Retirement: A Snapshot of What It Feels Like, Five Years In

Work Retirement Intersection Sign

Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of my retiring from my full-time job.

Shortly before retiring, I decided to periodically reflect on if and how my reactions to being retired felt. I wanted to do this because my memory is so poor that I figured I would otherwise soon forget how the retirement process unfolded for me – especially psychologically – and I wanted to remember that process in detail.

I did write lengthy blogposts on how retirement felt

But when my fourth retirement anniversary rolled around in 2017, I decided that so little had changed since my previous annual report that there was no point in writing about Year Four. Now that the Year Five mark has arrived, I remain convinced that perhaps the most radical changes – psychological changes, anyway – of transitioning from the status of fully-employed to fully-retired must’ve occurred in the earliest months.

The most definite thing I can report at the five-year mark is that my recollections of my working days – those 31 years of working in public libraries and the 9 years before that working in the mental health treatment field – are infrequent, vague, and feel alarmingly remote from my current circumstances. I really cannot summon up in any vivid way the feeling of what it was like to have my daily activities and whereabouts constrained by a schedule dictated by someone else, and/or the need to generate an income sufficient to maintain my economic independence and the comfortable mod cons that go with that status. Only rarely do I have flashbacks to – or even have dreams involving – workplace scenes, even happy or pleasant ones. (And, lest I forget, there were a lot of happy times during my work life. Not only am I fortunate as a retiree, but I am one of the lucky, lucky Americans who enjoyed – most of the time – having the jobs I had, and, with certain notable exceptions, who enjoyed working for the supervisors and colleagues I worked for or with.)

Although, for a while now, I’ve taken for granted my newish circumstances as “the new normal,” I am – at least sporadically – aware of, and feel gratitude for, my good fortune. What few challenges have come my way since retirement fall firmly in the sphere of “First World Problems.”

For example, I’m still not thrilled with the way I’ve managed – or failed to manage – a satisfying balance, post-retirement, between voluntary activities that are solitary and voluntary activities that are more social. Like my other “First World Problems,” this one pales before the great good fortune of my current circumstances.

I am certainly not juggling with what the great majority of my fellow Americans. including many people I know, are coping with:

  • Holding down a part-time job to make ends meet. So far, I’ve managed to live my first five years of retirement within my (savings-generated) income.
  • Parenting children – and All That That Entails, attention- and energy- and anxiety- and cost-wise.
  • Sharing my house with two aging parents, or even one aging parent (as my sister Lori did for an entire year before my mom moved to an independent living facility).
  • Living with any constraints or complaints resulting from serious or chronic health problems of my own.
  • Being confronted (thus far, anyway) with some huge remodeling or repair expense that owners of old houses (like mine) must inevitably deal with.
  • Foregoing – for financial reasons or for one or more of the reasons I’ve just listed – all non-necessary pleasures, such as eating meals in restaurants or traveling. On the contrary: I still treat myself to meals that I don’t cook myself and I’ve been able (financially and otherwise) to travel overseas twice since my most recent retirement blogpost (most recently a three-week jaunt through Italy last fall).

So I know I am lucky in almost every respect one can imagine: I’m still healthy, solvent, and, relatively speaking, free to pursue my own interests and to indulge a lot of my passing whims. I am also increasingly conscious of how ridiculously lucky I am to live in a society that – at least for a privileged subset of a particular generation of citizens that I happen to belong to – allows for a person to live at least a few decades of his life without the drudgery of wage slavery. (Not to mention the good fortune of not living in a country whose residents are being bombed, plundered, or enslaved. And even with Trump and his enablers temporarily fumbling around with the levers of government, I’m in no danger of being deported or otherwise separated from my loved ones. And while I hardly live what I would call a charmed life, I am not, as many of my fellow Americans are, coping with polluted water, a blighted or dangerous neighborhood, or month-long power shortages.

I can think of only a few as-yet-unreported factors that have affected my retirement routines within the past two years:

