A Journal of the Plague Year: #28

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.  

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#403: Poem on April 30, 2021

Photo by Rajeev Mog Chowdhary on Pexels.com

It’s always astounding to me, when I set myself the task of writing a poem a day for a month, and then each day becomes marked by a poem, how quickly the month seems to pass. Thirty poems seems like a lot of poems. Thirty days seems like a lot of days. It’s not. You’d think we’d be used to this, that whole time-passing thing. It’s been more than a year since our lock-down began. I went 105 days without alcohol. I was counting those days, not because I couldn’t wait for the abstinence to be over, but because I wanted to see how many days I could go. 105 days went by pretty quickly. A full year of distance learning, of teaching remotely from my home computer, from April 2020 to April 2021–that happened. That, however, did not go by quickly. This, perhaps, has felt like the longest school year in my long career. Maybe it’s that you have to be counting, and in small increments, to experience time as accelerated. My two most favorite unfinished reading projects are both about time. I was not able to finish Proust or Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I don’t know what this means. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws. I liked today’s final suggestion from the Napowrimo website, but it feels slight somehow, not suitable as a concluding poem–as if, for some reason, I feel like the last poem of the month should be somehow a kind of pinnacle, some kind of stirring, epic, grand, final gesture. That’s a set-up for failure. William Stafford’s advice about writing has stuck with me more, I think, than any other piece of advice I have ever heard or read from another writer. When you are stuck, when the going gets tough, “lower your standards.”

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I so much appreciate those of you who have visited a bunch of times, sharing some comments here or there and “liking” the work. It’s sustaining. It’s very gratifying. I wish I could be as generous to you all as you have been to me. Time to visit the work of my Napowrimo brothers and sisters is always limited in my situation during this most critical time of the school year, the home stretch, as it were, and especially in this year of our plague, 2021. Cheers. Congratulations. May we meet again in better circumstances. Here are the directions to my house.

Poem on April 30

Just follow the signs.
You can’t miss it.
It’s just right around the corner.
Well, right around several corners,
the penultimate corner of which
will, after one more corner,
bring you practically to my doorstep.
It’s almost nothing but left turns
with a right turn just in time
so that you’re not traveling
in circles. Yeah, if you think
of it like that, a series of
near circles, or squares really,
with a right turn after
every two lefts–that’s the idea.
Look for the tree, the one
all by itself on the curbside,
standing, as if on guard,
against what appears to be
a whole forest of giant oaks,
which leaved today, by the way.
I swear, I’ve been watching,
like I do every year: one day,
bare trees, the next, leaves.
So look for the green in the canopy.
The dogs will bark but they don’t bite.
We have a roundabout driveway
that moves round about the house.
We hope you will feel welcome here,
but our doorbell is out of commission
so you’ll have to use the knocker.

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#402: Poem on April 29, 2021

Poem on April 29

The best thing I could do
for myself this morning:
spin Scary Monsters
in the empty classroom
before the students arrived,
timing “Ashes to Ashes”
and “Fashion” just for
the moment as the first
group of kids came through
the doors of A-9.
That was a good way to begin.
What has felt like a week
of Thursdays comes to a close
tomorrow at the end of our
first full week of what we’re
calling the “hybrid” model—
google meets in the morning,
in-person afternoon classes.
My 9th graders are quiet, subdued,
maybe somewhat shell-shocked,
having been alone for so long,
not having to talk, not having
to be seen, now suddenly,
totally exposed. These are not
the 9th graders I’m used to.
It’s early, I know, and maybe
by the end of the school
year they’ll be back to their
old selves, and instead of my
wishing that they’d talk,
I’ll be wishing they’d stop.
I hope so. Otherwise, I feel
we’d still be learning at a distance,
less remote, to be sure,
but still that gulf, that silence,
those long awkward pauses,
which may or may not be pregnant:
Ground control to Major Tom–
sometimes it’s impossible to tell
if anyone is out there.

