Another International Calligraphy Conference

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.

Trip to Amelia Island

My sister Gayle and I spent most of last week in Florida, visiting our sister Lori, who has built a house on Amelia Island (near Jacksonville). Lori plans to retire there permanently within the next two years after ending her career as a public school art teacher in North Georgia.

This was my second trip to Florida this year: in mid-May, Randy and I spent a week on St. George Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Because the temperatures on Amelia were in the very high 90s all week, we spent a lot of time hunkered down inside Lori’s wonderful – and wonderfully air-conditioned – cottage, midway between the historic downtown of Fernandina Beach and the ocean. In fact, I only once saw the ocean that Lori loves so much, and well after the sun had gone down. On the other hand, Lori did introduce Gayle and me to the Nutty Buddy ice cream that Dollar General sells, and spending so much time indoors allowed me to put together (with Lori’s help) a jigsaw puzzle – one of my favorite things to do whenever I’m on vacation:

From the comfort of Lori’s air-conditioned car, Lori showed us quite a bit of the island. The town of Fernandina Beach is full of architectural gems and shady, interesting residential areas. We also ate meals at several of the island’s wonderful restaurants and explored a half-dozen impressive antique stores and thrift shops.

The last night we were in town, the three of us took a sunset cruise on the Amelia River, which included a quick look at the coast of Georgia’s Cumberland Island.

On our final morning on the island, we went downtown again to visit the local weekly art/farmer’s market The people we met there – actually, all the people we met throughout our stay – were extraordinarily friendly. I can imagine anyone retiring there being very happy they’d moved there.

We did manage to see several sunsets the week we visited:

Here’s a photo Lori took in February 2021 of the slab built for her cottage:

And here are photos of the finished cottage:

The three of us had a great time and I hope this year’s visit to Lori’s place on Amelia is the first of many more.

Big Daddy’s Beach House

Last month, Randy and I joined ten other buddies we met many years ago through Gay Spirit Visions conferences for an annual week-long stay at a rental house on St. George Island.

St. George is located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, near Apalachicola.

This year’s trip was similar to our group vacations there in previous years (me with Randy in 2021, in 2019, and in 2018, sans Randy in 2017, in 2016, in 2015, and 2014).

A few of the main differences in this year’s trip vs. earlier ones:

  • A different house than the ones we’d rented before.
  • A slightly different cast o’ characters, which always varies slightly from year to year. This year’s co-conspirators were Cal and Randy, Ted and Ralph, Bill and James, Chase, Jim, Kevin (and his dog Charlie), Neil, Roger, and Tom – plus an overnight visit from John Rivest, who now lives in a small town near Tallahassee.
  • Fewer home-cooked seafood meals. (The only shrimp or oysters or fish this go-around were consumed at lunches in Apalachicola!)
  • I took far fewer photos this year. (Here’s a group photo taken by Kevin and posted to his Facebook page:

The rental house secured for our gang this year by volunteer house-bookers Ted and Ralph (thanks, guys!) is called “Big Daddy’s Beach House.” It’s located much further than previous rentals inside the gated community that constitutes the western third of the island, and Big Daddy’s is decidedly closer to the beach than houses we’d rented in previous years. Here are some photos from the rental agency’s website:

The back of the house from the beach:

The kitchen, dining room, and living room:

Some of the decks on the three floors of the house:

The screened-in porch on the main floor of the rental house:

The bedroom (with bath) that Randy and I stayed in:

Throughout the week, between indoor nap-taking, reading, crossword-puzzle-working, etc. were excursions into Apalachicola for provisions (and/or for lunches), occasional walks (or sits) on the beach, daily group meditations each morning, and plenty of Wizard-playing.

There were numerous dolphin sightings; many of us tried out the paddle-wheel-powered (oarless!) kayak that Chase had rented for us to enjoy; the weather and the waves were favorable all week; and the week’s sunrises and sunsets were suitably glorious.

One of those sunrises:

Cal and Randy served a “low tea” one afternoon:

The jigsaw puzzle several of us finally completed mid-week:

Two of the evenings after our home-cooked meals were devoted to watching two movies suggested by Chase: the hilarious Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar, and the filmed version of a one-man off-Broadway show entitled If and Of Itself. Both were riveting in completely different ways, and I highly recommend both of them. (Thanks, Chase!)

Bill and I spent part of our time fooling around with color markers and coloring books. Here’s the mandala I made as a souvenir for this year’s SGI adventure:

And, speaking of souvenirs, I always take to St. George something to give away to my companions there a little token of our time together that year. One year it was a teddy bear for everyone, another year a tiny starfish, another year a small sea urchin. This year everyone got a miniature plastic teddy bear; here’s a photo of the two I gave to Tom and Kevin, who carpooled from the island back to Atlanta:

Postscript

Like we did last year, Randy and I broke up the seven-hour ride from Atlanta to St. George with an overnight stay along the way – this time in Dothan, Alabama. While we were there, we decided to visit – in addition to four antique malls – the surprisingly large (if relatively young) Dothan Botanical Garden, where we spent a very pleasant afternoon before heading on to the beach.

The garden pond and fountain:

The labyrinth and one of the statues representing the four seasons that were placed throughout the site:

The day lily garden:

The Asian garden:

Photos from the cottage garden, the rose garden, the demonstration home garden, and the greenhouse of tropical plants:

Randy and I have volunteered to book “Big Daddy’s” for next year’s getaway to St. George, so we already have that trip on our out-of-state travel schedule for 2023.

Let The Sunshine In! Radical Changes in Cal’s and Randy’s Front Yards

A gigantic hundred-year-old oak tree in my neighbors’ yard that’s been shading my front yard – but also looming threateningly over my roof for the past 25+ years – is no more.

Ditto for another humongous tree a few yards away, also in the neighbors’ yard.

After a recent storm took down yet another ancient (and also huge) tree in the same neighbors’ yard, the neighbors decided to get rid of other trees that might damage either their house or mine in some future storm. I can’t imagine how much it cost the neighbors to have these trees removed, but I am grateful to have the two trees gone, despite the instant and major change in the amount of sunlight now reaching my front yard and the inevitable higher electricity bill I’ll paying from now on for air conditioning.

Last week’s removal of the two trees took two full days and was quite a spectacle. The neighbors decided to absent themselves for the duration, but I enjoyed nervously watching the take-down in a lawn chair at a safe distance across the street.

BEFORE and AFTER

Here’s the leafed-out version of the problem tree, just before the takedown crew arrived. Note how it’s leaning menacingly toward my vulnerable abode:

Below, on the left, is my shady front yard before the removal of the neighbors’ two enormous trees; on the right, what my front yard looks like now:

And here’s what the patio that my brother and I built a couple years ago in my front yard looked like, and what I saw looking up from the bench on the patio when I took naps out there – pre- tree removal:

Here’s what the bench and my view from it look like today:

From inside the house, I can certainly tell a difference as well. The sun porch, for example, finally lives up to its name:

I was a bit worried about how the tree removal(s) would affect the tree canopy protecting my tiny bird sanctuary on the side of my house closest to the neighbors’ house. Fortunately, that turned out to be a non-problem because there are still some (smaller) trees in both my neighbors’ side yard and inside the sanctuary itself. Below, the bird sanctuary (from the back yard) before (on the left) and after (on the right):

Also fortunately, the view of the bird sanctuary from my office’s windows, though somewhat brightened, isn’t that much different. Below, on the left, is the pre-takedown view; on the right, the post-takedown view:

The Takedown

It was amazing to watch the crew from The Boutee Tree Company dismantle the two trees. Here are some photos of various stages in the process of removing the tree closest to my house:

The takedown of the other tree in the neighbors’ yard was just as riveting to watch – especially since I hadn’t realized how tall it was. (Note that tree #2 is in the middle of the neighbors’ patio. They had the crew leave about three feet of the stump as a table!)