  • My 90+-year-old mom’s move to an independent living facility almost an hour south of Atlanta; my taking on responsibility for managing her finances; and, most recently, helping my siblings with my mom’s recovery from a hospitalization for pneumonia. These events have resulted in considerably more time (vs. the first three years of my retirement) helping to attend to my mom’s needs as well as my own. At the moment, it is unclear whether or not my mom will be able to safely continue living in her own apartment; the inevitable (if impossible to predict) changes in my mom’s living circumstances will doubtless affect my own activities in some as-yet-unknown manner.
  • I am still sorely feeling the lack of a weekly calligraphy class in my schedule that resulted from my former instructor’s deciding last spring to stop teaching calligraphy at the senior center where I had been taking classes for several – and very rewarding – years.
  • Last October I embarked on an intimate relationship with someone. This ongoing adventure has wrought all sorts of changes in my general outlook, in my daily routine, and in my former plans. These changes are wonderful, but they are still relatively new, so I am still adjusting to them as Randy and I continue to share more time with each other.
  • I’m either not quite finished with a certain volunteer project I’d hoped to have concluded by now, and am about to plunge into a newer one. So there’s the mild frustration of wishing I could more quickly conclude one activity and more quickly begin the other one. I’m also between trans-Atlantic trips: my long-anticipated trip to Italy now receding with great speed into the distant-seeming past, I haven’t quite gelled my plans for, later this year, a much-postponed return trip to Spain (re-imagined now to include Randy).
  • I experimented for several (pre-Italy trip) months with incorporating an hour’s walk into most (good-weather) days, and look forward to (vs. dreading) resuming that feature of my daily round as soon as warmer weather returns.

Otherwise, I am still a contented retiree:

  • Still reading (though not reading as much as I thought I would: I tend to fall asleep after a mere hour or so!), and still documenting my reading with mini-reviews in the sidebar of this blog.
  • Still gardening or fantasizing about what I plan to do next in my tiny plot of ground.  (I’ve recently learned, however, that I need to remember to interrupt my what can easily become rather obsessive gardening or garden-related activities with more breaks in general and with more naps in particular!)
  • Still taking tai chi classes once a week (and still practicing the form at home most days).
  • Still enjoying doing most of my chores and errands, weather permitting: after my twelve-year-old scooter finally gave up the ghost last December, I promptly bought myself a new one.
  • Still enjoying living in the incredibly congenial neighborhood I was fortunate enough to buy a home in, way back there in 1993.

As a final note, I hope to remember something the aforementioned calligraphy teacher – and all-around Wise Person – Sharon Ann Smith, told me recently. She thinks the term retirement is misleading because it inaccurately describes what most people she knows – including yours truly – are doing with their post-fulltime-employment years. “We aren’t retiring from anything. On the contrary:  We are re-inventing ourselves!”

In many respects, it does feel that way. May it be so!

the future highway sign


Another Trip to Italy – Week #1

Italy photos by John 358

Beginning in mid-September of 2017 I spent three weeks in Italy – my fourth trip to this apparently irresistible country. My fellow travelers for the trip’s first two weeks were four other gay men who live in Atlanta: Bill, John,  Randall, and Randy. I spent a third week in Italy on my own.

[The photos here were taken by different people on our trip (including me), and a few of them I found on the Internet. You can see additional photos of the places we visited by clicking on the links embedded in the text.]

For our first week, we rented a villa just outside of Cortona, in Tuscany, using the villa as our base for a number of day trips.

Our Villa Rental!

The Tuscan villa we rented was located just outside the city walls of Cortona, popular with English-speaking tourists ever since the publication (and movie adaptation) of Under the Tuscan Sun, Georgia-born author Frances Mayes’ account of buying and restoring a house in Cortona.

We rented two cars at the Rome airport and hoped to get to the villa by sundown. Didn’t happen. Due to the difficulty of finding the villa (and getting lost in the process more than once, and in the middle of a rainstorm in the pitch black), one of our cars full of Americans finally rendezvoused with the keyholder to the villa at approximately 1 a.m.

Our villa was suitably picturesque – and picturesquely located – and it would’ve been a totally pleasant place to hang out in had we not decided to make as many day trips as most of us did.

Villa exterior:



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Villa interiors:

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Our view across the Tuscan landscape from the villa:

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A bonus of our renting a villa in Cortona was the fact that Randy had spent an entire summer there as an undergraduate art student, so he knew his way around the area. I spent the first day after we arrived exploring the town with Randy.

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Italy photos by John 014

Because we’d decided to rent two cars rather than one, different groups of us were able to make different day trips from Cortona. My own excursions included forays to various other hilltop villages. The scenic drives to and from these places were as swoon-worthy as the villages themselves were. Among the most memorable destinations that week:


Randy and I had both been to Florence on previous trips to Italy, so we decided to spend most of our time there this trip looking out over the city from the Piazza Michaelangelo and from the plaza in front of the church above the Piazza.  The church turned out to be closed, but the vast cemetery behind it was a marvel, as were the views of the city across the river.

Here’s Randy on our ascent to the Piazza (which we got to via a wonderful garden with equally spectacular views of the city):

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Here’s the view we came to gaze at:

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After the longest single walk of the entire trip (we had hoped our route would be a shortcut back down to the city – so wrong!), we sought out a multimedia exhibit, in a deconsecrated church near the Ponte Vecchio, about Leonardo da Vinci. The main feature of the exhibit (although not the only one) was an hour-long, dream-like montage set to classical music (with no distracting narration) of da Vinci’s paintings (and some of his drawings) projected, one at a time, on multiple fifty-foot-high screens that surrounded the audience.  Seeing those familiar images so spectacularly enlarged and accompanied by such glorious music was mesmerizing and memorable.

