It’s hot. Is it hot? It’s hot in here. It’s hot out there. It’s so hot. Squirrels are dying. Baby hummingbirds are abandoned. The crows are clearly pissed. For three days in a row Portland saw temperatures in triple digits—three record breaking days in a row. The fourth day promised to be a chilly 97 degrees. Finally, some relief! In fact, somewhat miraculously, it did cool down over that third evening, over two hours about 15 degrees. 8:30 on Monday evening, from 103 or so to 88 in the shade. That was insane. We had no central air, but instead, there are window units in the bedrooms that couldn’t keep up, a basement that is cool until one gets used to it and realizes that, relatively, it’s not really all that cool, and we have the great privilege of owning a tiny RV with kick ass AC—so we were living in that thing with the dogs for the duration of the heatwave.
This school year has been a bit of a hellscape sandwich. On top of everything was the Covid 19 pandemic, but September began with massive wildfires that shut everything down and made breathing dangerous, February brought us a freak ice storm and the loss of power for six to ten days, and summer break begins with a record setting heatwave. One of the mildest climes in the continental United States finds itself with Baghdad temperatures.
Now, almost midway through July, things have cooled down. But we haven’t seen any rain in a while, and our “cool” days have all been in the mid 80’s, a couple of 90-degree reprises. This, we can live with. But I understand our neighbors to the south are not fairing as well. Death Valley, California, while normally a hot place, reached temperatures a few days ago of 130 degrees. All year, with the weather and the pandemic, we have, it seems, been covered by clouds of impending doom.
And yet—there is good news. In Oregon, having reached the 60%fully vaccinated threshold, we are, it seems, completely back in business, have reopened “the economy,” have dropped altogether the mask mandate. It’s been a bit of a shock to be out in public. Can I trust these people? What is that whole bit under the eyes, there? Noses? Mouths? I think I remember those! Should I keep my distance? Within a day, it seems, the public has gone from fully masked to no masks. I still have these panics when I’m driving some place—oh my god—did I forget my mask? Should I go back? I still find myself carrying one around with me, just in case. It amazes me how we have become so accustomed to mask-wearing, a thing that was SO strange in the beginning, now, we feel kind of naked without them—or still super anxious that people around us are not wearing theirs, even though we’re not wearing one either. Let us keep our fingers crossed, however, that this is a trend that continues, that we are really, if not completely, almost out of the woods.
And rock and roll is back in town. Live music is a thing again. Last weekend I played my first two drumming gigs in public in fourteen or fifteen months. It was glorious. Seeing friends again, hugging people, shaking hands (tentatively, still), and having face-to-face close proximity conversations: we need this. I need it. In fact, I’m realizing how much I need it, surprisingly so. I think I had kind of convinced myself that the introvert in me had become accustomed to my relative isolation and had learned to like it. And now? Not so much. It feels good to BE with people again. Is this the last of the Plague Journals? Somehow, I doubt it—but I think I might be close to wrapping up this series once and for all. I’m totally okay with that.
Here are some details about a typical Saturday over the last month or so: I’ll have a leisurely morning, drink coffee, eat a light breakfast, walk the dogs, make plans for the yard, eat a heavier lunch, drop off cans at the bottle drop, buy records at the curbside of Music Millennium, dog bones at the pet store, beer at the liquor store, liquor at the beer store (yes, I started drinking again), briquettes for the Egg at the pool store, listen to my boy gush about his drum lesson while he shows me some new rudimental licks on the practice pad, listen to several records start to finish all in a row while drinking beer: Japanese Breakfast, Crowded House, Cheap Trick, Steven Wilson. Maybe later: Gary Numan or Kansas. Maybe later: digging into to The Mare of Easttown or The Outsider or Bo Burnham’s Inside.
Both vaccinations? Check–for both my wife and I, as of the end of March. The resident teenager acquires his second vaccination at the beginning of June. Check. And finally, the arrival of the end of the weirdest school year in the history of school years. Double check.
