Earlier this month, Randy and I joined eight Gay Spirit Visions friends for a week’s house rental on St. George Island near Apalachicola in the Florida panhandle. (This year, seven of the ten of us renting the beach house happen to be part of a sub-group of GSVers who’ve been meeting monthly for the past several years to teach ourselves the Enneagram and, more recently, to explore together two books written by Eckhart Tolle.)
Groups of (mostly Atlanta or Asheville-based) GSV folks have been renting a house on SGI each year for over 20 years; this was Cal’s ninth trip (and Randy’s fourth trip) to SGI with this group. (Varying from year to year: the total number of renters, the specific cast of characters, the particular houses we’ve rented, and, lately, the volunteer trip planner/s.)
Again this year, Randy and I decided to break up the seven-and-a-half-hour drive from Atlanta to SGI with a stopover somewhere in Alabama.
This time our detour was to Montgomery, a town neither of us had visited before. We wanted to explore the town’s civil rights museums, its fine arts museum, its historic residential neighborhoods, and a park of wild bamboo in the nearby town of Prattville that we’d read about online.
Our pre-beach excursion trip to Montgomery was well worth the time and expense. Unforgettable was our visit to Montgomery’s Legacy Museum and the nearby (and affiliated) Peace and Justice Memorial. In fact, it’s my opinion that every American – especially every white U.S. citizen, including especially every white U.S. politician – should, if he/she hasn’t done so already, visit these two places.
A free shuttle bus runs between the two sites, and you can use the bus after buying (either online or on-site) a $2.50 [!] Legacy Museum admission ticket.
The museum is one of the most astonishing I have ever visited, and I’ve visited a LOT of museums in the U.S. and Europe. The amount of research that went into the museum’s exhibits is astounding, as is the manner and variety of the way the museum’s exhibits and exhibit spaces are constructed. (The ceiling-high video in the museum’s entry room alone is worth the admission price.) Before visiting the Legacy Museum, I thought I was already fairly well-versed in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but I was wrong.
The Memorial affiliated with the Museum is certainly as striking and moving and sobering as, say, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.
We started our second day in Montgomery with a drive to a protected bamboo forest in the suburb of Prattville, Alabama.
After our tour of this large and magical bamboo forest, we devoted the afternoon to touring Montgomery’s Fine Art Museum, located in a gorgeous and gigantic municipal park.
I didn’t have high expectations from our visit to this art museum but ended up marveling not only at the magnificent building itself (designed by a local landowner who was also an amateur architect; he later donated both the property, the building, and its initial collection to the city, which, amazingly, does not charge an admission fee) but in the range and quality of this art museum’s collections.
You can sample the museum’s contents at its website, but here are photos of some of the paintings, sculptures, and glassworks that Randy or I took during our delightful visit to this art museum:
The Week at Big Daddy’s Beach House
Multiple interior and exterior Internet photos of the seven-bedroom rental house on St. George Island are here.
One of the reasons we chose Big Daddy’s again this year: how unusually close it is to the beach:
Random photos of 2023’s SGI rental house co-conspirators:
Although our week on St. George wasn’t structured by any particular agenda, many of us began each morning with a trek down to the beach to watch the sunrise . . .
Each of the sunrise spectaculars was soon followed by a half-hour of group silent meditation back at the house, then breakfast (which, for most of us, featured Ted’s trademarked oatmeal).
Every evening a pair of us prepared dinner for the ten of us, and, man, were those memorable meals!
Between breakfast and dinner were various mostly-unscheduled activities that various ones of us participated in (or not):
numerous walks on the beach
a couple of bike rides
kayaking (in a craft rented for us all again this year by Chase)
some kit-flying (the kites also courtesy Chase)
trips into St. George or Apalachicola for lunch,
a card game tournament (Wizard, of course, invented by a Canadian in 1984 and introduced to GSVers in Asheville by a Radical Faerie whose name Chase remembers but I forget, although I am forever grateful to him for doing so!)
intermittent bits of solitary book reading and/or catch-ups on social media.
And lots of laughing.
And, of course, amongst all the snacking and laughter-laced yammering, most of us used part of our week taking multiple naps. (Average age of us SGI beach house-renters this year: 71.)
This year’s beach-goers also collectively managed to complete four (!) jigsaw puzzles by the end of our week together. (One of these puzzles – the one with the buoys – took us the longest to finish, despite the fact that I thought it would be the easiest!):
What didn’t happen this year at SGI was any tv-watching (or, for that matter, any DVD-watching), despite the fact that every room in our rental house (except the bathrooms) contains a television screen. (We used the counter in front of the huge tv screen in the living room for our meditation altar. Next year perhaps we should consider an additional altar feature: covering any giant tv screen above or near our altar with an attractive bedspread, beach towel, kimono, or sarong.)
As we’d done during previous annual expeditions to SGI, Randy and I on Friday afternoon hosted a “low tea” for our temporary household. This year’s tea table:
A newcomer to the beach this year – for us, anyway – was a blue heron that decided to strut along our stretch of the ocean several times throughout the week. John took an excellent photo of this magnificent creature who John christened “Earl”:
There were two major (optional) half-day trips off the Island:
Chase and Randy took a drive into a nearby national forest to explore an unnamed (but locally well-known) bog plant area:
The day before we left SGI, six of us took a boat ride up the Apalachicola River that Randy had arranged for us:
[Top row, left to right:] The marsh landing near Apalachicola where we set out on (and returned to); a typical view of the marshlands along the river; one of several osprey nests along the river. [Bottom row, left to right:] Swiveling railroad bridge over the river; Paul on the boat; Randy on the boat.
A Great Week!
As I like to do every year, I find (or make) some sort of souvenir of our week together on the island. This year, I collected a bunch of shells on my walks along the beach and festooned them with some colored markers I’d brought along to the beach house. Each of us returned to Atlanta or Asheville with one of them:
This ninth trip of mine with GSV buddies to St. George was just as lovely, stimulating, and relaxing as the previous eight ones, and Randy and I both look forward to future rendezvouses there (and/or, perhaps, elsewhere).
Recently a cousin of Randy’s was in town to visit him and Randy’s mom, and we asked her to decide what local sites she’d like to take in during her visit. We did two outdoor things: the Atlanta Botanical Garden (which Randy and I had not visited for several years), and the Laser Show at Stone Mountain State Park.
The first thing that caught our attention as we started down the path to the Garden’s tree canopy was a pair of large bird sculptures made out of wire:
The current temporary exhibit at the Garden was a collection of five giant recycled-wood trolls by Danish artist Thomas Dambo. Here are Randy and his cousin Nancy Jo in front of the first one:
One of the other trolls, sans any visitors:
The ABG has purchased several Chihuly glass sculptures as permanent installations. Among them are twol I don’t remember seeing there before:
The most impressive part of the garden for me was wandering through the Garden’s Orchid House. We missed by a couple of days the Garden’s main annual orchid extravaganza, but there were still plenty of orchids (and non-orchid tropical wonders) to behold:
These beauties were interspersed among many other non-orchid wonders:
Before leaving the garden and threading our way out of the Park, which was jammed with cars of people trying to find parking for the Atlanta Dogwood Festival the day we visited the Garden), Randy and I decided to fork over $50 on top of the $28 per person per visit admission fee (which Randy generously treated me and Nancy to) for a joint year-long membership. The membership features free admission to an ABG-affiliated garden in Gainesville, Georgia (only an hour’s drive away), plus discounted admission to numerous other botanical gardens in the United States).
As for the Laser Show at Stone Mountain Park, the less said the better. Besides the cringeworthy (because of its cheesy patriotism-promoting theme) show itself, Cal was shocked to find that admission to the Park – once $5 per car – is now $20 ! (The tickets to the Laser Show run $5 if you want to watch it sitting on the grass in front of the mountain where the lasers are projected, or $15 for patio seats.)
The only nifty thing about the unfortunate amusement park vibe at the Park was this tree in the parking lot:
That, and the life-size plastic dinosaur with the perpetually waving tail (sorry, forgot to take a video)!
Ten years ago this month I retired from selling my labor and my time to 40 years’ worth of various employers.
I had two “careers”: the first (1970-1979) in the mental health treatment arena (first as an addiction treatment center employee, later in mental health treatment administration), the second (1980-2013) as a librarian in the Atlanta public library system (first as a reference desk librarian, later as a library collection development specialist, and finally as a branch library administrator).
My plan was to retire before I reached age 65 (the age when most U.S. wage-slaves are eligible to retire), and I reached that goal, being 64 when I retired – after taking the advice of a financial planner that I continue working for an additional year beyond age 63 when I was already good and ready to leave my job at the time).
My using the term “wage-slave” is a bit misleading, as I thoroughly enjoyed many aspects of the jobs I got hired for, or was promoted into. In fact, I probably would have chosen to work several, if not many, additional years if I’d believed that the administration of the library system I was working in had not been, for too long, so appallingly dysfunctional. Once I became convinced that the bureaucracy I worked for would not be sufficiently improved in my lifetime, I began planning how I could support myself financially without working a 40-hour week.
I was so keen on gaining control over 100% of my time that I wasn’t considering taking up part-time work after retiring, and I ventured into that mode only once – and briefly.
Many American workers (especially males) find themselves uncomfortable with what they come to consider too much time on their hands after retiring, but fortunately I have not suffered in this regard, even to a slight extent. My guess as to why I was lucky this way is that, long before retiring, I had discovered enough long-term interests and hobbies to pursue indefinitely; I was already a part of multiple networks of friends (some of those networks overlapping, some of them not, some of the friendships very long-term vs. newish or work-related); I had/have supportive siblings; and I was blessed with a temperament congenial to enjoying dithering away of hours of some days “doing”/”accomplishing” very little. Sure, there have been some boring or listless moments these past ten years, but they have been few and far between and were certainly short-lived whenever they did occur.