Italy photos by John 337

Montepulciano (Twice!)

Montepulciano was probably my all-around favorite town of all the ones I visited this trip; it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular hillside towns in Tuscany. I liked it so much that I went there twice – once with John and again with Randy.

The sculpture based on a design by Leonardo, outside the city center’s main gate:

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Montepulciano’s clock tower:

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One of the gardens near the fortress at Montepulciano:

Garden at fortress in Montepulciano

The view from Montepulciano:

View from Montepulciano


John and I spent part of a day in this little place that a pope who had been born here decided to make over into a model Renaissance town. I liked how compact the town was, although it was a bit too perfect in some respects. But I’d wanted to see it for years, so going there was a treat.

Two Days Exploring the Tuscan Countryside

On another day, after futilely trying to nab a parking space in Sienna, Randy and I left our fellow travelers (in their own car, who had better luck finding parking) and high-tailed it for the countryside south of the city. It took us over an hour to thread our way out of Sienna, as I inadvertently steered our car into the difficult-to-escape labyrinthine bowels of the historic center (where only local traffic is allowed).

Sienna from Internet

After finally exiting the town to explore various scenic routes through the Val d’Orcia, we stopped in (among other places) Buonoconvento (billed as “the most beautiful town in Tuscany”), Quirico d’Orcia, the Abbey of St. Antimo, and the remote fortress town of Radicofani, where Randy (not, like me, afraid of heights), climbed to the top of the fortress tower there.

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Quiero d'Orcia

Italy photos by John 166


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The following day, all of us  piled into one of our two rental cars and  threaded our way along various scenic drives southwest of Cortona, with stops in Montalcino, San Quirico (touring a huge English-style formal garden there, the Horti Leonini), and a semi-remote gigantic modern sculpture garden (Il Giardino di Daniel Spoeri):

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Daniel garden fourDaniel garden oneDaniel garden threeDaniel garden two

After spending most of a day in this huge garden and having lunch there, we headed for a brief dip in the hot springs at Saturnia:

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Then followed a mad dash across Italy to the western coast of Tuscany to see an amazing collection of Tarot-themed mosaic sculptures in a garden outside of Grosseto. We got there only fifteen minutes before the garden closed, but the rushed visit was certainly worth the long drive.

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(More images of the sculptures in this garden are here.)

Our Last Day in Cortona

On our final day of being based at the villa, Randy and I visited several sites near Cortona, including a famous church outside the city walls:


…and an enormous monastery that has hosted St. Francis

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That night those of us who hadn’t spent the day in Florence ate our final meal in Cortona. Early the next morning, our week in Tuscany was over, and we aimed our two rental cars southwest. Our destination: the Amalfi Coast.

Another Trip to Italy – Week #2

AmalfiCoastPhotoPin-2-683x1024Beginning in mid-September of 2017 I spent three weeks in Italy – my fourth trip to this apparently irresistible country. My fellow travelers for the trip’s first two weeks were four other gay men who live in Atlanta: Bill, John, Randall, and Randy. 

Exploring the Amalfi Coast

We began our second week together in Italy in a rented apartment in Ravello, perched on the cliffs above the half-dozen towns along the Amalfi Coast.

The front door of our place in Ravello:

Italy photos by John 452

We arrived in Ravello via the notorious Amalfi Drive, although since we got to the coast after dark, I was blissfully unaware of the vertiginous views from the edge of the “road with 1,000 curves.”

As with our villa in Tuscany, the spacious apartment in Ravello would’ve been a fine place to spend the week without going anywhere, the view of the sea from the patio was so spectacular:

Italy photos by John 388

The views from our patio at sunrise and sunset were particularly mesmerizing:

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The view from my room in Ravello:

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Randall hanging out on the patio:

The view from our apartment compensated for the fact that the town center was at least 500 steps higher up. Highlights of our exploration of Ravello (home for many years of, among other famous writers, Gore Vidal) were tours of two villas and gardens restored by different Englishmen who had settled there in the 1800s. Both of them were stunning, as were the views from their living quarters and their gardens:

Villa Rufolo

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Italy photos by John 405

…and the Villa Cimbone

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Hiking High above the Amalfi Coast

A major highlight of my trip to the Amalfi Coast was the half-day hike I made along a donkey trail dubbed “The Path of the Gods.” I took a bus to a remote village located at one end of the trail, and walked for approximately three-and-a-half hours along the cliff’s edge to another remote village where I left the path and took a bus down to Positano, and then a ferry back to Amalfi, where I took another bus back up the mountains to our base in Ravello.

