More than nine years ago, on May 1, 2007, I posted the image above to my old site. Since then, I’ve started and stopped my work on the Home Study Course in Bird Biology at least a dozen times. For nearly a decade, something more pressing regularly presented itself, and I took comfort in the website note that while some folks finish the course rapidly, there is no completion deadline; in fact, one student took ten years to finish! (I should be so lucky.)
Even so, at the eight-year mark, last summer, I called the Cornell Lab to ensure that my course materials were still valid and was patched through to Kevin McGowan. (Insert my daughters and I mime-squealing with nerdish delight at my encounter with a birding world rock star.) He kindly assured me that my text and test materials were fine, although the new edition would be out in 2016. His warm encouragement nearly jumpstarted my efforts, but other cares, concerns, and pursuits soon supplanted my studies, and the Handbook was reshelved. Again.
And here we are, about seven months from the ten-year mark. The new Handbook has been released, and mine still looks brand new. Well, color me recommitted. I have been assigned approximately sixty-four hours during early voting, and I have vowed that the Home Study Course in Bird Biology will be my sole companion (apart from my fellow election judge, of course).
Maybe this time, eh?
■ In anticipation of Banned Books Week (September 26 through October 1), I reread Slaughterhouse-Five earlier this month. I must have known I was entering a reading slump, during which I touch books; I think about books; heck, I even acquire books. But read them? Meh. Not so much. My mind has been restless, and regaining the required focus has felt a bit like bathing two cats at the same time — messy and misguided. I am glad I reacquainted myself with Vonnegut’s charms, though, because he reminded me that, slump or not, I am a reader.
■ I am also something of a watcher, and I’ve not had any difficulty focusing on that pursuit. Heh, heh, heh. After catching up on the sensational Mr. Robot, I chose The Americans as my next small-screen obsession. Terrific stuff.
■ Speaking of watching… Despite a strong cast and some stagecraft wizardry, the performance of Julius Caesar we saw at the Writers Theatre this week was missing… something. I’d have put it down to simply being an off day, but the Trib sensed a lack, too.
Our next theater adventure is part two of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s bard binge, Tug of War. (Reviews here and here.)
■ Only a few pages in the Rubank Intermediate book remain, so I was advised to bring Advanced, Vol. 1 to my October lessons. I’ve been assigned Haydn’s “Serenade” as my new solo piece, and one of my instructor’s colleagues has suggested that two of his students and I form a trio jointly supervised by the two instructors. A year ago, this idea would have made me shudder. Now? I am excited to begin!
■ In forty-eight days, I will be an election judge at a nearby precinct. Earlier this month, on a whim, I looked over our county’s website, made a call, emailed an application, and registered for training. What a lot to remember! Fortunately, the training included several hands-on exercises, and if I am chosen to work early voting, I will gain experience prior to the big day.
■ This is Week 3 of the University of Warwick’s rerun of “Literature and Mental Health,” and it has been every bit as compelling as I had hoped.
■ Like any over-fifty, my husband and I make a number of annual health appointments, and this year, we decided to schedule all of these in September and October. Waiting rooms have this to recommend them: They give one time to finish a couple of books.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.
From The Code of the Woosters:
“You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s under-clothing.”
“One or the other. Not both.”
Because I only include cover-to-covers, ninety-three titles appear on my list to date. In these years of reading slowly, my goal is usually a minimum of two books per week, and I am positioned to exceed that next month.
What am I reading today? A Fair Maiden (Joyce Carol Oates) and the poetry volume, Stressed, Unstressed. My husband and I will see Julius Caesar at the Writers Theatre later this month — our first just-us theater adventure in thirty years — so I am also rereading that, one of my favorite works of Shakespeare. (“Would he were fatter!”) And I am savoring Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which features an over-fifty woman with a “never-absent pain in her back.” I think I may love the fictional Vellitt Boe as much as love the non-fictional and now ninety-eight-year-old Diana Athill, whose latest memoir is winging its way toward the forever home.
