Cloister Commentary, Day 233: Plumb Wore Out

Yesterday felt like a return from another planet. We celebrated the anniversary of Nicole’s arrival on this plane with a walk in magnificent November weather, Bloody Marys, a painfully short game of chess in which my bride did a great Beth Harmon imitation, some classic soul music (Ann Peebles, Joe Tex, and Otis Redding), a Zoom with our boon pals in Springfield and Seattle, and a variety of dips and stuff. I guess we were plumb wore out, not only from the day but the previous week, as we retired at 8 p.m.

Streaming for Strivers:

A great lost rap concept album by a sharp old pro.

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 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.

Cloister Commentary, Day 338: Zoom Birthday Party

I’m hard to surprise. The multiple early birthday wishes should have been a hint; I assumed it was a social media glitch. But yesterday–the day before my birthday–Nicole set up an open Zoom from noon to five for my friends to pop in and say howdy. I had no idea what she was up to, but it was perfect, because, as I mentioned yesterday, a TV scene had really made me miss the (live) feeling of being in the midst of a bunch of interesting, funny, lively humans. I “saw” a great cyberfriend for the first time; I enjoyed a mini-reunion with two fond high school friends; I received a birthday serenade from Jacqueline Kelly; I convened with counselors and principals (one of the latter interviewed the other back in the day, didn’t hire him, but I guess he showed her (πŸ˜‚)–they were in the Zoom at the same time, so that was a wonderfully but gracefully humorous moment!); I hung out with my brother, aunt, and uncle; the first people to arrive were a wonderful couple of old marrieds who we’d be pestering every week if they lived here in Columbia; a fellow teacher and I reminisced about our very different teacher training activities; my most rock-and-rollin’ former student got to meet my most rock-and-rollin’ best buddy. I could go on–it was definitely one of my favorite birthday presents of all-time, and I recommend it! (We didn’t get Ken and Charles in the same room–they get the magic of birthdays, believe me–but there’s always next year.

We had so much fun were almost too tired to eat dinner! I usually mentally lash myself if I don’t read or listen to a record or two each day, but I was too pleasantly drained to even skim the paper, so “Men in Kilts,” SNL, and “All Creatures Great and Small” had to do. Especially “Men in Kilts”….

Streaming for Strivers:

…it’s my birthday, too (continued from yesterday). Into the morning.

Cloister Commentary, Day 315: Three Highlights

One of yesterday’s highlights was finishing Hubert Selby, Jr.’s blazing Requiem for a Dream. I almost re-watched the film adaptation, but ended up deeming it a bit too much, so I watched the first special episode of Euphoria instead–which tied right in. One of the best post-COVID productions I’ve seen.

Another was participating in a post and thread started by Alyssa O’Day, whom I taught when she was a 6th grader and when she was a senior. She has always been sharp, spirited, and fearless, and we were discussing the difficulty of convincing some folks (particularly elders) that they’d demonstrably drunk the Kool-Aid (recalling that a former colleague once thought that phrase was an occupational compliment, I must clarify that IT IS NOT). We did not solve that problem, but I thoroughly enjoyed the attempt.

The capper was a FaceTime with our dear friends Kenny and Gwen Wright, of Helena, Alabama. We talked about politics, pets, and pain, as well as sports, sons, and salmon. I wish they lived next door.

Streaming for Survivors:

A trailblazer who has departed too early.

Cloister Commentary, Day 268: The Road Home

Road trip back from my mom’s–listened to Black Thought’s first two “Streams of Thought” EPs (strong stuff), then Robert Calvert’s Lucky Leif & The Longships and Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness & Charm (strange and wonderful stuff). Switched to Chiefs game for my last lap only to hear them in “we’ll-spot-you-some-points” mode.

I was glad to see Nicole. She fixed me a titanic grilled (pepper) cheese sandwich and some tomater soup, we had a couple beers, Zoomed with a couple of friends, poopity-popped some popcorn, and closed out the day with the documentary Fantastic Fungi. Serious food for thought, right there.

Streaming for Strivers:

This random selection from a stack of things I was curious about entertained and fascinated the hell out of me when I was on the road yesterday! It is a concept album (I think) both wacky and wry.

Cloister Commentary, Day 264: Essential Missions

With great care and forethought, I reluctantly left Nicole and our feline team yesterday morning to hit the road for two out-of-town visits. This is not the greatest time to be venturing out, but some missions are essential and I’m taking the fewest possible risks.

