In her paean to birding, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes:
There is a game birders play on New Year’s Day called “Bird of the Year.” The very first bird you see on the first day of the new year is your theme bird for the next 365 days. It might seem a curious custom, but people who watch birds regularly are always contriving ways to keep themselves interested. This is one of those ways. You are given the possibility of creating something extraordinary — a Year of the Osprey, Year of the Pileated Woodpecker, Year of the Trumpeter Swan. This game is an inspiration to place yourself in natural circumstances that will yield a heavenly bird, blessing your year, your perspective, your imagination, your spirit. New year, new bird.
After her breathless anticipation, Haupt is confronted with… an Eastern Starling, or “sky-rat.”
The Year of the Eastern Starling. Inauspicious, yes, but not without its charms, according to Haupt.
As I have on the past fourteen or so New Year’s Eves, I ensured that all of the feeders were topped off and that corn and nuts were scattered for the squirrels last night. (There are, of course, no squirrel-proof feeders, but I have learned that feed scattered away from the feeders will (mostly) keep those furry nuisances away from the birds and the more expensive seed.) Last year, I espied a black-capped chickadee in the oak out back. This year, I lifted the window-hanging while still curled in bed and saw a female Northern Cardinal at one of the feeders.
The 2017-2018 season of Project FeederWatch began on November 11, but there is still time to register for this wonderful program.
Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
Anyone interested in birds can participate. FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers, and bird clubs. You can count birds as often as every week, or as infrequently as you like: the schedule is completely flexible. All you need is a bird feeder, bird bath, or plantings that attract birds.
If you plan to participate, set up your feeders and commit to keeping them filled throughout the season. Use a variety of feeders and seed to attract a greater variety of visitors. For more information, check out this site.
The orioles arrived before May concluded, but we have not yet espied the indigo buntings — in the yards or on the bike trail. And now it is June. In fact, it is fiercely June: The rains abruptly concluded about ten days ago, and the grass, which has assumed a slightly o’ercooked tan-green hue, sighs, “More water, please,” as it crunches underfoot.
We have enjoyed some terrific theater since I last wrote: Not about Nightingales at the Raven, Pass Over at Steppenwolf, and Great Expectations, a Remy Bumppo and Silk Road Rising collaboration.
We had not been to the Raven since All My Sons in 2014. The excellent performances in Nightingales, an early and uneven Tennessee Williams work, ensured that we will make returning a priority.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Pass Over (which features ensemble member Jon Michael Hill — popularly recognizable for his Elementary gig) leans heavily but effectively on the structure of its chief influence, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and its leads, Hill and Julian Parker, deliver compelling, get-out-your-chair-and-applaud performances. (Added bonus: Hill and Parker are Illini!) If you’re in the area, you should see this one.
You should also see the collaboration of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company and Silk Road Rising, in which Pip’s “great expectations” take him from his small Indian village to colonized Calcutta. (More information here; review here.)
We also saw the National Theatre Live broadcast of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, featuring Daniel Radcliffe. Catch a rebroadcast, if you can.
Do you listen to podcasts? Our drive in and out of Chicago yesterday was punctuated by the first three episodes of S-Town. Fans of both seasons of Serial, we all agree Brian Reed’s narrative style outstrips that of Sarah Koenig: Hers were great stories adequately told; his is a good story well told.
That said, the spoiler-ish “Was the Art of S-Town Worth the Pain?” (The Atlantic, April 9) has made. me. think.
Evaluate the moral price of producing good art and what damage it might cause to those involved when their secrets are instantly available for the entertainment consumption of thousands or millions of listeners. S-Town may be a groundbreaking new kind of podcast; it also, like many poems, memoirs, and articles before it, confesses other people’s pain in a public—and at times questionable—way.
Speaking of episodes, my husband and I must catch up on 8 and 9 of The Handmaid’s Tale before the finale this week. (I hope you’re all watching.)
