“Today doesn’t feel much like a Friday…”

Voice No. 1
Today doesn’t feel much like a Friday. These past days have been off and I’m sure anyone can agree to that. Today should have been a regular day at school. Talking to your friends about teenager stuff instead we are stuck at home dwelling on how we could have enjoyed high school more. Thinking about all the things we could have done differently if we knew it would get to this. Anyways my day is just starting. I went to sleep around 12am and woke up at 10am, ate breakfast and cleaned my room. Now I’m here staring at my laptop. Hopefully today the world can receive some good news. I think we all need a break. I have to go to work today and there are so many things that we are changing to take extra precautions. It’s sad to see what we have gotten to. Yet we still have loads of people cramped up in the building buying loads of wings. 

Voice No. 2:

Today I woke up at like 12, I didn’t really plan on waking up late. The only reason I woke up late is because I stayed up till like 3:30 playing with my homie. They’re moments that I treasure because we weren’t even playing at that point; we set our controllers down and we just talked about life. We’re both car enthusiasts so we started talking about making a car crew when we’re older and making stickers, hats, and jackets maybe. Once we got off I thought over the whole thing, once we go off into college there won’t be many nights like that anymore. When I woke up today I felt so lazy mainly because I had to do homework. On the brightside I only have one left to do.

Life in the Time of Corona: A Year We Could Keep Our Promises…

Voice No. 1:

I kind of lost track of time in the midst of our current situation, but I believe it’s my second week of being in quarantine and it seems to me that as we go deeper into the year of 2020 everything seems to just be getting worse. Yesterday I received the news that our annual senior prom was cancelled. Cancelled! Although I realize that in dealing with this pandemic they’re going to be things that are out of administration’s control I could still feel raging anger from the top of my wavy black hair all the way down to my feet’s ten toes. I mean come on now, administration really couldn’t postpone our prom? So they cancel our prom, but don’t cancel our senior portfolio/interviews. That just makes absolutely no sense to me and just thinking about the fact that they couldn’t postpone our prom but found a way to postpone our senior portfolio/interviews makes me want to throw a fit as if I was a privileged 6 year old spoiled kid. At the moment I’m currently questioning myself if my anger is justified or if I’m just being a selfish little…….you get the jist. I understand that there are people out in the world who have found themselves being affected by this pandemic in far worse ways and I don’t want to in any way compare my situation to anyone who might be dealing with the far worse scheme of things by expressing my anger. But, at the same time I don’t want to keep my emotions bottled up so I decided to write it down in this journal. In addition my siblings really tried to kick me out the other day. Could you believe it? These little kids are all younger than me and they really packed up some of my clothes and tried to get me to leave. I hope it was all in fun and games and that’s not how they actually feel. I guess one positive outcome from all the craziness is that with being home quarantined with my family it’s a big reminder to me that no matter what happens family’s always going to be there no matter what.

Voice No. 2:

Yesterday it was announced that our senior prom, the night that I have been looking forward to ever since I was in kindergarten, has been cancelled. I know that the world is facing bigger problems right now, Covid-19, and it may sound selfish but i think it’s safe to say that the senior class of 2020 is filled with anger. Why us? Why now? There must be something we can do. We deserve our prom after all this boredom and at home work. All we have left is to pray and hope things will return to its normal state sooner than later. Today is my first day off from work this week which means i have more time to do my school work YAY! (that was sarcasm) lol anyways hopefully people stop being selfish and stay at home today.

All Quiet on the Westcoast Front

We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it.

John F. Kennedy


Life in the time of Covid-19: A Daily Journal

Two years ago, I was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to spend a summer at Virginia Tech, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Medicine, and the National Archives, studying the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. The centenary of that awful period that followed what was then The Great War killed almost five percent of the world’s population. Yet as devastating as the Pandemic of 1918 was, relatively little has been written about it. It’s as if the global death knell, tolling continuously and ruinously from 1914 through 1918, had deafened the world to the last inhumanity the war, at least in part, produced: the worst plague in human history.

I had done some professional epidemiology; I studied public health as a grad student at UCLA. Plagues, pestilences, pandemics, these were all the source of my fascination and my fear because I understood how soon the next one would come, must come, even though is would do so while most of the world would be looking somewhere else. This is how pandemics occur. Once they jump from their animal hosts into the pets that we own or the food that we eat, they are among us. Although frightening, like all crises, they call us to bear witness as people as much as they rely on our bravery and our perseverance. These things cannot be stopped, they can only be ameliorated, or, in my case, they can at least pass without also going unrecorded.