I do still have trouble, sometimes, balancing my need for solitude with my need for spending time in other people’s company. The good news is that I’ve abandoned the notion that someday I will – permanently – manage to get this balance the way I’d like to be.
From this ten-years-on vantage point, my memories of the day-to-day satisfactions and frustrations (and accomplishments or disappointments) of working my various full-time jobs have faded almost entirely into oblivion. (Well, at least during my waking hours: occasionally – too often, in my opinion – my dreams still happen in a workplace scenario – especially scenarios with some sort of looming deadline, of which there were many throughout my working life).
On the other hand, even after ten years of uninterrupted freedom from the workplace, I am still often (as opposed to seldom) aware of how “lucky” or “fortunate” I feel about this. I remain, ten years into retirement, grateful that, barring some future apocalyptic disaster, it is unlikely that I shall ever find myself reporting to an employer again. It remains as amazing to me on Retirement Day #3,650 as it was on Retirement Day #1 that I am pretty much the master of my own little universe.
I realize that not having had any children to raise and/or worry about has certainly been a huge and unusual factor in how leisurely my retirement years have felt so far. Ditto my relative good health: many retirees (at least many American ones of my acquaintance) spend numerous hours of their retirement meeting with various medical specialists, and/or coping daily with various chronic physical conditions or limitations that have so far eluded me. Surely my share of ailments, not to mention general decrepitude, will come my way, but the first ten years – even one with a pandemic in it – have been remarkably uneventful, healthwise, for Cal.
Another crucial – and also untypical – characteristic of my retirement years: since my 92-year-old mom died (in 2019), I’ve not been (as Randy is) spending some of my time and energy helping manage the care of an aging parent, or worrying about their welfare.
As I’ve remarked in some of my previous “retirement status reports,” the minimum-friction feature of most of the past ten years – and in particular the subtraction from my daily routine of all work-related stress – has been the single most enjoyable aspect of being retired. That and the existential thrill and privilege of deciding for myself how to spend most of my time and energy. (In recent years, I’ve learned how class and race figure into this sense of privilege: not all 73-year-old Americans – not to mention not all non-Americans – can enjoy their latter years the way I’ve been doing so far.)
On top of the serendipitous (because inherited) layers of class and race privilege featured in my retirement story, there have been many days during these past ten years when I’ve been unable to shake off the sense of having entered some sort of . . . aristocracy! No, I’m not wealthy (far from it), and, no, I have no staff of underlings to do my bidding (I don’t even have a Yard Guy), but I do feel – and am grateful for being – unconnected with the getting-and-spending, the frenzied to-ing and fro-ing, traffic-afflicted, many-people-to-please, many-burdens-to-shoulder, multi-tasking, many-balls-in-the-air-to-juggle features beleaguering the working/commuting class.
The retirement era luxury I find myself noticing almost every day is having so much time to dispose of as I wish (vs. so much of my time being beholden to other people’s agendas), while also having enough money (i.e., sufficient return on my invested savings) to support my fortunately not-very-expensive hobbies and interests. (The only expensive interest being as-frequent-as-possible overseas travel.)
The main disappointment of retirement that springs to mind these days – and the most unexpected – is how I’d completely misjudged the amount of energy I’d have in retirement to do the things I now have more time to do.
For example, especially in the years immediately leading up to retiring, I was looking forward to devoting huge swaths of time in retirement to reading books (one of my favorite activities all my life). Who knew that, instead, I would find myself repeatedly interrupting whatever reading I had set out to do with yet another . . . nap? What happened to my ability, in younger years, to read for hours at a time, never once finding myself dozing off?
I’ve decided that becoming more sedentary is the main culprit in this primary Retirement Dilemma (more time, less energy – as well as: more time, less income). Despite what most people imagine, librarians – at least librarians in public libraries – get a lot of exercise in the course of their typical day (or even typical hour). With my lifelong aversion to any physical activity that isn’t dancing or gardening or roaming on foot in some unfamiliar landscape (especially some foreign one), or frolicking in some hardly-ever nearby ocean, the amount of time I spend sitting – either in front of my computer or trying to read a book – has skyrocketed since I retired in March 2013.
The only regular exercise I am willing to do these days is to take an occasional walk -and I am blessed with living in a visually interesting neighborhood to do that in, so I have no excuses (other than cold or rainy weather) – not to do more walking. (The weekly tai chi classes I’ve taken the past 20 years, and, some days, practice at home or in a park nearby, don’t count as tai chi isn’t aerobic exercise, and I’ve unfortunately never enjoyed the routine of swimming laps indoors – especially in unheated or underheated pools). So, yes, an overly-sedentary lifestyle is a (theoretically) reversible choice I keep making, and probably totally accounts for the aforementioned loss of energy, including the energy necessary to sit a read, say, a hundred pages of a book at a single sitting. This energy-availability deficit (vs., say, a theoretical regret at not having children or owning a pet) is definitely one of the downsides of my tenth (and ninth, and eighth) year of Being a Retired Person.
Mitigating this unhappy discovery is the fact that I do enjoy, in addition to reading, a bit of gardening. (Although, full disclosure, most days I’d rather read about someone else’s gardening adventures than Get Out There Myself). What little gardening I do, however, gets me out of chairs or off the sofa, but I have discovered – especially in recent years – that there is only so much bending and weeding and hole-digging and raking and so forth that I can do at a single stretch – probably precisely because I am otherwise so sedentary. I remember, when I first retired, spending whole splendid afternoons working in the yard; nowadays, I limit myself to a strict maximum of two hours of garden work, lest I wake up the next day virtually paralyzed from my previous day’s exertions. This two-hour limit is not only unexpected, it is embarrassing, as well as inconvenient. Although I haven’t exactly scaled back my somewhat ambitious gardening/yard-tweaking fantasies these past few years, I’m finding that I must be more modest when speculating about how long Yard Project X may take me to complete. Very humbling.
On the proverbial other hand, one of the things I most enjoy about being retired is having plenty of time to procrastinate. No longer must efforts to complete any project – indoors or out – be stressfully shoehorned into a severely limited amount of “free” time. With few standing commitments (not to mention no daily schedule for showing up for work), I can be a lot more haphazard and spontaneous when deciding whether – and when – to do Any Particular Chore – whether that’s building a stone wall in the back yard or cleaning out a bedroom closet.
Retirement has certainly shown me how lazy I can be. In one sense, this discovery of my laziness is a positive thing: we all need to spend more time just sitting and appreciating things (and the miracle of our sheer existence) than we’re normally encouraged to do. I’ve come to feel good (vs. guilty) about the increasing amount of time I spend sitting on a bench in the back yard gazing at the visiting wildlife and at whatever plants I have finally managed to get out of their pots and into the ground. For me, especially lately, bench-warming time – just like my birdfeeder-watching time – is no longer considered “wasted” time.
I’ve also made progress (particularly in recent Retirement Years) in letting go of some previously-held notions of eventually creating a Perfectly Congenial Environment (both an indoor one and an outdoor one). I now do my tweaking (both indoors and out) minus the misguided hope or assumption that at some point I will have arranged things in such a way that I Shall Never Need Tweak Again. (When I read somewhere that gardening is a never-ending activity, the author was not being metaphorical. I’ve learned that even indoor nest-feathering is also a constantly-moving target. For one thing, sometimes one’s needs and preferences, including aesthetic ones, change over time. Who knew?)
Another surprise with retirement as it has unfolded for me so far has been my not having spent more of it traveling – especially traveling overseas. Recently, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on most traveling fantasies of any kind. Still, in pre-2013 days, I imagined that with all the extra time on my hands after retiring, I’d spend quite a bit of it away from Atlanta.
What I can complain about: the number of people among my friends or acquaintance, all approximately the same age as (or even younger than) I am, who’ve died since I retired in 2013. This inevitable downside of Being of Retirement Age is something that makes logical sense, is universal, and has more to do with aging than retirement, but I still hadn’t fully anticipated the effect these deaths (especially among high school and college comrades) would have on my spirits. Of course, some of these deaths were more shocking or remain more difficult to metabolize than others. I certainly didn’t expect to spend so few years of my retirement with the companionship of my life-long friend Blanche Flanders Farley, who died in 2018. We only had five years together as fellow retirees.
Another significant aspect of the texture of the most recent half of my ten retirement years is the fact that I’ve shared the latter half of that time with Randy. Being around and romantically involved with someone, especially someone so different from me in certain ways, has definitely influenced what retirement has felt like for me, as well as how I’ve spent some of my time these past five years. Two further sub-factors within the relationship-having factor have been our decision to maintain separate houses (and yards) (with the considerable investments of our time and energy appertaining thereto), and the decision to spend mostly evenings together and most daytime hours apart, accompanied by the equally unusual arrangement of our spending one day each week and one night each week apart.
Apart from the obvious time-allocation and energy-allocation ramifications these decisions have produced are the inevitable psychological influence my being around Randy has had. Those influences (all positive ones) are too numerous and complex to go into here, but of course being with him these past five years has had a profound effect on the way I’m now spending my retirement – everything from the fact that we watch a lot more television than I’d ever watched pre-Randy, to the kind of trips we have undertaken or hope to make in the future, plus a lot of other things in between. Apart from these examples of the practical ramifications of being with Randy (vs., say, living alone or with someone else), the emotional joys of exploring a still-relatively young relationship with someone as interesting and companionable as Randy has infused this second five-year segment of my ten years of being retired with an additional level of interest and enjoyment and optimism. I feel very lucky not only to be retired, but to be spending my retirement with Randy.
I’ll end this lengthy reflection about what’s it’s been like to have been retired for a full ten years with the note that I’m glad I’ve long collected quotations from my reading about various topics that have interested me: perhaps you, too, may might find thought-provoking – or even useful – the quotations I’ve collected about aging and/or retirement.
This is an expanded version of this year’s edition of the (printed) annual newsletter that I mailed out to family and friends earlier this week.
Click on the links embedded in what follows for lots o’ photos, sound clips, and/or further detailsabout some of the things mentioned.