I encountered only a few other people on the path, and the views were as breathtaking as had been advertised. (Before the trip, I watched a lot of videos, like this one, that others had taken while walking the trail. Here are a few of the views (obtained from Mr. Google) I encountered along the way:

We spent a total of four days and nights exploring the Amalfi area from our perch in Ravello, getting around via foot (lots of stair-climbing!), via buses, and (the most fun, via ferries:

Italy photos by John 457

The only time we used one of our rental cars in Ravello was the day Randy and John made a day trip to Pompeii.

Despite the fact that we’d timed our visit to avoid the height of the tourist season, the number of other tourists I encountered in the steep, narrow alleys of Amalfi’s most popular town, Positano, was rather daunting. On the other hand, it was easy to understand why so many people flock here: it is a stunningly beautiful town.

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Reluctantly leaving the Amalfi Coast – it would take a lot more than four days to see all the coastal towns we’d like to have explored –  Bill, John, and Randall drove to Rome to the apartment we’d rented there, and Randy and I took off for points south,  traveling first to Paestum (a Greek temple site) and then to the cliff town of Matera, before joining the others in Rome.


Did you know that one of the best-preserved complexes of Greek temples is in Italy? Besides the impressive remains of these large, remarkable temples themselves, which are surrounded by the foundations of an entire Greek town. Paestrum exudes an awe-inspiring aura, and, as Randy remarked at the time, Paestum is one of the quietest places we’d ever visited, despite the legions of tourists who visit it.

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The site also features an excellent museum of artifacts found at or near the site.  Among the remarkable things on exhibit are paintings found inside the sarcophagi of several excavated Greek tombs, including the unique and exquisite Tomb of the Diver:

Tomb of the Diver

Reluctant to leave Paestum, Randy and I extended our visit there by having lunch at a nearby restaurant before heading northwest, to Matera.


Easily the most unusual place I saw this trip was the formerly abandoned town of Matera.  Perched on the side of a deep gorge, the town’s structures were carved out of the limestone that forms the cliff-face. Decades ago the Italian government relocated the entire population of the town, although it is slowly being repopulated (largely by artists, it seems), and although a modern city adjoins it.

The bizarreness of the cityscape in the ancient part of town is difficult to describe or to capture in photographs.

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Matera two

Scenes from dozens of movies – some of them based on Biblical tales, but also including the recently-released Wonder Woman – have been filmed here, and both Randy and I definitely felt like we had stumbled onto some other planet.

You can get a better sense of the weirdness of the town by scanning through these images of Matera posted on the Internet. Even better are the various videos on the Internet that showcase the amazing architecture of this town – for example, this one and/or this one.

We stayed in a hotel whose rooms are built to resemble the cave-like dwellings of the town, and we wished we could’ve stayed several days in Matera instead of a single day and night. Especially since, the night we arrived, it was raining so heavily that the steepness of the town’s flooded alleys made it impossible for us to do any exploring until the following morning.

Reluctantly leaving Matera after a walk through two of the historic quarters and a brief amble into the modern town next to them, we headed across the vast midsection of Italy toward Rome to join our fellow travelers who had already arrived there two days earlier.


John had found an AirBnB for us all to stay in, located in the middle of town. Randy and I slept on the fold-out bed below the loft in this spacious, modern, and conveniently-located apartment:

Italy photos by John 622

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With only two days to spend in Rome, Randy and I chose to re-visit a few of our personal favorite tourist spots instead of venturing into new ones. It was wonderful to see again the Piazza Navona, the Treve Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Borghese Gardens (especially the belvedere overlooking the city), and, of course, the Pantheon.

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I also enjoyed, during our schleps around the city, stopping to take photos of a few of Rome’s remarkable door knockers!



As our two weeks together as a fivesome came to a close, it was a bit difficult to say goodbye to my fellow-travelers. (It was particularly difficult for me to say goodbye to Randy, for reasons that will be made clear in some future blog post.) We parted ways outside our rented apartment, with Bill, John, Randall, and Randy grabbing a cab and heading for the Rome airport and with me striking out on foot toward the railroad station to catch the next train for Trieste, where I would be spending a final week in Italy solo.

Another Trip to Italy – Week #3

trieste main plaza

Beginning in mid-September of 2017 I spent three weeks in Italy – my fourth trip to this apparently irresistible country. My fellow travelers for the trip’s first two weeks were four other gay men who live in Atlanta. 

