In which five weeks pass *SNAP* like that

Over our long and wonderful winter break, we saw six plays:

The Testament of Mary at the Victory Gardens Theater
Isaac’s Eye at the Writers Theatre
The Humans at the American Theater Company
Pericles at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Waiting for Godot at the Court Theater

Godot actually concluded our break.

VLADIMIR: I missed you… and at the same time I was happy. Isn’t that a queer thing?
ESTRAGON: (shocked). Happy?
VLADIMIR: Perhaps it’s not quite the right word.
ESTRAGON: And now?
VLADIMIR: Now? … (Joyous.) There you are again… (Indifferent.) There we are again… (Gloomy.) There I am again.

NOTE: For those of you in and around the Chicagoland area, drop everything and see if you can get tickets to the gobsmackingly awesome Waiting for Godot at the Court and The Humans at the ATC (reviews here and here).

While on break, we also visited three zoos. Just before Christmas, we saw “Zoolights” at the Lincoln Park Zoo before heading to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater for the Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol. Both experiences put us in a holiday spirit.

We spent Christmas Day the Brookfield Zoo…

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… and a few days later, we visited the Milwaukee County Zoo.

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We had hoped to see the “David Bowie Is” during our visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, but were content to see MCA DNA Alexander Calder.

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At the Field Museum, we saw “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti” (photographs here — this is another must-see, if you’re in or around the Chicagoland area) and “The Machine Inside: Biomechanics.”

As you may have guessed, we essentially packed all of the adventures we would have ordinarily spread over the course of the fall semester into the five weeks of our winter break — including our annual birthday trip to the Adler Planetarium (two months late but still wonderful).

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It was a cold, clear day, but those brave enough to venture outside were treated to sun observations through Dobsonian ‘scopes outfitted with solar filters. We so thoroughly enjoyed ourselves that we promptly put one of our Christmas gift cards toward a solar filter for our own Dobsonian.

While Mr. M-mv was able to join us for the second and third weeks of our break (as well as an adventure here and there in the first week), it was a reunion of the “Girls Rule!” School for our trip to the Art Institute of Chicago last week.

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Always up for the interplay of serendipity, synchronicity, and synthesis, we couldn’t help but remark on The Crucifixion (1538, Lucas Cranach the Elder): “But she wasn’t there.” (Those who have read and / or seen The Testament of Mary understand.)

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And The Triumph of Death (1539, Georg Pencz) led all of us to exclaim that it perfectly complemented our recent viewing of The Seventh Seal (1957).

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Speaking of movies, in anticipation of their film course, the Misses asked me to use part of our break to fill some gaps in their film education. In addition to The Seventh Seal, I introduced them to Testament (1983), Rushmore (1999), Donnie Darko (2001), Psycho (1960), and The Godfather (1972). We hope to squeeze The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Amadeus (1997), and another viewing of Citizen Kane (1941) into this rather slow first week back to the familiar rhythm of work, studies, volunteering, and the rest.

And speaking of how much we love to watch (yes, they’ve seen Being There (1979)), I will share that over our break we made much progress in our quasi-binge-(re)watching of “LOST” — we have only eight episodes left. We’ve chosen “Jeeves and Wooster” as our next (re)watch project. The Misses were quite young when their brother and I first watched the series. They’ve seen some of it since then but not recently, and they’d like to begin at the beginning, as he did.

BERTIE: You can’t be a successful dictator and design women’s underclothing.
JEEVES: No, sir.
BERTIE: One or the other. Not both.
JEEVES: Precisely, sir.

The penultimate adventure of our break was a behind-the-scenes tour of the John G. Shedd Aquarium, after which, Miss M-mv(i) participated in the “Trainer for a Day” program while Miss M-mv(ii) and I explored the aquarium. Mr. M-mv and the Misses took part in “Trainer for a Day” in December 2011, when Miss M-mv(i) first expressed an earnest interest in pursuing animal behavior as a course of study. Over the following year, she and her sister also participated in similar programs at Oceans of Fun in Milwaukee and the Brookfield Zoo. We arranged for this solo return to the Shedd program to celebrate her upcoming birthday, and she arrived with the benefit of all reading she has done in the field, as well as a mental list of questions she had about the trainers’ education and experience.