Although Randy and I first met each other over 40 years ago, December 29, 2022 marked the fifth year of our intimate partnership. We continue to maintain separate residences (splitting our evenings between them), but I still get excited whenever it’s time again for Randy to arrive at my doorstep, or me at his.
In June, I returned to Florida with my sister Gayle to visit our sister Lori at the cottage she had built for herself on Amelia Island, where Lori plans to move after a final year of teaching school in North Georgia.
In October, Randy and I completed a 15-day road trip to Pittsburgh via the Blue Ridge Parkway, then drove up to Niagara Falls before returning to Atlanta. We visited multiple natural, architectural, and cultural wonders along the way, including tours of three Frank Lloyd Wright houses, punctuating our route with shopping forays at multiple antique malls in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Approximately once a month – Randy and I – often with friends joining us – continue our escapes to the mountain cabin Cal has co-owned with friends for the past 30+ years. These interludes in such a peaceful and relatively chore-free environment have been delightful.
Periodic contact with an acquaintance who lives in New Zealand (and who I met at a GSV conference) who is setting up a library of books about the history of GLBTQ+ sensibilities among the world’s indigenous populations.
An unexpected culture treat we enjoyed this fall along with assorted friends: a series of Wednesday-night showings at Emory University of Federico Fellini’s films. For me, the best part of the festival was a bonus showing of a 2013 homage to Fellini, Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. The music used for the end credits to this movie – Vladimir Martynov’s The Beatitudes, as performed by the Kronos Quartet – is some of the most haunting, moving music I’ve ever heard, so it was great to hear it again, nine years later. (Another swoon-worthy track from the movie’s soundtrack is Rachel’s Water from the Same Source.)
In March, a massive, hundred-year-old tree in a neighbor’s yard blew over during a windstorm. Fortunately, the tree fell into the street instead of onto my house (where it had been looming ominously for decades). The neighbor’s removal of the tree’s carcass abruptly and permanently transformed my shady front yard into a sun-saturated area. So far, the extensive “fernery” that had taken root out there continues to thrive, but I’m mulling over how I may need to re-stock the yard with sun-loving vs. shade-loving plants.
This year Randy also had to have a huge tree removed from his front yard.
Back in May, Randy sold a rental house he’d owned for many years, converting that income stream into investments that don’t involve the headaches of landlordship.
Inside my house, the most noteworthy change this past year was replacing my four dining room chairs. The new chairs are as comfortable as the oldies and their design provides a bit more space for maneuvering around the room for those of us eating or playing cards (or Scrabble) there. My kitchen upgrades in 2022: a new microwave to replace the ancient one my mom gave me when I bought my house almost 30 years ago, and a new, larger toaster. The non-good news about the kitchen: my washing machine went kaput this past summer; I’m still procrastinating replacing it, doing a lot of my laundry these days at Randy’s house.
Housekeepery Disaster Averted This Year: the anticipated demise of my HVAC system (installed in 1993 when I bought the house). When I turned on the heat this fall, I thought it, too, had died, but a visit from ye repair technician revealed that I’d simply neglected (since 1993!) to clear the HVAC intake vent of the almost 30 year;’s worth of dust! Fingers crossed that my way-out-of-warranty HVAC system will continue to function for a few more years . . .
Other than contemplating what I might do next spring in the aforementioned now-sunny front yard – and already having planted out front two additional camellia bushes, a viburnum, a tea olive, and a Japanese mahonia, I have, inexplicably, done less work in my tiny yard than in previous years. The huge, as-yet-unbagged rubbish pile at the end of my driveway is the most obvious evidence of this shift. The second-most-obvious evidence: for the first year ever since buying this house, I didn’t re-plant my potted herb garden. I am resolved not to neglect this beloved part of my garden in 2023!
In the backyard, the Big Accomplishment of 2022 was digging up two enormous miscanthus plants (a housewarming gift from 1993) to (a) allow more sunlight into what I hope will one day be an old-fashioned cottage garden, and (b) make room for a firecracker bush that I bought when I visited my sister at her place on Amelia Island last summer.
Also this year, I declared for myself a new gardening rule: to quit obsessing so much about fashioning The Perfect Small Garden and spend more time just sitting and enjoying What’s There Already. Mind you, I haven’t given up fantasizing at times about multiple potential garden improvements, but I have been successful more often than in previous years by merely plopping down on one of my garden benches and watching the birds and various other pollinators, rather than wasting effort berating myself for not picking up an ax, or a pruner, or whatever, to Do What Has Long Needed Doing.
Indoors, I rearranged the sun porch to accommodate more plants I try to overwinter there (instead of out in the garden shed), and I imported some of my favorite gardening books from the library/guest room to the sun porch (ending the era when I tried to preserve one room of my house from filling up with books). Also on the sun porch is a growing collection of coleus rootings that (thanks to the encouragement and example of my gardening friend Paul) I plan to continue cultivating from cuttings from now on.
Although both Randy and I continue to enjoy good health, my visits this year to various medical specialists – four of them! – remind me that my body is steadily getting more difficult to keep functioning flawlessly. Ditto the two separate weeks-long bouts of some mysterious bronchial malady that (negative tests aside) may or may not have been COVID-related. Speaking of which, this fall both Randy and I got our third COVID-19 vaccination booster injections. By year’s end, I’ll have joined Randy in getting the current flu vaccine (a first for Calvin).
The good news, health-wise, is that, at 74, I still need only one medication each day (a very low dose of a cholesterol minimizer). So there is much gratitude for my good luck, and Randy’s, in the genetics and COVID-hospitalization-avoidance departments.
Back in February, a distracted driver plowed into Randy as he was sitting at an intersection in his beloved Element. The car was totaled by the insurance company. Since then, because Randy’s 94-year-old mom Jane no longer drives, Randy’s been using Jane’s SUV while he ponders purchasing a replacement vehicle.
As we did last year, Randy and I watched a LOT of television during our evenings together in 2022. Considering the steep prices these days for movie and theater tickets, it’s a good thing the shows provided by the streaming services we use (some of them courtesy assorted relatives and friends, who are sharing their subscription passwords with us) are so well-written and/or well-acted.
Randy finally created a website that contains a sampling of his wonderful artistry. Take a look!
One of the saddest days of the year for me and my family was March 30th – the first day since he was born that my grand-nephew Kaelen wasn’t on the planet to celebrate his birthday. It would’ve been his 22nd.
Among several people in my world who died in 2022 were two women I remember with special fondness, a high-school classmate I’ve stayed in touch with, and a sweet man who I first met when Harvey Schwartz entered my life so significantly back in the late 1970s (and who was Harvey’s roommate at the time):
Bonnie Banks Ashley 4/28/48 – 8/10/22 High school girlfriend
As I’ve done for many consecutive years now, I compiled for family and friends a collection of soothing, meditative instrumental music intended to serve as an antidote to the ubiquitous Christmas carols blaring forth every December in every store and from every other radio station in the land. I keep a set of these CDs in my car all year to play while I’m navigating Atlanta traffic and/or driving to or from the mountain cabin. If you didn’t receive this year’s CD and would like to have one, just let me know and I’ll get one to you. (And if one that I gave you in some previous year has gotten lost, or arrived with or has developed glitches, I’ll be glad to send you a replacement: I have in my computer the playlists from all the Solstice CDs.)
As he did last year, Randy helped me create the labels and covers for this year’s music CD.
Every year I decide the playlist for the Solstice CD I’ve compiled for that particular year is superior to all the previous ones, and that’s the case again this year!
The Constant Reader
2022 may be the year when the amount of time I spent reading news stories, essays, and commentary on my computer finally equaled (exceeded?) the amount of time I used to spend each year reading books. This is primarily the result of subscribing to the online version of the New York Times and to several automatically-delivered-to-my-emailbox newsletters that I’ve discovered in recent years. (I strongly recommend every one of them: Maria Popova’s The Marginalian, L.M. Sacasas’ The Convivial Society, Heather Cox Richardson’s daily Letter from an American, Robert Hubbell’s daily Today’s Edition, Judd Legum’s weekly Popular Information, and the sporadically-published Rumble with Michael Moore.)
Keeping up with the online output of these excellent writers – as well as with the always-excellent output of my favorite bloggers (listed in the sidebar of this blog under the heading “Personal Blogs Cal Follows”) – has certainly interfered with my timely consumption this past year of the world’s two best magazines: The New Yorker and The Sun, which I stubbornly continue to read in their print versions.
Comments on the 32 books I did manage to complete in 2022 are available here.
If you happen to be an avid reader yourself, you’re also invited to take a gander at the items I posted this past year to my other blog, devoted to all things bookish.
Year-End Holiday Plans
A case of COVID put the kibosh on our plans to join Randy, his brother Ted, his mother Jane, and Ted’s daughter and her husband and child for a pre-holiday get-together at Janes’s house in Kennesaw, Georgia. Instead, Randy and I will be spending the afternoon of Christmas Day at her place, and spending the night there. I had friends over at my place again this year on the Winter Solstice, with, thank goodness, Randy helping me host our guests.
Some photos of the house festooned for the Solstice Teas:
Later in December, Randy and I will welcome in the New Year at the aforementioned, serenity-inducing mountain cabin. (Fingers crossed the steep uphill road to the cabin door won’t be icy!)
How about sharing some of your own 2022 news with me sometime during the holidays, either via letter (1576 McLendon Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30307) or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Happy Solstice and a gratitude-filled New Year to all!
I read this for my book club. The good news: It’s a page-turner, with a clever premise and interesting, complex characters. The bad news: The fast-unfolding plot is a bit implausible, as is the maturity and impeccable wisdom shown by every character. Hyde wrote thirty (!) books before she wrote this one, and the fact that one of them was made into the movie Play It Forward should have been a clue as to why I felt the tone of the book to be a bit Hallmark Hall of Fame-ish, at times bordering on smarmy (or at least predictable, and not in a good way). Still, I’m glad I read the thing, and the unexpected power of a lawyer’s courtroom speech toward the end of the story almost redeemed the novel’s implausibility.