When I’m not watching (or backyard birding or biking or writing or…), I am, of course, reading, and my participation in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project is going particularly well. In fact, finishing The Rape of Lucrece early last month put me ahead of schedule. My remarks on the poem:
Last year, I read Cymbeline in anticipation of seeing a Shakespeare Project of Chicago production; and more recently, I stumbled on a film that imagines Cymbeline as a conflict between a motorcycle gang and corrupt police. As I read The Rape of Lucrece, then, I was immediately reminded of the Posthumus, Iachimo, and Imogen storyline.
Fundamentally, the similarity between Imogen’s story and Lucrece’s, the origins of both of which are ancient, is that their husbands publicly rhapsodize on their beauty and chastity — and thus, embolden their listeners. The husbands’ lack of circumspection leads to the violation of their wives. What a theme, eh? The listener in Cymbeline is Iachimo, who spends an uncomfortable amount of time ogling Imogen as she sleeps before stealing a trinket. He later lies about enjoying her bed. In The Rape of Lucrece, the listener is Tarquin, who also leers at the slumbering wife before violating her.
On hearing Iachimo’s false claims, a jealous Posthumus arranges for Imogen’s death. Of course, when the duplicity is uncovered at the conclusion of the play, Posthumus and Imogen are reunited. Yes, I am aware that we are readers “out of time,” so to speak, but I remain as horrified by their rekindled relationship as I am by that of Hero and Claudio in Much Ado. (Would that Benedict had killed Claudio, but, then, that’s not a comedy, is it?) How does the idea that one’s partner wished her dead inform the union?
Unlike Imogen, who is initially unaware of the attack on her reputation, the raped Lucrece determines to tell her story and name her attacker. That she sees death as the only release from her shame resonates in this, a month in which many are talking about a television show that depicts the rape and suicide of a high school student who, with her recorded note, tells her story and names her attacker. Shame transcends time, apparently, as do jealousy, lechery, and sexual violence.
In one of those moments of serendipity / synthesis / synchronicity, we visited the Art Institute not long after I had finished the poem and posted to the “Shakespeare in a Year” group. Now Tintoretto’s Tarquin and Lucretia, always unsettling, is forever stitched to my reading.
Speaking of birds, and treasures… The female rose-breasted grosbeak was at the feeder this morning — as fine a celebration of my daughters’ return as any.
Much of the girls’ first two days home involved unpacking their belongings and eating, in their words, “good food.” My younger daughter also joined me in the yard work Friday and Monday. We’ve planted and / or hung a number of bird- and butterfly-attracting plants this year and set up a new wasp-resistant hummingbird feeder. The male ruby-throated hummingbird has already put in a brief appearance, and all the usual suspects — robins, cardinals, goldfinches, blue jays, mourning doves, house finches, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, and more — join us regularly. Once the orioles and indigo buntings stop by, it can most certainly be called May in the forever home.
(When my daughters and I sit in companionable silence and watch the birds, I am reminded of the many hours over many years we have spent observing backyard visitors. How is it possible that they are college seniors already? Time bends and folds.)
In other news… Over the weekend, we headed into Chicago for the Court Theatre’s production of Harvey. Timothy Edward Kane’s turn as Elwood Dowd is reason enough to see the play. Recommended.
In the week since my last post, I (re)read eight books:
■ Fatale (Jean-Paul Manchette; 1977 (2011, English). Fiction.)
■ Tenth of December (George Saunders; 2013. Fiction.)
■ The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching, (2012. Non-fiction.)
■ Briggs Land, Volume 1: State of Grace (Brian Wood; 2017. Graphic fiction.)
■ Those Who Wish Me Dead (Michael Koryta; 2014. Fiction.)
■ Henry IV, Part 1 (William Shakespeare; 1597. Drama.)
■ The Rape of Lucrece (William Shakespeare; 1594. Poetry.)
■ Henry IV, Part 2 (William Shakespeare; 1597. Drama.)
Graphic novel readers, add Briggs Land to your TBR stack. Short story lovers? Have you met Saunders? He reminds me of Vonnegut in all the best ways. Try “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” It it works for you, put Tenth of December on your nightstand. (Lincoln in the Bardo should already be there.)