After my fellow travelers Bill, John, Randall, and Randy returned to the U.S., I stayed on for an additional week, basing myself in Trieste, an Italian town I’d never visited before. I went there initially thinking it would be a convenient base for a day trip to a national park I wanted to visit in Croatia, but I scrapped that plan after discovering the park was a five-hour bus trip each way. Instead, I spent my entire third week in Italy exploring some of the sites in and around Trieste.

Trieste Highlights

The first thing I had to wrap my brain around was how un-Italian Trieste looks and feels. Everything about it – the architecture, the restaurant food, the languages I overheard in the streets and on the buses – made the place I was staying for a week seem more like Vienna than anywhere else in Italy I’d traveled – either during this trip or my previous ones. Not to mention the undeniable fact that Trieste, unlike all other Italian cities I’d enjoyed, seemed so uncharacteristically clean! I’d been warned about this distinctiveness of Trieste – until recent times, Trieste had been a part of Austria – but it was still disorienting to realize on my walks around this city that I was still in Italy.

One entire side of Trieste’s enormous main square/piazza, like Venice’s, faces the Adriatic.  Walking to and from other parts of the city, I crisscrossed this piazza many times, and at different times of day and night, and I never tired of it. And as I’d serendipitously timed my visit to Trieste during the week immediately preceding the town’s most popular annual festival, the city’s main square and seaside boulevard were filled with dozens of festival tents and booths selling everything from delicious varieties of locally-baked focaccia bread to Italian-made shoes and electric bicycles, and the harbor was gradually filling up with hundreds of sailboats anchoring themselves in preparation for the annual regatta.

One of my extended ambles in Trieste was a self-guided walking tour (with a free audioguide courtesy the town’s tourist office) through the town’s Roman-era sites and its medieval cathedral. The walking tour involved a lot of hill-climbing, so I was glad I could flop into my hotel bed for a post-walk nap – something I did most days I was in Trieste and, due to the fact that I’d already done a lot of walking during my first two weeks in Italy, I really enjoyed these breaks from my tourist adventures, despite the tiny size and spartan appointments of my hotel room:

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Small though it was, my hotel was exceptionally convenient. Located only two blocks from the city’s famous Grand Canal, the hotel was also on the same street as the impressive (and, as so much else in Trieste, its baroque) European Postal and Telegraphy Museum. My visit there was an unexpected treat for someone who still writes letters, who enjoys reading published collections of other people’s letters, and who collected stamps as a kid. The museum’s lobby features a huge and insanely kitschy painting of a flock of cherubs bearing letters, their important errands supervised by the imposing figure of what is presumably the Goddess of Snail Mail!

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Another memorable museum in downtown Trieste I visited was its museum of modern art, which incorporated the former residence – complete with rooms with its original furniture, fountains, paintings, etc. – of a Deco-era magnate whose home the building used to be. “Modern” for this museum means the entire 20th century as well as the 21st, and I found there many remarkable paintings (especially remarkable portraits) and sculptures by artists I’d never heard of before. The views from the museum’s rooftop were spectacular.

A Quick Trip to Venice

I abandoned Trieste for a day to do something I’d wanted to do on a previous trip to Italy many years ago: deliberately losing myself in the labyrinthine alleys that lie behind the most popular (and most expensive) sites of Venice. True, I did revisit (and, due to the crush of tourists, revisited only very briefly) St. Mark’s Cathedral and I also made my way to the lobby – alas, only the lobby – of the place I’d in Venice if I win the lottery: the fabled Hotel Danieli:

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But I spent most of my time in Venice wandering aimlessly, re-tracing my way out of dead-ends and crossing tiny bridges over equally tiny canals.

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Needless to say, I carefully punctuated my reverie-drenched wanderings – and my bouts of mounting fatigue – with repeated ingestions of lemon-flavored gelato. I also treated myself to getting myself back to the train station via a water-taxi trip down the entire length of the Grand Canal.

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Two major disappointments of my otherwise very satisfying day in Venice:

  • the Sanasavino Library I badly wanted to visit turned out to be accessible only to people visiting in large tour groups,
  • the alarming number of tourists who chose to stare into their cell phones instead of staring at Venice.

Around Trieste

Apart from my day trip to Venice, my three forays out of the city and into the countryside near town were:

  • a sunny day at the beguiling castle and gardens that were once the residence of Austria’s (and later, of all places, Mexico’s) Emperor Maximilian
  • a ferry ride across the bay to an afternoon exploring a charming seaside town of Muggia
  • a somewhat less wonderful day  – because of my momentarily-forgotten fear of heights – in what is advertised as Europe’s largest cave.

Maximilian’s castle is located on the shore a short bus-ride out of town and was well worth a visit, as were the castle’s extensive gardens.


