Cloister Commentary, Day 294: It Wasn’t (Quite) All Bad

I have been posting too much about the horror and foreboding that has been so occupying our minds in recent days. We aren’t even paying as much attention as usual to a pandemic that’s found another higher gear. Not going into it in detail further here, other than to say it’s affecting our sleep and causing us to fear the next 10 days (at least).

Nicole worked. I cleaned up the front yard and worked on my music blog. Some readers know that, at the end of every month, I update a list of new albums of the calendar year that I think are worthwhile. Partially due to distraction, partially due to fatigue, partially due to feelings of futility, partially to it being 2021, I’d resisted finalizing my 2020 list. However, I discovered that a writer I’ve admired and read for (wow!) almost 40 years had found some worthwhile listening from my posts, so that inspired me to follow all the way through.

One of my favorite people at Stephens e-mailed me to let me know my spring composition class wasn’t going to happen, but since I just learned she shares a song every morning with her administrative group, I sent a couple relevant Impressions songs her way as a measure of good faith. I also learned that both teacher interns I’ll be supervising this semester have been placed at my favorite local high school, Battle, and under the auspices of two very respected English teachers, one of whom is a former student of mine. Awesome.

In the evening, we had a Shakespeare’s pizza and some fresh Happy Hollow spinach, and I received a very inspiring message from a student I taught at Parkview High School 37 years ago. We reminisced, and he admitted that, though his mind was mostly on music, girls, and beer, I got his attention and he’s always remembered the class (though I barely knew what I was doing). He was in a band at the time, and he sent me a pic of us apiece from that year. That made my night.

I fell asleep thinking about the words of our departed friend, Jo Steitz: “If someone’s not adding color to your life, you don’t need them.”

Streaming for Strivers:

Always relevant, unfortunately.

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 255: Cold, Cold, Cold

Yesterday was the first realllllly cold morning of the pandemic, and I don’t know about you, but it felt much different than past first-cold-mornings. In some ways, one would expect this experience has toughened us up; however, the isolation–especially if one bit the bullet and stayed put this Thanksgiving–adds a new dimension to meeting wintery weather.

Work was slow for me. Few of Stephens’ students are on campus for finals, and neither of those facts held out the promise of a tutoring appointment. Also, the Success Center and library warriors–the only folks IN the library other than wee ones and their teachers on the top floor–are still sticking to their offices (though we don’t have to at this point, I’m keeping my door shut so I can comfortably work without a mask). Maybe that, too, made the cold colder.

I’ve mentioned this before, but The New York Times Magazine’s THE DECAMERON PROJECT collects pandemic stories from 23 of the world’s best writers (even more are featured on line). If you’re one who believes the only thing coming out of newspapers is “fake news,” I have news for you: the motto of the collection is “When reality is surreal, only fiction can make sense of it,” and these aces fully realize that motto. Names you might recognize? Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, David Mitchell, Tommy Orange, Karen Russell, Rachel Kushner, and Victor LaValle. It’s now in book form, but you can also read it on-line. I recommend Russell’s “Line 19 Woodstock / Glisen” as a teaser; Nicole and I both loved it.

Streaming for Strivers:

Hearkening back to my eight-track days–I played the pee-waddin’ out of this one.

Cloister Commentary, Day 206: The Thrills and Spills of Tutoring

After Nicole and I took a long neighborhood walk through a windy, cool, overcast fall morning and I arrived at work, I was presented with my first major tutoring challenge of the semester. I was due to Zoom-proctor a student’s on-line math test–it’s very doable via screen-sharing and camera sweeps–but I’d just had my computer replaced, and the techs had not reconnected my mic, camera, and speakers. Sounds like something I could have done, but the simple task required administrative log-in credentials and I’m so low on the totem pole I’m under the ground. The biggest problem was, the instructor was starting the test remotely and the test was timed. Fortunately, neither the student nor I panicked (her mic, camera, and speakers were working great), and I managed to use the chat function skillfully enough to get her through. The exciting life of a professional tutor!

When I returned home from work, I was rewarded for my patience and “ingenuity” with a Tampa Bay victory over Houston (sorry, Brian), I listened to some classic highlife music from Bokoor Studios in Ghana, and I read several more chapters from Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s pitch-black The Dead Girls.

After more shepherd’s pie for supper and a cup of hot golden milk, we read and waited for results from a special school board vote regarding a return to in-seat schooling–which, unfortunately, stretched into the night past our endurance. Judging from the national COVID-19 map, now doesn’t seem to be a great time, but, as I pointed out to a colleague yesterday, these are counterintuitive times. We awakened wide-eyed at 3:45 a.m to the news.

Streaming for Strivers:

A continuation from last night’s soundtrack.

Cloister Commentary, Day 202: Comrades, Cousins, and Comedians

I had mentioned a few commentaries back that the inspirational Stephens prof Ann Breidenbach and I had teamed up for a fun educational project, but I withheld the details. Yesterday, the project went to ground: after we educated her women’s studies students about absentee voting, we created an opportunity whereby I was able to notarize her students’ ballots that required it. Few actually did need that service, but two of them just happened to be the top students from my virtual summer freshman comp class, whom I’d never met in person. Even though we were all masked, we recognized each other from about 30 feet away! As my friend George Frissell would have said (quoting Chief Dan George in Little Big Man, as was frequently his wont), it made my heart soar like a hawk.

