And so it goes.

The contractors finished the small bath one day later than expected, and our list of things to do blossomed like a lilac bush in spring, so the two-week project became a 2.5-week project, which, I hear, is still a pretty good schedule. The work on the main bath is nearly completed, as is the work on the (added project) front entrance and the (added project) repainting throughout the house. Everything else is done.

Although the Misses and I exceeded all of our goals for studies and music practice over these last two weeks, we had little time-space for “free reading” or other pursuits. We weren’t even able to walk or bike midday, as is our wont in April and May. You might imagine, then, that we are certainly looking forward to being less house-bound once the contractors roll up the drop cloths for the last time tomorrow night.

Speaking of music, we saw violinist Itzhak Perlman at the Lyric earlier this month. Wonderful, wonderful. Our upcoming adventures include a nature drawing class, All’s Well that Ends Well with the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, and Henry V at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Remodeling the “forever home”

photo(3)Apparently, the tile work in the two bathrooms wasn’t quite as “forever” as we had anticipated and the home inspector had projected. Oh, well. Sure, the contractor could patch and repair, but with all of the new materials and methods, why not do it right, once and, well, forever? So the tile, mosaic, fixtures, paint, etc. have been selected, and the contractor will begin with the smaller bath early next month, with work on the main bath to follow immediately. He assures us the project will take only two weeks. Fingers crossed!

An aside: I tell you, it’s crazy how much discussion the choice between toasted almond and latte grout can generate. Heh, heh, heh.

Sandwiched among the “difficult” decisions — Patterned glass or frosted for the shower door? Framed or frameless? A rustic reclaimed barnwood for the backsplash? Tile? Mosaic? Nothing? One grab bar or two? Etc. — were some adventures:

■ We saw Jeffrey Foucault at ECC’s SecondStage and the Misses’ favorite pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, at Chicago Symphony Center.

■ Mr. M-mv was called away to Texas on business the week we were slated to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Cadillac Palace (Broadway in Chicago — review here), but the Misses and I enjoyed ourselves, and the weekend following Mr. M-mv’s return, all of us headed to the Paramount Theater in Aurora to see Rent (reviews here and here).

■ We visited the Art Institute of Chicago (noteworthy: “The Thrill of the Chase: Drawings for the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection,” “Hiroshige’s Winter Scenes,” and the Christopher Wool exhibit) before seeing Road Show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (reviews here and here).

■ We toyed with the idea of heading into Milwaukee for “Art in Bloom,” which we absolutely loved last year, but decided that all of us could use a day — or two — sans plans, commitments, and obligations; so we went antique-ing and walking today and are looking forward to just being tomorrow.

“We become steeped in the notion that if we can’t excel, there’s little point in pursuit.”

This entry was first published in July 2007.

From Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast (Bill Richardson):

p. 28

The purpose of reading is not necessarily to have one’s own world view confirmed or mirrored back. But it is nice when it happens. It is not difficult for either of us to imagine any number of Anne Tyler’s confused and gentle characters turning up at our door. We rather suspect that many of our guests see themselves reflected in her pages and take a certain comfort in being validated through fiction. Who can blame them? It is a benign form of narcissism.

COMMENT: Have you read this 2004 BookPage interview with Anne Tyler?

p. 38

Many people have had this experience, I think, especially where music is concerned. We become steeped in the notion that if we can’t excel, there’s little point in pursuit.

COMMENT: What do you think? Is there little point in pursuing an interest if there’s no chance you will excel?

p. 56

I love the phrase “learning by heart,” especially when it is applied to poetry, because it seems such a perfect description of the process of memorizing words that have been carefully chosen and weighed and handled. The heart, I think, is the home of all things rhythmic, is where learned poems go to live. Over time and repeated use, they are folded into one’s being, are absorbed by the blood, and feed the rest of the mechanism: more subtle than oxygen, but as vital, in their way. Memorized poems become part of the whole, like reflexes. They surface as they’re required.

COMMENT: What poems have you “learned by heart”?

p. 63

This anthology of stories, fables, and drawings [The Thurber Carnival] was published in 1945. It is significant for me on two fronts. It was one of the books sent to us by our father; and it was one of those transitional books that bridge the gap between childhood reading and adult reading. I felt terribly knowing and chuckled appreciatively at the cartoons, although it’s certain I didn’t get them at all. They are, after all, quite sexually sophisticated. This is a perfect bedside book, and a great reminder that there is much virtue to be found in simplicity.

