Tag Archives: COVID-19

A Journal of the Plague Year: #27

Charles Baudelaire: He doesn’t look very happy.

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.”

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #26

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.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #25

Cheers!

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!

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #24

My classroom now has a blue refrigerator, a recording studio, a vertical turntable, a small personal library of classics and contemporaries, childhood art by the resident teenager, and two dogs.

September 15, 2020

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.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #23

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?

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Journal of the Plague Year: #21

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

 

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Journal of the Plague Year: #20

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.

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Journal of the Plague Year: #19

The United States is dealing with two plagues simultaneously: the plague of the coronavirus pandemic and the plague of racism. It’s pretty clear to most white folks how they can protect themselves against COVID-19: social distance, wash your damn hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, stay home if you’re feeling sick, get tested if you have symptoms, quarantine. It’s less clear to white folks how best to help solve the plague of racism. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it is, in fact, in our ballpark; it is our responsibility–our solemn responsibility. We broke it. We must fix it. But how? For so long, even liberal, well intentioned white people have been oblivious to systemic racism, convinced somehow that we lived in a post-racial society, or, so insulated that they never understood the depth of the problem, or, unaware of their own deep-seated racism. Some others are way out front, learning about anti-racism, becoming the best allies they can become; some of these folks have been at this for decades. And then there are those who are blatantly, unapologetically racist, and are that way because . . . Christ, who knows why. It’s difficult not to make broad generalized strokes–they are southerners, they are rednecks, they are right-wingnuts, they are nazis, they are republicans, they are ignorant, they are afraid. That pretty much covers the stereotype spectrum. And the stark political and cultural division in this country makes it very difficult to simply “bring up to speed” our recalcitrant brethren. They vilify those on the left as libtards and communists and heathen. And they hate the people who are characterized this way in the same way progressives hate the injustices and violence perpetrated against black Americans and other Americans of color. People are entrenched. So we seem to be at an impasse. Or are we?

For the first time during the corona virus shelter-in-place order from March 13, I found myself inside of a crowd. On Tuesday night I attended the Black Lives Matter Milwaukie Sit-In for Solidarity on the waterfront. There were hundreds of people there, spacing themselves from each other as well as they could on the grounds of the park, almost all wearing masks. And despite being, perhaps, the most racially diverse group of people to ever congregate in Milwaukie, most of the people there were white folks. But all of the speakers were black. And that is exactly how it should be.

Part of how we get beyond this impasse, first of all, for those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of justice and equality, is to listen. And even for those of us who consider ourselves allies, that listening can be painful, like it was to hear one of the speakers, a 2020 graduate, a former student of mine, talk about the difficulties she faced in the school where I teach. But this listening has to be done. So I’m listening. And it appears many of my Milwaukie neighbors are also listening. And we’re fired up. I don’t think that I have ever seen a gathering like the one I saw Tuesday, for any political issue, on Milwaukie’s waterfront or in its streets. I could be mistaken there, but it seems to me that my little town is waking up from a long slumber and I’m doing my best to wake up with it. It’s a step in the right direction–a step in the left direction.

Continuing with the tradition of ending with a poem, my choice today is “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes. One of the pieces of advice for white people on a flier that was circulating at the rally was to read black authors, black poets, black journalists. I know the power of reading to be the best way to exercise one’s empathy muscles, and personally, I know that until I started reading black authors, late, when I was almost as old as the speaker in this Hughes poem, 22, I was oblivious. With each piece I read by a Hughes, a McKay, a Hurston, a Walker, a Morrison, an Ellison, I became less and less oblivious. As an English teacher, I am biased toward literature, but I do believe with all of my heart that it is a correct bias, that literature is part of the cure, a significant one at that.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #18

It’s been almost two full months since my last entry in A Journal of the Plague Year, although, as part of National Poetry Writing Month I wrote 30 poems, many of which were, by their nature and subject matter, a continuation of the journal in another form. During the month of May I took a little bit of a hiatus, posting to the blog just a couple of times, both times, not about living through a pandemic, but about music, one of the key components of my survival during this, and other, difficult times in life. My last post was on May 11th, and on May 25th George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, words are difficult things to manage, and rather than writing, I have been reading and listening to the words of others, the words of people who are far better prepared or who can articulate the tragedy of our time more effectively than I ever could.

But today there is much to say, and I resume A Journal of the Plague Year in prose. There are things I would like to share, like the fact that I got a haircut this week, or that I’ve had a meal in a restaurant for the first time in almost three months, or that I’ve mowed the lawn a bunch of times now with my new Electric Mower, but all of this feels absolutely stupid and inconsequential. I mean, even if I had the most adorable puppy or kitten video ever known to humankind, I’d feel stupid about posting it now.

