Good fortune and bright light shone on me yesterday. As far as fortune went, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty found inmates for both Nicole and me to correspond with through their program. Neither of us believe in capital punishment, both of us recognize mass incarceration as one of our country’s biggest issues, and we applied to MADP to try to assist in a personal way. The response to the program had been so robust that they initially had no one to pair us with.
Bright light came in two forms. We successfully released “Scrappy,” a stray cat who found his way to Columbia’s Cat Capitol and got trapped and SNPed. To our surprise, he stayed put on the deck for a tuna treat. But…why were we even surprised? Also, our great friends Kenny and Gwen Wright chose us for their first Zoom double-date and we laughed into the night. Their youngun Ethan will soon be driving the most conspicuous and be-bumper-stickered teacher vehicle in town, only he’ll be doing so in Birmingham. We’ll meet in Memphis for the transaction, so that will be bright light for the future. I wish they were our next-door neighbors.
As a citizen trying to stay healthy and wanting others to as well, as a teacher and voter looking ahead to August and November, as a student who truly believes that education is the key to law and order, as a human striving to act justly and compassionately, as a survivor grieving and a friend pining, I cannot describe my contempt for our “leadership.” And I cannot believe I am alone in that.
Ok, so I got that off my chest. I suppose it was inspired by yet another threat lobbed yesterday, or was it the day before, from the very White House. But I have bigger and better things to think and worry about than bullies. Like fighting to keep the losses of my best friend and my dad from melding. They happened so suddenly and so closely together that some of the details (like correspondences) are blurring and even my processing frequently feels mixed up.
It’s a weird metaphor, but I keep coming back to it: lasagna. Layers of dread. Except lasagna is also delicious and this time is the opposite.
I graded some papers. They’re analytical essay rough drafts: the subjects of the three I made it through were Halsey, Inside Out, and Chanel–at least the topics are interesting. But three wore me out and I quit and took a nap.
Drove to Moser’s to look at the state of their recycling bins and decided to move that task to another day.
Nicole’s latest round of limoncello “matured,” so we enjoyed a couple tiny glasses of that delicious elixir. She crafted it cream-style this time, my favorite.
Finished up The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford presents a political and historical vision that’s complicated, to say the least, but the performances are great and its best moments are inspiring. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”? That quote’s taken on new, troublesome weight. As the credits rolled, I found myself thinking about statues, and the fact that before our eyes we’re seeing legends subjected to a bigger mass of critical thinking than ever before. Some may cry bloody murder–and often that was on such legends’ hands–but that critical thinking is good.
Streaming for Strivers:
Bit of a lost album from a terrific but somewhat underappreciated soul man.
List of things I blew off: shaving, grading rough drafts, weeding, trimming back vines, hauling off the recycling, reading Deacon King Kong, listening to music very actively, figuring out how to use a neat Bluetooth mic by brother gave me.
List of things I didn’t: showering, eating Nicole’s special avocado toast, calling Mom, teaching, taking a nap, attending to some financial and beneficiary details, drinking a bourbon and Coke, eating some brisket from Lockhart,Texas, helping Nicole trap that sad little stray so he can get some health attention, visiting with our neighbor Shireen, checking on our neighbors the Knowleses, lazing and luxuriating through the pages of Duffy and Jennings’ graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
I HAVE to grade essays today. I HAVE to grade essays today. I HAVE to grade essays today. Don’t I?
Streaming for Shut-Ins:
Another severely underrated rap record. For Joseph.
I had assigned my students, who are writing analytical essays on art objects of their choice, four reviews of various kinds and styles. On impulse, I asked them to rank the four readings according to the writers’ effectiveness in both describing and assessing the quality of the item under review, then hand-picked students to share and justify their rankings. To wrap up each conversation, I posed a question to them based on some of their judgments. The strategy worked like a charm–I’m sure I stole it–and I’ll definitely use it again. Ranked first by every single student: Zadie Smith’s essay on Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Dana Schutz’s Open Casket. Recommended.