COMMENT: Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894, writer and cartoonist James Thurber is widely considered the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain. According to Books and Writers, Thurber’s work “dealt with the frustrations of modern world.” Walter Mitty, his snarling wife, and silently observing animals are among his best known characters. What Thurber have you read? And which books bridged your childhood and adulthood reading?

p. 122

“You subscribe to the Reader’s Digest?” asked Rae.

“Mother did,” I said, with a faint and unnecessary tone of apology. I don’t know why it’s so fashionable to sneer at the Reader’s Digest. I’ve learned a great deal from it over the years about the function of the major organs, and how to keep love alive in a marriage. “We’ve kept up the subscription as a kind of memorial. And anyway, I rather like it. Great toilet-side reading.”

COMMENT: Do you subscribe to Reader’s Digest?

“He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was…”

This entry was first published on November 11, 2010.

From Stoner by John Williams:

p. 26

He began to resent the time he had to spend at work on the Foote farm. Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

COMMENT: How accurately this passage describes those who, like me, like William Stoner, arrive at the scholar’s banquet late: We resent any activity that keeps us from reading, thinking, learning, synthesizing, writing. And we are occasionally all but undone by the realization that there will never be enough time to read all that we want — all we must read.

________________________

p. 74

Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping it would improve.

COMMENT: In a sentence formed with the deceptive simplicity of a Shaker rocking chair, Williams establishes how Stoner’s inherited stoicism has and will inform his entire life — a life that the author maintains wasn’t “such a sad and bad” one, despite the ineffable melancholy the sentence above may evoke. After all, he continues in an interview about Stoner:

He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.

Yes, since William Stoner is a man of so few relationships, the failure of his marriage before it even begins presages how essential his work will be.

________________________

p. 113

He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.

COMMENT: The maturity, the wisdom of this self-realization and the quiet but essential way in which it strengthens Stoner will startle readers accustomed to the angsty navel-gazing that masquerades as penetrating insight in more contemporary novels.

________________________

p. 138

Almost from the first, the implications of the subject caught the students, and they all had that sense of discovery that comes when one feels that the subject at hand lies at the center of a much larger subject, and when one feels intensely that a pursuit of the subject is likely to lead — where, one does not know.

COMMENT: I’ve experienced this sense of scholarly delight, intensity, and, yes, urgency more frequently in my autodidactic pursuits and in our family-centered learning project than in my undergraduate and graduate studies.

________________________

p. 179

He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a little sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.

COMMENT: This meditation occurs after Walker’s sham of a graduate examination and the repercussions of Stoner’s evaluation of his performance but before Katherine Driscoll’s re-entry into the professor’s life. Sandwiched, as it were, between these two defining moments in Stoner’s chronology, it may have read as midlife crisis and cliché had it not been for the stoicism and scholarly detachment with which Stoner examines and then dispatches the basic question of life: What does it all mean?

________________________

p. 232

And Stoner looked upon it all — the rage, the woe, the screams, and the hateful silences — as if it were happening to two other people, in whom, by an effort of the will, he could summon only the most perfunctory interest.

COMMENT: In other words, one’s stoicism not only yields penetrating self-evaluation but also diminishes the effects of emotional gales. Like any philosophy, stoicism has its limits and disadvantages, but Stoner manages to employ it effectively.

________________________

From “The Inner Lives of Men” (NYT, June 17, 2007):

This is the story of an ordinary man, seemingly thwarted at every turn, but also of the knotty integrity he preserves, the deep inner life behind the impassive facade.

And whooooosh! Time really does fly.

gabby on the block
To begin, many thanks for the thoughtful replies to my last post, which, was — Whooooosh! — two weeks ago. With your gentle remarks in mind, I will refrain from getting my knickers in (too much of) a twist when others have trouble telling them apart.

Now, pictured above is Miss M-mv(i), who cut 1.84 seconds from her 200 breastroke at the Winter Regional Championship Meets, nabbing seventh place and a spot in the awards ceremony. She also swam solid races in the 50 freestyle and the 100 breaststroke that weekend. And the following weekend, she took first place in all three of her individual events at the rec team’s conference meet. Yes, she is quite pleased with how her winter season concluded, particularly since it began badly. (She was diagnosed with pneumonia just before the season began, and months of missed seed times passed before her health returned, and she began improving again. Interestingly, it was her two longer events that improved; her 50 freestyle is unyielding.)