Except for a LOT of sawdust everywhere, the crew did their jobs so skillfully that nothing in my yard was damaged except the destruction of one of my urns on the front yard patio (which the company rep says he’ll reimburse me for when I replace it):

I’m still rather stunned by the radical change in my front yard, and it may take me a season or two to figure out what the ramifications will be. Will all that sunlight be the end of my long-cultivated “fernery” out front? Will the other shade-preferring plants that I’d planted out there over the past two decades survive? Will I plant more young trees, and/or be able to plant sun-loving plants out there now? Stay tuned!

Postscript: The Also-Recent Tree Removal at Randy’s House

The week before my front yard was suddenly transformed from a shady-but-somewhat-perilous landscape to a sunny-and-unthreatening one, Randy had hired the same company to remove a huge, ancient tree from his front yard that an arborist had told him was diseased and needed to come down pronto.

We watched the process from chairs we positioned at a safe distance across the street.

Below are photos of that amazing-to-behold episode.

Note how healthy this magnificent tree looks in the first three photos . . . and then compare that to the final photo, taken after all but the stump had been removed:

Blast from the Past: Cal’s First Group Trip to Italy (2007)

I created my blog in 2009 partly as a place to park memories and photos of my trips, especially my overseas trips. This is my first post about a pre-blog trip, which I did in 2007.

Why Italy?

Italy is one of the four places I’ve visited outside the United States that affected me at such a deep level that I not only fantasize about what it might be like to move there, but that I can’t seem to avoid re-visiting as often as possible. (The other three places are England, France, and Greece.)

This post briefly describes my fourth trip to Italy; at some point, I’ll post my memories and photos of my first, second, and third trips there. (At the end of this blogpost are links to accounts of my fifth and sixth trips to Italy.)

Background

After spending approximately five years trying to cajole a few friends to juggle our finances and travel schedules so we could all split the cost of a renting a villa in Italy for a week, that dream finally came true in the summer of 2007.

A turning point in my pre-trip lobbying efforts had been my spotting in the New Yorker a tiny advertisement for The Parker Company, an overseas villa-renting agency. I sent off for Parker’s printed catalog (this was several years before I began using the Internet for travel planning). After discussing the catalog’s descriptions, photos, and prices for various villas, each of my travel buddies and I ranked the most appealing candidates. We dallied too long to book our favorite place, in Tuscany, but we did manage to book our runner-up, a villa in Tuscany-adjacent Umbria.

My fellow villa-renters for the 2007 adventure:

  • Larry, my partner at that time
  • Kris and Nancy, two Atlanta friends I’d initially met when we all worked as employees at a mental hospital in Atlanta in the 1970s
  • Terry, a friend then living in Norfolk, Virginia who I’d first met at a late-1970s conference of gay men
  • Lynn and Michael, a married couple in Charleston, South Carolina who were friends of Kris’s, and
  • Jane, who lived in Texas and who Nancy had roomed with when she was a graduate student (but who the rest of us did not meet until we all arrived in Italy).

Due to different pre- and post-villa rental travel plans and schedule constraints, different subsets of the group arrived in Italy at different times; the eight of us arranged to meet up at the villa we’d rented after traveling separately or in pairs to other parts of Italy. (Kris, Nancy, and Jane spent a pre-villa week on the Amalfi Coast; Lynn and Michael spent a week in several other Italian towns before meeting us; Terry spent a pre-villa week in Venice and an area near Umbria and Tuscany.)

A big advantage of arriving separately was that we didn’t need to coordinate airline reservations, airport departures and arrivals, car rentals, or pre- or post-villa hotel reservations, meals, etc.

And because of these pre- and post-villa travel-in-other-parts-of-Italy plans, our group of eight travelers ended up with four (!) rental cars at our disposal. Which was great, as that allowed different passenger configurations for the many day trips from the villa that the eight of us wanted to do apart from the time we spent together at the villa each morning and evening.

Alas, none of the photos I took during this trip to Italy made it back to the USA: I inadvertently left my camera in the rental car when I returned the car to the Rome airport! (Discovering this only after Larry and I had checked into our hotel in Rome, I wasted part of our precious time in Rome schlepping back out to the airport car rental office to see if the car-cleaning crew had turned in my camera, but no one had. Someone, somewhere, is still walking around Italy with Cal’s digital camera that he’d bought specifically for documenting this trip.) Fortunately, all the other travelers used digital cameras also, so they were able to eventually put them onto CDs and mail them to me. What you see here is a highly selective sub-set of their photos.

The Villa

I needn’t have worried that the villa we’d rented wouldn’t live up to the photos we’d seen when selecting it. It was as grand and as luxurious as advertised, and surrounded by astoundingly beautiful landscapes. It was also out in the countryside (at least ten minutes from the nearest village), so our rented villa was a fantastic place to roam around in or outside of, and to come home to at the end of our various day-trip adventures.

Exteriors of our dream-like rented villa:

Snapshots from inside and around the villa (including a photo of the cottage on the property that Lynn and Michael stayed in:

Views from our villa windows and patio:

The family who owned the villa were not English speakers, so we had a series of hilarious, mostly-sign-language communications, but they were sweet as pie.

Our most intense contact with the owning family was their arrival our final evening to cook and serve us an outrageously wonderful, multi-course meal. (Completely worth the extra fee for that experience, although the amount of leftover food – which we couldn’t use as we were all traveling the following day, was shocking.)

Day Trips

Although some of us (sanely) opted to spend time lounging about the villa, Larry and I spent each day roaming around Umbria and Tuscany – sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with some or all or our fellow travelers.

Although the other travelers spent parts of their villa-rental week visiting towns Larry and I chose not to visit, he and I (sometimes with some of the others, sometimes by ourselves) to various nearby hill towns and villages. Alas, because of my lost camera, most of the photos you can see by clicking on the links below are images from the Internet. All of these towns were charming in their own way and all are definitely worth visiting!

Assisi (mainly so Larry could visit several nearby shrines to St. Francis, and where Cal first heard a recording of Ludovico Einaudi’s magnificent music)

Perugia (which had some wonderful views of the surrounding countryside)

Todi (supposedly the most perfect of all Italian hilltowns)

Montefalco (which we could see from our villa’s windows and patio)

Spoleto (whose ancient bridge was my favorite site there)

Spello (a tiny, flower pot-besotten village that I liked a lot more than the larger, more tourist-oriented Spoleto)

Sienna (a medieval cathedral city that I’ve visited on all but one of my six trips to Italy)

Postscript

Three of my six trips to Italy were with one other person (with Joyce in the 1970s, with Harvey in the 1980s, with Larry in 2004). Another trip there, in 2014, I did by myself after traveling with a group in France beforehand. The other two trips to Italy, including this one, I did with two different groups of friends.

This fourth trip to Italy, the one with the 2007 “Villa People,” deepened my longstanding obsession with All Things Italian, especially the art, the history, and the landscapes of Tuscany and Umbria. And the fact that we were so happy with the villa we rented led me to embark upon another Italian villa adventure rental ten years later with another group of friends. These successful group travel experiments overseas also played a role in the villa-rental portion of a group trip to Provence ten years later, in 2014; in a mansion-renting portion of a group adventure in the countryside of Ireland, in 2016; and in my most recent Italian villa group rental trip, in 2017. I’d do this sort of thing again – even again in Italy – in a heartbeat!