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#401: Poem on April 28, 2021

Including today, there are three more days left of National Poetry Writing Month. I’ve made it this far and I haven’t missed a day. In previous years, while I always made it to 30, sometimes I would have to cheat a little and publish two poems in a single day. I cheated not a single time this month. The month is not over yet, I know, but I think my chances of finishing without a cheat are strong. The force is with me, the poetry force, that is. Other things, they seem to be against me, but not poetry. Today’s prompt, you ask? It’s a good one; although, as I write this little preamble, I have not yet written the poem and do not know that it will be successful. There’s something about that. You can’t always write well to a prompt just because you like it. The perfect exemplar of this assignment is found, I think, in the song that inspired the meme above: “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads. I’ve used this graphic to illustrate a poem before–but that thing was a totally different animal. The optional prompt for today–write a poem inspired by or consisting of questions, answers optional. Here goes.

Poem on April 28

You may ask yourself,

Yep, I’m already done with that. I got one line but no questions and no poem. Let’s try again.

Poem on April 28

You may ask yourself,

I see the problem. If I take the first line from the song, it immediately invokes nothing else but those lyrics. I have to begin differently.

Poem on April 28

You may ask me,

No! Now all I can think about is that most brilliant and favorite of William Stafford poems: “Some time when the river is ice, ask me/ mistakes I have made.”

Fourth time is the charm.

Poem on April 28

I often ask myself questions.
I am a master self-interrogator.
Often, it’s something like this:
What were you thinking?
But more often, my questions
tend toward the what if.
What would happen, let’s say.
Another old favorite is the weighing
of options and consequences:
If that, then this? Or this, then that?
I ask questions of others, as well,
at least in my mind, and sometimes
speaking out loud and alone,
as in a car, or a boat, or in a crowd:
Are you absolutely kidding me?
In what universe does that make sense?
Yesterday, I spoke directly to a screen
on which Tucker Carlson was yammering
a stream of mouth vomit about how
putting a mask on a child was abuse.
Are you an absolute idiot? Rhetorical.
And in my fury over his imbecilic ilk
and the machine that allows it
to spew its garbage into receptive ears,
I attempt once again to turn inward:
Why so angry? Will deep breathing help?
What kinds of choices or words make
the difference? And then again, back out:
Can I borrow fifty bucks?
I don’t need the money but I thought
it would be interesting to hear your answer.
It’s always interesting to hear the answers
to our questions. Rarely, say the wise,
is it useful.

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#400: Poem on April 27, 2021

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Today seems like a milestone day. 400 poems, for instance. It’s taken 8 years, but that doesn’t seem too shabby of a record. That’s 50 poems a year. And here’s a smaller number, but a milestone, nevertheless: I have made it through the first two days–or one time through the entire schedule–of hybrid teaching. I’m still standing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Today was a smoother experience, in part because I taught two online classes and one class in-person, whereas yesterday it was the opposite, a decidedly more difficult schedule. Other factors, too, made for a better day, not the least of which was that I felt pretty sure that I knew what I was doing. While we’ve been talking about teaching nightmares, that one is the worst: the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing. I wonder if I could find a description and a name for that feeling in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which is where we are to find inspiration today for a poem. Nope, not at least in the amount of time I was willing to spend there. It’s a great resource, a great website, but it’s difficult to know where to begin. I think I’ll just grab a bunch. Let’s make a list poem.

Poem for April 27

Here’s a list of all my obscure sorrows.
Looking up at the stars in a clear sky
I can’t help but feel degrassé,
and every time I look at my parked
travel trailer: a serious case of the wends.
I get all meledro whenever I read Dickinson,
and lately, watching the news, I’m a full-on
anthrodyniac. I spread my arms
and flap and get no results: mahpiohanzia.
Good days, perfect moments, ecstatic ones
are sometimes packed in kairosclerosis,
while several heartworms peck at me
from twenty or thirty years ago.
Some extended periods of chrysalism,
a tilt shift every once in a while when
making accounts of the accomplishments,
and then jouska all the time, making my case.
The fata organa at strangers across the room,
agnosthesia, again.

