Cloister Commentary, Day 365: A Year in the COVID Life

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A few days over a year ago, my friend Ken Shimamoto messaged me, suggesting that I document here my days under the unfolding pandemic. Eight years ago, I’d done the same during my last year as a full-time public school teacher. That had worked out pretty well, but I wasn’t so sure about this undertaking: it was instantly clear to me that, while I never found teaching English repetitive, the limitations of a cloistered life might not make interesting reading. Nevertheless, on this day in 2020, I sallied forth with this commentary, hoping for the best.

I didn’t feel the need or ability to be a reporter on the world’s struggles. I was happy to comment when our life within these walls intersected with the endless turbulence outside of them, but mostly I just wanted to capture (for Nicole’s and my reflection later on, to possibly encourage others who might be frustrated, for your entertainment) how we got through days where we couldn’t go anywhere or see anyone safely. Because I’m a helpless music nut, I tried to offer the adventurous an interesting and inspiring full album stream on YouTube; likely, more than a few have been pulled for copyright reasons by now. I hope along the way readers found it wasn’t a warrantless pursuit.

Looking back, I’d not have dreamed I’d arrive on this day minus a father, a best friend, a canine companion, a brief feline addition to our entourage, and a little faith in my fellow citizens. None of those losses but the last was due to COVID-19; they just made keeping one foot in front of the other that much more difficult. Perhaps the urgency of staying disciplined helped us deal, I don’t really know. I just know LOSS was the defining word of the experience.

I was worried about contracting the virus. Instead, in 12 months, I enjoyed three electrocardiograms, two echocardiograms, two sleep studies, a colonoscopy, and a prostate biopsy. I gave blood twice until those processes resulted in medication that pretty much forbids that–I’ll never catch up to George Frissell’s 270+ pints.

Life certainly wasn’t all horrible. If I had to be trapped, it might as well be with my soul mate and ace companion. We live in a library, so feeding our heads and hearts would have been easy even without the Internet. We are both educators, and, though that task has been a major struggle, even that provided us some fuel–the summer school class I taught was essential to my recovery from a lightning-strike death. I talked to my mom almost every day, and saw her and my brother far more often than any year since I left home. And even if it was from a distance, I was buoyed up by citizens under attack refusing to lie down and fighting back. Their fights were seldom futile, either. We’ve got a long, long way to go, but the pandemic hasn’t broken us all the way down.

I read at least a hundred books and listened to hundreds of records, and hyped them in these commentaries. That was not to boast: they’ve always been integral to my intellectual and spiritual survival, plus? Once a teacher, always a teacher: modeling good reading habits is essential, especially now (the habit seems endangered). We also likely ate 100 curbside meals. I know, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie and all, but local restaurants desperately needed the support, and the money pandemic life saved us demanded helpful reinvestment. Somehow, I avoided those extra COVID pounds.

Zoom? Thumbs up. I had a head start with it prior to the pandemic with guest speakers at Stephens, but I’m thankful it let me hear and see my family, friends, and flying saucer support team on a regular basis, and it’s a great birthday idea! I’m still mastering it as an educator, but the student teachers I’m supervising teach me a new trick every observation.

I wrote these from a position of privilege that kept me safer than most, gave me bubbles of serenity within which to write, and provided me the sustenance that insured me time. I wrote most of these with my right thumb, on my phone, in bed, under early morning lamps, during half-hours in my office before work, on the back porch, riding in cars (I regretfully edited one while driving), while eating, waiting in doctors’ offices–well, you get it. I transferred them all to a blog that maybe the local historical society can use (and that you can access–see below–to catch up, if you’re interested). Ultimately, I feel like the result was worth the effort. I know the pandemic is not over, but with our second vaccination scheduled Tuesday and today being not only our anniversary but a nice round annum, giving my thumb a rest is a decent idea.

Ken, thanks for the push (you push a lot, the right way). Nicole, thanks for the love and support and the hosting of this commentary via daily tags. And my little passel of readers, thanks for sampling this–I hope you were seldom bored. As I often told my students when we talked about adult life, it’s wrestling with routine and mastering monotony that are the secrets of endurance, and I sincerely hope we passed that test.

