geto Boys, Paris, and DJ Magic Mike; students who dress like icons (Prince, Michael Jackson, Eazy E, Cube); dealing with religious folks who won’t reciprocate a refusal to judge; friends of his I didn’t teach but wish I could have; and sustaining resistance. He’s a great dude who I wish still lived here, but I understand why he doesn’t.

March Madness–why should I care? Anyway, I want to put my chips on Illinois, but I still haven’t seen the bracket. I watched ’em win a squeaker against Ohio State and that mad man Duane Washington Jr. in the Big 12 championship game; I like their depth, camaraderie, coolness, and especially the one-two punch of Ayo Dosunmo and Kofi Cockburn.

Streaming for Strivers:

I may have shared this album already, but so what? It’s Grammy #2 for the youngest “old man” in American music!

Cloister Commentary, Day 349: On Ice

Since I’m on ice teaching-wise this semester, I am “free” Tuesdays and Thursdays–it doesn’t feel like freedom, however. I tried to make the most of it: did some chores around the house, dug into a birthday-present box set of New York/St. Louis/Fort Worth jazz master Julius Hemphill’s rare recordings, finished a book and made progress on three others, contemplated applying for a new part-time job and participating in a music writing workshop, chased cats, and reconnected with a former student I last chatted with 31 years ago.

That final event was very cool: I had wished another former student, Shawna Hayes, a happy birthday, and her classmate Mike Nichols did as well–we noticed each other’s wish, greeted each other and, together, tried to remember everyone who was in that first-hour English class in 1990, my first year in Columbia and at Hickman. That class was epochal for me: it was my first experience team-teaching with a learning specialist (Karen Downey and I would remain a team until 2015!), Hickman was a next-level teacher culture from what I was used to, and the first morning I walked in the students had self-segregated accorded to their melanation. The intensity of my engagement and striving was so strong it is no wonder I instantly remembered the names (and specific seating chart spots) of 75% of the class! I would give myself a B- in that striving, but grades don’t mean much; I learned a ton. And Mike and Shawna were so kind and accepting of my trying it’s no wonder I remember them well (I even taught Shawna’s daughter Quasha many years later at Hickman). And Roshawn Hayes has published a book!

Just remembered! As a result of being tagged on Facebook, I got to catch up and reminisce with two other former students who were part of the wildest and wooliest middle school groups I ever taught. Jennie Ling and Lauren Hill were both straight “A” students, but what we actually looked back on were their very rare 7th grade missteps; to have missteps rarely at 12 and 13 is to be well on one’s way. They’ve turned out to be pretty damned solid adults.

When Nicole got home, we got in yet another neighborhood walk (what great weather this week) and again turned to TCM for our movie night choice: Sweet Smell of Success. Watching Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis play slimy tabloid purveyors was fascinating (and disturbing) enough, but James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography alone was worth the time we spent.

Streaming for Strivers:

Black History Month –> Women’s History Month transition a touch late. Music + poetry in a big way.

Cloister Commentary, Day 346: The Conversations

Conversations. Had two excellent extended on-line chats with Hickman grads from different eras: Tyree Paladon Byndom (we discussed podcasts and destiny) and Donnie Harden Jr (we affirmed–as usual–the genius of Prince and pondered the possible pitfalls of the Jam-Lewis firing). Those two are unique humans. Also explored with other Kewpie vets Como Dave Sherman, Joseph Kenney, and Alex Fleming (the latter two survivors of my English class while I was still a mite green) was the fine line between ’90s hip-hop hollerers M. O. P. and Onyx. When Nicole got home, we went on a long walk through the neighborhood, got caught up on each other’s day, and applied salve to the “Living in Missouri Blues.”

Dinner: one of my cloister-era favorites! Raw veggies, toasted pita and Uprise Ancient Grain bread, and homemade hummus and pimiento cheese. Simple but delicious, and whatever’s left over we can snack on during the week.

Reading: I’ve long enjoyed Charles Blow’s writing, from his memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones through his pieces in The New York Times, and his new book-length proposal for a reverse Great Migration, The Devil You Know, is fascinating and challenging. Among many arguments he makes (and supports meticulously) is that Black Americans are in more immediate danger from white violence (physically and institutionally) in the northern states than the southern ones.

Streaming for Strivers:

I’ve probably listened to this master’s music more than any woman’s during this pandemic. It’s helped. She’s inventive, sassier than Sassy (her take on “Send in the Clowns” is bold), witty, flexible, and…in control.

Cloister Commentary, Day 261: English Teacher’s Nightmare

A dream with COVID nuances, so it’s relevant.

I was invited back to my old school to be a guest speaker (I thought). Turns out I was invited back to guide and introduce the guest speaker, who turned out to be the very last person on Earth for whom I would want to do those honors. I didn’t find that out until I was already on-site and walking down the hallway to meet him. His security detail was the actor Tom Hardy. I led them to the auditorium, but as we were about to enter, the guest grunted, “I have to take a dump.” He and Agent Hardy went into the bathroom and, figuring it would be awhile, I went on out into the auditorium, which was packed with students in groups of 10-15, but maskless.

