Category Archives: Writing and Reading

Entries about the art and craft of writing and commentaries or reviews of stuff I read

A Journal of the Plague Year: #14

Today, was the third day “back to work” as a Distance Learning Public School English Teacher and the second day of National Poetry Month, April, 2020. My contact with students thus far, remotely, has been minimal. Our district has given us three days to prepare the rollout of some supplemental learning resources for our students, and then (while the tech department is delivering laptop computers to families without the technology), about ten calendar days after that to roll out Distance Learning officially, where students are not just offered optional opportunities, but are expected to proceed with their high school education via the powers of the internet, lessons, assignments, and grades all delivered remotely. Today, I offered up the first enrichment, supplemental assignment (what I like to call “extra soul credit”) to my IB Seniors: visit the NaPoWriMo website, learn some stuff about poetry, write some poems, if you want to or are able, one a day for a month! I don’t know how many takers I’ll have, but I assured them that I was doing the assignment as well, so that might motivate a couple of them. It is my general philosophy to never assign my students a task that I would not be willing to do myself. And the extra soul credit is always the best kind.

So, without further ado, today’s offering:

#346: Pandemic Shopping

I’ve taken out the Honda Fit
maybe three times in as
many weeks. I did some
curbside record store
retail therapy, and I’ve done
the pandemic shopping.
A few days ago, when there
was a break in the rain,
I walked this time
up Concord Road, crossed
McLoughlin Blvd., trudged
across the Harbor Freight
and Tools parking lot into our
neighborhood Grocery Outlet,
the bargain market, the store
a friend of ours likes to call
The Used Food Place.
That’s not fair, but
I find it really funny.
They have marked
the floors of the checkout lines
with duct tape in six-foot intervals
so that customers don’t get
too close to each other.
Everywhere else in the store:
it’s a free-for all.
They make you bag your own
stuff and that’s fine.
The clerks mostly act like
it’s just another day and
that is also fine. I bought
milk, half and half, hot dogs,
buns, and a six pack of beer.
Buoy, IPA.
Walking back home, I kept
switching the hand that carried
the heavy bag so I wouldn’t
end up with arms of uneven
lengths. And maybe while
I knew that was not a likely
consequence of favoring one
arm over the other, it felt
real, and that’s good, when
you’re pandemic shopping
and nothing else does.

GettyImages_1215433825_toned.0

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #13

Today is April 1 of the year of our pandemic, 2020, but it is also the first day of National Poetry Month, during which, over the past six years, I have celebrated by writing a poem every day for an entire month. This will be year seven in a poetry writing streak. To the best of my recollection, over the last six Aprils I have never missed a day, and if I did, I’d write two poems the next day to make sure I had a poem for every day of the month. I was hard core. Additionally, I started writing and publishing poetry here that was not written in April. I numbered all of the poems, more than anything else, to easily distinguish blog poetry from blog prose. I’ve got 344 poems here. But every once in a while I will have started a series that is also numbered–like this one you are reading right now, #13 of A Journal of the Plague Year.

I actually woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this, among many other things, that I do not want to stop writing A Journal of the Plague Year, that I do not want to skip this year’s National Poetry Writing Month, that I do not want to write two blog entries a day, that I do not want to cause number confusion, and finally, that I’m not sure how I feel about recording video performances of my own shitty rough draft poems, not after reading Rilke and Donne and Oliver and Stafford and Piercy and Wordsworth and Rumi and Dickinson, which has become a kind of tradition in my Plague Year Journal. For readers who were especially fond of that segment, who maybe (I shudder to think) skipped ahead of all the verbiage and went straight to the video–think how disappointed they might be to find me reading, not Berryman or Bishop, but me!

For now, I have reached this truce with myself: I will combine the Plague Journal with the original poetry for April. The poem will be imbedded within or conclude the day’s journal entry. I will continue with the numbering of both pieces. Maybe, they can work nicely in tangent; maybe the poem, in and of itself, can be The Journal. Still unresolved is whether or not to continue with the video recordings. That remains to be seen. Especially now that I am officially (but remotely) back at work. The time I spent “slaving” over those video recordings may just not be available to me anymore.

As I get to the end of this long preamble, feeling surprisingly fatigued from video conference calls and trying to get my brain wrapped around my new teacher reality and writing a longish letter to my IB Literature seniors, I’m having a difficult time writing the damn poetry. Visiting the napowrimo website for some inspiration, I left feeling uninspired. I can’t write a poem today about a bird and I don’t feel like a metaphor self portrait, although I did have some minimal fun with a “synaesthetic metaphor generator” where I found the phrase “the colossal bays of escarpments.” So I started from scratch today with three completely different ideas, all shelter-in-place-for-the-pandemic related, and I landed on this one.

#345: What Our City Looks Like from Above

A photographer took drone pictures
of our city during the pandemic.
Beautiful and haunting, beautifully haunting,
there are no cars, trucks, or busses on the freeways,
there are no cars, trucks, or busses on the bridges,
you can just imagine how
the freeways and bridges no longer
stink of exhaust, which is nice,
but also terrifying, and why I’ve
been sitting at home for two and
a half weeks, only now starting to
reconnect with the life of my school,
remotely, from a safe distance,
sheltering in place,
emanating zero exhaust.

Unknown

Photo courtesy PORTLANDRONE®

 

 

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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: #6

This morning (upon waking? in the shower? during meditation, while Sam Harris spoke to me about conscious awareness? over breakfast?), I found myself thinking Thoreau. Passages from Walden were emerging from the memory banks where favorite books are stored. It occurred to me that if one were to grab a classic from American Literature off the shelf that might be of great use during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be Walden. In particular, the section called “Solitude.” If there was ever a prince or a king of social distancing, it would be Henry David Thoreau. This particular passage comes to me first, as he imagines what he would say to those who question his nutty project of living in the woods alone for two years:

Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such,–This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?

As things get more and more serious we tend to be more and more careful, and the difficulty of today was in telling our son that it would be best if his friend did not come over. She lives right down the road, is more than likely practicing her own social distancing, is likely safe to have around–but at what point can you know with any certainty that someone outside your family, no matter how trusted, is not carrying this stupid virus? What chance are you willing to take? It appears, at least today, we’re not taking chances. We’re only eight days into this thing and the chances are that it will get worse and that this conversation will get harder and harder. Us married folks, especially us long-time married folks, take each other’s company for granted, I suppose. If we had to, it probably wouldn’t kill us to be apart, but we don’t have to, and so we have each other’s company all through this thing, a huge comfort. But if you’re young and smitten, think what the prospects of weeks away from your friend might signify! The bloody end of the world as we know it. You’ll have to settle for your parents! And for solitude.

I am, I would say, a social person in small doses. I love small, intimate gatherings but I loath crowded social events–and I do love solitude. Thoreau again:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

I think that my son has inherited some of this from me. He’ll spend gobs of time in his room “alone.” Most of that time he is not really alone, occupied as he usually is with communications in real time with his gaming buddies. But when he practices his drumming, or when he does his homework, or when he reads, he seems content often to be alone. But this will be difficult and it will get more and more difficult. And my thoughts move from Thoreau to Rilke.  In his Letters to a Young Poet, offering more advice about loving and living than he ever gives about writing, he gifts to the young poet and subsequently the entire world that famous and absolutely incalculable good advice: Hold to the difficult. Today’s reading, not a poem but a piece of prose–from a poet, a selection I hope you find as comforting as I do in times of difficulty.

 

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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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