Over the last quarter of the school year, after three quarters of teaching online only, I was able to be with a little less than half of the students enrolled in my classes–in person, in the flesh. While the rest of my students chose to stay at home, we happy few were together in a room, masked, over the course of fourteen 90 minute periods between April and June. The microphone set up we were supposed to have in our rooms–so that hard of hearing students could hear us better and so that our voices would last the period–never materialized. And it was strange, uncomfortable, to deliver instruction through a mask. Projecting, as teachers must do, was difficult with one’s mouth and nose covered, had the effect, as they say, of taking away the breath–like–you know–it became sometimes literally hard to breathe. I never passed out, but I did find myself dizzy on several occasions. Thank goodness: holding forth for 90 minutes was never an expectation. In fact, we did considerably less teaching, less teacher talk, than we have ever done or had to do. Our role was primarily supportive–supplemental: here’s the thing we did yesterday in the google meet presented in a slightly different way, or in a way that is conducive to conversation, and here’s a supplemental thing that might make these concepts more vivid, and here’s some materials to make something creative, and here’s a chunk of time to get done what you otherwise would have had to carve out your own time for. You’re welcome. I think this last bit, that gift of time, is the thing that students and teachers found most valuable about hybrid learning. I had very few students signed up for in-person classes who sat and did nothing for 7 weeks. I could count them on a single hand.
As a result of teaching online for an entire year under a protocol that did not require students to enable their microphones or their video feeds, and an in-person experience with only half of them in that last quarter, I feel this year that I know my students less well than any group of students I have ever taught. Paradoxically, though, there is a kind of warm regard, a deep appreciation, an enormous well of gratitude, even a love for these kids I am seeing for the last time today, that I have not necessarily experienced before. First, there was this feeling all the way through of solidarity, the sense that we were in something together, something new, something challenging, something that would demand the better angels. I found students this year to be more appreciative, more kind, more thoughtful, more patient, and less behaviorally challenging than any group of students I’ve ever had. For the most part, students rose to the occasion. As weird as it was, as awkward, as limiting, and as isolating–we managed still to form something like a functional and positive learning community. Today, saying goodbye to my students for the year, some of whom I have never seen in person, I got me some serious feels. It almost brought me tears when one student, in our last google meet synchronous session of the school year, opened up her microphone to publicly thank me and share her appreciation for the work I had done. Amazing. So, there you go. An historic school year ending on the highest possible note.
In other news:
Yesterday I got my haircut. It was maybe the fourth time over the last year that I’ve seen this particular stylist (a new person for me)–but until this last time, I had never seen the bottom half of her face. It’s amazing how much the bottom half of a face contributes to the experience of the whole. You really do not know what someone looks like until you have seen their whole face. That seems kind of like a ridiculous thing to say–but there it is. It had never really occurred to me before, and thus, when I saw her whole face, both of us having been fully vaxxed, it was a revelation.
Live music returns! It looks like, beginning July, this will be a summer for drumming. I’ve got gigs booked. It’s time to start shedding. Across the country, Stephen Colbert returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater in front of a fully vaccinated live audience to do The Late Show. Things are opening up all over. Oregon is on it’s way to having 70% of adults with at least one shot–and then, our governor says, we will open up completely. We’re just above 50% now, above the national average, but still–no cigar. Nevertheless, it’s becoming clear that after 14 months of quarantine, a return to normalcy is within view! That, perhaps, will become the theme of the end of 2021 and into 2022–a return to normalcy. It’s fun to see folks celebrating the new White House behavior as absolutely mundane and boring–you know, the kind of behavior you would expect from politicians just kind of doing their jobs. There’s still all of this residual ugliness, though, in our political landscape. Exhibit A: the government passes a law to make Juneteenth a national holiday while simultaneously politicians all over the country try to make the teaching of Critical Race Theory against the law. WTF. There’s still plenty of WTF to go around. Soon, perhaps, as we recover from this crazy last year and people find themselves in less desperate situations, things might start to even out, cool down, liberalize–if you will. 2022 could be a pivotal year. Another one? I know. I’m hopeful it will be for the good.
Be Drunk by Charles Baudelaire You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
The dry January turned out to be a dry January and February. As of this writing, 3/08/2021, I have been “sober,” or, I have abstained from alcohol use for 65 days. I have needed to find other ways to, as Baudelaire exhorts, be drunk. Oregon just had one of it’s worst winter storms in memory–at least, in my memory. Two days of heavy snow. Two more days of freezing rain. For my family, 6 days without power. For many of my neighbors, up to 10. So we have been drunk, of late, with powerlessness. When it came back on a few weeks ago, I found myself drunk on electricity. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
There has been some sad drunkenness–inexpressible, really–about the massive loss of life from COVID 19 in the United States alone: a half a million people. An inconceivable loss–especially difficult in its abstraction. Be it luck or ignorance, I’m not sure which, I have not known a single one of those half a million. I have known people who were ill and then recovered. So, drunk I am with thanksgiving. The universe has been looking out for my people. I am so stupidly lucky.