Immediately one of the students ran up to me and said, “There is a big problem and you need to figure it out before the speaker speaks!” I asked him, “Are you in Literacy Seminar, because the key will be in that room.” He said, “Yeah, it’s right over here,” and pointed to an open classroom and bookcase situated in the front right corner of the auditorium. I hurried over, looking for my long-time colleague Jessica, but instead there were three very robotic co-teachers teaching the class.

I told them with great urgency, “I need to find a specific book that always worked with my kids, but I can’t remember the title, the main character’s name, or the plot–if I can see the title it’ll come right back to me.” My frustration with my own memory was vividly palpable in the dream, since I’ve been experiencing it while awake.

One of the robots said, “Well, sir, that’ll be a problem,” and gestured toward the bookcase: all the books were shelved with their spines facing toward the back of the bookcase.

I burst out, “How the hell do you find a book around here?”

The robot replied, “You have to know exactly where it is. We haven’t read a book this semester,” then giggled and rolled her eyes.

I craned my neck and saw The Guest and Agent Hardy emerging from the hallway, both with toilet paper trailing a shoe.

At that point, I broke out of the dream and sat bolt upright in bed, trying to remember the protagonist’s name, but finally realizing there was no actual book. In the dream, I remember thinking the author was Corey Hayden, but dismissing that; all I know is the hero was a young girl who had powers of divination. But I am so grateful I awakened when I did.

Dreams are boring-ass boring, but this one was so Kafkaesque I had to share it. It was my second return-to-Hickman dream in a week. I dedicate this post to my friends Rex Harris and, of course, Mrs. Lucas.

Streaming for Strivers:

When I think of dreams and music, I often think of this plectrist.

Cloister Commentary, Day 257: Past-Tense Verbs Galore

Ended my semester tutoring at Stephens. Didn’t do any sessions in person, but it was encouraging that we did not have a decrease in tutoring requests but did have one in cancelled appointments. My only in-person interaction with students was to notarize a few absentee and mail-in ballots. I miss students, but I’ve stayed healthy and so have most on Stephens’ campus. Looks like more of the same next semester; I hope my on-line comp class makes.

Had to get another blood panel run (nothing major). The poor intern tasked with drawing my blood might have been too distracted by my kitten mask (made by my mom), since she couldn’t draw blood in three sticks. The head nurse got the needle in and blood drawn while I was still explaining the mask to the intern.

Made a decent effort to curb a few habits. Kept myself to one small cup of coffee and no unhealthy snacks. Nicole prepared an Indian dish with butter sauce that was scrumptious and found some good pre-packaged garlic naan at the store.

Spent the evening continuing to bury my nose in Lee Smith‘s Saving Grace. If you need a high-quality page-turner that is sure to beat the pants off Hillbilly Elegy, check it out. Also, listened to some VINTAGE Western swing from the Thirties. That stuff never gets old, and it’s got serious juice.

Dreamed I was substituting at Hickman. The hallways were realistic, but when I entered my room, first it was shoebox-size with 35 students (I counted), then it elasticized to the size of a lecture hall, with the students suddenly very socially distanced. There was a foosball table a few juvenile delinquent types claimed the teacher let them play every day (BS, but why the table?); the ten students that had to sign out to go to tutoring just left without my signature; the remaining students laughed at me for saying reading could save them, but then were surprised not only that I was going to teach the lesson plan but knew my sh*t. Then a cat woke me up.

I miss students.

Streaming for Strivers:

Wills and his Playboys in autumn.

Cloister Commentary, Day 186: Nothing Black Can Stay

We started the day with a looooong neighborhood walk. Our departed companion was represented by his leash, which I put around my neck, his harness, which Nicole carried, and my trusty pocketed doggie doo-doo bag, because…well…at my age you never know. It just so happened that along the way we saw some folks walking a reddish dog with a flag-like tail and some seriously billowing bloomers. This brought back memories of a retirement idea one of our colleagues long ago proposed for us to bring to fruition collectively: we’d each employ our special talents in a one-stop wedding service called Groom ‘n’ Lube. My friends Karen Downey and Becky Sarrazin (the braintrust) would organize and decorate, I’d perform the service, Nicole would style the wedding party’s coifs, and our buddy John Steitz would take care of all the mechanical and security chores (“Call Guido: 443-KILL”). Anyway, watching this dog and remembering Louis, Nicole proposed a similar venture for us, Plume and Pantz: a grooming service just for border collies and their Aussie likes.

We hate this pandemic, but it enabled us to work together from home, and we really needed to do that yesterday. Fortunately, we each had our ugly cries at different times so we were able to calm each other rather than stoke the fire of our grieving with more coals of sadness. But just as nothing gold can stay, neither can anything black.

A story about Louie, which I’ve told before but I’ll try to spin a little differently: one summer day when Louis was a puppy, our friend George Frissell swung by to brainstorm with me about what would be the 1st and only Rock and Roll Quiz Bowl fundraiser. We were sitting at the kitchen table, I made a suggestion, and a look blossomed on George’s face akin to religious (or perhaps another kind of) ecstasy. I furrowed my brow as if you say, “The idea wasn’t THAT good”–then I peeked under the table to see Louis tongue-bathing George’s be-sandaled toes. I ’bout lost it. The dog could be a menace to visitors, but his true soul manifested itself in this case.

Streaming for Strivers:

Why not? We need it and it’s the anniversary of his birth.

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 119.5: 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?