The Paris Bookseller (2022) by Kerri Maher
I selected this book for our book club to read, and I am so glad I did. This is a novelization of the story of how Sylvia Beach came to establish an English-language bookstore in Paris in the 1920s. It features authors who at that time lived in Paris, and whose works I’ve read or am familiar with, so the setting and these characters, and the excellent and believable (and well-researched) writing is just the sort of book that grabs my attention and becomes a page-turner. I finished it within three or four days, and was rather sorry when its author decided to end her story. Now I must track down Sylvia Beach’s autobiography to learn what else happened, and what didn’t happen in quite the way Maher tells it. Anyone who loves literature, or loves bookstores, or loves Paris – or loves all three of these things – would enjoy this book.
We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown.
I read this for my book club. It is a pre-Orwell, pre-Huxley vision of a dystopian future, many of whose features (and plot lines) figure in both those later writers’ most famous works. We was banned in Russia until 1988. The book is supposedly forty fragments of a journal recorded for posterity by a nonentity who unexpectedly experiences a momentary lapse from the engineered contentment of the masses in the post-apocalyptic society (“OneWorld”) envisioned by Zamyatin (1884-1937). The writing style is intentionally fragmentary and confusing, and I was amazed at how effective this conceit (which was, initially, merely annoying) became as the story rushes to its conclusion. Despite the book’s flaws, it is an impressive accomplishment, especially given the circumstances surreounding its creation. If 1984 and/or Brave New World and its imitators had never been published, We would remain as a sobering cautionary tale about the dangers of utopia-building and coerced governmental conformity – and about the limits of human rationality as a guideline for fashioning a society’s rules.
Old Filth (2004) by Jane Gardam
Read this for my book club. Gardam is a skillful writer. Even though none of her novel’s characters are admirable (or even likable), she manages to make you care about what happens to them, how, exactly (and usually deludedly), they interpret what happens to them, and how they manage to cope with their very unusual backgrounds (in this case, being born and raised by indifferent sets of parents in British colonies in the Far East during World War II, then fostered later in rural England by equally indifferent guardians). The narrative swings back and forth between different time periods and casts of characters, and the writing is dense with detail (historical and psychological). I would definitely read other books by Gardam, although I hope her other stories contain characters whose lives are not so sad and stunted.
Cannery Row (1945) by John Steinbeck
I read this classic for the book club Randy and I are a part of, and it was one of the best book club picks I can remember, due to Steinbeck’s lyrical and sympathetic portrait of a group of people whose lackluster lives are usually unchronicled and even less often admired. Correctly suspecting the book would contain numerous depictions of taken-for-granted alcoholism, I didn’t look forward to reading this book, but Steinbeck’s amazing ability to show how the world of these characters makes perfect sense to them won me over almost immediately. I admire, as I did with Steinbeck’s East of Eden that I read with total rapture when I was a teenager, the author’s beautiful writing style and his amazing insight into human psychology. It is the mood and atmosphere of this story that I will remember, rather than the details of its unimportant “plot’ – that and Steinbeck’s surprising turns of phrase and his uncannily talented ear for dialog. It’s easy to see why Steinbeck was eventually (in 1962) awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
TheLastTraintoKeyWest (2020) by Chanel Cleeton
Another selection for the book club Randy and I are part of, this story of the predicaments and personalities of three women and their intertwined destinies was intriguing, but not, alas, very memorable. It kept turning into a romance novel, and I kept getting the three main characters confused because their personalities were not distinct enough, especially whenever I laid aside the book for a while and then tried to get my bearings again later on. The novel’s setting in the late 1930s did make it more interesting than it would have been otherwise, but this is hardly A Book That Must Be Read.
Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
I was surprised that I didn’t love this book (which I suggested for my book club) as much as I did Robinson’s later books, especially having read so much praise for this first novel of Robinson’s. Although I loved the amazingly nuanced detail of her descriptions of both landscape and personality, I couldn’t bring myself to care about the story’s main characters. Readers who haven’t read Robinson’s novels should start with Gilead instead of this one.
Biography and Memoir
The Diary of Alice James (1934, 1964) edited by Leon Edel
Like her brothers William and Henry, Alice James was an acute observer of human nature (especially human vanities and foibles) – and a remarkably gifted writer. As Alice was a life-long invalid, her diary is not so much a record of her travels and social interactions as it is a chronicle of her emotional and intellectual reactions to the era (and the social class) in which she lived. Alice’s reflections about the psychology of chronic (and, in her case, ill-understood) illness, about the infuriating strictures and conventions of the Victorian-era patriarchy James was born into, about the fortunes of her famous brothers, about the British politics of her day (James lived much of her short life in England), about religion, and about her own approaching death are unusual and often heart-rending. Leon Edel’s introduction explains in detail how the diary came to be published and the important differences in its several published editions; Edel’s short biographical sketch that also precedes the diary is also very interesting (and, like the bibliographic essay, is exceptionally well-written, making me want to read, or re-read other things Edel has written).
A Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf (1978) by Phyllis Rose
The most interesting biography of Woolf I have read (and a National Book Award finalist), and I’ve read quite a few of those other biographies. I am astonished to realize that it (Rose’s first book) was published almost 35 years ago, before the greatest glut of published commentaries on VW and the other Bloomsberries, of which I have also read a great deal of. What’s amazing about this book is how engagingly and yet how even-handedly Rose sifts through the historical record to make persuasive connections with VW’s writings (particularly VW’s novels). Rose doesn’t shy away from the various controversies about the relative importance of VW to modern literature, but none of the connections she makes between The Life and The Work seem forced or sensationalized, or beholden to, say, a feminist agenda (although Rose discusses at length VW’s use of feminism – or, rather, her struggles with patriarchy and her attempts to resist it, both in her life and in her fiction). Rose’s very modestly-sized but rich biography is one I wish I’d read earlier in my journey into the Bloomsbury saga. Her concluding chapter is, in my opinion, a small masterpiece: a coherent, concise, recognizable portrait synthesized from an impressive amount of research. Even more remarkable, Rose infuses her portrait of Woolf with an extraordinary sympathy with a fellow author’s sensibilities – which, in VW’s case, is an elusive set of contradictory and competing sensibilities. I hope to temper my admiration for Rose’s accomplishment with whatever I can find out about the critical reception of her book – which will itself be tempered with my already existing admiration of three of Rose’s other books that I have read (Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages and The Year of Reading Proust and The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading). And I will certainly find and read anything else Rose has written or will write: she is an excellent storyteller.
Oscar Wilde: A Life(2021) by Matthew Sturgis
I’d been reading rave reviews of this book for over a year, and, being a fan of all things Wilde, was not disappointed when I finally tracked down a library copy. Sturgis is an excellent storyteller and a meticulous scholar (230 of the book’s 838 pages are endnotes). The facts he marshals for this biography have the benefit of much recent scholarship – including the collected letters (published in 2000) – about Wilde’s life, and will replace (as it corrects the errors in and is written more engagingly than) Richard Ellman’s monumental 1987 biography. I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about Oscar Wilde before I picked up Sturgis’ book, but I was wrong, and it was a pleasure to read his clear, sensible, and well-told account of one of the most remarkable writers of the last (or any) century.
What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life(2020) by Mark Doty
Doty, a poet and memoirist, is one of my favorite writers (and one of the few famous writers who I’ve actually met). This book is a close reading of Whitman’s work beautifully intertwined with biographical information about Whitman (much of which was new to me), and biographical information about Doty. The author succeeds, beautifully, in getting across his main purpose: showing how startlingly original Whitman’s poems were, and how Whitman manages to address his readers, especially his hypothetical future readers, in such an uncannily direct manner. Doty’s digressions on how Dickinson’s and Thoreau’s works compare to Whitman’s are also wonderful. The book is engagingly structured and written in gorgeous, poetic prose. Loved this book, and finished it within a few days of snagging a copy at my local public library.
American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work (2006) by Susan Cheever
Having long been curious enough about the Transcendentalists, I was happy to find on a bargain bookshelf this semi-recent account of the personal lives of its luminaries. The (much later) British Bloomberries, which I’ve taken the time to read so very much about, had nothing on their New England predecessors; turns out the Puritan heritage rejected by Emerson & Co. had been just as oppressive as the Victorian Age, and the writers in revolt against that heritage were every bit as complicated and articulate as Ms. Woolf and her scandalizing circle of artistic family and friends. Cheever’s method of organizing the overlapping sagas of her subjects is at times confusing, but for me her book was a page-turner – and of course further encouragement for me to dig deeper into the lives of several of her main characters. Her research resulted in stories previously unknown to me; particularly enlightening was Cheever’s sensitive depiction of the social upheaval of the anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions leading up to the Civil War – upheavals that resulted in the straining of many familial and neighborly bonds, including some of the famous residents of Concord, Massachusetts.
Two Gardeners: Katharine S. White & Elizabeth Lawrence: A Friendship in Letters (2002) edited by Emily Herring Wilson
A wonderful book. I particularly love reading collections of letters, and these two literate, accomplished, and articulate gardeners (who only met once although they corresponded for over 30 years) and their 150 letters make for don’t-want-to-put-it-down reading. The fact that each of these women lived and gardened in such different climates (White in Maine, Lawrence in North Carolina) presented wildly different challenges for their gardening, and makes for interesting reading, as does what the letters reveal about the families and friendships of these remarkable women. Editor Wilson’s introduction and footnotes are models of how such materials should be written (and the research for writing them should be conducted), and I will probably track down a copy of a biography of Lawrence that Wilson wrote later, as I greatly admire her writing style.
