Category Archives: Reportage

A Journal of the Plague Year: #10

Are we having fun yet? That, in case there was any confusion, is a rhetorical question. We are not having fun on this Friday of Spring Break, 2020, the year of our plague. Are we bored? Some of us are bored. You know what they say, though? Whoever “they” are, I am told that they say that boredom is good for us. Out of boredom, often comes creativity and problem solving. The state of not knowing what to do often results in things being done. The Old Guy in me says, that’s what’s wrong with kids today! They don’t know how to be bored, surrounded, as they are, by a hundred and one distractions, a thousand different ways to be entertained, all immediate, all at their grimy little finger tips! To a certain degree, this is true. Maybe it’s wrong to generalize. Maybe there’s no maybe about it. As an educator, in every year, I find that there are always a decent number of young people who are not addicted to their devices, who are super creative, and who do not have grimy finger tips. When they are bored, they read, they write, they create, or they cozy up to their boredom like a lover. I wonder how they are all doing with all of this unstructured, unvaction-y, shelter-in-place time.

Soon, I will find out. Soon I will be back in touch somewhat with my students. In recent emails from our union president and from our district superintendent, we learn that on March 31st, we are all returning to work. Sort of. Although we are told we might be able to stop in to pick up materials we need from our classrooms, we won’t be returning officially to our buildings. We will work remotely. We will attend google hangouts, we will develop some kind of remote learning opportunities for our students, we will attend IEP meetings, PD meetings, PLC meetings, meetings about other acronyms and abbreviations, and we will log in our hours, a certain number of which will be mandatory. We will roll out some remote learning program for students within three days of our “return” to work. What I find fascinating and weird and oddly intriguing about this preparation for High School Remote, is that, as I understand it, students will be held harmless for all of it, meaning that none of the work they might do as a result of instruction and assignments given will be graded, recorded, or figured into a final mark for the semester. Part of me thinks, a ha! Here’s an opportunity for an experiment in an educational fantasy I have harbored throughout my career: the grade-less classroom! Another part of me is doubtful that students, out of desperation with their boredom, will flock to The Google to continue getting an education, you know, for its own sake. One can hope. One can only hope that they are THAT bored.

The dog is bored. She keeps bringing me her soggy, slobbery tennis ball to throw. And while we’re on the subject, today’s poem, happily, is about boredom. One of my favorite poems of all time, so much so, that I don’t need my reading glasses for it–because I have it committed to memory! John Berryman, #14 from the Dreamsongs.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #9