Streaming for Strivers:

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 360: Return to the Isle of Capris Pants

Five more days and this commentary comes to a close. Nicole and I were able to schedule our second vaccination next Tuesday (we just can’t get enough microchips!), once again at the Isle of Capris Pants, so the timing’s pretty good. A few months ago, I wasn’t so sure it would make sense to stop at an arbitrary 365 days. It still may not.

We slept in a bit and both had to scramble to get ready for work. Nicole “threw together” our lunches–I told her I could manage but she insisted; she’s very sweet–but it didn’t seem thrown together to me: delicious ultra-garlicky za’atar hummus, toasted pita bread triangles, some walnuts, carrots, and celery, and an apple. I still had hummus left after the dipping was done, so I mixed in the walnuts and created “Walnut Hummus Surprise.” I texted Nicole to try it herself but she did not.

The BiPap therapy seems to be helping my energy, as I’m returning to my (even more) industrious self. A slow day at the office convinced me to channel our book overflow onto my fairly empty shelves there; I suppose I haven’t worked at Stephens to have amassed the requisite biblio-backdrop, so I’m going to simulate one. It’s going to take a few trips.

We squeezed in a neighborhood walk before a downpour and got some reading in. Nicole’s started Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and I’m legitimately excited about that. As usual when I’ve cleared my reading decks, my library holds came in, and they’re excellent so far: S. A. Cosby’s turbo-charged crime novel Blacktop Wasteland and Levon Helm’s engaging autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire.

Streaming for Strivers:

For such a humble package, it’s hilarious a copy is going for $900+ on Amazon and I couldn’t even find one on Discogs (I looked because the compilation is also sharp). Would you like to swing this morning? Click.

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 356: Intern-al Inspiration

Supervising student teachers can make you want to get back in the game in two ways. One way is unfortunate–you want to show ’em how it’s done. However, the other is inspiration–you want to try those new ideas yourself, and feel the rush again; you might even want to team-teach with the intern. The latter was my experience yesterday morning. This intern taught an engaging and varied lesson that focused on both Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls and the life of the great Toussaint L’Ouverture, and not only did it make me wish I was a high school teacher again, but I wish I’d had someone like her teaching me when I was kid. She has a great future.

Otherwise, it was a quiet but good day: trip to the mulch site; lunch featuring delicious leftover chili with plant-based protein that could fool carnivores; nose in two books, one of which, Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, sent a chill down my spine it was so culturally (and uncomfortably) close; nice chat with Mom; listening session devoted to R.A.P. Ferreira, with whom I think I could have a beer and gab.

Thursday Movie Night? Franco Rossi’s highly recommended 1980 film set in Brixton, Babylon. It truly belongs with The Harder They Come and Rockers as a great reggae film, though it was unreleased in the States for 40 years. Upon its conclusion, the stream sent us straight to the German documentary Reggae ina Babylon, featuring Matumbi, Aswad, Steel Pulse, Alton Ellis, and other musicians who were unfortunately not identified. We will be listening to reggae non-stop for the next few days.

Streaming for Strivers:

I never tire of this poet and this band. Nicole, the band’s led by Dennis Bovell, who was behind the music for Babylon and was the bassist for Matumbi.

Cloister Commentary, Day 353: A Room With A View

The fact that it was a slow day is best exemplified by how excited I was after cleaning up and rearranging my office. Smart humans would have, upon initially moving into it, immediately arranged it in the manner to which I changed it: I have a window view, yet I’ve had my back to it the entire time (it does look out onto a dormant chimney that is also reminiscent of a guard tower, so it is not exactly beauteous). Flipping my work station improved my Zoom appearance so much that, during our staff meeting, they thought I was in another location. Also, I swept the equivalent of a half-package of candy-coated fennel seeds off the floor. I don’t think my office had been swept since I moved into it in 2016.

One of the student teachers I supervise taught a lesson on Macbeth that I had the pleasure of observing. Her host teacher is a former student of mine to whom I taught that play; I do believe I forced the Scottish Play on students for almost 20 years, and about have it memorized. The intern did a very careful, thorough and enthusiastic job–in fact, made me miss it. That’s a by-product of supervising student teachers.