The Summing Up (1938) by Somerset Maugham
Rarely am I so enthralled with a book that I manage to finish it in two days, but Maugham’s credo (a mere 203 pages) was almost un-putdownable. I don’t know much about Maugham’s life and have only read, many decades ago, one of his books (The Razor’s Edge), but because I’ve been meaning to read this one for years, I nabbed a paperback copy at a thrift store a few months ago and noticed it again the other day on one of my shelves of want-to-read books that I’ve actually bought (as opposed to merely putting it on my depressingly lengthy list of Nonfiction Books Cal Wants to Read). Maugham’s prose style is refreshingly direct and in many ways his sensibility seems aligned with my own. The book focuses on what Maugham had learned in his long and interesting life about human nature and the meaning of life – fascinating topics, both – but he also describes in detail his conclusions about the nature of playwriting (I didn’t know Maugham was a successful playwright before he turned to fiction, or why he abandoned playwriting), about art, about the differences between talent and genius, and about many other things along the way. Virtually every paragraph was riveting – partly because Maugham seemed so self-effacing and self-aware, so humble about his shortcomings as a human being and even as a writer. Perhaps because I’m approaching my mid-70s myself, I’ll be mentioning this remarkable book among any others that I might compile one day as the most memorable and unusual books I’ve ever read.
Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008) by Robert Pogue Harrison
Although there are many interesting passages in this book, it is far too scholarly a treatment of the subject for me to recommend to others. What I’d hoped would be an exploration of the psychological aspects of gardening turns out to be more of an in-depth exploration of several specific literary treatments of gardens and of fictional tales set in gardens (such as Boccaccio’s Decameron and Dante’s Paradiso). I most enjoyed Harrison’s survey of Epicurean philosophy, his description of symbolism in Islamic gardens, and his chapter on the Czech writer (and gardener) Karel Capek. Ironically, it was Harrison’s end notes (and one of his appendices) that I enjoyed more than the book itself. I’m not sorry I read this book, but it wasn’t what I expected or hoped for when I plucked it from the “new books” section of one of my nearby public libraries. Perhaps another book Harrison mentions, David Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens (2006), will turn out to be more in line with the sort of garden writing I most enjoy reading.
One Man’s Garden (1992) by Henry Mitchell
Earlier this year I decided to move to my sun porch my small collection of books about the pleasures and pitfalls of amateur gardening. Two of Henry Mitchell’s books are among these treasures, and the other day I remembered how much I loved them when I first read them, and decided to re-read this one (which I first read in 2017). Mitchell, who died in 1993, was unique in his totally humble, self-deprecating, and humorous reports on his gardening experiments. This collection, like the other one I own (Henry Mitchell on Gardening, 1998 – I’m still on the lookout for a keeper-copy of The Essential Earthman, 1999, which I read a library copy of in 2007) originally appeared as columns in the Washington Post. Fortunately for Cal, DC’s weather and Atlanta’s are often identical, so, unlike many other gardening books I’ve enjoyed, Mitchell’s screeds are usually about plants I recognize and could grow (or do grow) myself. Also fortunately for Cal, I enjoyed my second reading of Mitchell’s book (which, like the others is arranged by each month of the calendar) as much as I did the first go-round.
Garden Dreams (1991) edited and illustrated by Ferris Cook
I found this beauty in an amazing garden/antique store on Florida’s Amelia Island, and – unusual for me – I bought it primarily for its amazing illustrations, each of which is based on the cover of an old gardening book. The illustrations introduce nine essays, each about a garden a well-known gardener would plant if given the means and opportunity at his/her hypothetically ideal site. My favorite essay was written by Washington, DC-based Henry Mitchell, although all the essays are worth reading. I’ll be keeping this book just to look again from time to time at the gorgeous, full-page (and highly stylized) prints.
The Greek Experience (1958) by C.M. Bowra
So glad I bought this book (from a recent estate sale)! I thought I knew a good bit about ancient Greek civilization, but Bowra explains exactly how it differed from other cultures of that era (and previous and subsequent eras), and how its distinctiveness shows up in classical Greek innovations in, or contributions to, art, literature, mathematics, philosophy, ethics, medicine, science, and especially politics. The book is obviously a summary of what Bowra gleaned from a lifelong study of ancient Greece, but his erudite though accessible writing style and tone is not something I encounter very often in more recent books written by history scholars for non-specialist readers. That style and tone are as refreshing as the information and thought-provoking insights Bowra provides. I will never look at a Greek statue the same again, and Bowra’s chapters on the Greek religion alone make this a memorable and valuable read.
Ancient Greece: Voyages Through Time (2005) by Peter Ackroyd
I bought this book at a thrift store, thinking its brevity and color illustrations might consolidate for me what I recently learned from reading a scholarly treatment of this subject – and also because of the book’s famous author. It turns out this was a book written for (literate, older) children. Although Ackroyd covers the basic/major facts, his book reads sort of like an encyclopedia. I won’t be keeping this book for my personal library, but it was worth the time (which was not much) to skim through it.
House & Home
Arts & Crafts Lifestyle and Design (2001) by Wendy Hitchmough
Unlike many other books discussing this subject, Hitchmough concentrates on explaining the philosophy underlying the Arts & Craft Movement, including the differences in the ways this approach to home design was popularized in Britain and in the United States. The author’s research into the journals and diaries of Arts & Crafts architects, designers, and clients is intriguing, as is her discussion of the ways in which the movement meshed with or departed from Victorian conventions (architectural and moral) and the emerging women’s rights movements. The photos of the specific houses examined add to the book’s appeal.
Thoughts of Home: Reflections on Families, Houses, and Homelands from the Pages of House Beautiful Magazine (1999) edited by Elaine Greene
Given the original audience for these 44 separately-commissioned short memoirs, I was surprised at how interesting this book was. These biographical essays reminded me of really good short stories – lots of information packed into a few pages, vividly-depicted scenes, formidable or otherwise memorable characters – only these stories are memories of actual people (albeit rather privileged people from mostly white upper-class or middle-class backgrounds). Perhaps the intense nostalgia for the simple and numerous comforts, routines, and standard initiations of childhood is what grabbed me? The writers are certainly articulate, every one of them, and in distinctly different voices. Two of the writers (Frances Mayes and Witold Rybczynski) happen to be among my favorite nonfiction writers. If I find there is a sequel to this book, I’ll be tracking it down to read it, hoping its editor is as skillful as the editor of this book was in selecting such excellent and evocative essays.
Philosophy & Psychology
In Praise of Wasting Time (2018) by Alan Lightman
Lightman marshals into a short book (published in connection with his TED Talk on this subject) a listing of, and some of the recent damning scientific research relating to, the usual suspects mitigating against fragmented attention and serenity that have been at play since the invention of the Internet and (in particular) the smartphone. Lightman writes clearly, but I found nothing new or profound in his treatment of this subject. I spent a lot more than twenty minutes (the length of his related TED Talk) reading the book, and wish that I’d listened to the talk instead.
Happiness Through Tranquility: The School of Epicurus (1984) by Richard W. Hibler
I must’ve seen this book recommended by someone, as I doubt that I’d’ve selected it from the library without a reason: the text is not type-set, but a photograph of a typed copy (probably a dissertation?), which made it laborious to read. The subject, however, has long been of interest to me, and this book is a good introduction to this Greek philosopher’s doctrines. I especially liked the way the author discusses the distinctions between the teachings of Epicurus, the Stoics, the Platonists, and Epictetus.
The Hill Towns of Italy(1983) by Carol Field; photos by Richard Kauffman
It’s the text, rather than the (mediocre) photos that made this book worth buying. Because the towns described are all located in Tuscany or Umbria, I’ve visited most of them, and wish I’d read this book before seeing them! Field’s excellent introduction to the fascinating history, geology, and geography of these two regions is especially informative; her summary of what we know about the Etruscans was especially interesting.
Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece (1996) by Patricia Storage
It’s been many years since I took up a book dealing with Greece (one of my four favorite places) and a few years since I’ve read such a gripping and nuanced travel memoir. I don’t know how I came to discover this book, but it’s definitely one of the most mesmerizing I’ve read in a while. Its appeal has to do with Storace’s astonishing images and reflections, a mixture of (as one reviewer put it) analysis and lyricism. Virtually every page – often every other paragraph – contains some unexpected metaphor or aside that takes your breath away. Storace published poetry before this memoir, and a novel afterward, and I am now curious about both of them. The portrait of the Greek psyche that she draws is complex and disturbing (I’m almost glad I didn’t read the book until after I’d traveled to Greece myself, but this book will definitely inform my next trip there, should I be lucky enough to re-visit this fascinating, and blood-soaked region of the world.)
Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (2020) by Bart D. Ehrman
This is the eighth book of Ehrman’s I’ve read (he’s written 30), and it was my least favorite. I look forward to Ehrman’s books because he translates into comprehensible language theological scholarship on topics that were drilled into me, with spectacular inaccuracy, as a kid who was compelled to listen to Southern Baptists preachers and their minions up until I left home at age 18. Reading Ehrman’s books has been a sort of continuing education supplementing my first exposure to the history of Christianity that came during my undergraduate years, when my interest in the subject was keen enough that I minored in it. Perhaps my non-enthusiasm for this latest book of Erhman’s is due to the sheer level of detail he provides about the pagan and early Christian notions of life after death, but it certainly was instructive to learn there were so many such notions, where they came from, and how wildly inconsistent (and vague or even incoherent) they were. That said, the cumulative effect of reading Ehrman’s books, including this one, has been positive – and positively infuriating, given the aforementioned 18 years of indoctrination. The most enlightening bits of this book of Ehrman’s are descriptions of the inconsistencies and incoherences of the (surprisingly few) afterlife-related passages in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament (and in the apocryphal and/or suppressed Christian scriptures). Ehrman’s scholarship makes even more outrageous the ways fundamentalists have twisted the original ideas into a regime of behavior control, cherry-picking their way through various proof-texts in the service of all sorts of questionable or downright unethical ends, including attempts to console terrified and/or guilt-ridden Christian converts or potential converts.
Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (2021) by Alan Lightman
It was a quotation from this book in an essay I read recently that prompted me to track down a copy. I don’t remember the quotation, but am sorry to report that I was underwhelmed by the book it came from. Considering the subject matter – among other things, the “probable” ramifications of the expanding universe, the nature of matter, the maddeningly counterintuitive properties of time and space – Lightman is a better guide than many. And I did learn a good deal about specific recent and semi-recent advances in quantum mechanics and about certain debates among contemporary cosmologists. Those topics are difficult to understand, so I appreciate Lightman’s efforts to explain them clearly (or nearly so). Still, there was something unsatisfying about this book: possibly, merely my expectations that it would be more interesting (for me) than it turned out to be. Be that as it may, I’ve already ordered up a library copy of one of Lightman’s previous books, In Praise of Wasting Time, intrigued by its title and hoping it’s better than Probable Impossibilities.
Books about Books
Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World (2005) by Nicholas Basbanes
A guaranteed pleasure is finally getting around to reading yet another of Basbanes’ hymns to the glory of books. As far-ranging and unpredictable as the others, this one is every bit as delightful. Based (loosely) on a series of interviews with living book people (writers, librarians, archivists, scholars, collectors), Basbanes tells multiple tales of the literary tastes, careers, and personal libraries of people like the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, da Vinci, Lincoln, Hitler, Fitzgerald, and dozens of others. The book is filled with equal amounts of history, literary gossip, and the fruits of literary scholarship. It would take many sentences to merely list the subjects Basbanes touches on or discusses in depth. It is easily the most wonderful book I’ve read this year, and I am happy to realize there are still a few other Basbanes books to track down and read.
The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words (2019) by Tom Mole
The impressive thing about this book is how comprehensively it mentions and discusses the ramifications of the fact that books mean more to people than their obvious utility for learning and entertainment. The odd thing about this book is its blandness. Even though the author uses anecdotes from his own life and from history to illustrate various aspects of book-cherishing, I had to force myself to finish the thing. I did learn a few things about the pros and cons of e-books that hadn’t occurred to me before, so I’m glad I finished the book instead of giving up on it mid-way. That said, this book might be the perfect introduction to the phenomenon of bookishness for anyone who doesn’t regularly read blogs and articles- and other books – about this constellation of topics.
Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books (2013) by Nick Hornby
I would read anything (well, any nonfiction book) by Nick Hornby, and I had read another collection of Hornby’s essays before I stumbled upon this collection of his book reviews that were originally published between 2003 and 2013 in a periodical entitled The Believer. Ten years’ worth of book reviews is a lot of book reviews, but Hornby’s writing style is so thoughtful, idiosyncratic, and hilarious that I enjoyed Every Single Page of this book. (At 460+ pages, that’s a terrific amount of reading pleasure!) Besides Hornby’s remarks about particular books, there are dozens of sensible (and/or amusing) reflections on The Reading Life. And of course I picked up at least a dozen titles to add to my embarrassingly short list of Fiction Books Cal Wants to Read and my absurdly long list of Nonfiction Books Cal Wants to Read. Note to Hornby: Please stop writing novels and screenplays and start reviewing books again, so I can enjoy even more of your wonderful book-reading advice and your reactions to what you get around to reading!
Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (1996) by David Denby
Although this book has been on my books-about-books radar for many years, I got around to buying a copy of this now-26-year-old survey only a few years ago, and it was at least a year ago that I finally started reading it. Taking so long to finish it is no reflection on the book’s excellence: I merely allowed my excitement about other titles that swam into my view repeatedly interrupt this one. Now I wish I’d managed to finish it sooner, so I could have been recommending it to other avid readers (and fans of books-about-books) all these years since it was first published. Denby’s book is about his experience of re-visiting (as an auditing, middle-aged student) the literary classics required by Columbia University (among others) for its undergraduates – something Denby did previously when he attended Columbia many decades before. In addition to providing summaries of each classic, Denby skillfully weaves into his own reactions (as a mature adult) to each of these 30 or so author’s books the reactions of his much-younger classmates; he shows how each of the books assigned remains relevant to 20th-century intellectual and cultural concerns; and he addresses all sorts of issues relevant to the mandatory reading of classic works in modern university settings. Denby’s extended reflections about the merits and deficiencies of the (mostly dead-White-guys-dominated) Western canon are alone worth the price of and effort invested in reading Denby’s account, and his chapters on certain authors were, for me, either revelatory or mind-changing. It is difficult to imagine that anyone who reads Denby’s book wouldn’t be persuaded by his enthusiasm for the classics to search out and read at least one of them himself/herself – or to, post-Denby, re-read one (or more) of them. Over my lifetime I’ve read a lot of books-about-books, and countless books and articles about the Western literary canon, but Denby’s is the best – and certainly the most enjoyable of these surveys. I don’t know how many of the classics Denby discusses I will be motivated to investigate myself, but I do know that my copy of Great Books is a keeper, as I know how enjoyable and instructive it will be to re-read certain chapters in the future.
The Diary of a Bookseller (2017) by Shaun Bythell
A joy of a read, and enlightening too: my own fantasies of running a bookstore evaporated completely before I got very far into Bythell’s diary! (Putting up with paying customers is evidently not less exasperating than working in a public library for more than 30 years, as I did before I retired in 2013). The fact that Bythell operates his store in a tiny hamlet in a remote section of Scotland definitely helped with the pleasure of reading about Bythell’s often hilarious travails. I am so glad to have learned that he’s written a sequel, and hope to get hold of a copy before too long: I didn’t want this chronicle of a single year to end when it did.
For the past couple of years, the COVID pandemic has put the kibosh on any plans Randy and I might have concocted for another overseas trip together.
As a consolation prize to ourselves for our hesitancy to get on any airplanes any time soon, we decided earlier this year to devote part of October 2022 to one of several U.S. road trips we’ve talked about making at some point.
What we came up with was a 15-day journey (October 8 – October 22) up through the Southeastern U.S. via the Blue Ridge Parkway as far as Roanoke, then up to Pittsburgh via Virginia (where Randy used to spend some of his summers as a kid), then up to the Canadian border to see Niagara Falls.
Before reaching the USA/Canada border, though, we planned a three-day layover in Pittsburg to see (among other things) the Andy Warhol Museum, and a couple of nights in the Buffalo, NY area. After our three days in Canada, we returned to Atlanta via western New York, western Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
The main takeaway was that our trip exceeded our expectations in almost every sense imaginable. For example:
The weather couldn’t have been more congenial! There were only a couple of chilly evenings, but only one day of pouring rain while traveling, and the daytime temperatures were perfect for all the outdoor walking we did at various tourist sites.
As soon as we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, the fall leaf colors unexpectedly exploded into breathtaking magnificence. Given the early October timing of our trip, this was a complete surprise. A blessing repeated every single morning! We never stopped marveling at and remarking on the amazing scenery we were traveling through – the oohs and ahs lasted throughout our entire two-week trip! Except for the evergreens in some of the forests we drove through, we saw hardly any green trees until our final day, as we left the Chattanooga area for our drive back into Georgia. For someone who once thought Americans had to travel to New England in October to be surrounded by vivid fall colors, this road trip through areas of the U.S. far from New England was a revelation!
Speaking of natural wonders, we were also astonished at the large number of intact forests we drove through – there are, amazingly, trillions of trees still standing in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio! And the number of waterways we crossed – huge rivers and countless creeks – was also surprising. Ditto the number of vineyards! The mid-Atlantic states are full of beautiful scenery and scenic highways worthy of their designations! (And plenty of roads that inexplicably haven’t been so designated!)
We really enjoyed some of the residential neighborhoods we wandered through on our way to various destinations. Particularly memorable faves include the small New York towns of East Aurora and Orchard Park, and the Canadian town called Niagara on the Lake. Also, the Amish country sections of western Ohio were delightfully pastoral and pristine – like traveling in another country. Once again, and often, I realized that I do not need to be driving through the British Cotswolds to be enchanted by non-urban scenery. (A realization that, theoretically, could save Calvin a ton o’ travel-designated money!)
Touring several Frank Lloyd Wright houses that are open to the public was part of our travel planning from the beginning, and we did visit three of them. Randy’s long been a fan of Wright houses, and I enjoyed the ones we visited this trip more than I did the only other Wright house I’d previously seen (on a trip with Randy to Arkansas in 2019). Ironically, a Wright-designed house we didn’t get to visit this trip – because we couldn’t get a reservation during the time we were in the area – was perhaps Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, near Pittsburg.
The good (and semi-surprising) news about Pittsburgh itself: we both really, really enjoyed this town. (Details below.)
One of our plans for this road trip was to stop at a lot of non-Georgia-based antique malls, and we certainly enjoyed trawling through the dozen-plus places we stopped to look at. In retrospect, however, I’ve decided that the antique malls in Georgia that we re-visit from time to time are just as likely to yield things I’m interested in buying – and can afford – than places outside the state where Randy and I happen to live. That being said, Randy and I did return home with a trunk load full of stuff. As usual, Randy bought actual Quality Items (he’s always willing to shell out more $$$ than I am). Here’s a photo of my own treasures accumulated throughout our two-week inspection of out-of-state antique malls:
With all the motel bills, restaurant meals, gasoline, tolls and parking fees, and museum admission charges involved in this trip, I didn’t have a clear sense of how much this trip (vs. our overseas ones) might cost each of us. Good news here also: the total cost (including the $200 worth of trinkets I bought at the dozen or so antique malls that we stopped in at along the way) came to less than $1,700 – totally within my usual annual out-of-state travel budget, especially given the fact that Randy and I have foregone any overseas trips for the past three years.
We had a lot of good meals and several memorable ones. We had decided before our trip to seek out only locally-owned eateries, and we were successful in dodging all the fast-food chains for two entire weeks. The only French fries consumed were the ones that came with an order (in a Canadian restaurant) of fish and chips.