In and among these many adventures, we all continued with our music practice and lessons, and the Misses worked during the first, fourth, and fifth weeks (swim instruction and lifeguarding). We also returned to the the conservation area where we spent part of Thanksgiving Day, this time for a longer hike, and we attended a seminar on the owls of Illinois. Miss M-mv(i) and I took an online bird behavior class with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and all of us enjoyed some board games, notably Clue, Set, and Blink. We read a great deal, the Misses sketched and drew, and Miss M-mv(ii) worked on her chess game using Chesscademy and built two small robots.

How did you spend the winter break?

The year of the American Goldfinch

goldfinch_0I first read about “Bird of the Year” eleven years ago, in Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s paean to birding, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. She writes:

There is a game birders play on New Year’s Day called “Bird of the Year.” The very first bird you see on the first day of the new year is your theme bird for the next 365 days. It might seem a curious custom, but people who watch birds regularly are always contriving ways to keep themselves interested. This is one of those ways. You are given the possibility of creating something extraordinary — a Year of the Osprey, Year of the Pileated Woodpecker, Year of the Trumpeter Swan. This game is an inspiration to place yourself in natural circumstances that will yield a heavenly bird, blessing your year, your perspective, your imagination, your spirit. New year, new bird.

After her breathless anticipation, Haupt is confronted with… an Eastern Starling, or “sky-rat.”

Year of the Eastern Starling. Inauspicious, yes, but not without its charms, according to Haupt.

Before heading to bed last night, Mr. M-mv ensured that all of the feeders were topped off and scattered corn and nuts for the squirrels. (As any seasoned backyard birder knows, there are no squirrel-proof feeders. Cheap feed scattered away from the feeders will (mostly) keep those furry nuisances away from the birds and the more expensive seed, though.) Then I hung a Post-It on the big window to remind all of us to note our first bird.

Each of us espied an American goldfinch first, although it was a tight race between them, the dark-eyed juncos, a white-breasted nuthatch, and a red-bellied woodpecker.

So. The Year of the American Goldfinch. Let’s see what it brings.

The year in books

library

Number of books read: 104

You’ll find my complete list here and my “Fifty-two books in fifty-two weeks” post here.

Random observations:
■ In 2012, my sole reading goal was to complete fifty-two non-fiction books, and I came thisclose with fifty. But sans goal, I read only twenty-six in 2013. And this year? Just twenty-five. I’m on the fence about making another non-fiction goal, though.

■ Although last year at this time, I maintained that my readerly soul requires more poetry, I made no real progress on that goal and am now considering a “poem-a-day” habit.

■ Over the last decade, I have been accumulating books at approximately the rate of five or six for every one read. Ahem. I am going to be quite serious about my chief goal for 2014: “Read from the shelves.” Enough said.

■ In 2014, I read seven works of Shakespeare, only one of which was new to me: Antony and Cleopatra.

■ Of the eight non-Shakespeare plays I read this year, only one was a reread:

Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen; 1890. Drama.)

■ I read fifteen works of graphic fiction this year, nearly double what I read last year.

■ Of the forty-seven novels I read this year, five were rereads:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Sozhenitsyn; 1962/2009. 208 pages. Fiction.)
Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck; 1937. 112 pages. Fiction.)
The Stranger (Albert Camus (1942); 1989 edition. 123 pages. Fiction.)
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë (1847); 2005 B&N edition. 592 pages. Fiction.)
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley (1932); 2006 ed. 288 pages. Fiction.)

The year in adventures

Saw
The Phantom of the Opera at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (Broadway in Chicago)
Gypsy at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a Shakespeare Project of Chicago (SPC) production
Hedda Gabler at the Writers Theatre
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (Broadway in Chicago)
Road Show at the CST
Rent at the Paramount Theater
All’s Well That Ends Well, another SPC production
The Foreigner at Lambs Players Theatre in San Diego
Henry V at the CST
Driving Miss Daisy (Broadway on Screen)
The Dance of Death at the Writers Theatre
Hamlet (Globe Theatre) at the CST
Much Ado about Nothing at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Elizabeth Rex at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Antony and Cleopatra at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Brigadoon at the Goodman Theatre
King Lear at the CST
Cats at the Paramount Theater
All My Sons at the Raven Theatre
Frankenstein (Cumberbatch as the Monster; National Theatre Live)
Porgy and Bess at the Lyric Opera
Iphigenia in Aulis at the Court Theatre
The Testament of Mary at the Victory Gardens Theater
Isaac’s Eye at the Writers Theatre
The Humans at the American Theatre Company
Pericles at the CST
A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol at the CST