Just a few observations today in no particular order, or, rather, more accurately, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  • War of the Worlds seems to be our binge-show of choice at the moment. There’s nothing like a great end-of-the-world story to get you through a pandemic.
  • In related news: my son and I are considering the purchase of the tenth season of The Walking Dead. It has been a thing of ours for years, ever since the day, when he was way too young, that I discovered he was secretly watching it on the iPad. Terribly aggrieved, I made a deal with him that watching with Dad was the only way he could continue with this deranged and terribly violent show.
  • Yesterday’s outing was successful. I pulled up curbside to Music Millennium, my favorite independent record store, called inside, and a blue-rubber-gloved young clerk come outside with my vinyl order: a 200 gram, remastered “25 O’clock,” the new Boomtown Rats album (the first in 37 years!), and a collaboration between The Flaming Lips and Deap Vally: Deap Lips, of course. The spelling is theirs, in case you were wondering. Music Millennium is closed to in-store customers. On-line and curbside sales only. If you have a favorite business operating this way, and you are able, try to help them out.
  • The liquor and grocery store excursion seemed like any other liquor and grocery store excursion, except that I could tell people were being conscientious about distance. But is it possible in these situations to remain six feet away from every human being? I don’t think it is. If I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched someone on a number of occasions. You will be happy to know that I did not do this, however. Some were wearing gloves. A few were wearing masks. Was it less busy than usual? Maybe. The most striking difference was in the drive. The traffic was light, but not alarmingly. But there were so many businesses hanging signs that said “CLOSED.” Cafes, restaurants, small shops everywhere, closed.
  • The number of infected people in Oregon has nearly tripled since the last time I mentioned it. So has the number of deaths. 266 and 10, respectively.
  • A letter from our principal, my boss, arrived in yesterday’s email box. Beyond the joke about his attempt at homeschooling resulting in the near suspension and expulsion of his own kids, the news about next steps is still fuzzy, except for the fact that we may be called into work on the 30th or the 31st. I’m interested to know what we might do for an entire month before students are slated to return. He makes a plea for flexibility, a guarantee that our “roles will look different,” that we “may be asked to do things that are not in our job description,” whatever that means. “We are in uncharted territory.” Ain’t that the truth. Some movement is afoot, it seems, and that’s a bit of a comfort. Kind of.
  • The rhythm of our days has taken a dramatic shift. We stay up until midnight or 1 a.m., sleep until 9. Outside of a zoom conference call here and there, our schedules are wide open, but there have been a number of things consistently happening in the lives of the adults in the house. Chores. Meditating. Reading. Blogging. Drumming. News-binging. Social media-binging. Poetry-recording. Drum video-watching. Music listening. Meal-preparing and eating. Finally, evening movie or show-watching. The resident teenager seems to be engaged in a fewer number of activities, but engaged nevertheless. Video-gaming. Snacking. Drumming. Believe me, we’ve tried to get him outside. When the weather was good we played badminton for a half an hour. Now that the weather is shitty, getting him to come out of his room is a dicey proposition. Sometimes a meal will coax him out, or more snacks, or a grilled cheese sandwich. To be fair, he’s done some reading. He culled through some of his old toys. And he took a shower. Singular.
  • I decided that I cannot live with yesterday’s reading of “The World Is Too Much With Us,” so if you go back to yesterday’s entry, you might notice a second video, a revised performance of Wordsworth’s sonnet–after the original. It might be instructive or interesting to compare them, because I think, a wrong word was not the only thing that made me unhappy. You’re free to skip it, of course, if you like. I recorded it mostly for myself–and my friend Tracy. It turns out to have some surprises, this new performance–and a new error! The omission of the word “And” in line 7! Aaarrghhh.
  • As for today’s poetry reading: it will be, dear reader, viewer, listener, a commitment. It clocks in at about 10 minutes, baby. Almost everything I predicted about rereading the great “Tintern Abbey” poem was borne out through experience: the rereading, the weeping, the decision to record a sonnet instead. But then, I got a bug. Emboldened by the whiskey, perhaps, I recorded “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” which is not even the full title, by the way, and miraculously, I got all the way through it in one take. I don’t think I substituted “coming” for “rising” once in the entire thing. I could be wrong about that. No matter. This poem, as much, no, more so than Wordsworth’s sonnet, is a much-needed tonic. It was then, it is now, and it will be for all time a poem with immense super powers. I hope my reading of it does it justice, even a little bit.
  • Final observation on “Tintern Abbey.” In the last section of the poem, Wordsworth directly addresses his sister. When I read it, and I got to that word “Sister,” I thought of her as a representative of all the women who have made such momentous impact on my life–and I felt like I was speaking to them, or to each one of them, individually. Some serious magical mojo going on there.

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #8

I think the resident teenager is depressed. He is not content to stay at home or to go without visitors. The company of his parents does not thrill him. They coax him to come out, are successful from time to time, in small doses finding him in good spirits, but more often than not, they find him surly, resistant, sometimes mean. And this is not too terribly out of the ordinary for some teenagers, typically, or for this one, specifically, but the lack of activity due to the isolation seems to exacerbate the problem. Mom and Dad are worried. I don’t know why I am writing in the third person. Maybe it’s that, as he gets older, I am less comfortable writing about my son. Let’s pretend, then, for the sake of argument, that I am not writing about my son. The parents are home, too; they are teachers, and yet, are they asking their son to do academic things? In lieu of any direct instruction from his school, are they creating opportunities for him to continue his learning? It is, after all, spring break officially, but it’s also the second week off from any formal intellectual expectation. The parents wonder if they should be doing something more.

Say that, this particular boy, who is not my son, bought some books at a bookstore the day before the bookstore closed its doors. He has done some reading about Chernobyl and World War 2. He wants to watch the film 1917. He says that he is interested in history. These are good signs. It brings his father an incredible joy to see him reading but he wishes his son would do more of it. He thinks maybe he should invite his son to read with him, a father/son fantasy he has always harbored, but never acted upon, at least not since the boy was a child. How long has it been since he read to his son? It’s been too long. There’s nothing like an extended break, especially one of this nature, unwelcome, potentially dangerous, global, to give parents more opportunities to reflect on the shortcomings of their parenting. Let’s change the subject.