I have been drunk on my first dose of Pfizer vaccine, drunk with gratitude, and drunk, at least for about 16 hours after, with a really sore arm. I was drunk at the Oregon Convention Center with pure awe at the proceedings, hundreds upon hundreds of masked individuals, while maintaining 6 feet of distance in front and behind them, snaking their way though a labyrinthian series of lines and ropes, through one door and then another, into one big room and then the next, to this check-in station and another, until finally, the line to get a shot in the arm. I was drunk on the realization that I was, in that moment, taking part in a historic event, an event unlike anything in American history, maybe even in human history. Almost certainly.
I have been drunk on the good news that indicates we will see students in the flesh again by the end of the school year; the last quarter in our academic schedule will be, in some significant way, in-person. I will be able to see animated faces of students that are new to me this year for the first time. And while I am apprehensive about what this new hybrid model will look like, I am so much looking forward to working inside the school house once again.
And finally, I have been drunk on creativity of late–in creating things. You would think I would have been writing like a fiend, but no; I have done very little writing. I wrote a Winter poem. It turned out nicely. And I wrote a whole slew of lesson plans, but that’s not really terribly creative–I mean, it is, but not in the same way as a poem or a blog entry or a piece of fiction. No, mostly my creative drunkenness has had to do with music, first, by going through scads of unreleased, unheard, unperformed recordings from my band and deciding that, yes, these pieces need to see the light of day. And so quickly, from the time of conception to this moment, songs were chosen and sequenced, artwork was commissioned, a mastering engineer was employed, and the process began for a new album, new photos, new website, replication, the arrival on my doorstep today of a short run of compact discs. I’ve also been drunk, possessed rather, with hopes to upgrade the studio for the new project.
Generally speaking, I have been drunk with optimism. Things are looking up. They seem to continue in this trend. And this made me think of the Baudelaire poem, a poem I shared I don’t want to say how many years ago now, with my high school classmates at the 30 year reunion. I was actually drinking quite a bit then and continued almost uninterruptedly until January 2 of 2021. I really and truly don’t know how much of my present happiness is the direct result of cutting out alcohol–and I really am not bragging or making any promises to anyone about how much longer I will abstain. I just think that it’s worth noting. So I make a note of that as I move headlong into an impending Spring Season, finding new and exciting ways to “be drunk.”
What a terrible time to stop drinking. In the first week of this glorious new year, I was so disheartened by the attempted coup, the insurrection in our nation’s capital, it would have been SO easy to drown out that despair with alcohol. Similarly, it would have been so simple (and yet impossible) to self-medicate away the death toll of 420,000 Americans lost to the Coronavirus. Conversely, a celebratory drink or two or three would have been totally justified at the inauguration of our 46th President, Joe Biden, and the first ever female, Asian-American, African-American Vice President in the history of the United States, Kamala Harris, not to mention an inaugural day that, across the country, was marred by not a single act of violence in protest, at least not on my radar. I might have raised a glass in approval at Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, his second impeachment by the house, and I might have raised still another glass as his sorry ass, in a helicopter, lifted into the air from the White House, never to return. And then, I decided to dye my hair purple, the kind of decision a man of a certain age makes while drinking. I even went through with it! So many good reasons to be drinking! But I have not been drinking. You might call it a dry January–but, to be fair, I had my last drink on January 2nd, have abstained then, as of today, for only 28 out of these 30 days in the month, and, of course, the month is not over. A single day is a long time.
It hasn’t been easy. Two or three nights ago I watched Jimmy Kimmel, in celebration for his sideman Guillermo’s 50th birthday, show a montage of about 50 celebrities taking shots in honor of the occasion. Today I drove by an open-air beer garden and my favorite liquor store on my way home from an errand. It’s getting a little bit more difficult as the month closes itself out and I know I have a decision to make: was this a dry January–or the beginning of a longer commitment to live without–or with significantly less–alcohol? The jury is out. I miss it and I don’t miss it. As I’ve felt in other years when I have made this same prolonged abstinence, I am mostly glad to know that I can do it. Without withdrawals, without lapses, without any kind of detrimental side-effect (save the purple hair), I have been able to live for a time, quite contentedly, without booze.