Incidentally – or perhaps not-so-incidentally – before my first trip to Italy in the 1970s and in between and after my subsequent visits there, I’ve spent many hours at home in Atlanta, Georgia devouring some absolutely enthralling books about other people’s memoirs of traveling or living in Italy. Books about Italy constitute an inordinately large percentage of the Books Cal Has Read; it would be difficult to overestimate how influential all this reading about Italy contributed to my undertaking so many trips there, and to the choosing of the parts of Italy that I have decided to visit – or revisit.

Hoping that you might want to treat yourself (via the magic of Interlibrary Loan) to one or more of these Italian fantasy-feeding titles, here’s the list of those Italy-themed books. (I list the titles here in alphabetical order, with publication dates shown in parentheses and the year Cal read them in brackets.) Just scanning through the titles of these books again not only floods my memory with how much I loved some of the books, but it also reignites my hopes for traveling to this magical country several more times!

  • As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, and Daily Diversion of Life in the Eternal City (2000) by Alan Epstein [2004]
  • Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s (2006) by R.A. Scotti  [2006]
  • Bringing Tuscany Home: Sensuous Style from the Heart of Italy (2004) by Frances Mayes  [2006]
  • Ciao, America: An Italian Discovers the U.S (2001)by Beppe Severgnini [2007]
  • City of Secrets: The Truth Behind the Murders at the Vatican (2003) by John Follain [2004]
  • A Day in Tuscany: More Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide (2007) by Dario Castagno [2007]
  • Every Day in Tuscany (2010) by Frances Mayes [2010]
  • Florence: A Delicate Case (2002) by David Leavitt [2004]
  • Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the World (2007) by Anthony Doerr [2009]
  • A Garden in Lucca: Finding Paradise in Tuscany (2000) by Paul Gervais [2009]
  • The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land: A Memoir (1998) by Ferenc Mate [2014]
  • Italian Days (1989) by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison [2009]
  • Italian Pleasures (1996) by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell [2017]
  • Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013) by Tim Parks [2017]
  • The Lady in the Palazzo: At Home in Umbria (2007) by Marlena de Blasi [2007]
  • Living in Venice (2000) by Frederic Vitoux; photographs by Jermone Darblay [2020]
  • No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (2007) by Judith Martin [2011]
  • On the Road with Francis Assisi: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond (2005)by Linda Bird Franke  [2006]
  • Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House (2005) by Sally Gable  [2006]
  • The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian (2005) by Phil Doran  [2005]
  • Roman Mornings (1956) by James Lees-Milne [2010]
  • Rome and a Villa (1952) by Eleanor Clark [2015]
  • Satyr Square: A Year,  A Life in Rome (2006) by Leonard Barkan [2007]
  • The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers (2005) edited by Susan Cahill  [2005]
  • A Thousand Days in Tuscany (2004) by Marlena de Blasi [2007]
  • A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance (2002) by Marlena de Blasi [2004]
  • Too Much Tuscan Sun: Confessions of a Chianti Tourguide (2004) by Dario Castagno  [2005]
  • A Traveler in Italy (1964) by H.V. Morton [2003]
  • A Traveler in Rome (1957) by H.V. Morton [2003]
  • Tuscany: True Stories (2002) edited by James O’Reilly and Tara Austen Weaver [2009]
  • A Valley in Italy: The Many Seasons of a Villa in Umbria (1994) by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran [2007]
  • Venice for Lovers (2003)by Louis Begley and Anita Muhlstein [2009]
  • Venice for Pleasure (revised edition, 1979) by J.G. Links [2004]
  • Venice Observed (1956) by Mary McCarthy [2001]
  • Venice: Pure City (2009) by Peter Ackroyd [2010]
  • Venice Rediscovered (1996) by John Pemble [2001]
  • Venice Revealed: An Intimate Portrait (2001) by Paolo Barbero [2004]
  • Vidal in Venice (1985) by Gore Vidal [2004]
  • When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City (1998) by Robert J. Hutchinson [2014]

Lessons in Aging? Memories of a Now-Long-Ago Back-Out-of-Whack Episode

Americans of the Baby Boomer generation learned very little about how to grow old gracefully, or paid attention to what was in store for us as our bodies began reminding us it was our turn to Be Older.

I’m one of the Boomer Generation’s fortunate few who sailed through his 60s without any major (or even minor) physical ailments or crises.

However, six years ago I got a memorable wake-up call in the Stop-Pretending-You’re-Still-in-Your-40s Department.

I drafted a blogpost about this episode several months after it happened, but I never got around to posting it,. This morning I stumbled across that draft, and, remembering a couple of recent (although fortunately relatively short-lived) out-of-whack back episodes, decided that an edited version of that six-year-old recollection was still worth posting,

Probably because all my life I’ve had terrible posture, I would occasionally – every five to seven years or so? – “throw out” my back as a result of doing some bizarre or careless thing. (For example, helping a friend move a heavy, unwieldy sofa – backwards – down a set of stairs.)  

In my younger days, it would take a day or two or three for my wrenched-out spine to heal itself and for me to resume functioning normally (i.e., pain-free) again. Although I remember multiple instances of these back-throwing-out episodes over the years, I don’t think I ever missed a day of work because of them.

Well, sometime in late July of 2016, I yet again seriously wrenched my back. I’m fairly sure it happened on a morning after several consecutive days of sitting at my home computer way too long peering down into The Rabbit Hole (otherwise known as The Internet) on my computer screen. When I finally interrupted my hypnotic trance to go outside to water my parched vegetables, I must have contorted my aching back when I bent down and reached behind a bush to turn on the water spigot.

In an instant, wham! Out went the back. The pain was sufficiently intense and persistent for me to abruptly cancel a much-anticipated trip to the mountain cabin later that morning – even though I had already packed the truck for my trip!

A few days – and multiple heating-pad sessions – later, my sister Gayle (a retired nurse), suggested I immediately begin taking Ibuprofin. (As usual, taking medicine of any kind hadn’t occurred to my medicine-avoiding self.) When the Ibuprofin didn’t take care of the problem after a few days and things seemed, in fact, to be getting worse, my friend and neighbor Charles, a massage therapist, kindly brought over to my house his portable massage table and helped me up onto it. The Ibuprofin and Charles’s ministrations helped quell the chronic pain in my back enough to get me through the trip to Oregon Gayle and I made to attend my niece’s wedding there in early August of 2016.

The week after returning from Oregon, however, I promptly managed to screw up my almost-healed back again, this time by bending over a little too quickly to load the clothes washer located under my kitchen counter. (Again, this happened after several days of spending too many consecutive hours sitting in front of the aforementioned Rabbit Hole.)

Finding myself back to square one for another several days, I eventually got a little better and convinced myself I was feeling OK enough to drive up to the mountain cabin. Wrong. By the time I extricated myself from my truck after the two-hour drive to the cabin, I could barely hobble inside. My cabin-visiting friend Randall offered to take me to the emergency room of the local hospital if I didn’t feel better the following morning. When I felt worse that next morning rather than any better, I gingerly climbed into his exasperatingly low-roofed car, and off we went.

A few hours later, I skeptically took my first dose of Tramadol, the opioid pain-blocking medication the merciful emergency room doctor had prescribed for me. A half-hour later, and much to my amazement and delight, zero pain!

Well, until the medication wore off, anyway.

Fortunately, I had enough of those magic pills to get me back to Atlanta without suffering, and I endured another spell of lying down a lot each day on a heating pad and minimizing (because it was too painful) sitting for very long.