I left the world of medicine and healthcare behind me in 2009 and found my vocation in teaching. My students and I are now within our strange bunkers, isolated from one another and waiting for the wave of fear, curiosity, and isolation to pass. I miss them and wanted to give them a place to put their voices. These following words are theirs:

03/18/20

It didn’t rain today, which was disappointing, but it should start up again soon. I like the rain, it brings me a sense of peace and calmness (if that’s even grammatically correct). I like the coolness that it brings to the air, and its unpredictability. When it rains, I like to just sit outside and watch the water fall from the sky. Watch as it falls with such ease and then momentous force. It’s almost like a dance or a game. Like it has a personality of its very own, not to be poetic or anything, but it’s true. One minute it’s storming down with such force and power I can hear its song from inside my house, and then it stops and just begins to sprinkle.

My sister came home last night from her friend’s house. I wish she would just go back already. She’s already being annoying, and I barely even saw her today. Which is how you know that she was being REALLY REALLY annoying. She thinks just because she made dinner that she’s all of THAT. But she really isn’t. She boiled pasta for crying out loud, and put some garlic flavoring in some butter and all of a sudden she’s a world class chef in my parents eyes. UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! I can’t even be in the same room as her right now. Plus she wanted me to do the dishes so she told my parents that since she made dinner that I had to do the dishes and they were so preoccupied with themselves that they agreed with her. But I can’t say anything because that wouldn’t be “mature”. So I did the dishes and then she had the audacity to tell me, not ask, TELL me that I had to dry, and put them away as well. 

And then there’s the school situation. Don’t get me wrong I love school but I would rather do it at, you know, school. So that way I can solcialize and ask questions, and be involved. Plus every teacher thinks that their class is the most important so the work never stops coming. I have so many tests for AP World that I have lost count. And I have to do online, two hour lectures for AP Biology. Which don’t get me wrong are really constructive and helpful but I can get confused and lost at times which is really frustrating. Then there’s math. Algebra 2. The work I had on Monday, I had to do notes for literally two hours and then do homework after that. Needless to say I did not get to bio that day. Oh, and back to bio, there is SO MUCH WORK! Like my god. I have done two of my like 9 assignments so I am buried in work. And every time I take a break, that is when my mom just happens to come home from work. Which you know would be fine except that she accuses me of watching too much tv. I have done nothing but work today. I did school work, and then yard work with my dad, and that wasn’t even fun. It was not relieving to take a break from school to help him because every little mistake I made he just blew up.Like I accidentally shot him with the hose, and that turned into “WELL WHAT IF THAT WAS A GUN?! HUH?!” And then I was kicking a ball around with my biggest dog Charlie (he’s a black lab) and I kicked the ball to my dad and he kicked it so hard it hit the fence. The minute I accidentally do that it’s a catastrophe and I have just ruined his fence. Ended his world. Needless to say, he had a complete meltdown. UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

HIC SVNT DRACONES

Lennox Globe, by B.F.Da Costa
So Day One of Winter Break is probably not the best time to start planning next semester’s lessons, but I came across this poem by Rumi (it’s actually the beginning to a longer poem) and thought it might be a nice introduction to the selected readings for next semester since they involve worlds that are alternately mythic, old, and ineffably terrifying, (Homer, Shakespeare, Wiesel’s “Night”).

Wean yourself

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say ‘The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.’

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.

Listen to the answer.

There is no ‘other world’
I only know what I have experienced.
You must be hallucinating.

[Emphasis mine]

I was recently staying with one of my closest friends, Daymon. He lives in Seattle and he and I have enjoyed (and endured) many journeys together. We have been friends for over twenty-five years and when I look back on the time when we met (different Los Angeles) and the time when we lived together (different New York) and the time we spend together now (different Duncan, different Daymon), I encounter the ways in which we have changed and grown but also how the terrain, physical terrain, of the world that we have traveled across has changed too.

Daymon’s guest room, well-appointed and comfortable like a sanctuary, has a giant map rising above the head board of the bed. He actually has maps in different points throughout his house and although we’ve never discussed it, I assume that cartography is something that fascinates him. (At least I hope so because I’ve sent him a small book, an atlas, as a Christmas present and token of gratitude for the love and care that descends from him whenever I visit.) I started thinking about maps when I was last with him, in the aforementioned room. Maps used to frustrate me. All the unfolding (and I could never refold them properly so they began to fluff up like an ill-used accordion over time), all the spacial coordination (“it says that where we need to go is in section ‘G4’ but I can’t find it!”) all the land that was labelled and useless for whatever purpose the map has been opened for in the first place.

Maps traditionally represent adventure, treasures maps, “Heart of Darkness,” but freedom is also achieved cinematically and metaphorically when some character screams with excitement, “let’s just throw the map away!” I have never been intentionally adventurous in this way.  I’m too much the planner, overly anxious about getting lost. Now, like most people, I just use electronic maps, smartphone-enabled apps, GPS devices, things that tell you the quickest route, the fastest way, the method that eliminates any and all territorial distractions. This is the “give and take” of modern technology. It gives you the convenience of surgical precision, but takes the remaining landscape away.