I didn’t mean for this entire blog entry to be about drinking or not drinking. It just seems to be a little bit front and center. Maybe, for me, it feels less casual of a thing than it does for most Dry Januarians. My parents drank every day of their lives for as long as I can remember, and in my middle to late-middle years, I find myself to have become the same kind of drinker. I am trying to be super conscious about how my life, or how I feel about my life, changes without it. I know that when I am not drinking, I tend to be more creative. I tend to be more productive. I feel smarter. I tend to be happier–less likely to enter a funk of melancholy. And, as much good news as there is in this new world regarding a more engaged, more compassionate, more representative administration, and regarding an impending mass-inoculation against COVID-19, there is still the residual bad news abounding and leftover in the wake of Trump; for example, today, in Los Angeles, a protest by far-right conspiracy goons prevented people from getting vaccinated! –despite this, as angry as that makes me, I do not feel the impulse to self-medicate. I am less easily rattled or annoyed. I am more present to others–maybe. I’m more engaged, as much as I can be, with my students in distance learning. I think I sleep better and my dreaming is more vivid. I snore less. This is all to the good, but there are things, sadly, that haven’t changed. Without all of that empty calorie, and even with a fair amount of exercise, I don’t think I’ve lost an ounce. I was kind of betting on that. I don’t think I’m eating more to compensate, or eating worse things for me–you know, replacing one poison for another kind of poison. But maybe I am. A single serving of my favorite gummy worm, seven little worms, is only 90 calories. That’s not bad, but there’s an occasional cookie. Too many carbs, perhaps. Thankfully, the resident teenager beats me to most of the snack food. But I bet I snacked less when I was drinking! The dumb part of my brain just wanted to see more miraculous results, and thinks to itself, alas, if there aren’t clear and positive health results (ignoring for a moment the list of benefits above), why bother? Man, I so much wanted to take a shot with all those celebrities! I mean, Guillermo only turns 50 once in his life!
I don’t know how to close. This entry feels somewhat confessional. I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to confess. I want to say that I don’t feel shame about drinking and I won’t feel shame about breaking my abstinence in February, if I choose to do so. I know there are forces in my life and in the culture at large that both want to shame me about alcohol use AND encourage me to keep doing it. What it’s about, I think–what it’s always been about, is consciousness, understanding, being awake to and honest about the relationships we have to the stuff that’s bad for us. I know I’ve said this before in past entries written around the turn of a new year: we need (I need) to drink more mindfully, to be fully aware of why I’m doing it and what it’s bringing to me, both good and bad. Meanwhile, on the eve of the last day of January, 2021, I’m still dry. And I have purple hair.
This morning I got up to find a comment posted to one of my blog entries! How exciting is that? I will tell you. It’s pretty exciting. It’s rare, these days–it’s rare in general, but it seems more rare these days–in part, I know, because I have not been writing. Guess what the blog entry was about–the one that received a comment? “Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution.” It was published on the blog site a year ago, right after Christmas, 2019. Curious about what I had to say about writer’s block a year ago, because, as I stand here with my coffee after sorting the laundry on this bleak, wet, Saturday morning, I am fully aware that I have hardly written a word since September, I re-read my blog entry. In the first paragraph, I confess, “Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September.” Hmm. I sense a pattern. I wonder if I went back another year I would find a similar confession. I think it’s true, generally speaking, that the time between September and January seems to be a creatively dark time for yours truly, inexplicably (or not). Mostly I think it’s explicable. Let me explicate.
I blame the beginning of the new academic school year. Getting the ball rolling in a public high school and in my own realm as a classroom English teacher, is always a monumental undertaking. Even though, most often, everything is already in place in terms of planning and curriculum, there is just something pretty exhausting about the first few months of a new school year. But this year–oh my–this year was an entirely new jarful of bees. Is that a thing? I was going for a colloquial metaphor there, and I think I may have missed the mark. Bucket of rats? Nest of wasps? Barrel of monkeys? No, none of those are good. Let me just say that it was terrible. This fall we had the monumental undertaking of reimagining everything we do for the virtual-world classroom, for distance learning. That means that every single lesson had to be re-written, re-formatted, transformed into some interactive slide-show. Curriculum had to be condensed. Time had new meaning. The school day itself, reinvented. Suddenly, we relied on help from our colleagues more than ever before and we were feeling blessed and lucky if we had a strong team. The boundary between work and home became completely blurry. I found myself grading or planning until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and receiving text notifications that Johnny had finally turned in his essay at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.
Needless to say, it was difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, a story, or work on my memoir, or record a song, or read a book for pleasure. This is how I explain the lack of creative productivity from Autumn to Winter, especially this year. And while this transition or transformation from the school house to the virtual google classroom was, in itself and by necessity, a creative act–it did not satisfy the soul in the same way as writing what you think might be a pretty good poem.