Heard
■ Shaun Hopper at ECC’s SecondStage
■ Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center
■ Jeffrey Foucault at ECC’s SecondStage
■ Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at Chicago Symphony Center
■ Violinist Itzhak Perlman at the Lyric

Visited, Experienced
■ “Feathered Friends,” a Brookfield Zoo behind-the-scenes event
■ Field Museum (multiple visits)
■ “Imagining Henry V” — a CST behind-the-scenes event
■ A Stephen Sondheim-centric behind-the-scenes event at the CST
■ Lincoln Park Conservatory
■ Art Institute of Chicago (multiple visits)
■ A nature drawing class
■ A bird banding event during International Migratory Bird Day celebrations
■ A scholar luncheon featuring lectures on Henry V — a CST behind-the-scenes event
■ SeaWorld (San Diego)
■ San Diego Zoo
■ San Diego Museum of Art
■ U.S.S. Midway Museum
■ Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
■ White Sox v. New York Yankees
■ “Kandinsky: A Retrospective” at the Milwaukee Art Museum
■ Bristol Renaissance Faire
■ Fermilab: “Get to Know…” tour
■ John G. Shedd Aquarium
■ A Pericles-centric behind-the-scenes event at the CST
■ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
■ Lincoln Park Zoo
■ Museum of Contemporary Art
■ Milwaukee County Zoo

Fifty-two books in fifty-two weeks

fifty books
Robin hosts the wonderful book-a-week challenge. Stop by to see what others are reading and consider participating in 2015.

How many books did you read? Did you meet your personal goal?
To date, I’ve read 102 books. (Here’s the list.) My goal was two per week, for a total of 104. With nine or ten days remaining in the year, it’s still possible to reach it, particularly since I’ve got active bookmarks in at least eight books. We’ll see; we’ll see. [UPDATE: On December 27, I reached 104.] Like last year, I mostly concerned myself with reading more slowly, trying to avoid popping off and on books, savoring what I read. I am still an unapologetically promiscuous reader; that is, one who enters into assorted relationships while already involved in too many others to name and one who leaves books languishing unread or, perhaps sadder still, partially read on shelves and nightstands, in knapsacks, and beside favorite chairs. I did do much better this year and last, though. No, really. I did.

Most thrilling, “Oh, my goodness, I want to read it again,” unputdownable book? (One fiction title, one non-fiction title, one play.)
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel; 2014. 352 pages. Fiction.)
The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (Emmanuel Carrère; 2002. 191 pages. Non-fiction.)
Isaac’s Eye (Lucas Hnath; 2014. 113 pages. Drama.)

Top five seven books? (Listed in the order read.)
Cartwheel (Jennifer duBois; 2013. 384 pages. Fiction.)
Lexicon (Max Barry; Folger ed. 2013. 400 pages. Fiction.)
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade (Walter Kirn; 2014. 272 pages. Non-fiction.)
Burial Rites (Hannah Kent; 2013. 336 pages. Fiction.)
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel; 2014. 352 pages. Fiction.)
The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (Emmanuel Carrère; 2002. 191 pages. Non-fiction.)
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder (Charles Graeber; 2013. 320 pages. Non-fiction.)

Honorable mention:
The Wicked Girls (Alex Marwood; 2013. 384 pages. Fiction.)
Soft Apocalypse (Will McIntosh; 2011. 239 pages. Fiction.)
The Fever (Meg Abbott; 2014. 320 pages. Fiction.)
Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family (Ezekiel Emanuel; 2013. 288 pages. Non-fiction.)
The Lost Daughter (Elena Ferrante; 2008. 125 pages. Fiction.)

Least favorite book? 
Landline (Rainbow Rowell; 2013. 320 pages. Fiction.)
I actually do not (at. all.) subscribe to the idea that characters must be likeable and their struggles unique, but this crew was pretty insufferable, and their “difficulties” were so banal. The snappy verve of Rowell’s other work is so much more appealing. (See Eleanor and Park and/or Fangirl.)

New author discovery? 
Elena Ferrante (Who is she?) and Emmanuel Carrère.

Share a favorite character, story, quote, or cover.
Perhaps one of the most compelling opening sentences, ever… from The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (Emmanuel Carrère; 2002):

On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son.

