Monthly Archives: March 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year: #5

The day begins with session 10 of a guided meditation with Sam Harris. I’m not a huge fan of guided meditations, per se, because I feel while I’m meditating I don’t want somebody else’s voice in my head. But I am a fan of Sam Harris, so I figured, since he gifted me a free year’s subscription to Waking Up, that I’d live for awhile with Sam Harris’ voice in my head while I meditate. I’m learning some things. His guidance seems grounded to me, down to earth, less woo woo and more you you. In fact, that’s the thing I like best about him: there’s no woo woo.

René and I take another long dog walk, our fifth in a row, I think. The dogs are so stupidly happy it’s not even funny.

Feeling rather spunky this morning, I turn to Whitman for the poem of the day. I land on the famous concluding section, #52, of “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass. 

As I am preparing to record a poetry recitation in the back yard, I pause for a mostly delightful conversation with my student-teacher about how we might possibly reconnect with our students and recreate something of a learning community again in the virtual world. We are hatching plans. Meanwhile, her guy, a union representative for nurses, is working 16 hour days during our time of the plague. We talked more about paradox.

I begin recording #52 with the distant rattle of my son practicing his rudimental drumming on a marching snare drum in the basement.  I attempt many takes before I get it right. I get some really funny ones during which, after the transcendent lines of Whitman, I botch a line and start to curse–the evidence of which I have deleted from my phone–which somewhat disappoints me now. It’s not every day you get to hear “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” followed by an F bomb.

My son comes outside! We play with dogs. We reminisce about the playhouse we finally took down, about sitting in there years ago under cover while a thunderstorm raged, and about badminton competitions in the front yard. All our rackets are broken. All the birdies are gone. We are inspired to walk to a sporting goods store for some new badminton supplies. We return with two new rackets and three birds.

We play badminton without a net, trying to set the back-and-forth record, a thing we haven’t done together for three years or better. We get to 20 and can never get beyond it, fighting the whole time against an uncooperative head-wind. I had the wind at my advantage, but in this kind of non-competitive match, the wind is at no one’s advantage.

I manage more effectively today to stay clear of the news, but in times like this it is mostly impossible, and maybe not desirable. I want to know if our Governor Brown would follow California’s suit, a “stay-in-place” order. Apparently she has not, but our numbers are still climbing. 114 cases in Oregon, four of which are in my county. There are 4,500 cases in New York City. Despite this perspective, we continue trying not to be afraid. My dreams have been strange. I am still out of whiskey.

As I put the finishing touches on this dispatch and attach my backyard Whitman video, I realize I have two problems: 1. some strange audio glitch over the “boot soles” line, and 2. an inexplicable deletion of half a second elsewhere, making that particular line incomprehensible. This will not do. I will begin again, and post late, post-haste.

Whitman is the antidote today, even though working with him has proved difficult. It wasn’t his fault. Please enjoy and forgive the lack of green in the backdrop of Leaves. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones. Help someone out who needs it. Sound your barbaric yawp.

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #4

It’s only been four days, but I miss my students, I miss my student teacher, I miss my colleagues, and I miss that building, oddly enough, perhaps, the most constant and stable thing in my adult life, my school and my classroom like another home. Meanwhile, the sun shines, the dogs get another long walk. Another beautiful day on which to ponder this darkness.

Every once in a while, in my professional capacity, I get riled up about something. On Wednesday, March 11, a single day before we learned schools would be closed, I attended a morning staff meeting that irked me to such a degree that I did the thing I usually do in such circumstances: I began an open letter in order to air my grievances. I was committed and passionate and insistent about all the things that went (as I perceived them) wrong during that particular staff meeting. I had decided to share it with my bosses. I spent hours on this thing. And almost immediately after learning that schools would be shut down, my indignation totally deflated.

If nothing else, in these strange times, incomparable for me to anything in my entire experience on the planet, we tend to winnow through stuff that concerns us to find what we hold most dear, find most important and life-giving, and let the rest fall away like chaff. Maybe someday, that indignant feeling about bad staff meetings in an otherwise idyllic working environment (outside of the intense difficulty of the job) will bubble back up, and I may have an opportunity and an obligation to speak. But right now, all I want to do is read, write, make music, love my family, do the odd thing that needs doing around the house and yard, walk the dogs, ride the bike, and recite poetry.

I seem to be gravitating toward my all time favorite poems, as one does. This one: the first Mary Oliver poem I ever heard and the one I come back to over and over, “Wild Geese.”

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #3

Number of cases of coronavirus in Oregon: 75. Number of Oregon deaths from the virus: 3. Number of student contact days lost thus far: 3. Number of student contact days expected to be lost, as of this moment: 27. Number of educational hours potentially lost: approximately 175. Number of plans in place (or announced) for remote schooling: 0.  Number of prom nights canceled: 1. Number of IB exams students will be ill-prepared to take or might miss altogether: 11. Number of graduation ceremonies postponed or cancelled: unknown.

Unknown.

It is strange to know so little. It is strange to be in the middle of or in the beginning stages of a pandemic but not know a single soul who is sick from it. It is strange to think about any number of people you know who might have it or might get it. It is strange to be living in a constant nagging fear regarding your own health, your wife’s, your child’s. It is strange to have this great gift of time opening up before us. It is strange to think that the very best way to help might be in doing absolutely nothing–or at least–in going absolutely nowhere. I haven’t driven a car in four days. On our walk with the dogs this morning there were lots of people out walking or biking the recreational trail in our neighborhood, everyone keeping their distance from strangers, of course, but greeting people nevertheless as they passed, everyone polite, cheerful, kind, as if it were any Saturday spring morning happening on a Wednesday. I saw a student of mine and we said hello gleefully but did not stop to talk. I’ve spent a lot of time with my dogs. I read them poetry in the back yard.  I am thinking about embarking on a few ambitious creative projects. I am reading fiction.