The palace stables, converted into an art museum, featured, the day I visited, an enthralling exhibit of Art Deco paintings, posters, jewelry, furniture, clothing, books, and other non-architectural artifacts. Part of the charm of the exhibit was the stenciling of numerous walls with quotations from the most famous champions of the period’s style and ideology, displayed in one of my favorite type fonts. A single example:

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My leisurely visit to the castle was made completely pleasant not only by the interesting story of Maximillian and his family, but by the sunny weather and my indulgence in snarfing down three separate cups of gelato from the gelato stand in the castle gardens, and by having lunch at a nearby restaurant with a view of the sea.

My favorite day in Trieste, however, was my final one there, when I decided to stop being a tourist and park myself for a few hours reading a book on one of the benches in the city’s most famous park. My walk to and from this near-perfect urban green space

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via the long pedestrians-only boulevard that connects the modern city center to the park was just as pleasant as my little respite in the park proved to be. Besides the  quiet, tree-lined, cafe-featuring car-free space the boulevard provides, one comes upon things like this facade of a movie theater:

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On my way back to my hotel from my afternoon idyll in the park, I regarded my impulsive decision to eat lunch at a Burger King (instead of another Italian trattoria) as a sign that I was obviously ready to begin my journey home. Having spent a wonder-filled three weeks in one of my favorite countries in Europe, I had had my fill of living out of a suitcase and pounding the pavements.

After a nap-filled day throughout the long train ride from Trieste, I spent my final night in Italy in Rome, although not in the hotel that I had so carefully booked before heading to Trieste the week before. The travel agent who’d booked my room had failed to read the fine print on my reservation, and so had I. After a time-consuming hunt for the hotel, I discovered my reservation was valid only for a female guest in a mostly student-patronized hotel that segregated its visitors into gender-separate wings! I arrived too late in the day for the hotel to re-book me in a vacant room designated for a male, so I was forced, late in the day, to find another place to stay. That process involved additional unwelcome schlepping, and by the time I found my new lodgings,  I was too exhausted to venture back out into Rome again. Still, the place I found was nicer and fortunately more convenient to the train station than my original booking.

The next morning after taking the express train from Rome’s enormous central train station to the airport, I spent my last few Euros on yet another gelato before boarding the plane.

When, many weary hours later,  I landed in Atlanta, Randy – who, like my other fellow travelers who had returned to the States the week before – had recovered from his own jet-lag. He generously fetched me from the Atlanta airport – one of most pleasant re-entries ever – and soon thereafter, we resumed our adventure in getting to know each other better – something we are still doing, five months after our splendid trip to Italy.

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The Constant Reader, 2017

Arrow Collar Man

In addition to trying to keep up with the recent issues of the planet’s two best magazines, The Sun and the New Yorker), I read the following books this year. For inexplicable reasons, I read fewer books this past year than usual. I’m listing their titles here by type, and in the order (within each type) of how (roughly) wonderful I thought they were.


My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015)
by Fredrik BackmanMy grandmother

My sister Gayle introduced me to Backman’s books, and this was her favorite. Possibly because I read it after first reading A Man Called Ove, I think Ove is my favorite of the two, but both were really good: great characters, hilarious dialog, wonderful stories, exceptionally sophisticated plotting with multiple layers of meaning and lots of serious handling of complicated issues. All this from the point of view of a main character only seven years old!

A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backmana-man-called-ove-9781476738024_hr

I don’t read many novels translated from non-English languages, but I am so glad my sister Gayle recommended this Swedish novel to me. Backman is a fantastic writer, and it was difficult to put this book down, and even more difficult when I realized it was about to end. The curmudgeon main character is totally believable, and the plot twists took me completely by surprise. I am looking forward to seeing the movie version (hoping it will not disappoint me), and to recommending to my book group that they read this or any (all?) of Backman’s other novels.

The Improbability of Love (2015) by Hannah Rothschild

ImprobabilityRead this for a book club. Interesting concept (skullduggery involving a lost painting against the background of the contemporary art selling scene in Britain), but most of the non-major characters were unlikable and stereotypical. I learned a good deal about art history and about the business of buying and selling art, but this book was, otherwise, forgettable (or, more charitably, “optional”). The ending of the story especially seemed like a rushed job.

The Humans (2013) by Matt HaigThe Humans

Alien impersonates Earthling to accomplish a specific (murderous) mission, ends up replacing his repugnance of humanity with empathy for it. Sounds corny, but the writing is so good, the plot line works. I will definitely read some of Haig’s other books, and I can’t imagine anyone reading this one would be disappointed.