On my familiar highway chain–70 to 63 to 54 to 5 to 44–I jammed to some relatively new music I’d not yet heard, three rap albums that dazzled me by serengeti (with help from Greg the Deerhoof drummer), Backxwash (hear below), Bktherula. I thought I was fatigued by the first MC’s set-up (I’ve long been a fan, and almost snagged him for a free show at Hickman High School)–I was wrong; the second MC simply stunned me with her aggressive delivery and strong worldview (we’ll call it); the sonics of the third MC’s album (Nirvana). The morning was one of my favorite musical experiences of this calendar year, and you may not like critics, but they DO care–and I got the tips from a goodun.

My first visit was with one of my lifelong best friends, a former housemate and (once) bandmate, and a stellar groomsman, Mike Rayhill. We talked Ebo Taylor and Fela, Taysom Hill and Patrick Mahomes, fatherhood and fathers, public and social parochial education, and cruelty and love. We also ate six delicious Taco Bell tacos.

My second visit was with my mom, with whom I’ll be staying for a few days. I helped her with a Zoom church business meeting, we enjoyed pork loin and baked potatoes, and took in a sweet and fun movie, The Fishermen’s Friends, which I’d seen before but she needed to see (thanks again, Clay). It’s recommended to fishermen, friends, and lovers of sea shanties.

Streaming for Strivers:

Been awhile since a rap album has injected my body and mind with pure caffeine like this record by Backxwash.

Cloister Commentary, Day 259: Check-Ups and Check-Ins

I can definitely understand anyone in our current situation choosing not to visit a doctor’s office or clinic if at all possible. I’ve now been to four different such facilities within the last month, most of them on routine missions because I’m getting older and that and the events of this year are making me more vigilant. I’ve been reluctant, because masks are not completely preventative, but I’m glad I went, because I’ve found out things I’ve really needed to know. I encourage you, if you’ve been holding out on check-ups and such, to visit your health professionals soon.

The capper to our week, especially Nicole’s working week, was a dinner of Parmesan portobello mushrooms, fresh spinach, and sweet taters with cinnamon and brown sugar. Hard to beat! We had a glass of wine and sat down to a wide-ranging Zoom conversation with our friends Rebecca and Frank Pisano. We discussed excellent Zoom teachers, Jessco White and Jimi Hendrix, Hillbilly Elegy and Mangrove, English vs. American Black Panthers, J. K. Rowling and Lee Smith, middle-schoolers and elementary humans, and much more. We were so drained from the rich talk we were asleep about 10 minutes after the Zoom concluded.

Streaming for Strivers:

I, too, am a free-born man. It’s after birth that’s the hard part of the bargain.

Cloister Commentary, Day 254: Boogie Breakout

Yesterday was a standard COVID Sunday.

CBS Sunday Morning and reading the papers.
A hearty breakfast (peppers ‘n’ eggs with Uprise Bakery’s Ancient Grain bread, toasted).
A Bloody Mary.
Two Zooms, one with family and one with friends.
Piddling around.
Some interesting viewing (we’re sniffing at Orange is the New Black).

The only thing that wasn’t standard?


It might have had something to do with the strength of the Bloody Mary, but while Nicole was in the shower, I put Stevie Ray Vaughan’s last studio album, In Step (hear below), on the turntable and turned it up pretty significantly. I believe the rhythms penetrated into the rain room, because when she emerged cleaned up and dressed, she came out boogieing! We never plan to dance in our house–it just breaks out. That was the day’s definite highlight.

Ganesha’s down for the countdown!

Streaming for Survivors:

If the house is rockin’, don’t bother knocking.

Cloister Commentary, Day 252: A Day

Nicole worked on kitchen projects and I kept her entertained by playing records by some of our favorite artists. I wasn’t quite so ambitious, but I did clean up the basement a bit, finish one book, and start another. I can’t believe November’s already almost gone, but in many ways I am relieved.

We Zoomed in the evening with Vance and Liz Downing, two of our youngest and most cherished friends. I was the officiant at their wedding, and they are quite well-matched. We teased out the many ways COVID has affected our lives and occasionally broached other topics.

That is all.

Streaming for Survivors:

The music doesn’t perfectly match the title–there is much discipline and focus in it–but it is aggressively great.