Randy and I learned – or, rather, we learned again – that we travel harmoniously together. We learned this for the first time five years ago, when we made a trip to Italy together with three other friends. Since our at-home routine usually involves a day and night apart from each other every week, I was wondering if being together 24/7 and of staying in a string of unfamiliar and different motels for two entire weeks might prove to be stressful, but that wasn’t the case. This is a good omen for the many other USA road trips Randy and I have talked about making together in the future.
Readers of the blog post may want to skip over the details of our trip (which I’m recording below for future reference because my memory is so unreliable) and just scroll through the photos, most of which Randy or I took, although a few of them I grabbed from ye Intertubes . . .
Day 1 – Blue Ridge, GA to Boone, NC
We started our road trip from the cabin in Blue Ridge rather than from Atlanta. That gave us a couple of relaxing days to talk about the upcoming trip and to make some last-minute reservations without the distractions of our chores at home.
Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway was something we’d both wanted to do for many years, so we decided to get on it just south of Asheville and drive as far north as we could get before sundown. One of the features of the Parkway – and one that usually prevents people from getting very far whenever they get onto it, is its numerous overlooks:
One of our early stops along the Parkway was the marvel not too distant from Asheville called the Folk Art Center, which includes a spectacular gift shop and an equally spectacular permanent art collection. That collection included these two gems (among many others):
After a couple of happy hours at the Folk Art Center and stops at a half-dozen of the aforementioned overlooks, we also took a break from Parkway driving to inspect a restored cabin.
By the time we exited the Parkway to spend the night somewhere, it had gotten dark and we couldn’t find a motel nearby that wasn’t already fully booked. We ended up driving all the way to Boone before we finally (after about four futile attempts) found a (very expensive) motel room. We should’ve guessed that motels in the Great Smoky Mountains would be mobbed with leaf-peeping tourists, and made a reservation for that first night of our trip! On the other hand, we did find a cool 1950’s-style diner to eat our (very) late supper. The next morning Randy took advantage of the motel hot tub while we did a load of laundry in the motel’s self-service laundry.
Day 2 – Boone, NC to Roanoke, VA
Returning to the Parkway, we stopped at more overlooks to admire the still-amazing scenery; a few hours further north, we stopped for a couple of hours to poke around a restored mill.
Our final break from driving along the Parkway that day was listening to a banjo/guitar/bass/fiddle concert at the Parkway’s Music Center in Virginia:
Soon after our visit to the Music Center, we ended the Parkway leg of our trip to spend the night in Roanoke, Virginia, where we ate supper at the Mexican restaurant located next door.
There are, of course, zillions of photos of the Parkway much better than the ones above that Randy or I took. If you’ve never driven the Parkway yourself, taking a look at these Internet photos will probably convince you to put it on your bucket list.
Day 3 – Roanoke, VA to Healing Springs, VA
The next morning we headed further into Virginia and stopped at an antique store in Clifton Springs where Cal bought his first of many trinkets (a bargain-priced, excellent-condition shaving mirror), and then stopped at another antique mall in Covington, VA. We also visited Virginia’s “Jefferson Waterfall”:
Past the waterfall, we drove up a steep and beautiful country road to Healing Springs, VA to spend the night with a cousin of Randy’s who still lives in the town where Randy spent some of his childhood summers. We walked down the street to visit an elderly (and now home-bound) member of Randy’s extended family clan, and met up with two other relatives (and the husband of one of them) for dinner at a brewery/pizza joint in nearby Hot Springs, VA – the only non-resort restaurant open the day we were in the area.
Below is a photo of the cousin’s house we stayed in that night (note the rifle next to the bed we slept in!):
We also stopped by to look at the wares on sale at a fancy local antique store, housed in a restored late-1700s house:
Our next stop was for lunch in Lewisburg, VA at Jim’s Diner, a locally-owned BBQ place (which, oddly, offered a selection of free overcoats for any homeless diners or passersby). We also visited a couple of antique malls in Lewisburg before driving to Weston, WV to spend the night.
Day 5 – Weston, WV to Pittsburgh, PA
The next morning we drove north out of West Virginia into Pittsburg, our base for the next three days.
Our first stop in Pittsburgh was the Cathedral of Learning. This gothic-style skyscraper houses most of the classrooms of a university, and some of them are designed to resemble the architectural styles of countries whose populations migrated to Pittsburgh in previous centuries. The vaulted main floor and the views of Pittsburgh from the Cathedral’s upper stories were both nausea-producing for heights-phobic Cal, but they were certainly memorable.
Professionally-taken photos of all the amazing “nationality classrooms” in the Cathedral of Learning are here.
After a very pleasant lunch outdoors in the large green space in front of the humongous Carnegie Public Library (which of course we made a pit stop in), we checked into our Pittsburgh hotel, a luxuriously restored former nunnery called The Priory:
After settling into The Priory, we drove over to visit the nearby National Aviary:
Day 6 – Pittsburgh, PA
We spent the morning of our second day in Pittsburgh at the main reason for visiting the city in the first place: the Andy Warhol Museum, which Randy had already visited many years ago but that I wanted to see after Randy and I watched earlier this year an eye-opening six-episode Netflix documentary about Warhol.
The museum’s “floating pillow” installation that Randy remembered from his earlier visit has been relocated to a different floor (and sports black, instead of blue, walls nowadays):
Warhol’s museum also houses his extensive archives, where a tiny sampling of his many collections was on display:
My favorite piece in the Warhol Museum is, ironically, not by Warhol himself but by one of his artist pals (and one of Randy;s and my favorite artists), Keith Haring:
After touring the Warhol Museum, we decided to find another art museum that Randy’s friend Katie had recommended: a three-building complex near our hotel called The Mattress Factory. On the way to the museum after parking our car, we happened on a little urban oasis named The Alphabet Garden, whose walls and pathways are stamped with letters from numerous foreign alphabets (invisible in these photos):
Our favorite temporary installation at The Mattress Factory was an immersive, kaleidoscope-like multimedia video exhibit of mostly-nude males. Of the museum’s permanent collections, our three favorites were: the two “infinity room” installations by Yayoi Kasama; the maze-like conglomeration of three-dimensional wood vignettes/models/constructions that filled every available inch of a three-storey building; and the glass-enclosed full-scale re-creation of a transperson artist’s childhood bedroom.
After our tour of the thoroughly impressive Mattress Factory, we walked up the street to another “museum” recommended by Randy’s artist friend Katie: a brownstone complex whose owner spent several decades transforming with hundreds of gallons of paint and found objects into a walkable and open-to-the-public fantasia he calls “Randyland.”
At the end of our self-guided tour, the two Randys got to meet each other:
More photos of Pittsburg’s amazing Randyland are here.
We then drove back over the river to visit the city’s enormous Natural History Museum.
Next door to the Natural History Museum was the Carnegie Museum of Art; but we were too exhausted to visit anything there except its wonderful Architecture Hall, which is devoted to displays of plaster casts (some of them full-scale) of famous classical and medieval statues, monuments, and building facades:
The one art exhibit we did venture into was a temporary installation of several groups of helium balloons, each balloon shaped in a letter from the text of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights:
We spent the entire morning at the enormous and enormously impressive Phipps Conservatory.
The main temporary exhibit was the largest collection of chrysanthemums we’d ever seen, displayed in a series of rooms that were supposed to evoke a Victorian circus. Of course, there were other wonders as well, mixed in with the zillions of mums.
The conservatory also houses desert plants, some of them huge as well as intimidatingly thorny:
The outdoor areas of the Phipps include a smallish Japanese Garden:
Other highlights of our delightful Phipps Conservatory visit included a wing devoted exclusively to Hawaiian flora and an elaborate setup with miniature trains weaving through tiny vignettes of dozens of U.S. National Parks – complete with miniature tourist RVs, hot air balloons, and erupting geysers and volcanoes.
We spent the afternoon of Day 7 driving out into the countryside near Pittsburg to tour Kentuck Knob, the first of the three estates designed by Frank Lloyd estates that we visited on our trip:
Be sure to check out the many photos of Kentuck Knob that are available on the Internet here.
For us, the grounds of the many-acred Kentuck Knob included a lengthy but beautiful stroll back to the visitor’s center via the woodland path through the estate’s sculpture garden, which featured, among others, works by British artist Andy Goldsworthy:
Day 8 – Clearfield, PA to Orchard Park, NY
More antique malls, both in Clearfield and in Ridgeway (also lunch at a brew pub in Ridgeway), and then on to Greycliff, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed estate located on a cliff overlooking the shore of Lake Erie.
You can watch a YouTube video about Greycliff here.
Day 9 – Buffalo, NY
We drove into a beautiful neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmstead to tour another Wright-designed estate commissioned by Pittsburgh’s Martin Family, the same client whose Wright-designed summer residence we’d visited the previous day. This complex of several buildings is one of the largest residential projects Wright created, now restored (at a cost of many millions of dollars) to its original glory.
There are multiple video tours of the Martin House complex here.
After later locating what we think was a Wright-designed mausoleum in one of the largest and most beautiful urban cemeteries either of us had ever seen, we ate a scrumptious evening meal at a Thai restaurant in a nifty neighborhood in Buffalo before returning to our motel outside of town.
Day 10 – Orchard Park, NY to Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
After our morning drive to Niagara Falls, we had lunch at the restaurant of the picturesque, faux-Tudor Red Coach Inn there:
Then came the main scheduled event of the day: our boat ride to the bottom of the Falls on the famed “Maid of the Mist,” now powered by electricity rather than by a foul-smelling, noisy diesel engine. Ours was a very cold and very windy and very wet ride, but the excursion was certainly worth the trouble and expense (and the terrifying-for-Cal elevator descent from the cliff near the falls to the boat dock). I managed to take only one photo during the freezing, turbulent boat ride: that’s Randy Taylor at the bottom of the American waterfall, be-garbed in his next-to-useless plastic parka provided by the boat company; the other photo below was taken at a nearby museum, per Randy’s explicit request:
We then crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada, where we stayed in a motel there for the following two nights.