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#399: Poem on April 26, 2021

Remember that nightmare I had about distance learning? Poem #398 for easy reference. Well, that nightmare, or some version of it, was a lived experience for me on my first day back to school for hybrid learning. So here’s a poem on that occasion, unfortunately this time, not a dream but a reality. The kids are alright, by the way.

Poem on April 26

Mistakes were made.
For one, on the eve of our
return to the school house
for the first in-person
educational experience
in more than 365 days,
I fell on my face,
cracked my nose open
good and proper,
scraped and chaffed
myself all up one side
of my hip, and cut the
inside of my wrist.
It was stupid–I was
wrestling with a stuck
dresser drawer, my feet
somehow came out
from underneath, I
lost balance, and
the dresser and its drawer
got the best of me.
Finally able to stop
the bleeding and calm
myself down enough
to relax and sleep,
I end up with a solid
five hours of rest.
Bandaged and masked,
I travel this morning
to the school house
to “teach ’em up,”
as we say, one synchronous
class online, a prep,
and then two in-person
hybrid groups of students
who have not yet
had a full on-line class.
And yes, too many tabs
were open: the meet,
multiple versions of
the slides, the role sheet,
my email inbox, who knows
what else; I had a meet
going on for kids
who were watching from
home and I struggled
not to neglect them,
and in the process,
I neglected them.
The lesson, mostly goofy
fun stuff some colleagues
created and which I agonized over,
required lots of teacher speech,
and with a banged up
nose, some hip pain, and
a mask, I was losing
my voice and my breath fast.
My head spun with all the
logistical issues of the day:
Can I touch these post-it notes
or not? Can I call our tech
guy to get extra laptops?
Are those two sitting too close
together? How do I project
this video again? Why
does it feel like I’ve
been on my feet for four
hours? Do I have time
to sanitize these desks
for the next group to come in?
No, I don’t. Can I get to the
restroom? No, I can’t.
Why was I asked to show
a video to students about how
the schedule works during
the last class at the end
of their first full schedule?
The school day and the
work day are over at the same
time. Can I be ready to
go home as soon as the students
leave my room? No, I can’t.
First of all, that’s mentally an
impossible task; secondly, it’s
physically impossible until
the busses exit along with the
ensuing traffic jam behind
them. Yes, mistakes were made,
and not all of them were mine.
But I’ve never felt so unprepared
and tentative about
a first school day, rarely
have I ever been as nervous,
and never, at the end of it,
have I felt so beaten.
A colleague of mine texted me that
for a moment today she had herself
thinking it was Friday.
That captures it. It kind
of felt like a whole week went
by in a day, like this last year
has felt like two, like the last
four years have felt like eight.
I think I’d like for time
to start flying again.


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#398: Poem on April 25, 2021

Here’s an occasional poem, of sorts: on the occasion of having a teaching nightmare on the eve of returning to the school building for hybrid learning, April, 2021. I actually composed the following before I knew today’s suggested prompt, and I do think I would like to compose a poem more directly or seriously for the occasion. Teaching nightmares are not uncommon among my brothers and sisters in the profession, while this, all of this, this whole year, and in particular this last quarter of the year, is a singular moment, historic, truly “unprecedented.” I’m getting kind of tired of things being so unprecedented. So, anyway, all of this is just to say, not that I have eaten the plums in the icebox, but that I might have another poem in me on the occasion of returning to the school house tomorrow to meet with actual students once again.