With a trip to Ireland looming in the not-too-distant future, and concerned that my back wasn’t healing, Charles recommended I seek the help of a chiropractor, and he graciously drove me to my first appointment (August 17, 2016).

And that’s where 2016’s Saga of the Bad Back finally began winding down. I immediately felt better after my first visit to the Atlanta Chiropractic & Wellness Center – located a mere two miles from my house.

After six (!) more visits to the chiropractor, I was finally able not only to sit, stand, walk, and sleep normally, but able to resume driving up to and back from the mountain cabin with minimal problems. I made an additional visit to the chiropractor before embarking on the Ireland trip, taking what was left of the Tramadol with me for insurance. (Reader, I don’t remember any back problems during the October 2016 trip to Ireland.)

Lessons Learned

  • Things that used to clear up/heal quickly when one is young, or youngish, take longer to clear up/heal when you’re older. Sometimes a lot longer than is ever going to be convenient.
  • Your backbone is your friend. Treat it carelessly or meet with some bad luck, and your entire routine can be radically, unpleasantly altered. Even the simplest things, or, worse, the things you take completely for granted that you would be able to do under almost any circumstances, you will have to do without for a while. Like reading, for Pete’s sake, or playing a game of Scrabble, or sitting at a computer, or climbing in and out of a vehicle. (Strange as it sounds, I felt lucky I owned a motor scooter as well as a pickup truck – getting onto and off of the scooter wasn’t comfortable, but it sure beat climbing into and out of the truck.)
  • Being laid up with a bad back when you’re retired, as I have been since 2013, may be boring or annoying, but it was certainly easier to cope with pain as a retiree than it would’ve been had I still been working full-time. I feel so lucky that this episode happened after I retired instead of, say, ten years ago.
  • What people – well, Amercans, anyway – say about feeling isolated and abandoned when they can no longer drive? Well, it’s true! I like spending time at home, but I certainly didn’t enjoy spending as much time at home as I spent during August 2016!
  • When you’ve injured yourself or have gotten ill and then you finally aren’t hurting any longer, even previously boring chores can suddenly seem like positive pleasures. Who knew that going to the grocery store – being able to go there, or anywhere – could be so much fun? Apart from the unexpected joys of getting out of the house, even climbing out of bed, pain free, to brush your teeth can suddenly become exhilarating experience.
  • Be glad we live in a time that includes pain-killing pharmaceuticals. Yes, there are dangers for some people, under some circumstances, for abusing prescribed drugs (especially opioids), but, man, am I ever grateful that such potions exist and that they work so quickly and so well. It was so nice to have a few breaks from hurting before the underlying physical cause of the hurting (whatever it was) got dealt with.
  • No matter how skeptical you may be of chiropractors, don’t be like Cal and wait way too long to seek one out for spine-related injuries – especially if everything else you’re tring isn’t working! (One of the many, many ways I’m more fortunate than many Americans is that I can afford medical insurance, and that I happen to have a policy that covers the cost of chiropractic treatment (except for those annoying $15 per visit co-pays). And that miracle-working bottle of Tramadol? It cost me less than $2 because of my medical insurance. Everyone (especially if you live in the United States) is not so lucky. Political aside here: When it comes to being a hostage to pain, luck shouldn’t have anything to do with treating it. My favorite political slogans have for years now – no, decades now – have been “Universal Health Insurance Now!” and “Get Those Capitalists Far Away from American Health Care!”
  • The Bad Back Saga of 2016 certainly amplified my gratitude for the wonderful friends I have. Those who heard about my predicament made much-appreciated sympathetic noises, several friends offered practical help in various ways, and Charles especially extended himself numerous times and in numerous ways to help me get through this whole thing. (He even made time for us to play several diverting games of Scrabble, even when I had to play standing up.)
  • As with any visitation of pain or with any illness, coping with a whacked-out back was an “interesting” rehearsal for what it must be like to be A Really Old Person. It was certainly good practice for the time that’s coming for all of us when we will need to ask for help more often than we’d like – and to accept some of those offers. My intermittently-ailing back also serves as a reminder to be helpful myself to ailing friends, many of whom, like me, are used to living independently and are loathe to depend upon the kindnesses of others.
  • As I have mentioned before on this blog, one of life’s great unacknowledged miracles is the astonishing fact that (for most of us) humans are flexible, mobile creatures! We can (most of us) walk, we can sit, we can twist and turn, we can dance, attend tai chi classes if we want, even – if we’ve a mind to – crawl around on our bellies like reptiles. This episode certainly reminded me of how oblivious I usually am of this amazing feature of being human.
  • The activities I am used to doing frequently because I have always loved doing them – reading, gardening, spending time with friends, traveling – I am currently enjoying even more than I already did, as I’ve been unexpectedly and dramatically reminded not to take these activities and opportunities – as well as “mere” mobility – for granted. I will surely forget yet again – probably sooner than I know – how wonderful it is that I am usually fit enough to do these things I love whenever I want to, but for now, even my modest pleasures are even more pleasurable than  were previously.

Dear Readers, mind your posture (and the posture of your children)! And enjoy whatever activities your good or fair-to-middling health allows you to do, and whatever interests you enjoy pursuing, for ye may not – nay, will not – be perpetually healthy and spry!

This sobering fact is, incidentally, is mentioned directly or by implication in many of the quotations about aging that I’ve collected over the years from the books I’ve read. If you’d like to take a gander at these helpful reminders and/or bits o’ wisdom, you can find them here.

The Downside of Living Among Big Ol’ Trees

Atlanta promotes itself as “the city in a forest,” despite the horrific and continuing destruction of its tree canopy by greedy developers and their enabling, tax-hungry local politicians. Only 32% of the city “forest” remains forested, but that’s a better situation than the residents of most larger U.S. cities can enjoy.

The still-copious number of hundred-year-old trees in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed living here (or nearby) for most of my adult life.

Still, there is a definite, if somewhat intermittent, disadvantage to living among (and, more to the point, underneath) so many magnificent, ancient trees. Every one of these beautiful creatures eventually dies of old age or disease, or freakishly high winds blow them down, and sometimes right on top of the houses and/or cars and/or people underneath them when they fall.

Last week I was abruptly reminded of what can happen (and will inevitably happen again) when after a string of rain-soaking days a high wind uprooted a huge tree in the front yard of my next-door neighbor.

We were lucky: the tree fell at an early morning hour (the crash woke Randy and me shortly before 7am). It was a miracle that there happened to be no cars and no joggers and no stroller-pushing parents underneath the falling tree, and that the tree fell diagonally into the middle of the intersection directly in front of my house instead of onto my neighbor’s house, or my house, or any of the nearby houses on either side of the streets.

The uprooted giant did, however, take down all the nearby power lines and Internet cables, along with a section of the neighbor’s fence and the portion of the stone wall next to the sidewalk immediately below the tree on the hill behind the fence.

Although a fire engine truck arrived shortly thereafter, several hours elapsed before crews (presumably subcontractors of the city’s Parks Department) appeared and begin dismantling the massive tree carcass with their chainsaws.

The clean-up crews hauled away at least three full truckloads of sawed-off branches, some of them the size of small sofas. It took a few days before the two roads were again passable, and only then could the power company trucks and the multiple internet service providers begin their repair work.

All told, I was out of power – and, of course, heat – for one of the coldest nights of the season, and for several days thereafter. The good news is that, due to the good fortune of my (barely) being able to get out of my driveway, I could stay at Randy’s house (about three miles away) for the duration.

Among other things, the ripped-down power lines bent the mast that brings electricity into my house from the poles on the street.