I’m about to embark on my third trip across the country by car. The last one was exactly thirty years ago, when I moved a friend from her home in Boston to my apartment building in LA. Now I’m moving my sister-in-law, from the home we currently share in LA, back to her childhood home in Philadelphia. She’s taking my nephew, her son, along with her. (He’s actually flying back east with my niece the day their mother and I hit the road with their collective belongings and two white hyenas dressed as dogs.) My nephew and I explored Alaska and Washington together along with my family, his cousins, our friends. I have taken him to soccer games and trips up the coast and we’ve jumped at more horror movies together than I can count. Since I’m sonless and he fatherless, our connection runs deeper than most uncles share with their nephews. Consequently, his departure will represent a considerable loss, one that I haven’t had the heart or the time to tally. It will represent new territory for me and I don’t have a map for that, physical, virtual, emotional.

“Life is a Journey!”

I hate that cliche; it’s both mawkish and glib simultaneously. Life is a series of journeys, sure, right, check, but the overarching journey comes to a dead end, literally and even when it’s mapped out, it’s unpredictable and you seldom end up where you intend. Life is uncharted and any map always proves unreliable. Still, I suppose the best way to understand uncharted territory is to chart it, so that’s what I’ll do. I’ll start a series of posts, of impressions, of the stops along the way from LA to Philadelphia. I don’t know what there is to write about in Oklahoma–it’s “undiscovered country” for me, unreal, one of Rumi’s embryo’s hallucinations–but I’ll give it a shot and share it here. Maybe there will be pictures too. I need some practice because I’m doing all of this again when Miles, my partner, and I go to Italy this summer prior to our wedding. (Now that I’ve done before, but the map my ex-wife and I shared will be useless for my marriage to come for all sorts of reasons.) For the upcoming Italian voyage, I’ve been studying maps, real maps, and trying to figure out what they mean and why so often I always read them upside down. I suppose you just set off in the direction the maps tells you to go and hope that whomever made it is better at creating them than you are at reading them.

I just hope where ever we end up, there won’t be any dragons.

Black Holes and White Lights

Last night, I watched “Captain Phillips” with my brother and his wife. At the end, when Phillips is saved and being treated for shock, something was jarred.

It “felt” exactly like my experience coming to at Cedars-Sinai when I was hit and killed in ’09.

The medical report gave an estimate of the time from when they believe my heart stopped to when the paramedics were able to jump-start it back into the land of the living. I tell my kids this story and they all ask about “the white light,” and I can see their disappointment when I explain that I didn’t see one.

“I’m not saying that there isn’t one,” I quickly qualify, “merely that it didn’t come for me. This may say much more about my fate and much less about the existence of the light than I care to ponder.”

(This normally provokes laughter from my students and some small, however not unsubstantial, bit of reflection for me.)

“Well what did you experience?,” they ask. “Nothing,” I respond honestly. “It was more like a black hole than a white light. Time, pain, everything just seemed to disappear in retrospect. I was just in one place at one point and then in another, only later.”

You can swim through the silence of the pause that typically comes after I mention that.

Once, a student asked, “Did you hear any music?” This may sound strange, particularly since I just mentioned the hole with nothing in it, but it makes sense to me. Nature abhors a vacuum and in the space of unknowing that I’m describing, my students probably reach into the only thing that they can access immediately and that’s television or movies.

In the movies, even death comes with a soundtrack.

I’ve thought about what my own brief flirtation with the undiscovered country might sound like. What would be playing on the radio in the brief moment when I went off the shoulder before I came to back on the road? My sister-in-law Deirdre sent me this song by James Blake to me this morning and I loved it so much, I think that this might be just the thing that would have, that could have, the maybe should have been playing when I died. I know that when it happens again, if I can, this will be what I request.

Out among the breakers.

Ithaca

In 1970, the enigmatic Tim Buckley wrote a sad song called “The Song of the Siren.” He actually performed it on the television show “The Monkees,” which gives it a peculiar organic quality of sincerity, even though The Monkees is one of the first real examples of suits trying their best to manufacture something cool.

The Buckleys, like the Kennedys, suffered from a family curse, which expressed itself through the male line.  Tim died at 28, drowned by heroin addiction. His musician son, Jeff, initially ignored by his father would prove equally as sensitive, an iconic musician’s musician that specialized in making sad songs even sadder. Jeff made it only an additional two years before joining his natural father at the age of 30, drowning, literally this time, in the dark eddies of the Mississippi.