Poem on April 25

Last night I have
what can only be described
as a Comprehensive Distance Learning Nightmare:

I begin 4th Quarter by
teaching a lesson
so far out of sequence
that none of my students
have a clue about what’s happening.
It takes me half the lesson to realize
that something’s wrong:
with their mics muted
and their video feeds disabled,
no one says anything,
not even in the chat,
where I keep looking for feedback.
I imagine that each of them
thinks they’re the problem,
so, out of decorum or embarrassment,
they allow me to flounder.
And I flounder astonishingly.
I’ve got so many tabs open
I can’t find the meet.
Suddenly I’m looking at still another
incorrect slideshow.
Audio kicks in from some video
on another buried tab.
I can’t turn it off.
I start to lose my temper,
slamming my fist on the desktop,
cursing in the most vile possible way
into a live mic in front of thirty horrified students,
when my son, as a five year old,
comes into the room and dumps his
peanut butter and jelly toast
face down on the seat cushion
of the newly reupholstered wingback chair.

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#397: Poem on April 24, 2021

Photo by Cindy Gustafson on Pexels.com

Poem on April 24

A man has been crushed
to death by a butterfly
he had been hunting in
Zimbabwe last Friday.
Theunis Botha was
hunting a group of butterflies
on an insect reserve with clients
when the party accidentally
stumbled upon a breeding
flutter in Good Luck Farm
near Hwange National Park. 
It is reported that three
of the startled winged creatures
charged the poachers,
prompting Mr Bothas to
fire at them before he was
taken by surprise by a fourth
butterfly who charged the hunters
from the side. The monarch
lifted Mr Bothas up off
the ground with her proboscis
before a fellow hunter shot at the bug,
causing her to fall and crush
the 51-year-old beneath her.
The South African man was
reportedly a renowned hunter
who specialized in targeting
ants and spiders and ran his own
“big bug safari” hunting trips. 
Mr Bothas had been in
business for nearly 35 years
with four branches in South Africa.
He leaves behind five children.

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#396: Poem on April 23, 2021

Poem on April 23

You’re goddamn right
I was saving those plums
for breakfast.

That’s why I put
them in the icebox–
for safe, cold-keeping.
Do I have to put
my name on shit
in this household?

I’m glad
you enjoyed them
because, this is
just to say,
I have given
all your chocolate
to the neighbor kids.

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#395: Poem on April 22, 2021

On April 16 of 2020 I wrote a poem about turntables. I even used this image as an illustration. Having forgotten about that poem, as one does, I set out today to write another poem about turntables–a little bit in keeping with today’s prompt from Napowrimo to write a poem in which an object becomes a symbol for a place or a time. I wrote this poem this evening, and then I thought to myself, I know I’ve got a good image in my media library I could use for this poem, and then when I found the image, I thought to myself, wow, I’ve probably written about this subject before. Lo and behold, April 16 of 2020 I wrote about turntables. I just almost typed a quip about feeling like a broken record. I’m so glad I stopped myself. Anyway, here’s another poem about one of my favorite past times.

Poem on April 22

Here it is: the turntable.
Even after the 90 minute
hi-fidelity blank cassette tape
made it possible to listen
to a full album without
having to flip sides,
the turntable was still
ubiquitous. Our pirate
activities entailed borrowing
albums from friends, placing
the needle down on to the
record, waiting a second
or so after the initial plosive
plop for the stylus to
nestle into the groove,
then, quickly, so as not
to truncate the first notes
of the first song, we pushed
play and record at the same
time on our cassette decks.
Every once in a while,
we’d have to take a second
pass, but after some practice,
we got pretty good at timing
things just so. These were
the glorious 70’s and 80’s
of childhood and early
adulthood, when 45 minutes
of continuous play was
as good as it got, and the
occasional pop or snap
from the vinyl was immortalized
the same way for
every playback, forever,
or until the tape went stale
or the machine chewed it up.
The turntable has made
a stunning comeback
in the last inning, and I’ve
caught the bug once again,
having sold all of my records
moving into the 90’s, replaced
every record with a compact
disc, and now, finding myself
replacing compact discs
with new records. I’ve come,
as they say, full circle, back
to myself, almost a second
childhood, where I’d love
nothing more than for a friend
to sit down with me to listen
to a record, which used to be,
and could be again,
a real thing.

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