For the first time in 11 days (I think) I returned home. I found it hard to leave my mom, but she was ready to face her challenge; I was missing Nicole and our beasts. We ate a frozen Shakespeare’s Pizza, tried some blackberry moonshine, and got caught up. On the rare occasion when we’re apart for an extended time, she leaves out the CDs she played in my absence–I always like to know. George Jones’ My Favorites ofHank Williams was playing when I walked in the door.
My students gave presentations yesterday, the first I’d assigned on Zoom. Actually, with everyone but the speaker fully muted, they weren’t wholly unenjoyable. One gave hers accompanied by her dog and standing outside a stable (she had to work but didn’t want to miss class), and neither augmentation was a distraction. Also, I’d assigned an excerpt from Lars Eighner’s Travels with Lizbeth that I’ve always loved as an expository writing model but students have always hated, and all of these humans chose it as their favorite from among three. I wish I could teach them this fall, too.
Though it was released Friday, I had not been able to get to Bob Dylan’s new album My Rough and Rowdy Ways until yesterday. My expectations were a little low, though he has long been a very important voice in my life. Hot take: his most nuanced singing in a long time (yes, he can squeeze nuance out of those destroyed cords), sly, funny, allusive, and wise writing–and some tuff blues ‘n’ roll. Like my friend Whitney, I’d like to think the finale might really be the finale: “Murder Most Foul.” It’s hard to know when exactly to wave bye-bye, but Bowie’s showed us. Not that Bob’s dying.
Nicole drove to Roaring River State Park to take a meditative hike and commune with nature. I’d liked to have accompanied her, but we plan to return together with our friend Candace.
Speaking of, my father’s service is today, and my aunts and uncles and members of their families arrived at Mom’s yesterday. Jane is one of nine; five of her siblings still walk the earth. My uncle Larry, a skilled craftsman, made two wooden urns for us to choose from for Dad’s cremains; the funeral director was rendered almost speechless examining them. We had fried chicken and mashed potatoes provided by Monett’s Cox Hospital Auxiliary volunteers and got caught up. A couple founding members of my brother Brian’s Monett Mafia dropped by to pay their respects. We closed the day by showing Mom an episode of Gavin & Stacey with English subtitles.
Traveled to Monett for an up-and-back visit with my parents, to limit our exposing them to virus risk. As we were leaving, my dad experienced a dizzy spell, fell to the driveway, hit his head, and briefly lost consciousness. We followed the ambulance that spirited him away to Cox South in Springfield, where he eventually landed in the neural trauma ICU after a CT scan: brain bleed. He had been on blood thinners for another health complication, which wasn’t a great situation. But the last doc we talked to before we headed home sounded cautiously optimistic. Dad had spoken to us: “I’m ok.” “Where am I?” “Oh, God.” “Jesus.” But also garbled syllables…
At 1:15 a.m. Cox called to inform us Dad had taken a turn for the worse and would likely not last beyond Monday. Stunned, we returned to the hospital to begin a vigil. He did not regain consciousness. Calling Dad’s friends to tell them was exquisitely painful. We rotated by twos to sit by his bedside, though a few times we cheated and snuck in by five. Many readers have experienced the gradual succumbing of the unconscious by dying-gasp phases, which is among the most excruciating witnessing one can do; it was my second time. My dad was a hard-headed man, and twice conjured laughter from us out of despair by seeming to be ready to depart, drawing us together in tears and embraces–then beating death back. Finally, his exhalations faded, then stopped at around 8:45 p.m., 3:15 short of Father’s Day. Following the chaplain’s visit, we trudged out as if shackled to ball and chain, and drove home. Through it all, my mom was wondrously strong.
We vowed this would be a buffer day: no business. Only decompressing and dealing with waves of sadness, happy memories, shock, grim humor, confusion, relief, and the agape, frightening state of being overwhelmed. We were fortunate also to enjoy waves of support, though we could not finish my cousin Jim’s made-to-order truckload of delicious biscuits and sausage gravy. We were all surprised that we were so drained we could go right to sleep: it was as if we’d been hurtling smoothly down life’s highway, the driver had stomped on the brakes, and we’d mass-exited via windshield and were airborne in a blur of forward motion, just feet above asphalt stretching out of sight.