Tim Buckley’s other son, Taylor, was adopted. Taylor’s name in Tim Buckley’s Wikipedia entry is dark, which is to say un-highlighted, and so Taylor being a Buckley in name only may have escaped blood curses and the scrutiny of history. Obscurity can be a form of salvation. “Les gens heureux n’ont pas l’histoire,” a French phrase that the late Spaulding Gray once translated as “Happy people don’t make history.” (Gray, coincidentally, also drowned, having thrown himself suicidally into the less mythic, but no less notorious eddies of Manhattan’s East River.)

So why these dark morning reveries about the wonderful, yet ill-fated Buckleys? Self-pity. That and a line from the elder Buckley’s song, mentioned above.

I am puzzled as the newborn child
I am troubled at the tide:
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Should I lie with death my bride?

My own siren’s song, the gift of teaching, continues to call to me, but I am stuck on shoals and troubled at the tide. My own private Ithaca waits for me at a high school in Southern California. It’s a temporary position–they all are at first–but a chance to teach English. My shoal is a background check, fingerprint analysis, which must be done in Washington, DC.  My clearance, the official print-out of my conscience, is bobbing somewhere in between here and there, lost at sea because a small group of small thinkers in my government decided to shut that government down.

I’ve lived through several of these things and never take them personally, although I confess that this time, I’m feeling it much more personally than ever before.

So until the halls of power flip the “on” switch, I’m grounded and the view I had more clearly is now obscured by fog and may never return. “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” (That’s a Sondheim quote. He’s neither dead, nor drowned.)

Still, it’s October and that’s the month for witchcraft, which, like curses, I believe in wholeheartedly.  (It’s belief in God I have trouble with.  If a distrust in God and a belief in witchcraft seems incompatible, I have some film of Germany in the 1930’s, Cambodia in the 1970’s, or modern-day Syria to show you.)

 

“We live two lives…”

Image

Scrymgeour, Duncan
Cheryll in Black Veil
Solarized photographic emulsion
Los Angeles, 1980

“We live two lives…the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”
— Bernard Malamud

When I was teaching Homer’s Odyssey to a group of ninth graders this year, I was struck by how many messages exist within that most central of texts. For the kids, Homer is a primer to the notion of the Classic Hero, the “sacred voyage,” the “monomyth” of selection, departure, trials and suffering, lessons learned, and the long journey home. “Sing to me of the man, Muse,” the Fagles translation begins, “the man of twists and turns.” The journey home is not only long, it is never straight. There are no maps; there is no GPS.

From Homer, I could draw fairly straight lines to my students’ own epic heroes, to Harry Potter, to Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen. From them, in turn, students began to imagine the magicians and wanderers and warriors who populate their own lives. Heroism only seems exalted and mythic at first, but my students learned, it is everywhere and often most easily found not by venturing out, but by simply looking back. After we finished the Odyssey, I asked them to prepare speeches praising their own heroes. Most of them claimed that they didn’t know any. “Look for them,” I told them, “you’ll find them,” and so they did, typically, waiting behind the very doors that closed behind them on their way to school. They found their heroes at home.

The speeches were journeys fraught with nervousness and index cards, frustrated stomping and the plea, “can I start over from the beginning?” My students spoke of their parents and their siblings, many of whom had gone off to real wars, or escaped them. My kids “sang” their odysseys often through tears, as they shared stories about their families and their hardships, their journeys, both geographic and metaphoric, about the people who loved them making sacrifices to find new homes and new lives.

As a new, freshly-minted teacher, one who has come to teaching after a career in healthcare and a lifetime of learning both hard and easy lessons, I almost missed the lesson in Homer that lay in wait for me. It didn’t involve heroism so much as humility. Even great heroes, Homer seems to be reminding us, crave second chances. Midlife crises, as we seem determined to call them, needn’t be something to lament, but to embrace. Leaping from one ship on to another passing in a different direction and, proverbially, frequently at night, now that’s a leap of faith and never seems to happen without frustration, indecision, and loss.

At my last corporate job, my department was eliminated after the functions were outsourced. I was given a career coach to help me land the next job with a desk and a plant and a water cooler. My coach looked over my resume and said, confused, “well you started out in management making a lot of money and well…that is, you started out big and now…” She smiled nervously. “And now things seem small?,” I asked. Her smile became fixed. “Well it does seem like you’re moving backward,” she confessed. That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. But what if I’m not moving backward as much as I’m heading home? Maybe I paddled out too far, and now, wanted to search for the place that had the most meaning for me, back to the man who wanted to teach? Maybe it’s less about “big to small” and more about those “twists and turns” that Homer mentions? Perhaps my story begins with leaving the bigger battle, the place of prestige, and ends when I’ve returned to my own private Ithaca. If so, then I’ve found it. (Well. At least, I can see its shore.)