The weather has turned shitty. An attempt was made to walk the dogs but the rain drove us back home. Despite the shelter-in-place order, or, as our Governor calls it, “stay home, stay safe,” I am going to make a foray out into the world today for some “essentials”: music, whiskey, and some groceries. I offered to find my son a snack and he was excited about that. Other than these things, I have crossed off all the items on my to-do list, except for one. I have not yet mopped the floors. They can wait. We must, during these difficult times, have priorities.

My son’s mood has improved. I’d like to think the promise of a favorite snack food had something to do with it, but he has come down to the basement to practice drumming with his mom–a sure-fire antidote. When I return from my errands, I will search for the perfect poem. Still leaning Romantic, I think. Maybe Wordsworth. My first impulse will be “The World Is Too Much With Us,” but I will want to give it a little more thought. I will read that most famous sonnet, and I will think, Jesus, what a terrific poem. But then, I will probably turn to “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” and I will read it all the way through for the first time in years. I will have difficulty getting through it without weeping. For that reason, and because it’s so long, I will not likely choose to record this one, but I will conclude, as I have many other times in my life, that this thing, for me, is maybe the greatest poem ever written in the English Language.

But for now, and apropos of everything: “The World Is Too Much With Us.” Today’s mistake is that “coming” should be “rising.” That’s a doozy, but I catch the error late. Unwilling to rerecord! Apologies!

 

Addendum: I could not, after all, live with this error. So I’ve done another take–which includes a number of surprises that I have not cut from the video. Let me just say that my confidence in the Folio Society has faltered significantly!

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #7

It’s Monday, the first official day of Spring Break after a preliminary week-long break on account of the plague that is COVID-19. Last night I dreamt that our Governor, Kate Brown, downloaded the news about the coronavirus directly into my brain, announcing finally that she was ordering a “shelter-in-place” for all Oregonians. Her download came to me in chunks, the parsing and ordering of which I tossed and turned over all night long. I don’t know how I felt during all of this–annoyed mostly. Why me, Governor Brown? I’m already sheltering-in-place, pretty much. I haven’t driven a car for a week. So maybe, psychologically, I thought that perhaps Kate might consider me a kind of model citizen, you know, as she keeps tabs on all of us, Santa Claus-like. It must have just been on my mind–the latest news is that she’s seriously considering and that maybe the announcement will come today. Perhaps, by the time I finish this entry, or this paragraph, it will be the law of the land. Meanwhile, stupid Oregonians at the top of Spring Break are driving to the coast in droves, freaking out the locals, putting everyone who lives there in danger, acting in complete arrogance and irresponsibility. The Mayor of Warrenton has told everyone they’ve got 24 hours to get out. Good for the Mayor of Warrenton.

Turns out: we’ve just been told to shelter-in-place by the Governor.

I still don’t have any whiskey.

I didn’t write anything yesterday, I chose instead to give myself a little break while at the same time getting serious about some household chores. It was the last, it appears, of the beautiful days for a while, so it seemed like the best day to give the travel-trailer a wash. I used a socket wrench to tighten a thing. We walked and played with the dogs. I rode my bike for a bit. I read some fiction and drank some beer. René made chili, and we watched the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The last thing I did last night before tucking myself in: I walked outside into the yard and listened to the quiet. I live on 3/4 of an acre, surrounded by these old, gigantic oak trees, but my street tends to be a busy one, and we’re not 700 feet from a four lane highway, so there’s usually always, even in our bucolic setting, the buzz of traffic. Last night, no buzz. It was eery. And glorious.

I’ve got a few more things on the To-Do list for the day, not the least of which is finding a great poem. I’m leaning Romantic. I’m gravitating toward Wordsworth, but Keats might be more challenging and fun. Given that we’ve got nothing but time, there’d be nothing amiss with two Romantics in a row, don’t you think? No guarantees.

A Note on the Video: Oh my god, I don’t know what I was thinking. I hope the effort was worth it. It took me maybe twelve tries to get this one right. If I didn’t have the interpretation correct, I’d mess up a word, or the phone rang, or it started to rain, or it started to rain really hard, or finally, to hail!  I am outside in my travel trailer, the clean one, and it is hardly designed for acoustics. Anyway, I think I finally got it here, with a few minor errors–one singular word becomes plural and a “these” becomes a “those.” Dear John Keats, forgive me. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

 

 

 

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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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