Miss M-mv(ii) earned a place on the championship squad with her 200 backstroke but contracted some sort of stomach bug and was too ill to compete in regionals. The following weekend, though, she took second, third, and fourth, respectively, in her three individual events at the rec team’s conference. What delighted her most, though, was an eight-second time drop in her 500 freestyle.

They now have a five-week break of sorts until stroke clinic and training for long-course season begins.

In other news…
We saw a splendid production of Hedda Gabler at the Writers’ Theatre earlier this month. In a neat bit of synchronicity, we realized that Kate Fry, who astounds in the title role reviews here and here), is the wife of Timothy Edward Kane (the Poet in An Iliad — related entry here). If there is a theater god, then, come awards season, both actors will be well acknowledged for their intelligent, insightful performances.

Upcoming adventures include the premiere of the Veronica Mars movie (our first KickStarter campaign — related entry here), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Cadillac Palace (Broadway in Chicago), Road Show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and several concerts.

Do they really look like twins?

053

058

004Everywhere we go, folks ask, “Are they twins?” or some derivation. I realize that, as their mother, I am beyond biased in this matter, but superficial similarities aside — e.g., short, dark hair; clear skin; and height — they do not seem to resemble each other enough to provoke a “Twins?” comment. I await your (gentle) correction in the comments.

Until then…
Over the past week, we’ve enjoyed a few adventures:

■ In the spring of 2003, my son and I attended our first Shakespeare Project of Chicago (SPC) production, The Merchant of Venice. That fall, we saw The Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Jeff Christian, who also played Valentine, if I remember correctly; and the following season, we caught The Winter’s Tale. After that, our relocation from Chicago to the tiny woods on the prairie coupled with the kids’ swim meet schedule and, later, their weekend gigs as lifeguards and swim instructors prevented us from attending.

Some white space remained on the family calendar this past weekend, though, and Mr. M-mv and the Misses joined me in seeing my fourth and their first SPC reading. In a neat “full circle” moment, it was The Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Jeff Christian. For a few moments, it felt as if time were folding in on itself as I remembered encountering this play with Master M-mv more than a decade ago while Mr. watched the Misses play in a nearby park.

■ Speaking of the Misses, they are no longer quite so young: They took and passed their road test and are now licensed drivers.

■ The Misses were named to their team’s championship squad and will be competing at the Winter Regional Championship Meets and, the following weekend, at their team’s rec conference. Good stuff.

■ We enjoyed a lovely meander through the Lincoln Park Conservatory yesterday afternoon before heading to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) for another behind-the-scenes event — this time, a Stephen Sondheim-centric discussion with Gary Griffin, CST’s associate artistic director and the director of two CST productions this season (Gypsy and Road Show); Michael Mahler, musical director of Road Show; and Rick Boynton, CST’s creative producer.

“My mother was always telling me to stop reading, to live in the real world.”

The following commonplace book entry was first published April 11, 2009.

“I didn’t like my mother,” Alyse Myers baldly explains in the prologue to her memoir, “and I certainly didn’t love her.” She continues, “I know she didn’t like me either. I can’t say whether she loved me, as I don’t remember her ever telling me so.” With these unadorned declarations, Who Do You Think You Are? hooked me in its first two paragraphs, and I finished it, swallowed it whole, the day it arrived.

No matter how you feel about your relationship with your own mother — or your daughters, for that matter — you, too, will likely find Myers’ narrative compelling… and memorable.

p. 65
School is what saved me during those years. It was the one place I could go where I didn’t have to hear the two of them fighting. I couldn’t wait to get up each morning and go to class and forget about my life at home. But it wasn’t always easy to leave the house — and get to school — on time.

p. 113
Reading was my escape into another place. As soon as I finished one book, I started another. I would eat dinner with a book on my lap, putting my fork down to turn the page. I spent hours in the school library and the public library a few blocks from our apartment building. I read everything the librarians recommended, and I would read the books I loved over and over so I wouldn’t forget them. I would also read anything my mother was reading — magazines like Reader’s Digest, or books she kept hidden in her pocketbook, like Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls. At night, I would take those books out of her bag and read them either in the bathroom or under the covers with the flashlight I took from the junk drawer in the kitchen and kept hidden under my bed. In the morning, I would sneak them back in her bag so she wouldn’t know I had taken them. I was always dying to ask her to explain some of the things in the books that I didn’t understand. But I knew she wouldn’t tell me. Books were where I learned about the places I wanted to go and people I wanted to meet. And what I wanted that I didn’t have.