I also had the pleasure of talking with my cousin Gregory on the phone for over an hour. I frankly do not enjoy blabbin’ into the blower for even five minutes, but Greg is one of those few exceptions. His insights, good cheer, sense of humor, and wise perspectives were quite welcome (roiling, rotten stuff happened to have been weighing on my mind at the time), and he’s really an inspirational human being. We traded stories, and I honestly had trouble hanging up the phone. May you have a rewarding weekend, cuz.

Nicole and I both had educational crises dumped in our laps after 5 p.m (it’s an occupational hazard of great regularity for all us edumacators), but we calmed our nerves with an old remedy we had not tried in over a decade: Southpark. “The Pandemic Special” proved Matt and Trey are still great at that thing they do. They have Tegrity.

Streaming for Strivers:

They say it’s his birthday!

Cloister Commentary, Day 193: Plottin’ Pedagogs!

When I was a full-time public school teacher, I truly loved plotting with fellow fun-loving educators (I think of Nicole Overeem, Karen Downey, George Frissell, Brock Boland, Jim Kome and Jill Varns) to pull off exciting and inventive educational experiences. Yesterday in the early morning, my very esteemed, beloved and influential Stephens College colleague Ann Breidenbach e-mailed me with a brilliant idea she required my assistance to execute, if I was game. I received the email right after she sent it, I replied (as is my wont), “Let’s do it now!” and in a matter of seconds, I was Zooming with her Women’s Studies class putting the idea into play. As I retiree, I can’t perfectly communicate how thrilled I am to be involved in this venture–and, NO, I’m not going to tell you what it is yet! I will give you a clue: it’s a particularly great brainstorm if you happen to be a teacher or a student in Missouri, Oklahoma, or Mississippi.

That’s about all I have, except this: I have always luxuriated in this time of year and its brilliant skies, mild weather, blazing colors, and bittersweet, reflective overtone. I never thought I would ever enter it with my current level of dread, disappointment, despair, and disgust. I have very few illusions about who, what, where, why, and how we are, and I do know it’s not all bad, but another “d” word is hovering in the air, Isaac, waiting for me to pluck it out for use: DESULTORY.

Streaming for Strivers:

Speaking of things that are not bad, I invite you to partake of the work of an underrated star in the American music firmament who’s celebrating the anniversary of her arrival today.

Cloister Commentary, Day 192: Erratically Conscious

I set a personal professional record with seven consecutive tutorial sessions on Zoom yesterday. All my appointments showed up early and prepared, they demonstrated impressive knowledge of their chosen genre and film history, their essay ideas were fairly sound, and, in most cases, I was able to facilitate an obliterating of their compositional obstacles (also known as “helping them”). Perhaps the sessions were made more pleasant by my Zoom background, which was the actual cozy little residential section of West Walnut Street that backs my office window but looked almost computer-generated. Anything to distract from my COVID-forged grooming, which is indeed approaching the Jeff Bridges-esque.

Do you fall asleep sitting up, even while watching shows you love with people you love? Fear not–you are not alone. I believe this is a sign of simply being in the “second half” of life’s game. I had to “make up” a viewing of the third and fourth episode of Watchmen that I was erratically conscious for when Nicole and I originally watched it, but, I tell you what (do people say that in other regions?), that show is scintillating. Just scintillating. Worth watching twice even IF you were fully conscious for it!

I awakened this morning at 3:15 again, afraid I was living in a (bit more scarily defined) theocracy.

Streaming for Survivors:

Who’d-a thunk this ivory-pounder would indeed be one of the very last men standing? And did you know he kicks this album off with a Led Zeppelin cover?

Cloister Commentary, Day 188: Semicolonoscopy

Dr. James Terry is one of the best profs at Stephens College–he’s admired by students AND colleagues–and yesterday he staged his students’ annual Punctuation Day competition. He assigns each of the class’ finalists a punctuation mark, then charges them with the task of designing a creative presentation that effectively defines each, illustrates its uses, and offers tips to the confused, and delivering it on stage in the school theater. This year, he invited me to judge, and, in introducing me, asked me how I liked to celebrate National Punctuation Day. Having only learned of its existence the day I received his request, I lied that I like to spend the morning writing, then the afternoon giving my work a semicolonotomy (I am a mite too fond of them). Also, after submitting my ballot, I learned I was the first judge to ever award all three categories (creativity, volume, overall excellence) to the same student, who revealed the mysteries of–wait for it!–the semicolon to her peers. By the way, half of the students were beaming in via Zoom (one presented that way), the other half plus the educators were masked, and tape prevented any of us from being closer than eight feet from each other; props to Jim and Stephens for providing a safe and healthy place to learn. (Note semicolonic restraint exercised above.)

Nicole and I have had a bit of a rough week, if you’ve been following, but I’d like to recommend neighborhood walks and sitting meditation to any of you who are also mourning or otherwise suffering (the national events of the week have been enough to cause an excess of both in almost anyone). Also recommended: taking meals together, talking the grief out, listening to The Beatles, and watching uplifting programming (for us, Woke and Unpregnant).

Streaming for Strivers:

I’d like to thank Spacecase Records for lighting a punk rock fire in me. Found within: early work by Meat Puppets, 100 Flowers, Leaving Trains, and The Gun Club.

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 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.