After a long walk, we settled in for an excellent dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches on Uprise Bakery Ancient Grain bread (Nicole made mine with pepper cheese), steamed spinach and taters, pickled beets, and chocolate coffee brownies made with Blue Plate mayonnaise. She bemoaned the boring nature of the meal, but what do you think? I thought I was damned lucky.

We fell asleep to the news that Columbia Public Schools will be fully in-seat April 5. Nicole should be fully vaccinated by then, and I hope all or most of the rest of the district’s staff will be.

Streaming for Strivers:

I can’t stand the rain, so I’m steeling myself for the end of the week.


*not that we all won’t continue to need sources of both

Every 50 days of the pandemic, I’ve tried to highlight material that’s been helping Nicole and I up the mountain. I’m leaving off with this commentary on Day 365–a not-so-nice far-from-round year–so here end the awards. But I live to share on Facebook, so that doesn’t much matter!


Wau Wau Collectif: Yaral Sa Doom
Dolly Parton: A Real Live Dolly
The Supreme Angels: Drinking of the Wine
Showbiz & AG: Runaway Slave


Kim’s Convenience
Men in Kilts
Sweet Smell of Success
The Durrells of Corfu
All Creatures Great and Small


Stephanie Soileau: Last One Out Shut Off the Lights
Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Anti-Racist
Hubert Selby, Jr.: Requiem for a Dream
Brian Coleman: Check the Technique–Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies
Thich Nhat Hanh: How to Fight


Barred Owl Butcher

Yes, I know it’s not over.

Streaming for Strivers:

Top of the line arrangements and sliding!

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 342: Erasures

The thing about those screaming for schools to reopen fully: how come they weren’t screaming to get teachers vaccinated early so they could, more safely? Because teachers do want to teach, in person–badly. Shows you where those screamers’ priorities are. There’s a damn lot of folks who aren’t too concerned with the health of anyone, as long as they’re ok, Jack.

I spent most of the morning reading military history and being introduced to writer Charles Blow’s proposal for a reverse Great Migration southward (check out his book The Devil You Know), most of the afternoon picking up, assembling, and testing my new-dangled CPAP machine and BiPap mask. The thought of wearing it every night for a long, long time makes me fret against the imperfection and deterioration of my body, but it is supposed to improve my energy and memory as well as my respiration.

For movie night, Nicole and I finally checked out Shaka King’s film about Fred Hampton’s assassination by the FBI, Judas and The Black Messiah (currently on HBO Max). We knew the history pretty well, and were impressed by the acting and filmmaking, but one had best be fortified when taking it in. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, MLK, Hampton–all tragically erased from this plane within the space of six years of the 1960s, and at least one of them by government and law enforcement.

Streaming for Strivers:

Any time is the right time for Mr. Mayfield. This time in particular.

Cloister Commentary, Day 341: Coup De Grace

Work was a mite slow. I was able to complete one of my teacher intern’s evaluations–they are both really passionate and skilled!–before my tutoring hours began, and after that the highlight was a very enlightening webinar on ungendering the workplace. I was happy to offer a comment that was not dunderheaded!

My mom has been feeling better (a terrific birthday present), and she texted me yesterday to confirm she and some siblings and cousins are taking a road trip to Dallas to see my Aunt Patricia (make that Trish). Everyone involved, I believe, will have been fully vaccinated, and this is something that, under the circumstances of ’20-’21, she really needs.

In this house, we celebrate each other’s birthday all week long. The cookies were finally gone, but Nicole served up the coup de grace for dinner: delicious veggie stuffed peppers (by request)! She also kindly authorized a musical purchase. My resolution has suffered a couple shots to the torso, but is intending to be mending post-birth-a-versary.

In the evening, we finished The Durrells. Any suggestions for our next series binge?

Streaming for Strivers:

This isn’t a full album, but it’s longer than some, and it recently converted me to the wiles of this artist I just couldn’t seem to connect with.