So, how do we get started again in this new year, a year that promises to be a continuation of the pandemic nightmare of the last nine months–with the optimism added to the mix of a couple of vaccines and a new administration? If I look again at last year’s resolution blog entry, I find that I had set myself a number of goals and even went so far as to design a kind of checklist to track my progress–inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue checklist from his autobiography. And just like Franklin admits about his project, mine, while it yielded early results, ultimately failed–but not in its entirety. Write a thing a week? I think I was able to do that, or close to it, at least until September. Read for pleasure more often? Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did not, for example, read a book a month. Write an album’s worth of songs? Nope. However–music was made this year in small increments and in some new collaborations. Close, but no cigar. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me? No, I did not do that. This one rankles, perhaps, more than the others. Why is it that the things we know are necessary are sometimes the hardest things to do? I’m no psychologist. Meditate more often? Well, no. In fact, while I didn’t give it up and maintained a loose practice of meditation, I jettisoned altogether the tracking of stats on my Insight Timer. Spent some time, instead, with Sam Harris on his Wake Up app–which yielded some good results, but still, was insufficient on its own. I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that someone should be talking at me while I’m trying to meditate, even if it’s Sam Harris. And lumped into the goals about seeking the help of others and a stronger meditation practice was some totally sincere and earnest stuff about better general health. This didn’t work out too well, either. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I do not think the isolation during the COVID 19 pandemic has done a single bit of good for my health–except for the fact that I have not contracted COVID-19.
If I were to set goals for myself again for 2021, they would look almost identical to these. But we all know instinctively or intuitively, and the research bears this out, that resolutions often fail. I know I’ve written about this before. We also know, though, and teach our younglings, that goal setting is somewhat paramount to self-improvement, yes? So what’s the mystery? What’s the key? I think it is possible, and advisable, to go ahead and make the goals. Yeah, write them down. Revisit them often to remind yourself about what it is that you want. But ultimately, you must be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving, you cannot beat yourself up, wring your hands, gnash your teeth. And you have to accept the fact that certain things may happen that are completely out of your control, things that may wreak havoc on your best laid plans: a pandemic comes to mind. 330,000 American casualties. The death of a mother-in-law. The dire cancer diagnosis of a brother-in-law. Another dire cancer diagnosis for a friend. Wildfires. A democratic society on the brink of dictatorship. An election year fraught with danger and divisiveness unlike anything most of us have ever seen, an election that feels to everyone of all political stripes to be of monumental, earth-shattering, history-making, dire consequence. The continued violence against black and brown Americans in the streets of our country and a justice system that repeatedly fails to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot this year to take us away from our goals, to make us feel pretty sheepish, frankly, about self-improvement, especially when and if we have been lucky and/or privileged, as I know I have been.
Meanwhile, it helps to find things and people that inspire you and move yourself in those directions. Even during the pandemic, when attendance at a yearly writers conference was impossible, we found a way to conduct a mini-conference through zoom. I participated in a manuscript exchange with some friends from the Warren Wilson MFA program, and this weekend, on the first and second day of the new year, we have organized a virtual reading for poets and fiction writers from that same program. We are finding ways to connect to the tribe. And these things, just over the last couple of days, plus this lovely comment that I found this morning on last year’s blog entry, have put a charge in my creative reservoir. Lo and behold. I have written almost 1500 words.
So, finally, happy new year to you, readers, friends, family. Let’s hope 2021 is less of a shit show. I’m guardedly optimistic about that, but the bar is pretty low, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have lots to be hopeful about. I wish you the best of luck with your goals for the new year. May you tap into your own creative impulses, whatever they may be, in order to experience a rich, productive, life-giving new year. Cheers!
Yesterday was the first official day of school for students in my district, the first time in my 32 year career that the school year would open with distance learning on account of a viral pandemic, and, as it turns out, the first time in my 32 year career that school would be canceled on the first day of classes for inclement weather, in this case, hazardous air, the result of the wildfires in Oregon. It was maybe the first time Oregonians have ever prayed for rain. The weather folks told us we would get some yesterday, but they began hedging, and, again, as it turns out, they were wrong about the rain. The air in Portland and in Milwaukie is still hazardous, but our district is open for business today, encouraged us all to work from home–as most of us would have done anyway.