This is something that had happened before, in a previous storm. The same electrician who’d fixed the mast damaged in that previous (2017) storm fixed the damage done during this episode. (We had a long chat while he waited for the power company to return to my house to turn off the restored power lines so he could repair the mast.)

Restoring my connection to the Internet took a lot longer, for various reasons that have a lot to do with the crazy way that AT&T managers have chosen to dispatch the company’s fleet of repair crews. Long story short, I was without an Internet connection – and without a working printer, and wif-fi – for over a week. (That was an interesting experience itself.)

At any rate, a full week later, order has been restored. (Actually, there’s still a gutter-repair guy to call, and the insurance company to deal with). And, somewhat inexplicably, the giguntous stump of the tree remains, still blocking the city-owned sidewalk.

Note in the photo below the still-standing big ol’ tree between the uprooted-tree stump and my house behind it:

I can now resume worrying about that tree in my next-door neighbor’s yard. Unlike the uprooted monster that fell last week, the trunk of this equally-massive tree leans toward my house instead of toward the street. Like its nearby now-departed sibling, this tree is bound to fall at some point, so I’m hoping my neighbors will decide they’ve had enough tree trauma for one lifetime (or at least one Candler Park mortgage) and will arrange to have The Remaining Looming Oak taken down. (Which, given the high price for taking down trees – it’s going to cost Randy $8,000 to take one of his down – may not happen.) Worrisome, for sure.

[March 22nd Postscript: The neighbor with the Looming Oak in her yard just stopped by to tell me she and her husband have decided to have the tree removed, as soon as the permits to do that can be obtained from the city. So that is an enormous relief. The disappearance of these two trees next door that have been heavily shading my front yard since I bought my house in 1998 will abruptly and profoundly change things gardening-wise in the front yard, but that challenge will be an easier one to deal with than another – and potentially catastrophic – tree-falling episode! So, hurray for good neighbors!]

Meanwhile, it’s perfectly clear to me and my neighbors that last week’s natural disaster could’ve been a lot worse than it was. An inconvenience? Yep. But not the tragedy it might have been.

Hurray for Hundertwasser!

I don’t remember when I first encountered a painting by Hundertwasser. It might’ve been on my stay in New York City the summer of 1968, when I first had the chance to visit most of Manhattan’s art museums. I assume that in one of those museum’s stores I bought the dozen or so postcards of Hundertwasser paintings that I’ve carted around for many decades, and last year finally got around to unearthing from a box so I could display them on a doorway in my house:

It was while I was sitting in my “library” looking again at those postcards that I realized nobody I’ve ever known in all these years had ever told me – like they have about other artists I admire – that they’d also heard of, much less admired, Hundertwasser’s work.

It is a mystery to me that Hundertwasser (who, according to his profile in Wikipedia, died in 2000) is not more well-known in the United States – or at least well-known among my presumably art-loving friends and acquaintances. Herewith, then, in no particular order, are some images harvested from the Internet that might pique the interest of some of this blog’s readers.

Hundertwasser was an architect as well as a painter, and some of his bizarre inventions were actually built, and are now tourist attractions. Wikipedia includes separate articles on over a half-dozen of these buildings; you can see photos of a dozen of them here. I’d love to visit these structures in person one day – especially after having concluded from Randy’s and my trip a few years back to Barcelona that Gaudi’s buildings were the world’s strangest buildings. Perhaps not!

Also wonderful is the fact that at least 30 postage stamps from various countries are images of Hundertwasser’s paintings (you can see them all here).

With the unexpected, neon colors like the ones Hundertwasser used, and his obviously fanciful imagination, what’s not to like?

[This is the first in a series of occasional blogposts about the visual artists whose work I’ve grown to love in my 70+ years on the planet. Links to the websites of my favorite (living) musicians are included in the blogroll in my blog’s sidebar.]

The Constant Reader: 2021

Fiction

The Music Shop 3The Music Shop (2017) by Rachel Joyce

I read this novel for my book club, after having recommended her earlier novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I liked the earlier novel better than this one, but I still enjoyed Joyce’s tale of a quirky record store owner and his friends. It’s not easy to write about music, but Joyce was skillful at communicating the transcendent ability of certain works to profoundly affect their listeners. I was disappointed with Joyce’s decision to revisit the story a full twenty-one years (!) after the main action, but that is my only complaint about this charming story.

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this for my book club. Having long heard about the brouhaha over Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” and having recently read a New Yorker review of a new biography of Jackson, I was curious about this novel. The most impressive thing about it for me was how completely believable her young (and disturbed and certainly unreliable) narrator is. I also liked how ambiguous the “facts” of the story remained until various facets of the backstory were gradually (although still somewhat ambiguously) were revealed. I’m also glad I waited until after I finished the book before reading Jonathan Lethem’s spoiler-ridden introduction.

Burial Rites ((2013) by Hannah Kent

I read this book for my book club. Despite its relentlessly bleak setting (1830 rural Iceland), the characters (based on historical persons) are believable and the framing and pacing of the action are unusually skillful, The author, from Australia, spent a year in Iceland as a student and her research for the novel (her first) was extensive.

Nutshell (2016) by Ian McEwan

If you thought it was brave of Virginia Woolf to write a novel from the point of view of a pet dog, behold: something even braver! I will not mention the main conceit (or main character), but I can report that McEwan has concocted a wild and completely believable tale. Besides his sheer cleverness, the dialog is pitch-perfect, and McEwan keeps things lively not only with his plot, but with entertaining allusions, plenty of humor (mostly black),  philosophical asides on all manner of serious and non-serious subjects. I read this book in three sittings, all within 24 hours, and really didn’t want it to end. You won’t either. Many thanks to my friend Katharine, whose description of this book (also without giving away the central conceit) made me track it down so soon after she told me about it. Now I shall need to read McEwan’s other books, or at least a few of them (he’s written many; the only one I’d read before this one was Atonement).

 The Friend  (2018) by Sigrid Nunez 

I’d not heard of this National Book Award winner until my friend Katharine recommended it. The tale Nunez tells,  if I described it, wouldn’t seem to support an entire novel, but it’s the way Nunez writes that made it hard to put down, once I started. This may be the most “conversational” writing I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and it works. Like good conversation, it’s full of surprising confessions, odd facts, unlikely but striking free-associating, sudden intrusions of different levels of reality, unexpected allusions, arresting and frequently fragmented nuggets of truth-telling, plenty of humor. It is amazing that anyone can write this way, and can frame a series of lively, nuanced meditations on so many things – the characteristics and fierce loyalties displayed by pets, the thoughts and feelings of people who survive the suicide of their closest, dearest friends or spouses,  the dynamics of urban loneliness, the ironies of therapy, the heartbreak and narcissism that teachers of literature and of creative writing cope with in their classrooms and in trying to grade their students’ papers. A beautiful, moving, and disturbing book; I’ll want to read other books Nunez writes.

Call It Courage (1940) by Armstrong Sperry 

This Newberry Award-winning classic is the only book I vividly remember reading as a kid. I must’ve mentioned it at some point after (re-) meeting my partner Randy, and he surprised me this past Christmas by giving a copy to me (and surprised me even more by having remembered that I’d ever mentioned it). It’s definitely something only a child (or maybe a young teenager) would find interesting, but the woodblock illustrations (by the author) are still wonderful and probably why I had remembered this book at all. Bless whatever teacher or librarian is responsible for me stumbling onto this adventure story all those years ago, and bless Randy for providing me this souvenir of my earliest (well, earliest remembered) reading adventure.