■ Speaking of the forever home, how much I love it! Although my daughters regularly contributed to its care, over the last two years, they had increasingly less time for all of the tasks that ensure a property doesn’t succumb to “kipple,” so I often worked solo, on the yards, for example. And now that they are at university, it is generally me alone performing the daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual home rituals. When he can, my husband helps, of course, as when he made the end-of-season inspection of the crawlspace. And we have services for some tasks — for example, soil aeration; tree care; furnace, air-conditioning, and appliance maintenance; and critter control. But often, it is just the cats and I, which means that the rituals take a bit more time and that I must perform more of them (including pet care, which was once the exclusive domain of my older daughter). What I had thought might prove annoying, though, has mostly represented only a slight tempo change in my life’s regular rhythms. In fact, I find that being needed in these new ways is oddly comforting, as if the forever home is enveloping me while I continue to adjust to my latest “new normal.”
…We have no time to stop and stare?”
It absolutely delights me that the MOOC I’ve anticipated all summer uses the W.H. Davies poem “Leisure,” the source of the opening quote, to make several points about mindfulness, the healing power of literature, and our need to clear a mental corner for contemplation. Said MOOC accounts for three of the books on this weekend’s pile: Some of My Best Friends Are Books, How to Read a Poem, and Stressed, Unstressed.
Liney’s Into the Fire is the second book in a trilogy, the first of which I read on vacation two years ago. I remember The Detainee as a gripping story that suffered from uneven writing. In the end, though, story won. I have, however, contemplated flinging the follow-up across the room, it’s that badly written. Is it vacation nostalgia that keeps me reading?
We visited our daughters this holiday weekend, which gave us time to listen to NPR and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, every other sentence of which I could press into my commonplace book. We also took two bike rides, the first of which was the most memorable: At the turnaround point, we paused for water, coffee, and some nuts. Swallows swooped and darted overhead. Prairie grasses and flowers bent in the breeze. The trees and underbrush thrummed with the sounds of animals and birds making the most of summer’s end. We had no choice. We simply stopped and stared.
Despite my best intentions, I have only finished four of the ten books I assembled for this post):
■ You Will Know Me (Megan Abbott; 2016. Fiction.)
■ My Name Is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout; 2016. Fiction.)
■ A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; 1887. Fiction.)
■ Eileen (Ottessa Moshfegh; 2015. Fiction.)
This puts me at only six books for August, a number that makes sense when I consider that (1) we spent most of the month preparing for our daughters’ departure; (2) we’re all adjusting to new routines and communicating (phone, text, email, packages, etc.) takes much longer now that we all spend most days apart; and (3) I’ve been under the weather for a week… which reminds me: When I was much younger, I had an idea — crafted from a complete misunderstanding of the subtext of stories about genteel characters recovering in sanatoriums — that illness translates into more time to read. I clung to this misinformed idea into my early twenties, when a bout with sinusitis and later with the flu (not a really bad head cold but influenza) taught me that I can’t read — At. All. — when I’m sick. This may be because I am the world’s worst patient, but it may also be that everyone finds it difficult to focus when feverish, congested, drowsy, in pain, coughing, or [insert symptom(s) here].
So, six books this month — although if I’m feeling particularly motivated later this afternoon, I may be able to finish Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better. My current plan for September, though, is simply to return to reading at whim — hence, the rather anonymous-looking stack pictured above.
Regarding the only book I’ve finished this week: I understand how Eileen made the Man Booker Prize longlist, but it was a claustrophobic read for me — too small, too sordid. Two passages made it into my commonplace book, though:
Nobody missed me. I know other young women have suffered far worse than this, and I myself went on to suffer plenty, but this experience in particular was utterly humiliating. A psychoanalyst may term it something like a formative trauma, but I know little about psychology and reject the science entirely. People in that profession, I’d say, should be watched very closely. If we were living several hundred years ago, my guess is that they’d all be burned as witches.
I don’t know where we went wrong with my family. We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw, where we end up, what happens.