So, today, we had the first day of school, each teacher meeting with one group of kids as part of a home-room-type situation, showing them the ropes of the google meets, laying down some technology expectations, and showing them some tips around navigating some new features of the google classroom. It’s a google world now, I tell you. I met with my 25 students, talked my way through a presentation, had exchanges with three or four kids who were brave enough to show video and unmute their mics–but for the most part, it was quiet, and I felt a little bit like I was talking to myself. But none of the things that freaked me out last night at one in the morning and kept me awake for three hours–you know, being interrupted, constantly chatted around, distracted by inappropriate things in the video feed or the instant message bar, students refusing to leave the meeting, me having to kick them out–NONE of that stuff happened. On the one hand, I was super pleased, but on the other hand, with so little feedback, the stuff teachers usually get, a sense of their style and personality, an opportunity to hear every kid’s voice at least a little, watching them interact and respond to each other, watching them smile or laugh at our attempts to put them at ease–I had no idea really about how any of it went! I meet with this same group tomorrow for round two of practicing The Google Meet. At least, today, my fears that this would be a train wreck were assuaged and I will go back at it tomorrow with far less trepidation. On Thursday and Friday of this week, academic classes begin in earnest. For me, two groups of 9th grade English and one group of seniors in IB Literature.
The prediction or the assessment or the outlook on the move to distance learning is that we will proceed in this manner at least until November, or for a full quarter of the school year. No one is expressing confidence that at this magical moment everything will have shifted. I think many of us are psyching ourselves up for the long haul. And many of us are pondering and musing about the way this shift away from traditional brick and mortar schools, out of necessity, will change the nature of schooling and education in irrevocable ways, forever, or at least, for the foreseeable future.
Necessity is the mother of invention, says Plato. It feels true that we are reinventing our schools. What’s unclear, unnervingly so, are the ultimate outcomes, either good or ill. I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to argue against the effectiveness of students and teachers physically in a room with each other, but I worry nonetheless about this particular trajectory. In my half glass full sort of orientation, I believe that there might be aspects of the brick and mortar model we could happily lose, and their loss would be, as Elizabeth Bishop writes, no great matter. Others we lose at our own risk and peril. The optimist in me believes we may at some not so distant day strike just the right balance. Meanwhile we soldier on. I’m happily, gratefully, doing the best I can with what I’ve got, chanting my new favorite mantra: better than nothing. It’s better than nothing. WAY better than nothing.
If it ain’t one thing, it’s another thing. Welcome to the shit-show that is 2020. First, we had the coronavirus. Schools close from March all the way to the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Teachers learn on the fly to conduct the business of teaching and learning from a distance. George Floyd is murdered, one more death in a catalogue of violence against black men at the hands of police. Then, civil unrest, of which, Portland seems to be the epicenter. Then, in Kenosha, another black man is shot seven times in the back while he reaches into his car where his children are watching. More civil unrest in which people are shot and killed, in Kenosha, in Portland, the violence exacerbated by members of right-wing extremist groups converging on protests for justice to “keep the peace.” An endless litany of Trump administration scandals, only two of which include the reveal that the president knew how deadly the virus was before making a number of public claims to the contrary, and additionally, that his administration has syphoned millions of dollars away from a fund to help New York City Firefighters suffering from illnesses caused by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center–this story, no-less, published on September 11th. The virus, after killing nearly 200,000 Americans, shows no signs of abatement, and schools across the country decide to continue with distance learning at least until November, but more likely, indefinitely.
Then there was a wind storm.
And then came the fires.
As of today, 860,000 acres have burned. Estacada, 23 miles away from where I live, and Molalla, 22 miles away, have been ordered to evacuate. Oregon City and Canby, respectively, 4.3 miles and 13 miles from where I live, have been ordered to get set for orders to evacuate. And my town, Milwaukie, about 9 miles from downtown Portland, has been told to get ready. We are wringing our hands–should we be packing? Has anything changed? Nothing has changed. What should we take? Where would we go? Why am I coughing? Has anything changed? Nothing has changed. Over three days, essentially, the alert level has remained perfectly consistent. We put some supplies in a bag. We’ve made some lists. We’ve gathered up some key paperwork. I’ve taken pictures of valuable instruments and books. None of our clothing is packed.
Mostly, we’ve closed all the windows in the house and we try to stay inside. We haven’t seen the sun since Wednesday. It’s hard to be outside for any length of time. The Northwest regions of the United States, and in particular Portland and its vicinities, are reported right now to have the most dangerous air pollution in the entire world, the effects of which cannot even be guessed at by health officials. A week ago it was 90 degrees and clear; now, it’s smoky, foggy, and cold. It looks and feels what I imagine it would be like to live in a war zone.