The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro

So different than my memory of the Oscar-winning movie version of this prizewinning book! It took me a minute to surrender to the stilted voice of the narrator (the head butler, for over 30 years, in a large English country house), but once I settled into it, I wanted to keep reading – hoping the deluded narrator would come to his senses and choosing imperfect happiness over principled “dignity..” Along the way, Ishiguro manages, in the most oblique way, to unmask the horrific ramifications of the British class system for the people assigned to its lower, servile ranks. I’m glad I saw Downtown Abbey before reading this very unsentimental take on the actual, vs. the sentimentalized, consequences of someone buying into their servitude with a lifetime of minor and major rationalizations. 

Biography and Memoir

Flight PathFlight Path: A Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport (2017) by Hannah Palmer

This is a book I read for my book club. It was interesting mainly because I grew up in the area the book focuses on, and at approximately during the same time as the era chronicled by Palmer’s memoir. Many of my high school classmates’ homes were destroyed or removed by the Atlanta airport’s expansion, and the book triggered many flashbacks about my own experiences with the “old” airport, such as the deafening noise of jet planes that temporarily (and annoyingly) interrupted conversations in my own yard and in classrooms at my high school. I was sometimes confused by the sequencing of Palmer’s memories about her various childhood homes, but I enjoyed the various ironies she notices as she tries to track down their former locations. Palmer also includes much information about the history and expansion of the airport that was unknown to me before reading her book. 

Bloomsbury Reflections

Bloomsbury Reflections (1990) by Alen MacWeeney and Sue Allison

I’ve owned this book for many years, and vaguely remember reading it whenever I first bought it, but I never recorded reading it, and had forgotten its contents. Having just finished reading it (again?), I’m glad I bought the book. It’s mainly photos and reminiscences of the descendants of the Bloomsberries (their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or in-laws). The photos are fascinating, and the transcriptions of the interviews are even more so. These were people who knew the Bloomsberries intimately, often from early childhood; their recollections and reflections have a unique and poignant flavor that adds something to the official biographies of their more famous forebears or friends.  Many of the photos were taken at Charleston, the country headquarters of the Bloomsberries. They all seem right at home, as they all spent plenty of time there. The older I get, and the more I learn about Bloomsbury, the more impressed I have become with the lives and unusual relationships of this set of geniuses who broke with Victorian attitudes and helped form a more realistic, more loving paradigm of life-long friendships and mutual support.

elizabeth-and-essex-1Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928) by Lytton Strachey

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I became enthralled with all the Bloomsberries, way back in 1999. I’m so glad I finally ran across (in a thrift shop) a bargain-priced copy of the first edition! The story was somewhat familiar, since I’d seen various movies and television programs dramatizing it. Strachey’s rendition of this relationship is far and away the most vivid I’ve encountered. The reviews of the book excerpted on the book cover do not exaggerate Strachey’s accomplishment. (For example, the New York Sun’s pronouncement that it “is an exquisite work of art in its every paragraph. Mr. Strachey has added another classic to our language.”) Brilliant in every respect, I was astonished by – and greatly enjoyed – every page, and l have redoubled my resolve to read more of Strachey’s prose. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to do so!

lytton-stracheyLytton Strachey (1943) by Max Beerbohm

What could be better than reading a master prose writer’s speech about his own favorite prose writer? I found this book in my home library when, after reading Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, I was excitedly looking for anything else I happened to own by or about Strachey. This 37-page transcript of the 1943 Rede Lecture at Cambridge University was what I discovered, and it was the perfect thing to remind me of why I should continue seeking out more of Strachey’s work. Beerbohm is one of my own favorite prose writers, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint in his delightful portrait of his literary idol. 

Wild Card Quilt: The Ecology of Home (2003) by Janisse Ray

This book was Ray’s second (the first was another memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, published in 2000), and I retrieved it from one of the many Free Little Library boxes on one of my walks through my neighborhood. It sat on a bookshelf for a couple of months before I impulsively picked it up and started reading it – after which I really didn’t want to put it down. Ray evokes affection for a part of Georgia that I previously had very little affection for: the pine forests (or remnants of those forests) of southeast Georgia, for which Ray is a longtime champion. This eloquent and poetic memoir is actually a cleverly-ordered series of short essays, any of which could stand alone and all of which are worth reading and savoring.  One thing I’ll remember about this book is how Ray’s humility completely infuses her evangelism about sustainable living and the specific advantages of living in or near small towns (one of Ray’s literary heroes – and mine – is Wendell Berry). The end pages of Ray’s poignant, excellent book alerted me to the amazing catalog of her publisher (Milkweed Editions) – never before has a publisher’s list resulted in so many titles being added to my already hopelessly (blessedly?) lengthy Nonfiction Books Cal Wants to Read

History

Land

Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World (2021) by Simon Winchester

A fascinating book, and as engagingly written as Winchester’s previous ones. There were several chapters I skipped, however, knowing that Winchester’s detailing of the confiscation of lands populated by native peoples would infuriate me. (Somehow, I managed to get through the Palestine/Israel chapter, which is as full of the mayhem and injustice and imperialism as the chapters devoted to Native America and Africa.) The arbitrariness of some of the world’s political borders (and the far-reaching consequences thereof) are breathtaking. One interesting feature of Winchester’s survey is the way he weaves some of his family’s personal history into the description of his stories; another is that he also gives examples of some less-than-horrific approaches to the notion of land ownership that have been or are being experimented with.

Georgia Odyssey: A Short History of the State by James C. Cobb. (2nd edition, 2008)

Although I’ve lived n Georgia almost all my life, I’m not very knowledgeable about its history. When a friend gave me this book after purging it from her home library, I took the opportunity to read a modern, brief account of my State’s past. Cobb’s book is a welcome corrective to the version of Georgia’s history that I read in grade school. The book is very readable, partly because Cobb includes Georgia’s literary, artistic, and musical history as well as the political and social facts. What I came away with was how horrific the State’s history is – a relentless pageant of white supremacist looting and destruction that’s only marginally mitigated by the post-colonial writers, artists, and musicians. Cobb doesn’t merely make claims, he documents them with plenty of historical statistics that I’ve never read before, and the emerging picture is not one to be proud of.  An enlightening – and depressing – read, especially in terms of the history of race relations in Georgia. 

Science

The ThingwithFeathersThe Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human (2015) by Noah Strycker

I selected this book for my book club to read, which is why I finally got around to reading it myself – it had been on my Books Cal Wants to Read list for many months. Strycker certain kept my interest as he examined different bird species (one per chapter), selected partly for some particularly miraculous ability or habit and partly because of the light it sheds on comparable human abilities or habits (or limitations). His stories, anecdotes, and facts were plentiful and intriguing, and reading his book certainly increased my appreciation of all birds – and blew out of the water my notions of how “limited” the abilities of these creatures are, including the abilities of the birds I watch just outside the windows of my own house. Anyone the least bit fascinated with birds would find this book absorbing.