Day 11 – Niagara on the Lake, Ontario and Niagara Falls, Ontario
We spent our morning driving through the lovely residential areas of Niagara Falls, Ontario and an Ontario resort town further north called Niagara on the Lake, one of the most picturesque small towns we’d so far visited. We got there via driving alongside some of the numerous parks that Canada’s government (unlike the USA’s) has created on its side of the spectacular Niagara River, followed by lovely vineyard-infested countryside (which happily featured an interesting antique shop.
We got back to Canadian border in time to visit a tourist attraction in Niagara Falls, Ontario called Bird Kingdom, “the world’s largest free-flying aviary” that’s housed in a converted factory. The place is a bit kitschy, but we actually enjoyed it more than the (much smaller) National Aviary we’d visited in Pittsburgh.
Additional photos from the Bird Kingdom website gallery:
Day 12 – Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada to Millersburg, OH
We spent our morning driving through the lovely residential areas of Niagara Falls, Ontario and an Ontario resort town further north called Niagara on the Lake, one of the most picturesque small towns we’d so far visited. We got there via driving alongside some of the numerous parks that Canada’s government (unlike the USA’s) has created on its side of the spectacular Niagara River, followed by lovely vineyard-infested countryside (which happily featured an interesting antique shop.
After our very brief stay in Canada, we drove back into New York to East Aurora to see the Roycroft Museum of Arts & Crafts. We didn’t tour the museum (which would’ve required hiring a guide), but in the gift shop Randy bought some bowls he wanted to add to his Roycroft china collection. We then headed out of New York State into Ohio.
Day 13 – Millersburg, OH to Uniontown, OH
More antique malls, some of which ended up being in the Amish Country portion of Western Ohio. Incredibly beautiful (and pristinely-manicured) farmlands – a very unexpected delight of our trip north!
Day 14 – Uniontown, OH to Athens, TN
After our overnight stay in a hotel in central Ohio, and a sampling of multiple (although way-too-pricey, even for Randy!) antique stores in Clinton, TN, we decided to see how far we could drive toward Atlanta before dark. Our plan to perhaps get as far as Atlanta by nightfall was thwarted by what we later learned was a massive traffic pileup caused by an overturned semi that had caught fire and blocked the Interstate for many, many miles. By the time we managed to exit the interstate highway to continue along an alternate southbound route, it had gotten dark, and we decided to spend another night on the road to break up the last leg of our return drive to Atlanta.
On September 29th, Randy and I marked the fifth year since we got together as life partners.
Not actually live-in partners, as we haven’t moved into the same abode. Still, we spend time together six days a week (with one day and night apart), and we’re still both happy about the upshot of what we began five years ago, while we were traveling in Italy.
Herewith, in no particular order, a reprise of some of the photos of the two of us over the past five years that I’ve posted previously to this blog:
Finally, although these aren’t the most recent photos of us, they are three of my favorite ones:
If, years from now, anyone asks how I spent my time during the lockdown and/or risky-to-be-out-and-about days of the COVID-19 pandemic, part of my answer will be: I watched a LOT of television. Not the network television stuff – I haven’t done that since the late 1980s – but over five dozen (!) multiple-season, multiple-episode series offered by various (advertisement-free) Internet streaming services.
I am fortunate that others – my brother Michael, my partner Randy, and cabin co-owners Kris and Nancy – have, for several years now, shared with me their subscription passwords. (The only streaming service I subscribe to myself is a mostly-excellent-documentaries freebie called Kanopy, offered via many public library systems.)
I am also fortunate in having an enthusiastic fellow-screen-starer, my partner Randy. Randy has watched far more series than I have, as his tastes differ from mine in addition to the ones that overlap with mine, including a threshold for suspense and/or gore that are way above my own. That being so, Randy considerately watches the series I refuse to watch during the time each week that we spend apart.
Below is an alphabetical list of the shows – not counting the dozens of televised movies and documentaries – that Randy and I have watched together these past five years (including several subsequent updates). As mentioned, there are a lot of them, but we both recommend every one of them:
Agatha Christie Mysteries
Agatha Christie’s Marple
Agatha Christie’s Poirot
AJ and the Queen
Anatomy of a Scandal
Around the World in 80 Days
The Cook of Costamar
Death in Paradise
The Duchess of Duke Street
The Durrells in Corfu
Emily in Paris
The Good Karma Hospital
Grace & Frankie
The House of Eliott
The Kominsky Method
Last Tango in Halifax
The Long Call
Lovesick / Scrotal Recall
The Madame Blanc Mysteries
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
McDonald & Dobbs
Merli Sapere Aude
Miss Fisher Mysteries
The Modern Miss Fisher Mysteries
Murder in Provence
New York Stories
North & South
A Place to Call Home
The Queen’s Gambit
Queens of Mystery
The Republic of Doyle
Rosemary & Thyme
Sense and Sensibility
Sister Boniface Mysteries
Tales of the City
If you can recommend a streamed series that doesn’t appear on this list – and isn’t chock-full of violence or suspense (and I know there are a ton of those . . .) – please leave a comment so Randy and I can add it to our lineup! (Bonus points for anything set in England, France, or Italy!)
“One of the reasons that we grieve famous persons we have never met is because of how much they have given us.” – Candace McKibben (in her tribute to Buechner after learning of his death)
One of the joys of a lifetime of reading is discovering a writer whose words are so powerful that you decide you must buy and read, and look forward to re-reading, every one of his/her books.
Another joy is knowing that such a writer is still alive and still writing. That’s happened for me with only a very few writers, and Frederick Buechner was one of them.
“Was” instead of “is,” as Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) died this past week.
Much to my chagrin, considering for how long and how profoundly I love this man’s work, I don’t remember how I first discovered it. I don’t think any of my university mentors mentioned him, so it must’ve been the 1970s or 1980s that I picked up his first book. (All I can glean from my sketchy reading notes is the fact that I purchased over a dozen Buechner’s books before 1986.)
To the everlasting gratitude of his numerous and enthusiastic readers, Buechner was unusually prolific. He wrote thirteen novels – four of which I own copies of, but have not read. What I have read, some more than once, are many of Buechner’s memoirs and collections of essays, sermons, and lectures.
I’ve told friends over the years that Buechner is probably the only writer who could conceivably re-convert me to Christianity. (The other writers are C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton.) My agnosticism was/is sorely tested by the sheer beauty of Buechner’s prose – and especially by his unexpected (and persuasive) metaphors combined with his humility and sense of wonder – and sense of humor – that I find unusual in religious writings, especially Christianity-based ones.
Buechner is the only author I ever seriously considered sending a fan letter to, and more than once I fantasized showing up at his door should I ever venture into the New England town where he lived for many years. (I just wanted to thank him personally for writing so many honest, beautiful, thought-provoking books.)
One of my peak book-related memories is standing in a gay bookstore in New Orleans sometime during the 1990s after finding on a paperback bookrack there a memoir written by poet James Merrill, and discovering as I was skimming through it the astounding fact that Merrill’s roommate at college had been his childhood friend Frederick Buechner. Already smitten by an longstanding admiration of Buechner’s books, I longed to find in Merrill’s memoir confirmation that Buechner and Merrill had been sexually intimate during their college days. (Alas, apparently not, although, as I learned later from a biography of Merrill, they remained close friends and lifetime correspondents.)
I also remember how thrilled I was to find out, in the late 1980s, that one of my Arkansas relatives (who had moved to Louisiana in the 1950s to raise her and her husband’s kids, my cousins) was also a long-time lover of Buechner’s books.
I don’t know that any of my Atlanta friends (or, for that matter, my non-Atlanta friends) enjoy and revere Buechner as much as I always have: I don’t remember any of them mentioning him to me, although I’ve certainly made a point of preaching the Buechner Gospel to many a reading friend over the past thirty-something years since I’ve been smitten by his work.
I regret the inevitable disappearance of this gifted, honest writer, I envy the people who listened to his unusual sermons, and am so glad I decided years ago to begin collecting his books so I can conveniently re-read them from time to time in what remains of my own life.
Fortunately for anyone curious enough to see them out, many of Buechner’s books are available in public libraries. For anyone who might consider purchasing one or more of Buechner’s books (and,as I can testify, none of the nonfiction is less than excellent), below are links to Amazon.com for each of them:
I spent every day last week taking a series of workshops sponsored by the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH), whose annual conference was held this year in Atlanta.
This was the second international calligraphy conference I’ve attended. Back in the summer of 2016, I spent a week taking classes sponsored by the International Exhibition of Calligraphers. My lengthy blogpost (with lots of photos!) about that conference is here.
This year’s conference – since I commuted to it each day from home – was not as intensive as the conference in 2016, and, alas, I took no photos.
Still, this superbly organized conference was a worthwhile experience: I took classes in five very different subject areas from five excellent instructors:
Attending this conference got me quickly and thoroughly reacquainted with my largely-neglected stash of calligraphy supplies, gave me an excellent excuse to purchase some new supplies, introduced me to some very cool tools I had never experimented with before, and two of the classes exposed me to calligraphic scripts I’d never before attempted to learn even the rudiments of.
My daily commutes via MARTA to the conference saved me lots of money that I otherwise would have spent staying in the fancy hotel in Buckhead where the conference was conducted, and I made the choice to skip all the conference events scheduled during the evening. So in that respect, this conference-going experience was less intensive than the one in 2016.
On the other hand, those daily commutes, to a part of Atlanta I rarely venture into, my early departure times, and the multiple day-long periods of intense concentration at trying to learn new things were certainly marked departures from my usual post-retirement routines (and wardrobe!).
In any case, my recent re-immersion into the world of calligraphy – which, along with reading, gardening, and overseas travel, has been a life-long hobby of mine – was certainly enlightening and rewarding. An added bonus is the fact that the community of calligraphers is probably the only group of people more interesting, friendly, and generous than the community of professional librarians that I got to spend time with for so many years.