In the beginning stages of the pandemic shut-down, as frightened and sad and weirded out as I was, I was feeling centered and purposeful, maybe even a little bit inspired, as strange as that might seem. I was meditating daily. My Journal of the Plague Year series was reflective, contemplative; I was finding inspirational favorite poems to read and record. I was interested in bringing comfort to others if I could, through poetry, encouraging words, reasons to be hopeful. Even this summer, I found zoom meetings with my writer friends to be sustaining and motivating, and I found literature to read that made me feel human and less afraid. But as I approach a school year, my 32nd, for which I have to reinvent everything I know about how to do my job, as the pandemic rages, and as the state of the union gets more and more depressing, I think a fatigue has set in, finally–one that has proven to be difficult to shake. And this fire on top of everything else is doing its level best to take me to dark places, away from the things, the habits and practices of mind and body, that I find healthful and helpful. Sometimes I feel hope slipping. Sentence by sentence I have slogged through this blog entry over the last four hours or so. And, as I’ve noticed that I haven’t written a single word for the better part of a month, maybe that’s part of how we get through this, sentence by sentence. For me, sentence by sentence means returning to the written word, returning to music as best as I can, and bringing the best of what I can to the new school year. Those of you in my boat, so many of you, all of you, I imagine: how do you move forward, sentence by sentence? How can you help yourself so that you are better able to help others. How can we use our gifts to light ourselves and our communities out of this mess?
I live in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. You might say that it is the closest suburb to downtown, just south of the city center by a 15 minute car ride. In my town of Milwaukie, there are often small groups of people on the sidewalks of 99 or at the Farmer’s Market downtown holding up signs that say Black Lives Matter and deriding the current administration. While I was at the market Sunday buying Lavender plants for the yard with my wife, cars coming down the highway would honk their support for the sign wavers. No trouble. No conflict. No police. If there were alt right-white supremacists in the area, they kept quiet.
Downtown Portland has seen large scale protests for sixty days running in response to the murder of George Floyd and a spate of police violence against black Americans across the country. Early on, things were vandalized or destroyed. People looted businesses where storefront windows were shattered. Fires were set. If you were sympathetic to injustices perpetrated against Black Americans in this country and in particular aggrieved by Portland’s abysmal history along these lines, it was easy to understand the rage. But further sleuthing revealed that much of the violence and vandalism could be attributed to people outside the BLM movement, inciting the chaos either because they deliberately wanted bad PR for the movement, or they were just opportunists, looking for an excuse to act out. At any rate, what is absolutely clear is that the vandalism and the violence perpetrated by civilians represented a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of people in peaceful protest. Nevertheless, riot police were often in conflict with crowds. Tear gas and rubber bullets were commonplace. People got severely hurt.
Then in the coming weeks, outside of a wide assortment of graffiti art, the protests continued, but large scale destruction, looting, and violent protests had diminished and peaceful demonstrations seemed to be the order of the day. But in the last week or two, despite this fact, violence against protestors by local police and, horrifyingly, by unidentified federal agents from Homeland Security, has increased. Goons dressed in camo are abducting people into unmarked vehicles without identifying themselves or stating any reason for detention or arrest. An American vet was beaten for simply asking the officers to remember their oaths. A young man was shot in the head with a rubber bullet that shattered his skull. Local mothers in a line of protection in front of protestors were tear gassed. Local dads showed up with leaf blowers to protect the moms and others from the gas. A group of military veterans showed up to protect the dads with leaf blowers who were protecting the moms protecting the protestors. And then there was this woman in the photo above who showed up naked to confront the police and federal agents. Faced with all that feminine power, at least in this event, they backed down. I don’t know her name. I don’t know her story. But she has become iconic, an awesome demonstration of courage, a brilliant metaphor reflecting and/or deflecting the impotence of our nation’s current political leadership.
One thing is perfectly clear. Things got increasingly worse when the federal agents descended on our city. And the protests got substantially larger and more violent, drawing thousands and thousands to the Portland city block surrounding the federal courthouse. Somehow, between a Mayor and a Governor who stood against the presence of federal agents in our city and other factors perhaps obscure to me, the agents have left almost entirely, and last night the protestors emerged again in large numbers and without incident. Here are the opening sentences of a news piece from Dan McCarthy of KATU news:
Portland Police Bureau says protesters, not officers, were doing the enforcing downtown Thursday night.
Police said demonstrators put out fires and told others to stop climbing the fence in front of the federal courthouse.
As a result, police said they didn’t have any interactions with demonstrators downtown.