Travel

dinner-with-persephone-

Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece (1996) by Patricia Storage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psychology

How Can I Help (2)

How Can I Help? 12 Things To Do When Someone You Know Suffers a Loss (1994) by James E. Miller

My friend Paul gave me this book after learning that my grandnephew had committed suicide. The night before my niece’s son’s memorial service, I sat down and read the entire thing – which was not difficult, as it’s only 30 long (more of a bound pamphlet than a book). I was astonished at how well-written it is. Completely free of platitudes, completely free of any assumptions about the reader’s religious orientation (if any), and offering concrete but non-simplistic suggestions without being in the least pontificating or pretentious. Rarely do I come across a book whose every sentence seems as well-thought-out as this one. (I may also track down some of the other grief-coping books – each of them costing around $5 and available via Amazon.)  I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone floundering around in the aftermath of any sudden, irreversible shock in their lives who might be open to suggestions about how to be useful to the person most profoundly affected by that calamity. A unique feature of this book is that it’s really two books: if you turn it over and upside down, there’s another book, also by Miller, accompanying this one, entitled What Will Help Me? 12 Things to Remember When You Have Suffered a Loss. I haven’t read this portion of the book, but if it’s anywhere near as excellent, and as empathetic as the portion I did read (the portion applying to me), I am certain my niece will find it useful. Highly recommended; I am so grateful to my friend Paul for passing along this book to me, and inviting me to pass it along to someone else who might need it.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019) by Jenny Odell

One of those thought-changing, possibly life-changing books that I feel fortunate to have plucked out of my list of Nonfiction Books Cal Wants to Read. I don’t know how I first heard of it, but, having read a library copy, I’ll be buying my own copy to (a) read again (b) mine it for the numerous quote-worthy nuggets it contains, and (c) consult for the titles of other books Odell mentions that I now feel compelled to find. Odell’s title is rather misleading, as it’s the opposite of an instruction manual. Instead, it’s a free-wheeling meditation on the benefits of paying better attention to one’s actual, immediate environment (vs. whatever it is we are paying attention to when we’re trawling the Internet, especially social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Odell’s explanation of the connections between these monetized portions of the Internet and the propaganda used to lure people into becoming lucrative “products” themselves, is especially persuasive. I will be surprised if I encounter a better nonfiction book this year than this one.

House & Garden

Mrs. Greenthumbs

Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard nto a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too (1993) by Cassandra Danz

Based on the author’s weekly radio program broadcast in upstate New York, this often hilarious book provides (according to its author’s note) “factual information, personal observations, and a great many interesting digressions.” Very informal and idiosyncratic, this is not the typical gardening guru guide. Like many other gardening guide, its chapters are arranged chronologically by month, but the topics covered are only tangentially related to the gardening year.  What I liked about this book (I haven’t seen its sequel, published in 1998) is how much fun it was to read. Danz doesn’t imagine herself an expert (although she is a certified master gardener), but as a hopelessly smitten gardening amateur, experimenter, and occasional renegade. There are lots of jokey asides, and not a whiff of pontification. 

Make Life Beautiful 2

Make Life Beautiful (2021) by Syd and Shea McGee

I chose this book along with what I thought were some other interior design books I wanted to leaf through, but it turned out to be a memoir – with zero photos. Although I was unfamiliar with this husband-and-wife design team, they are apparently quite well-known. The book is the story of their journey as life partners and (eventually) business partners, told in an alternating she said/he said format. It’s well-written and, for a number of reasons, interesting, and I was able to finish reading it in a single day. The material is organized chronologically, using various design principles as chapter headings. I’ll be able to find photos of the author’s design projects on the Internet; it was probably a deliberate decision of the writers to exclude them from their book to keep the reader’s focus on their personal story rather than responding to their design style. In any case, it was fascinating to read about how an amateur designer and her husband’s tale of their adventures (including several setbacks), a tale that includes staring a family in the midst of a successful (and stressful) small business.

The Wabi-Sabi HouseThe Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty (2004) by Robyn Griggs Lawrence

I first obtained this book back in 2007, after discovering it in a bookstore and liking it so much that I ordered my own copy – something I rarely do with newish books about interior design. (Usually I wait for books like this to show up at thrift stores – and at thrift store prices – before buying them). Also unusual for this type of book, it was the text, rather than the photos, that appealed to me. Either I never got around to finishing the book back in 2007, or I’d forgotten most of what I learned, as this time around Lawrence’s reflections seemed new to me. In any case, I really enjoyed her down-to-earth way of presenting the history of this approach to domestic bliss, and what she advocates certainly resonates with my own conclusions about what makes a house comfortable and appealing. Lawrence includes more history of the relevant Japanese traditions than other books on this subject that I have read, and she explains very well how the wabi-sabi approach has ramifications far beyond guidelines on how to furnish a house in this particular style. She also makes dozens of practical suggestions, and her relaxed and unpretentious style is a distinct and refreshing contrast to the breathless prose accompanying many (most?) books on house decor.

A Small House and Large Garden (2)

A Small House and Large Garden (1924) by Richardson Wright

Another gem obtained via the magic of Interlibrary Loan. I got hold of it because I’d enjoyed other books by this early-20th Century author (and one-time editor of the magazine House and Garden) – although until I read this book of his, I assumed, based on his writing style, he was British. But no, his “small house and large garden” were located in Connecticut! I enjoyed Wright’s other books more than this one, but these essays are pleasant enough for several rainy days’ worth of reading about the quiet pleasures of (American) country living. I also added to my Commonplace Book Wright’s epigraph for this collection of essays, from Laurence Stern’s novel A Sentimental Journey: “What a large volume of adventure may be grasped within this little sphere of life by him who interests his heart in everything and who, haivng eyes to see what time and change are perpetually holdingout to him as he hourneys on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on . . . .”

Books and Gardens

Books and Gardens (1946) by Alexander Smith

When I requested this book via Interlibrary Loan, I didn’t realize it was a reprint of a chapter in a book that I’d already read: Alexander Smith’s amazing Dreamthorp. But I was happy to re-read this 33-page version of this particular chapter: if anything, it was a charming as the first go-round. Also, the publisher of this reprint included in his preface some fascinating biographical material about Smith that I was unaware of. So much fun to read about two of my favorite subjects, written by one of my favorite (long-dead) writers!

Essay Collections

The Anthropocene Reviewed

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet (2021) by John Green

My library copy of this book became due before I got halfway through it, but I am so glad I decided to pay the damn overdue fine so I could finish it. I have adored John Green for years, having stumbled across his (and his brother Hank’s) brilliant weekly videos at vlogbrothers.com. I also had seen, and very much liked, the movie version of one of Green’s three bestselling novels, The Fault in Our Stars. So I expected to like this book of Green’s essays; I just didn’t know how much I would enjoy them! His humility and vulnerability shine through each essay in sometimes startling ways, and the subjects Green chooses to discuss (and, yes, assign between a one to five-star rating to) are, every one of them, unusual and fascinating: Green writes beautifully about everything from Halley’s Comet to sunsets, from Diet Dr Pepper to air conditioning, from the song “Auld Lang Syne” to whispering. These four dozen essays – an equal mix of the weighty and the trivial (which he manages to transform into matters very untrivial) are short, witty, and embued with Green’s idiosyncratic and disarming stamp of modesty, empathy, inquisitiveness, humor – and personal courage (Green has struggled all his life with various anxiety and depression disorders). And I’m now tempted to read his novels – and have doubled my resolve to keep up more efficiently with his weekly videos. I give his (somewhat unattractively titled) book five stars

Counter-CurrentsCounter-Currents (1916) by Agnes Repplier

This collection of Repllier’s essays was the most, um, challenging that I’ve read so far. They were every bit as absorbing as her previous books, but this set of essays, first published in the run-up to the United States’ entrance into World War II, was the first whose ideas ran counter to my own sentiments on such controversial topics such as pacifism, vegetarianism, feminism, immigration, nationalism, child-rearing, and education. Like other erudite conservative (and Catholic) thinkers who are masters of persuasion – largely through their frequent use of humor – (I am thinking here mostly of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner), I find myself happily carried along by Repplier’s arguments until I remember how thoroughly rooted in white privilege some of her notions seem to be nowadays. Given her Roman Catholic religious beliefs (especially the vision of humankind as an incorrigibly fallen, sinful creature), her ideas are perhaps a bit too predictable, even when they are as charmingly and seductively expressed as Repplier’s always are. Still, I confess that some of the author’s conservative ideas have in fact tempered a few of my own long-held (and possibly – like Repllier’s? – oversimplified) liberal notions on the difficult and perennial topics she takes on in these essays. 