The spring semester of my music lessons concluded last week. As I have done for the past two summers, I will take one lesson during each of the summer months and resume weekly lessons after Labor Day. For my solo piece, I am moving from Sadko’s “Song of India” to Bach’s Arioso from Cantata BWV 156. My older daughter, who is taking organ lessons at the University, and I will also be working on Michael Conway’s “Elegy for Flute and Organ.”
In other news, a female Eastern Towhee spent the day in my yard late last week, so I had a new addition to my backyard list. I haven’t seen the grosbeaks, orioles, or hummingbirds yet, but it is getting to be that time of year again: I have begun assembling my garden containers, and my husband and I redefined a corner of our backyard, adding a border and new plants. I repainted all of the outdoor furniture and repositioned the bird feeders. As soon as the evening temperatures increase a bit more, I will finish planting and install a new, wasp-resistant hummingbird feeder. Welcome to my house, butterflies and birds!
■ Rick Kogan’s interview with Michael Lenehan ran while that same daughter and I were working on one project or another early in our winter break. “He always says, ‘This is one of the best books I ever read!’ or ‘You’re truly one of the great writers!’ and I get duped every time,” I remarked. “What are you doing?” she asked me later. “Ordering that book about the American Players Theatre that Rick Kogan recommended,” I replied, and she chuckled. As it turns out, though, it is pretty good.
■ The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is my “reading in the theater before the show begins” book, so it has been set aside several times. A fascinating look at our culture’s obsession with narcissism, it included a reference to Anders Breivik that reminded me that One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (Åsne Seierstad; 2015) is in my collection. (One of Us was one of the best books I read last year — and I don’t say that about every book I read, Mr. Kogan. Heh, heh, heh.) We have two more plays before our winter break concludes, so I suspect I will soon add Selfishness to my list of books read.
■ In the comments to this post, I asked Margaret if I should add a book she mentioned to my TBR pile. While awaiting her reply, I grabbed it and read the first three chapters. Imagine my relief when I saw her verdict: “A Man Called Ove seems to be wildly popular but I didn’t really like it. A cranky, aggressively rude man is loved by generous, warm-hearted women — why?” I knew everyone and her mother and uncle had read Ove, which is part of the reason I had resisted it, but then it came up as a possible book club selection. Thank you, Margaret, for validating my “Blergh.”
Characters need not be likeable, by the way. (Hello, Olive Kittredge.) But their movement through the world should reveal essential truths about what it means to be human. That is what the best fiction does — it tells us what is true.
■ I finished I Will Always Write Back in two sittings. It’s a simple (and utterly predictable), feel-good story framed by the correspondence between a privileged teenager and her pen pal from Zimbabwe. I’m surprised it’s not a movie.
■ After a few fits and starts, I returned to Hillbilly Elegy, which I first mentioned here. The following quote made me pull Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Matthew Desmond; 2015) from my shelves and add it to one of my TBR piles:
Federal housing policy has actively encouraged homeownership, from Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act to George W. Bush’s ownership society. But in the Middletowns of the world, homeownership comes at a steep social cost: As jobs disappear in a given area, declining home values trap people in certain neighborhoods. Even if you’d like to move, you can’t, because the bottom has fallen out of the market — you now owe more than any buyer is willing to pay. The costs of moving are so high that people stay put. Of course, the people trapped are usually those with the least money; those who can afford to leave do so.
■ All right, so The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah; 2015) was on and off my wishlist a number of times over the last year. Then it was on a table at the bookstore we visited before going to the theater last Thursday. I had recently vowed that I would make at least three in-store purchases each quarter… well, that’s how it ended up nearly getting left beneath my seat at the PrivateBank Theater and then being safely tucked into one of my TBR stacks.
■ In the background of the image above, you can make out my music stand. In the end, two things keep me from reading more: (1) talking or texting with my daughters and (2) practicing my music. And I do both. A. Lot. Learning a new instrument in your fifties is HARD but gratifying. Oh, sure, I experience days with terrible tone or counting woes or just a case of “Blergh” about a piece I don’t like. Mostly, though, the pursuit interests me; more often than I expected, it even delights me.