There are people on my facebook newsfeed who are certain that Portland is lost, that the city is burning, that the looters and the vandals and arsonists have won, that Portland will soon become a wasteland, some anarchist hellscape. Totally misinformed, no doubt watching Hannity every night, having never seen the city for themselves, knowing not a single soul participating in this historically monumental moment to save democracy and restore it for ALL of our citizens, these poor folk remain in the dark. I, for one, have never been more proud to be a Portlander, even if my vantage point is 6 or 7 miles away from the action, just down the road a peg in Milwaukie. For a few weeks there it seemed we were at the very center of the universe.
Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, has made an executive order that as of July 1st, all Oregonians must wear face masks in indoor public places, or outdoors whenever there are concentrations of people and 6 foot distancing cannot be maintained. As if on cue, my DEVO face masks were in the mailbox the day that order was announced. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had face masks for the better part of a month or two now already, and I have been wearing them, long before the governor’s call, religiously in public places. But those were not DEVO masks. I understand that I am now part of the movement, inevitable, towards the protective-mask-against-the-coronavirus as fashion accessory. I have no problem with this. If we have to do this awkward, uncomfortable thing in the name of public health, we might as well have some fun with it. Yes? No? Yes! I’ve seen some pretty stellar designs. And like the concert t-shirt, a mask with a favorite artist, writer, or band might be a cool way to wave your freak flag, to announce your fan loyalty, to promote your favorite thing. I love DEVO, I have loved DEVO for a number of decades now, and even though they are not my favorite band of all time, they were the first cool band, at least on my radar, to merchandise protective masks. So I got them. Meanwhile, it’s safe to conclude that any individual who believes that a face mask is an affront to their civil liberties is just a very stupid person. You’ve seen the videos of these people throwing tantrums in grocery stores. I have never seen such idiocy. One might conclude, as I do, that in strange and trying times, we see the worst in people come crawling to the surface. I think the opposite is true, as well. We are seeing heroism of all stripes on a daily basis as folks decide to do the right thing in the face of the pandemic and in the face of racial injustice.
It’s a strange time. Things start to loosen up and reopen. While you can’t go to a movie or see a concert, and live music seems to have completely died, you can get your haircut. You can eat at a restaurant serving clients at half capacity. You can go to your massage therapist. Most businesses are reopening to a degree. But in the world of the virus, things are not improving; in fact, they are getting terrifyingly worse. There are states in the union that ignored the virus altogether or that opened up early, and those places are paying the piper. There are only 14 states in the union, the last I heard, where the curve is flattening. I understand that Oregon is one of these, but it doesn’t seem to square with our stats that indicate a significant uptick of cases. And, of course, tragically, the country’s death toll has reached about 130,000, more than twice the casualties of the American War in Vietnam. And while all of this is happening, there are young people playing a game whereby huge parties are thrown and the winner is the first to contract COVID-19. There are folks who argue that the mask protocol is a devilish conspiracy and a violation of their civil liberties. There’s a president holding a 4th of July event at Mt. Rushmore and refusing to mandate mask-wearing for attendees. A former candidate for the President of the United States, who has been squarely anti-mask, is in the hospital with the virus. A republican member of the senate actually advocated the dissolution of the team of experts who are charged with informing the public about how to stay safe because their advice runs counter to “what the president wants.” The stupidity is astounding.
There is something uniquely American about this catastrophe. We seem to be, or many of us seem to be, so short-sighted and selfish, so unwilling to be inconvenienced, so entitled, and so resistant to facts that butt up against our personal wishes and desire for liberty, that we would willingly sacrifice our safety and the safety of our most vulnerable citizens in order to have that party on the beach, to go to that club, to go to that church, to attend that rally, or to shop without a mask. And I say it is uniquely American, especially in the Age of The Donald, because the same thing is happening nowhere else in the world, certainly, not in first world economies. It boggles the mind. I just thought of that Guided by Voices tune–“Everybody’s got a hold on hope/It’s the last thing that’s holding me.” Really, it just popped into my head. I think it might be easy and understandable to fall into despair during this time, 2020, the year that has proven to be such a suck festival. But if we look around and pay special attention, we might find lots of reasons to be hopeful. Maybe it might be good to make a list of the things, globally, socially, and personally that don’t suck. That’s your homework assignment. And here’s another lyric from Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” album, a lyric and a melody that chokes me up every time, one that, invariably reminds me that there are always places to find hope and joy, in a drink, a friend that you love, a Talking Heads tune; even the end of the world is no competition:
And, oh, I read somewhere That in twenty years More or less This human experiment will reach its violent end But I look at you As our second drinks arrive The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place” And it’s a miracle to be alive One more time There’s nothing to fear There’s nothing to fear There’s nothing to fear
As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.
I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.
And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.
I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.