The English Disease (2003) by Joseph Skibell

English Disease(Read this for a book club.) Excellent, articulate writer. In fact, some of the best, and funniest, passages of 21st-Century American Jewish angst, that I remember reading. On the other hand, despite the exciting fact that Skibell’s main character gives voice to lots of things I obsess about myself, I somehow never felt very sympathetic with the novel’s narrator. I also felt like I was reading a screenplay of a movie written and directed by Woody Allen. I did learn a lot about Carl Jung and Gustav Mahler (none of it very flattering), so I’m glad I read the book, and I might search out Skibell’s previous novel, A Blessing on the Moon.

Memoirs or Biography

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi

When BreathA gorgeously written, astoundingly sobering memoir of a neurosurgeon in his mid-30s who’s diagnosed with fatal cancer. I will be very surprised if this book doesn’t end up being the most memorable one I will read this year. Kalanithi loved literature before he trained as a surgeon, and that’s very evident in his allusive and reflective writing style. Haunted by his life-long search for the meaning of life even before his years of encounters with his patients and their families battling horrific brain injuries, the author’s unique perspective as a compassionate neurosurgeon who’s suddenly another doctor’s patient lends Kalanithi’s account of his final days a wisdom and poignancy that I will long remember. The book’s introduction (by a mentor) and its epilogue (by his wife) are also excellent and equally memorable. It would be difficult to recommend too highly this heartbreakingly brief book, and I shall always be grateful to my sister Gayle for recommending it to me.

Can’t We Talk about Something More PLEASANT? A Memoir (2015)
by Roz Chast

Can't We TalkA graphic memoir – meaning that it’s told via cartoon drawings – by the justly famous and beloved New Yorker cartoonist. Chast recounts the complicated, demoralizing, and often hilarious decline of her elderly mother and father – a story made even more complicated by the fact that she needed to coordinate their care (at first at home, later in various hospitals and eldercare facilities) from a different state than the one her parents lived in. Anyone who is caring for an elderly parent would love this book. I read it in three sittings, and would gladly have read it in a single sitting had I not been visiting friends when they showed me their copy of it. Chast is a genius, and can find something humorous in even the grimmest situations. Highly recommended.

American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) by John Kaag

American PhilosophyPart memoir, part history of philosophy (especially the philosophies of American-born philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William James, Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Pierce, William Ernest Hocking, and John Dewey). I loved every chapter, virtually every page and every paragraph – almost every well-crafted sentence – of this book! Instead of writing the author a fan letter, I went out and bought a copy to read again – plus I want to mine Kaag’s bibliography for some of the works he describes so intriguingly. This book reignited my usually dormant love of philosophy (along with psychology, one of my majors in college), completely transformed my obviously uninformed opinion of the contributions of philosophers born in the United States, and rekindled my respect for (and knowledge about) William James – already a longstanding hero of mine. Kaag’s willingness to discard the academic’s habit of aloofness and describe his personal foibles, doubts, and vulnerabilities is unusual. This book is an excellent (and short!) introduction to philosophy in general and to American philosophers in particular (their personalities as well as the major thrusts of their most important works), and it’s a beautifully rendered adventure story as well: in rural New England, Kaag stumbles upon the abandoned library of an important philosopher, and his discovery changes his life. This was one of those rare books I wish had been longer, I enjoyed it so much, and learned so much from it.

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013)
by Tim Parks

Italian WaysBasing a book about the Italian mindset on what one learns by using Italy’s trains doesn’t sound like a promising conceit, but Parks makes it work wonderfully. A combination memoir, travel guide, and history lesson, Parks’s weaving of the history of Italian railways with its political and cultural history is as entertaining as it is skillful. Parks is a Brit who’s made Italy his home for over 30 years; I have already read a few of his other nonfiction books and now will be sure to read them all.

Italian Pleasures (1996) by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell

Italian PleasuresThis slim (138-page) volume of reminiscences written by two gay men who for a time lived in Italy- and whose short reflections are augmented by snippets of writings penned by previous Italophiles (Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc.) was easy to finish in a single sitting. I liked better Leavitt’s Florence: A Delicate Case (2002), but reading this earlier book was something I’m glad to have stumbled over before an upcoming return visit to Tuscany.

Lust & Wonder (2016) by Augusten Burroughs

Lust and WonderThis is the third of Burroughs’ memoirs that I’ve read. He is an outrageously talented writer – so good it was difficult to put this book away between readings. Every time I’d decided I wish I could marry this man, within five minutes I’d be horrified by yet another recounting of how neurotic and paranoid he can be. Burroughs certainly reels you in with his pyrotechnical wordsmanship, with his excruciatingly hilarious asides, and his amazing ability to recall in vivid detail his wildly fluctuating mental states. What a privilege to be brought along for the ride on the roller-coaster of the last decade or so of this amazingly articulate (if often exasperating) writer’s life.