A Happy Hal-Century

A Happy Half-Century and Other Essays (1908) by Agnes Repplier

Of all the collections of Repplier’s I’ve read (and I’ve tried to track down all of them), this one was the most “optional” for me. Yes, she wrote these with the same zinger style as all her others, but the topics discussed were just a bit too obscure to be very memorable. She admits in her preface that her topics – such as the Victorian practice of asking famous poets to inscribe ad hoc poems into elite ladies’ scrapbooks – are rather trivial, so it’s not surprising that these particular essays will not live long in my memory. That said, it’s still a pleasure to read anything this woman wrote.

Books and MenBooks and Men (1888) by Agnes Repplier

As with her other books, it’s the way Repplier writes – rather than what she happens to be writing about – that makes her work so enjoyable to read. This collection contains a mere seven essays (“Children, Past and Present,” “On the Benefits of Superstition,” “What Children Read,” “The Decay of Sentiment,” “Curiosities of Criticism,” “Some Aspects of Pessimism,” and “The Cavalier). Each of them contains Repplier’s hallmarks of tongue-in-cheek or hilariously understated humor, her astonishing ability to carry the reader delightfully along while postulating counter-intuitive attitudes, and her obviously deep research into her chosen subjects. Repplier is an author whose essays are a pleasure to read a second or even a third time. It’s no wonder I’m committed to eventually tracking down every one of her dozen or so published collections of essays.

The Shorter StracheyThe Shorter Strachey (1980) selected and introduced by Michael Holroyd and Paul Levy

The (so far) most recently-finished Bloomsbury-related book I’ve read this year. A total delight: I skipped only a very few of the 30 essays included in this anthology,  and immensely enjoyed the others. Strachey has definitely joined that small band of writers who, for me, can be relied upon to completely absorb my interest, regardless of the topic he’s written about. (And despite the fact that the compilers decided not to translate the passages written in French.) Strachey’s biographical sketches are, for me, my favorites, although nothing I’ve read of his is without charm, extraordinary erudition, and exquisite writing skill. The anthology’s introduction is also excellent. I would recommend this volume to anyone considering the idea of launching into Strachey’s work and not knowing where to begin – although Elizabeth and Essex would be another great introduction (see separate mini-review below).

The Best of Me David SedarisThe Best of Me (2020) by David Sedaris 

I had to return my library copy of this book before I could finish the final half of this selection of Sedaris’ previously published essays, but I am very glad I got to read the essays I did read, every one of which was new to me. Unlike previous collections of Sedaris’ essays, these are much more heartfelt and compassionate. If I find a bargain-priced copy of this book in paperback, I’ll probably buy it, as I’ll enjoy reading the final half of it, and would love to give it to someone someday who’s never read Sedaris and would like an introduction to his work. 

Books about Books

The Smithsonian Book of Books

The Smithsonian Book of Books (1992) by Michael Ohlmert

My friend Nan gave me this book after deciding to purge it from her own home library. I am so pleased she thought of me: it instantly became my favorite item in my modest collection of “books about books,” and it’s certainly the most sumptuous. Coffee-table sized and 320 pages long, the illustrations – which are not confined to those owned by Smithsonian institutions, – are magnificent. The informative text not only competently (and with impressive brevity) covers the expected basics of book history, but also surprisingly ventures into related topics such as the history of typography, the technical aspects of manuscript illumination, the history of dictionaries and encyclopedias, and children’s book illustrations. This book is a pleasure to skim through, and was a pleasure to read. 

Invisible FormsInvisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities (2000) by Kevin Jackson

A completely enjoyable read from first to last. Jackson (a Brit, and you can tell that from his constant drollery) devotes his entire book to the “paratexual” elements of books: titles, blurbs, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, and indexes – that readers have come to take for granted. Jackson leavens his histories of each of these (and many other) bookish conventions with fascinating (and often snarky) anecdotes involving authors, playwrights, publishers, and critics from many centuries (mostly European and American). Even if I hadn’t throughly enjoyed every surprising page of Jackson’s essays, I’d still have come away with a desire to track down (yea, perhaps even own a copy one day of) the great grandaddy of books like this, Isaac D’Israeli’s three-volume Curiosities of Literature (1881). I also gleaned from Jackson’s bibliography several additional titles that I’ve added to the list of Books About Books that I maintain at my other blog.

A Place for EverythingA Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order (2020) by Judith Flanders

Wow! What an interesting story – and what a long and winding road to something we now take so much for granted that we cannot imagine that our forebearers ever arranged human knowledge any other way.  Flanders repeatedly surprised (and delighted) me with numerous lengthy and erudite digressions (and with footnotes on almost every other page); her book covers not only the history of alphabetical order, but the histories of indexes, commonplace books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, library catalogs, inventions such as the telephone, the rolltop desk, even office spindles, ledgers, looseleaf binders, rolltop desks, and – of course – computers, as these devices are quite relevant to the gradual triumph of alphabetical (vs. chronological, theological, geographical, or topological) order. Her story is so convoluted and complex that reading her book might have proven exhausting if her writing style were not as engaging and chock-full of those amazing digressions.  

Bibliophile An Illustrated MiscellanyBibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany (2018) by Jane Mount

This colorful celebration of books, book cover design, and bookstores can be read in a single afternoon. Its colorful illustrations, sprinkled with quirky bookish arcana, are by the author and most of them are of book cover designs, images of authors, renderings of beautiful libraries, and drawings of famous bookstore fronts. Mount’s stated purpose in compiling this book was to “triple the size of your To Be Read pile.” My TBR pile was way too long already for a single book to triple its size, but I did garner several titles from its book recommendations by various bookstore owners, librarians, writers, and other bookish persons. I was also reminded of many titles that I read before I began routinely listing them as I finished them (around 1986 or so), so I am glad, for that reason, that I decided to track down Mount’s book. (Incidentally, although the author lives in Hawaii, she mentions in passing that she grew up in Atlanta.)

A History of Reading (1996) by Alberto Manguel

Reading “books about books” is one of my hobbies, and I owned a copy of this one for many years before I finally tackled it, reading chapters of it sporadically over the past twelve months or so.  Manguel’s weaving together of his personal journey as a reader – growing up in Argentina –  with his meticulous historical research on various aspects of reading – along with its wealth of illustrations – is what gives Manguel’s decidedly non-linear account of book history its idiosyncratic charm.

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary  (2003) by Simon Winchester

I first read this book fifteen years ago and liked it enough to keep a copy. I noticed it on my bookshelves the other day after having recently watched a movie based on one of Winchester’s other books, The Professor and the Madman, about a person who also figures in this history of the OED.  I  picked it up mainly to find out what happened to the OED’s editor after the events depicted in the movie, so I skipped ahead to the final half of the book. It was such absorbing reading that after finishing it this time, I re-read the first half also. (This may be the only book I’ve ever read this way.) Although mortified that I hadn’t remembered having read this book before, my amnesia allowed me to enjoy this book all over again. I also read this year Winchester’s newest tale, about the history of borders and land ownership, and I’ll be buying any other book by Winchester that I happen to stumble across: he’s one of the best nonfiction writers I know of.