From In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic (Professor X; 2011):

Over the years, I have come to think that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms. It is very difficult to make up for gaps in a lifetime of reading and practice over the course of a fifteen-week semester. As Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University, says, “Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes. Some students are more advanced in them when they come to college than are others. Those who are less advanced will not develop to a level comparable to the more-prepared students in one year or even two, although they may reach adequate levels of ability over time.”

From The Testament of Mary (Colm Tóibín; 2012):

And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears. There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.

Are you ready to do it all over again?
Ayup. And I am grateful to Robin for continuing to host this program. I don’t post or link as much as others, but I do appreciate the community of readers and the civility of their conversation.

Goals for 2015?  
One idea I’ve had is to develop a poem and a short story daily habit. I don’t read nearly enough of either, yet when I do, I adore both forms. What’s the hang-up? I don’t know. Perhaps a “reading plan” would motivate me to read more.

I join the chorus of readers who maintain that they must, must, must read from the shelves and stacks (i.e., cut back on the book acquiring; focus on the book reading).

Sit in the front row.

As I watch the neighborhood kids push and shove at the bus stop each morning when they line up to board, I recall someone asking me, “How will they learn things like how to stand in line?” when I told her my children were home-educated. This memory still makes me chuckle. You see, my son, who attended school through second grade, actually needed to relearn the “standing in line” skill when we began homeschooling. At a museum event, I observed that he was expert at the jockeying and jostling that passes for lining up among most schoolchildren. “If you can’t find a spot without touching someone, move to the end of the line,” I said as I walked past the pile-up. Schooled children often believe that being last is a punishment, and he still had one foot in that world. I explained that it was not a punishment; it was almost a prize of sorts, a way to distinguish oneself, at the very least. “Trust me,” I told him. “They almost never pick a pusher or the shover to do the cool stuff.” He reluctantly moved to the back of the line.

When the coordinator was looking for a student to help with the animals later, he chose my son.

It wasn’t the last time I was spot on about something.

My daughters, who were home-educated until they enrolled at the local college this summer, learned to assess the jockeying and jostling and calmly move to the rear, too, but they also learned to line up for the stuff that matters in my favorite way: by arriving so early you’re nearly always first. Heh, heh, heh.

The Misses are fresh off a wildly successful fall semester at the local college. Over the last sixteen weeks, though, from the stories they’ve shared with me, I’ve learned that standing in line is not the only skill their same-age peers may have mislearned. If you know a student who is heading to a college classroom this spring, share the following with him. It can’t hurt.

Sit in the front row.
It is difficult to disengage or become distracted from this position.

Complete the reading before class.
It makes everything clearer.

Reread class notes before the day is out.
This improves retention.

Take advantage of any extra credit opportunity an instructor offers.
It can only help.

Remember: Strong performance throughout the semester is like an insurance policy taken out on the final exam.
Translated: It is rare that a subpar final will “ruin” a strong A or a strong B.

Show up, even if participation is not part of the grade.
What was the point of enrolling in a conventional course, otherwise?

Participate, even if participation is not part of the grade.
Engagement may improve retention.

Complete the homework, even when it is not part of the grade.
It is impossible to master the material without using it.

Go to bed early.
What a difference it makes!

Eat breakfast and bring a snack.
Again, what a difference it makes.

Know the syllabus.
It’s more than just a calendar of assignments.

Check the online gradebook and assignment system at least once daily and use its tools.
It is difficult to believe that students so devoted to technology must be told this, but apparently they do.

Inventory the backpack before heading to class.
Pen, pencils, paper, calculator, text, assignment? Good to go. Now throw in some change, a filled water bottle, a Kind bar, phone, and keys.

Do not talk during class. Do not use the phone. Do not nap.
It is hard to believe that college students would do these things, but they do. Don’t.

Do not cram the night before the exam.
Complete the reading before class. Show up, even if participation is not part of the grade. Do not talk during class. Do not use the phone. Do not nap. Reread class notes before the day is out. Complete the homework, even when it is not part of the grade. In the days before the exam, take the practice tests in the study guide (online or conventional). On the night before the exam, go to bed early.

Ask for help before it’s too late.
See the instructor during office hours. Get a “study buddy.” Visit the tutoring center. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. And blaming the professor is lame. Ask for help.