Even my recent facebook series of posting my most influential records from the turn of the 21st century onward, seems insignificant, superfluous, slight, insensitive. Except that: I am discovering that the music of the 21st century that has been most influential to me was often made by artists of color and by women. And that seems significant. As a child, and in my formative years, I listened to and enjoyed black music I heard on the radio, had tremendous respect for the black musicians who backed up Zappa’s band, and as a teenager and in my 20’s there were a handful of women who completely rocked my world, but it probably wasn’t until the 90’s, when I heard Fishbone and Rage Against the Machine for the first time and was exposed to the fierceness of Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair, that my record collection and musical proclivities began to diversify. My list of influential 21st century artists includes Brittany Howard, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Childish Gambino, Mitski Miyawaki, Thao Nguyen, Neko Case, and Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. All of these artists are making music, I think, that I find challenging, beautiful, content-rich, music that expands the head and the heart, music that has taught me, I think, a lot about the world from perspectives that are radically different from my own. I am listening.

Watching the news of the protests, this incredible convulsion in our country, my emotions have been all over the map. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am worried. I am terrified. I am inspired. I am hopeful. Yesterday, I was reading about the action in Washington D.C., that on the 9th day of protests, the largest crowd had assembled and the police had essentially disappeared. Something is shifting and I felt a tremendous surge of hope and tears welled up in my eyes. I believe this nation is at a crossroads and a turning point. Politically speaking, it has been the most devastating three and a half years of my life time, and it culminates with this pandemic, 100,000 American deaths and counting, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the catalysts perhaps for what looks like might be a long overdue reckoning in this country with systemic racism and the overt oppression of people of color. We cannot go back. There is only forward. I am learning how to be an anti-racist. I am trying to find the best way to be an ally. It is perhaps, one more good reason not to retire from teaching.

In other Plague Year News: we are moving into the last week of the school year, and the 8th or 9th week of distance teaching and learning. It has been the most paradoxical of times. My seniors gone, having been cut loose almost immediately after the closure on March 13, and the gift of having an exceptionally capable and caring student teacher taking over my sophomores, I have had some time on my hands, the understatement of the year. I have counseled my intern to the best of my ability, I have participated in staff meetings and department meetings and professional learning communities, I have recorded a whole slew of poetry for the pandemic, I have immersed myself again in Neruda, I have helped advise the roll-out of a district on-line literary magazine, I have read some, and I have written a lot: 18 Journals of the Plague Year, 30 poems, a couple of music blogs, and I’ve been working somewhat in earnest on the draft of a new book, a memoir in micro chapters about religion and the lack thereof. I realize that I have been exceedingly lucky in all of this. Dickens said it best in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t even have to quote it.

I wish you all health and safety. As has been customary at the conclusion of each journal in this series, I would like to leave you with a poem, one that seems appropriate for the moment, as much so now as when it was published in 1921. “America,” by Claude McKay.

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#373: A Prose Poem Meditation on the Penultimate Day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in His Potentially Penultimate Professional Year, Ending in a Rhyming Couplet, II

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Last year on April 29 I wrote a poem with this same title, hence, the Roman numeral two punctuating its conclusion. Let this be the second part of a prose poem meditation on the penultimate day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in his potentially penultimate professional year, ending in a rhyming couplet.

I have had three penultimate teaching years in a row. The bottom line is this: I am not ready to retire. I’m a mess. This year, especially early on, I waffled all over the place.  Then, almost immediately, I stopped waffling. I knew I was not ready and made my peach with that. Did I just type the word peach? I have not been making peaches.

And yet, I knew, somehow (a meeting with a financial advisor?) that I was not ready. I knew, somehow (the repeated occurrences of joyfulness in the work?) that I was not ready. And I knew, finally, somehow (the passing of a deadline for declaring an intention to retire?) that I was not ready.

The deadline for declaring an intention to retire, by the wayside, was April 1, yes, April Fool’s day, but much more importantly, the first day of national poetry month, and the beginning of the third week of shelter-in-place orders as the result of COVID-19. I transitioned on that day from journaling the plague year to poetry-ing it.

Nearly all of my poems this month have been about, or at least mentioned, the coronavirus pandemic, sheltering-in-place, distance learning, social distancing, abandoned schoolhouses, grieving for the class of 2020, walking the dogs, and sitting in the back yard with birds.

Here’s the shortest commencement speech ever: Class of 2020. You’ve been robbed a little bit, but just a little. Sure, there are things you didn’t get to do that every class for the last 102 years has been able to do, but none of those classes, none of them, have chalked up their school’s courtyard while keeping a safe distance quite like you have–and these things that you’ve missed, ultimately, will be less important in time than the things you didn’t miss. So there. Godspeed. Congratulations. Your accomplishments are legend.

Two beloved colleagues, both long-time friends, one longer and more friendly, but both, it bears repeating, beloved, are leaving the school house. One is retiring and the other will be teaching internationally, and both, I know, are grieving that this last year in public education has been so fucked up. Another reason, as if I needed one, for staying.

It is time to retire the word penultimate. A thing cannot be second-to-last forever. I understand this now, and will endeavor to stop thinking ahead, just as my mindfulness practice tells me, that the most important moment is the NOW moment, the expansion of consciousness in the present–an awareness that poetry serves up better than any cushion. Ultimately, I will retire from the public school system . . .

before I’m toast but not until I’m ready,
and until that day I swear I’m holding steady.

 

 

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