I am a big believer in routine and ritual in times of stress, as I’ve demonstrated in earlier commentary entries. I chose to continue teaching (my peers at Stephens had offered to cover for me), and my brother and I agreed to deal with three-four post-death imperatives per day maximum, so we would also have time for self-care. I almost regretted the former choice when an NPR Tiny Desk Concert by Alicia Keys left me sobbing two minutes before class started.
We met with the funeral director and knocked out details for the service, but totally preoccupied by tragedy might not have wrestled with the coronavirus factor thoroughly enough. I knew I would be writing Dad’s obituary after the Saturday early morning phone call, but I dreaded it. I found an isolated corner in which to write, poured some Canadian courage, plunged into the task, struggled, cried, had to pee, walked down the hall to the bathroom, and happened to notice the framed commendations of my dad’s service that have been hanging on the wall for almost 20 years. I took them all off the wall and back to my cubbyhole, where they fed me the linchpin segment of the obit. By the time I was finished, I needed a cup of Twining’s Extra Bold Breakfast Tea just to relax. After dinner we had a great religious discussion that drained us enough to go to sleep immediately again.
Mom awakened to the impact of sudden loss. She let it all out, then recovered after embraces and shared tears. She is tough–even tougher than I thought–and though this road will be long and full of potholes (it IS Missouri), I know she’s equal to it. I awakened and realized I had neither shaved or applied deodorant since Thursday–I addressed the latter. At the funeral home, we viewed Dad’s body one last time prior to its cremation–not easy, but we were together. I tried to grade papers through the masked and unmasked friends who streamed through Mom’s door, and succeeded, though I couldn’t (as usual) go full-medieval with editing commentary. Our dear friend Hiedi continued to look after our culinary needs and offer beaming smiles, laughter, and hugs, and the highlight of my day was wandering around Dad’s fascinating and slightly insane workshop with my brother, Hiedi’s husband and our honorary brother Greg, and his son-in-law Logan. I am the opposite of a craftsman, but as I watched them wander from skillsaw to lathe to air compressor to sander, remarking on their qualities and vintage, I told them, “Dad’s lucky to have three people who know exactly how special and how unique these machines are, and how special this spot is. Some folks leave things behind only to have survivors complain, ‘What do we do with this junk?'”
I’m trying like hell to keep this commentary going. I’m nervous about the crowd coming to Thursday’s service. Dad had many friends, but these times are threatening. Folks need to be cool.
Streaming for Survivors:
For my brother Brian, who I watched the Netflix ZZ Top documentary with, but who hadn’t heard of this band, which was mentioned as a kind of influence.
My Thursday classes are open Zooms: they serve as opportunities for one-on-one tutoring, clarification on coming assignments and grades, testing out fresh writing on me–basically anything related to comp. Three of my students hail from California, all of them are thriving, and one of them always takes advantage of Thursdays. She’s a delight, she always asks the best questions, and despite taking FOUR classes this summer, she is always full of cheer. My favorite quote from her yesterday? “Mr. Overeem, I LOVE writing!” She’s an equine studies major, too!
I have too many books on my stack, but that didn’t stop me from picking up National Book Award winner James McBride’s new one, Deacon King Kong, and, with Nicole, starting the audiobook of Marjorie J. Spruill’s Divided We Stand, one of the guides for the creators of Hulu’s Mrs. America. I know you were hoping I wouldn’t mention that again. It’s that good.
Amazingly, I handled a power drill and didn’t affix myself to the deck’s latticework, upon the posts of which I installed some doo-dads so Nicole could string some colored lights (we call ’em “joy lights”). I earned two fingers of Four Roses to back my cold beer.
Have a great Juneteenth tomorrow, and if you’re not sure about it, look it up!
Streaming for Strivers:
Pre-U.S. release Wailers with Scratch on the sliders and knobs.