Learn about the college’s policies, deadlines, resources, etc.
They’re usually covered in the catalogue but are also on the website. Know the drop/add deadlines, for example. Know where the tutoring center is. How to reach campus security. The hours for the library. Etc.

If a course requires online quizzes or tests, familiarize yourself with the system before taking them.
Self-explanatory.

Do not leave said online quizzes or tests until the eleventh hour. Ditto for assignments that must be submitted online.
What if there is a thunderstorm? Or the website is down for maintenance?

When entering major papers or projects into the planning calendar, choose a date at least one week before the actual due date.
Make this a habit now. It’s a scheduling insurance policy because emergencies and illnesses do happen, but they are really no excuse. Plan for them now.

Only thirteen days until Christmas? How can that be?

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Ordinarily, we head to the zoo on Thanksgiving Day, but the Misses studied during much of Wednesday and Thursday, so instead, we hiked through one of our county’s conservation areas. It was absolutely gorgeous, and we had the entire place to ourselves. Over the the remaining three days of the break, we saw Porgy and Bess at the Lyric Opera and Iphinegia at Aulis at the Court Theatre, and toured the Frederick C. Robie House.

And now another much-anticipated break is upon us. Bliss.

Since I last wrote, Miss M-mv(ii) “graduated” from the “Saturday Morning Physics” (SMP) program at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.  SMP comprises nine two-hour lectures and eight behind-the-scenes tours to “further the understanding and appreciation of modern physics among high school students.” She positively relished the experience. She and her sister also wrapped up their semester; they took the last of this semester’s finals yesterday. They have already received their grades from that and from the exams taken earlier in the week. (And, yes, we’ve indulged in our share of high-fiving, exploding fist bumps, and happy celebration.)

We also enjoyed the first of our winter break adventures: We visited the Art Institute for “Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor,” “Strokes of Genius: Italian Drawings from the Goldman Collection,” and “Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints.” And then we headed to Victory Gardens Theater for The Testament of Mary, which was beautiful and fierce and achingly sad. (Reviews here and here.)

In the coming weeks, we will see five more plays, visit at least four museums and a zoo, hike in several county conservation areas, and spend time at the indoor archery range. Miss M-mv(ii) plans to build a robot; Miss M-mv(i) plans to prepare for an advanced statistics course; and all of us have music to practice and towering piles of books to read.

I may even have time to visit this site again before the New Year! Heh, heh, heh.

The fall semester is barreling toward its conclusion.

IMG_4254Only the rest of this week, a two-day week before our much-anticipated Thanksgiving respite, a full week, and finals remain.

At the risk of jinxing it, I will confine my “mommy brag” to something on the order of, “It’s going quite well for them.” Heh, heh, heh. As I’ve mentioned before, Miss M-mv(ii) is a high school senior participating in the local college’s dual enrollment program, and Miss M-mv(i) is a freshman. They are taking a full load (fifteen credits this semester; fourteen, next), working on weekends, and continuing with music lessons and practice (violin and guitar, respectively). This semester, Miss M-mv(ii) has also spent most Saturday mornings at a program for aspiring physicists.

Phew.

They are not just looking forward to Thanksgiving. Bring on the five-week winter break. Please.

In the midst of all of this, Miss M-mv(ii) and I have been working on college and scholarship applications. May I just say? It is not easy to get all of those essays and forms complete when you’re already carrying a full load of college courses. But she’s managing. Of the three colleges to which she applied during the priority application period, all have offered admission and two have offered generous merit scholarships and invitations to compete for additional merit awards. (We’re awaiting the official packet from the third university but suspect it will be the same story.) She’s working on her application to a fourth college in the interstices her studies and the requirements of the additional scholarship packets permit.

And frankly? I don’t know how it’s all getting done, but it is. She amazes me. They both amaze me.

As for their plans, well, at this writing, I’ve said just about everything that can be said with any certainty. If all goes as well as it has been, they will have accumulated thirty-three transferable credits at the conclusion of the spring semester, and the plan is to take at least two more classes (six to eight credits total) over the summer session. Miss M-mv(i) will complete her transfer applications to the three colleges to which Miss M-mv(ii) has already been admitted as soon as fall semester grades are official, and once she receives their responses, serious discussions about what comes next will ensue.

Until then, I am collecting their “You will not believe what happened in class today!” anecdotes for a special “Advice — take it, leave it” post.

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