Meanwhile, politics.

Never mind. I’m meditating every morning with Sam Harris on the Waking Up app. He gave me a free year’s subscription just for asking. That was kind of him, I think. The poem I chose to read today, first to the dogs in the back yard, then on my front porch into the stupid smart phone video recorder, is a favorite William Stafford poem, a poem that for years now we have been reading to our juniors on the very first day of class, and that I have read to seniors on the very last day of class. It’s all about the moment, friends, and serves us well as a meditation for this time, an appropriate mantra in our uncertainty. Take the best of care, everyone. “You Reading This, Be Ready.”

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #2

Good news and bad news.

Here’s the good news, in no particular order: the dogs got a walk two days in a row. I rode my bike two days in a row. I fixed the kitchen sink all by myself. It’s another beautiful day, weather-wise. Feels almost like BBQ season. The government is thinking about sending everyone money. The Boomtown Rats released a new album on Friday. Every single one of these sentences seem about the same length. While two members of my household are mostly recovered from late winter colds, no one in the family has a fever. We are all more or less healthy, and yet (this may count as bad news), when I told my chiropractor’s office that I was recovering from a cold, they postponed my visit for a week–no massage for me today.

And here’s the bad news, in order of severity, from this vantage point: The death toll from COVID-19 in our neighboring state, Washington, is up to 50, half of the total nation-wide. The number of confirmed cases in Oregon rises to 66, almost double from the stats I saw yesterday. One fatality. The governor extends the statewide school closure to April 28. That’s my job. That’s what I do. Restaurants are closed except for take-out. Bars are closed. Musicians can’t gig. The Flaming Lips did not perform in Portland with the Oregon Symphony. Having nothing but time on one’s hands, sometimes it is difficult to choose a thing to do. I spent maybe a half an hour today trying to decide between riding a bike and reading a book. I find it super difficult to stop touching my face. I’ve noticed of late that I often make inexplicable typographical errors. I have not yet heard the new Boomtown Rats album. It’s St. Patty’s day and there are only two beers in the fridge. I am out of whiskey.

So I decided to ride first, read later. Bike then book. I picked up Emily Dickinson: “There is no Frigate like a Book.” And that inspired the following video and the initial dive into Joan Frank’s Where You’re All Going. I’m hoping this lovely book by this beautiful friend will provide some answers.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #1

We learned Thursday night, March 12, 2020, that spring break would be extended significantly. School is cancelled, the buildings are shuttered, by order of our state governor, for an extra week and some change. School business will not resume until April 1. Friday was our last day in session before this mandatory break. We were told to take everything home that we thought we’d need. We were told there was no expectation that we would even attempt to work with our students remotely. Think of these days like you would snow days, they told us, only considerably less fun. And it appeared no one was having fun on Friday. There was nothing like that excited expectation before a holiday break, from students or staff. Many students stayed home. I had 8 kids in my second period class. And, despite students’ relatively good spirits and a tendency toward a healthy dose of gallows humor, I felt most of the day on the verge of tears.

Four million people live in the state of Oregon. There have been 36 reported and confirmed cases of the Coronavirus to date and one death in our state. I understand that this is not a comfort, that the numbers will rise. But the weekend felt almost normal. My son and I made a foray out into the world for some retail therapy. He had gift cards burning a hole in his pocket and it had been awhile since the two of us had had any kind of father-son outing. So we went to The Mystery Gallery, we had lunch at Cha Cha Cha, we walked across the street to Things from Another World, and we drove downtown to Powell’s City of Books. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I remember asking him if maybe it wouldn’t be better to save the drive to Powell’s for another day in our extended break. He insisted we do it that day, so we did, and it wasn’t more than a few hours later, that evening, I think, or maybe Sunday morning when Powell’s announced that they would be closing all of their stores.

The word surreal doesn’t even cut it. It snowed Saturday morning, but today, Monday, the first official day of our district’s closure, it feels like spring has arrived. I went for a bike ride without a coat on. Outside, all seems right as rain, but today, the recommendation from the White House is that we shouldn’t gather in groups of more than ten individuals. Our governor is considering closing down restaurants and clubs, maybe since the last time I checked she’s gone ahead to announce that decision. It’s hard to keep up and it’s hard not to worry. I worry that I shouldn’t have gone out with my son on Saturday. I second guess the decision to allow a friend of his to visit. I’m not sure my wife should have left just now to go to the store. If her clientele for private music instruction drops off we could be in a financial pickle. And how long will this go on? Absolutely everything is up in the air. I comfort myself with a reminder that, no, not everything is up in the air. We have shelter and food, books to read, lots of music to listen to, instruments to play, and games. We love each other. And we have our health. Last night in the democratic debate Joe Biden announced he was healthy, and then he said, “Knock on wood” while giving himself a couple of knuckle raps to the forehead. I thought that was super funny. We have our sense of humor. And we have poetry. Welcome to A Journal of the Plague Year. I’m stealing that title from Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders fame because I can and because it feels fitting. I don’t know if I will keep this up or not. Only time will tell. Things might get a bit tedious around here as the Chaos of the world intensifies. There’s a paradox for you. And here’s another one, apt for the situation, I think.

I will close with one of my favorites from Rumi: “The Guest House.”

 

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