Former high school students of mine may recall my frustration with not having enough time to get it all in–that wasn’t bad planning, that was the collision between just loving what I was doing and everything being connected. I remember when “bell-to-bell instruction” emerged as a “faculty agreement” one year, and I was like “Someone’s having to agree to that?” When I moved on to the college campus, I quickly noticed that when instructors were done, they were done, and would sometimes release their charges a bit early, as they would stream past my classroom door. I said to myself, “Well, maybe I should do that occasionally, too, if I reach the natural end of a class quickly.” Every time–every time!–I would say, “I’ll probably cut you loose a bit early to get down to it,” a student would have to point out to me that we’d reached the usual end time. There are no clocks on Stephens’ classroom walls. Once, I was so locked in that I got confused and taught an extra 15 minutes before someone stopped me (that was a great, and kind, group of students). I came to believe it was just a sign that I get into this job, and it’s reflective of life, too: you have to work to squeeze it all in before the big hand hits that hash mark. Yesterday, for the first time, I told my virtual students, who hail from all over the country, from the California – Mexico border to Mississippi to Pennsylvania, “I’m going to cut you loose a shade early after we talk about revision to actually start revising.”
Guess what happened? I guess I’m even loving virtuality.
Other highlights: Nicole’s fresh moussaka, Bess Frissell’s “Communion calculation” (based on a 150-pound Jesus), Art Tatum flying around the keyboard and out the house speakers, three powerful new books, and a nice neighborhood walk. One sad note: watching my patiently, sincerely, warmly, and painstakingly constructed set of responses to a (former, and fragile) Facebook friend’s query regarding why I had to post about black beauty get wiped–I need to abjure “Reply” in the future in such matters. It was not I who clicked “unfriend,” by the way. But, perhaps, “better down the road / without that load.”
Yesterday, I graded papers. I grit my teeth dragging myself to the task, slowly warm to it, almost lose myself paper by paper, and feel renewed afterwards. Somewhere the atoms of George Frissell are laughing and calling bullsh*t on that claim, but I’ve graded over 30,000 in my life, and one does find little streams of pleasure in it. I’ve got some good writers this summer, but later for the comma splices!
I have been struggling with an issue regarding a package USPS couldn’t deliver, had to redeliver, then lost. I’d filed a help request, and received an apology email, but the title of the email included the inaccurate word “Resolved.” So I fired back a tart but polite reply that there had to be more to it than I was being told–I had the tracking number, but no receipt to match it. In no time, I received a call from the local supervisor who’d written the email, who then expertly de-escalated my case of the red-ass, gave me some useful information by which I reached understanding, and very sincerely apologized again. I thanked him for caring enough to follow up, and as I was about to hang up, he said, “Did you use to teach at Hickman? I’m sorry I was a punk.” I had to tell him that a lot of punks turn out just fine.
I went a paragraph too long so I guess those essays aren’t that fetching.
Streaming for Strivers:
Medicine. These songs have been for years, and here they’re administered with care and mastery by two jazz physicians.
The day opened with Nicole’s delicious thick blueberry pancakes, some real maple syrup, and two poached eggs. After that, I was ready for anything.
I experimented with an open Zoom writing workshop, since my charge have a paper due for peer (and my) review Monday. Seemed to work fine. I had a few students pop in to (gently) bounce ideas off me, including the one who wore a WWJJD shirt to class yesterday (“What would Joan Jett do?”). Week 1 of summer school teachin’? Loved it.
For lunch, Nicole fixed us our 10th locally-grown 🍅 + (Blue Plate) mayonnaise + lettuce sandwich of the pandemic. Our summer officially starts with those.
I previous mentioned Derf Backderf’s graphic novel Trashed, but I didn’t expect to devour it in two sittings (it’s 260 pages long). If you’ve ever wondered about the fate of your trash, or reflected on your trash practices, you might want to check it out. Plus, it’s eye-wateringly funny, and distinctively drawn. Backderf’s much-anticipated Kent State book arrives on September 4th.
We closed the day with a relatively long jaunt around our neighborhood which we completed just before trouble descended in our locality–and just opened today marveling at a strange, jaundiced sunrise.
Streaming for Shut-Ins (Do I need to rename this feature?):
Rod Taylor, thanks for recommending Mr. Gil’s Refavela to me, which led me to THIS one, which I also love and had never heard. Folks, this musician is a shining jewel of Brazilian expression…