One Man’s Garden (1992) by Henry Mitchell

One Man's GardenI’ve been meaning to read this since finishing, nine years ago, the other two collections of Mitchell’s gardening columns for the Washington Post. How unfortunate for us amateur gardeners that Mitchell, who died in 1993, is not still alive and writing! And how lucky were the subscribers of the Post who got to enjoy his weekly gardening columns for twenty years! No other garden writer comes close to Mitchell’s unpretentious, slyly cantankerous attitudes toward the humble glories and sorrows of the urban gardener. As hilarious as he was opinionated, he never condescends. I will next read the only book of his I haven’t read already – Any Day – and in years to come will surely re-read portions of Mitchell’s other collections. Mitchell was a national treasure – and the only author who’ve I’ve not minded disparaging my hero Thomas Jefferson (albeit in Jefferson’s capacity as a gardener).

The Conversations of Dr. Johnson, Selected from the ‘Life’ by James Boswell (1930) edited by R.W. Postgate

Despairing of ever getting around to reading Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, I was happy to have discovered, several years ago, the existence of this abridgment. What a wonderful reading experience! Despite my chagrin at finding out how politically conservative and somewhat misogynistic Johnson was, I, like countless others, found myself in thrall to Johnson’s conversations. I hadn’t realized that Johnson lived during the days of the American Revolution (of which he had some very caustic things to say). Until I could finish reading these Conversations, I put off reading more in the other books I am in the middle of – it was that compelling. As is so often the case with books published before World World II, the editor’s preface is also remarkable. (Pet theory: fans of Johnson’s end up being better writers themselves!) I especially loved Boswell’s (affectionate) remarks on Johnson’s character flaws, which are certainly obvious from some of Johnson’s remarks. What an unforgettable person, especially considering Johnson’s impoverished background.

Books about Books

Patience & Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy (2001) by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Patience and FortitudeA now-seventeen-year-old survey of the world of books based on dozens of interviews with writers, librarians, library administrators, booksellers, and book collectors. Full of fascinating information and chock-full of anecdotes, Basbanes succeeds in making this particular world interesting for people who may know nothing about the intricacies of book collecting in all the forms that activity takes. He covers lots of bases (all the world’s most famous libraries, for example), and his narrative style is conversational and rambling in the best way. I was particularly impressed by Brisbane’s ability to accurately describe the nuances of the controversies raging in Book World at the time (and that are still important almost 20 years later). This book made me proud to have become a librarian, and I will want to read all of Brisbane’s other book-related books, both past and future.

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’s’ Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911 (2016) by Denis Boyles

Everything ExplainedI read probably one-third of this book. Boyles’ obviously impressive research and his sometimes sardonic commentary, the level of detail Boyles goes into to describe the behind-the-scenes wranglings among the people who produced (and advertised) this famous reference work was too daunting for me. The dipping into the intervening chapters that I did do was full of surprises, the almost stand-alone essays that constitute Boyles’ Prologue and his final chapter (“Postscript”) are masterpieces of analysis as well as examples of sustained engaging writing.

Selected Works on the Pleasures of Reading (2008) by Robertson Davies

The Pleasures of ReadingDavies’ always-modest, disarmingly sensible, and frequently witty writing on any subject is always a pleasure, and what he wrote about his reading is no exception – despite the fact that I don’t happen to share some of Davies’ particular enthusiasms (such as reading 18th Century plays). Davies’ daughter edited this anthology of articles and speeches, and her introductory notes were also interesting. Every time I read something by this under-rated Canadian author, I get a little closer to taking up one of Davies’ novels, one of which (Fifth Business) has been on my Books Cal Wants to Read list for years now.


Cherished Objects: Living with and Collecting Victoriana (1991)
by Allison Kyle Leopold

Cherished ObjectsAlthough I own 170 books on home decorating, my browsings through them haven’t been recorded in “The Constant Reader.” Except this one. As with most of my decor books, I found this one on sale in a thrift store, but this one is more than a collection of delicious photos and minimal (and often absurdly breathless) prose. Instead, its author’s text gives a lot of interesting insights into why Victorians embellished their homes they way they did, and why some of us find at least some aspects of their domestic style so compelling. It’s nice to – finally – better understand why I am drawn to Victorian architecture and interior design, and what gave rise to them. This book explains these things more clearly and succinctly than any other book I’ve discovered.

Art & Architecture

In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature (2001)
by Christopher Woodward

In RuinsOne of my traveling companions on my trip to Italy this year was reading this during the trip, and he gave me his copy when he finished it. The author’s style is personal and engrossing, and the book is filled with fascinating anecdotes featuring archeologists, historians, novelists, and artists. A book I have added to my library and will enthusiastically lend to others who, like most people, find themselves drawn to the magic spell most ruins seem to radiate.

My mini-reviews of the books I read in 2016 are here.