My mother was always telling me to stop reading, to live in the real world. To go play with my sisters. Or watch TV. Put that book down already, she would tell me. All that reading would ruin my eyes, she would warn.

“And you won’t look good in glasses,” she would add.

p. 170
I had always promised myself I wouldn’t have the same kind of marriage my mother had. That no matter what, I would not be with a man who couldn’t love me and take care of me the way I needed and wanted to be loved and cared for. I always felt sorry for my mother. After my father died, she died a little bit, too.

p. 177
After I was married, my mother and I settled into a new kind of relationship. We didn’t talk about the past — we talked about the now. What my husband and I were doing that weekend. Where we would be going on vacation. What she was having for dinner. Nothing important, but it was civil. And I was glad.

p. 221
Later, my husband asked me why my relationship with my mother was so different from that of my sisters.

They had a different mother, I told him. They didn’t see what I saw, they didn’t know what I knew, I tried to explain to him. She treated me differently than she treated them. I wasn’t sure he understood. I wasn’t sure I did, either.
___________________________

From “A Conversation with Alyse Myers“:

I think the theme of her book would be “I did the best I could.” My mother was handed a tough life — and for whatever reason she just didn’t know how to use her difficulties as an impetus to do better. In many ways, she gave up. On everything. I wish I knew then what I know now.

From later in that interview:

I would not have been able to write this book if either of my parents were still alive. It would have been seen as the ultimate betrayal. We were not the kind of family that spoke about our feelings. We were very much a behind-the-closed door family. In a funny way, I also think the two of them would have been surprised to know that I knew and saw so much.

And this:

The best advice I can give to anyone who feels trapped in a dysfunctional family is to find something you’re passionate about — and focus on it until everything else is blocked out. Also, surround yourself with smart and loving people. If you don’t have them at home, you must find them outside in order to stay positive about yourself and the future. I worked hard to create the life I wanted, and I wouldn’t give up. I also did my best not to let my mother know how much she bothered me — that was my protection, too.

“Books are powerful.”

Here’s another commonplace book entry from M-mv’s past. This one dates back to early 2006. From Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading:

p. xvi

I think, consciously or not, what we readers do each time we open a book is to set off on a search for authenticity. We want to get closer to the heart of things, and sometimes even a few good sentences contained in an otherwise unexceptional book can crystallize vague feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or, sometimes, profound epiphanies.

[Question: Which book has offered you a profound epiphany?]

p. 34

We read literature for a lot of reasons, but two of the most compelling ones are to get out of ourselves and—equally important—to find ourselves by understanding our own life stories more clearly in the context of others’.

[Question: How often do you lose yourself in literature, and how often do you find (or even redefine) yourself?]

p. 57

Books just don’t register with this crowd. They think I lack common sense; I think they lack a part of their souls.

[Question: What do you talk about with folks who just don't "get" your life in books?]

p. 66

Meekly swallowing and assimilating the customs of the more powerful has always been a strategy by which the less powerful have tried to fit in.

[Question: Ah! Okay, folks. Who can give me a timely example of this at work? Heh, heh, heh.]

p. 69

What I did come to understand as I sat through classes at Penn is that reading good books doesn’t necessarily make one a good person—or a smarter, funnier, or more cultivated person, either. This was a major epiphany for me—one I still struggle to come to terms with, since, as a teacher, I also have to believe that reading good books has some kind of influence on my students. We just can’t be sure what it might be. Books are powerful.

[Comment: They certainly are.]

p. 70

I don’t believe in identity politics in literature—or in life much, either. Indeed the current scholarly enchantment with identity politics strikes me as a more intellectual version of the warning oft heard round Sunnyside when I was growing up: “Stick with your own kind.”

[Question: Again, recent examples of this mentality? Seriously, "identity politics." What does this mean to you in your reading, thinking, learning life?]

p. 70

One of the most magical and liberating things about literature is that it can transport us readers into worlds totally unlike our own.

[Request: Name the last book that transported you.]

p. 79

My students should be afraid: choosing what kind of work you’ll do to a great extent mean choosing who you’ll be. This rite of passage may be a mundane, rather than an extreme, adventure, but it is, nevertheless, one of the great adventures of privileged young adulthood. And it’s an adventure whose “conclusion”—the daily performance of work—has gone relatively unchronicled in literature.

[Question: Does the work you do define you?]

p. 83

Among other things, [mystery novels] give shape to an overpowering fantasy for overextended readers like myself: the fantasy of being in control of your work life, of calling the shots, of using your brains as well as whatever brawn you possess to get your own way.

[Question: Which mysteries have you read and loved?]

p. 113

Similarly, lots of critics and readers look down their noses at the entire genre of detective fiction, disparaging it as “beach reading.” A standard cliché in positive reviews of mystery fiction is to claim that a particular book “transcends the genre.” As someone who teaches college-level courses in detective fiction, who’s co-edited a two-volume scholarly work on them, and who reads and reviews them constantly, I’d say, in ruminating on this charge that mysteries are junk, that sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. […] No genre is inherently beneath contempt.

[Question: Do you agree?]

Adventures, we’ve had a few.

photo(24)Our dance cards have been full.

■ Fingerstyle guitarist Shaun Hopper performed at ECC’s SecondStage Theatre last weekend. Two words: Terrifically talented. Check out some of his videos here.

■ The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recent open rehearsal for donors was, in short, amazing. Riccardo Muti (who earlier this week announced the extension of his CSO contract to 2020) conducted Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style in C Major and Ennio Morricone’s Voices from the Silence, the latter of which featured the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago actress Ora Jones, and soloist Rosa Feola. (Morricone, who scored, among other things, Cinema Paradiso, was in the audience and enjoyed a standing ovation after Voices.) Following intermission, the orchestra and chorus presented Schubert’s Mass in A-flat Major, featuring Feola, soprano; Michaela Selinger, mezzo soprano; Antonio Poli, tenor; and Riccardo Zanellato, bass.

■ We were finally able to see “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair” at the Field Museum.

■ And we caught a wonderful production of Gypsy at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This is an easy one, but I predict a Jeff Award nod for Louise Pitre’s Rose. (I last made such a prediction after seeing Elizabeth Rex at the CST. A nod for Diane D’Aquila’s work in the title role, I foretold. She won in 2012.) Gypsy runs through March 23. If you’re in Chicago, do not miss this.

“Instinctively I knew that I would have to make some kind of peace with my mortality….”

Jim May is an Illinois treasure, and The Farm on Nippersink Creek is a gem. Published in 1994, the volume comprises an introduction and eighteen short stories, including “A Bell for Shorty.” (In 1989, May received a Chicago Emmy Award for his performance in a televised version of this touching tribute to his father.) If you allow yourself, you can “hear” May’s voice, a sort of no-nonsense, life-on-the-farm narration that stays with you well after you finish a story.

Pressed into the commonplace book:

p. 65
Like an approaching storm that stills the air and makes the flies bite in earnest, this new awareness of my own mortality demanded that I pay attention to it. It bothered me so much that the present moments seemed unimportant. I had not yet learned to live with death, had not made the necessary and eventual adjustments that all surviving people make, had not yet found a place to submerge this knowledge so that life could be lived. Instinctively I knew that I would have to make some kind of peace with my mortality because every farm harbors death as an equal partner, a dark presence with its own essential role in the business, its own steady job.

p. 75
I knew from studying the lives of the martyred saints that there were many things worth dying for, but during my eleventh year I was beginning to suspect there might be even more glorious and mysterious reasons to live. The possibilities enchanted my daydreams. Although our relationship was scrupulously chaste, I began to understand that there might be a future for me where earthly pleasures were allowed, even encouraged.

p.93
On the farm, his time was consumed by an unbroken strand of work with no two days the same. The gift bestowed by all this toil was a feeling of accomplishment, and the peace and pleasure that accompanies exhaustion. Work and life occupied that same space and there was no time to make acquaintance with the demons that inhabit idle moments.

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