Happy things

I feel well, the sun is shining, flowers are flowering, birds are twittering, I’ve done a whole lot of stuff today including some things I really didn’t want to and also some things I enjoyed, I found that I forgot to record a substantial deposit some time ago and that’s why the bank thinks we have more money than I thought we should (so no more waiting for something to clear or worrying about mistakes), and there’s still time in the day to get some more useful and enjoyable things done. I’m reading a delightful book, a memoir by L. M. Boston called Perverse and Foolish, which is broken into little chunks that can be enjoyed either in a few minutes between other things or at longer stretches.

It looks as if the summer teaching abroad program has enough students to run, and though I have batches of grading to get through they are smaller batches than at the beginning of the term because I “forgot” to point out to students until after spring break that whereas there are five (say) assignments of Type X on the syllabus they only have to do four of them, so now lots of them are breathing sighs of relief and ceasing to turn in work, except for those who want extra credit, and those are usually the better students anyway.

We finally got around to watching the Paris-Roubaix bike race and I think it was the most boring Paris-Roubaix I have ever watched but at least it wasn’t heart-breaking; no one was seriously injured. Paris-Roubaix is called “the Hell of the North” and runs over 25-29 cobblestoned sectors that are brutal; when it’s raining or has rained recently it’s incredibly muddy, slippery, and awful, and when it’s dry it’s incredibly dusty, slippery, and awful. When it’s windy the winds can blow the race apart even without the cobblestones. I still remember vividly watching Frank Schleck crash and break his collarbone in three places. Anyway, this year it wasn’t muddy or windy and was only a little dusty and it seemed like everything went very well, and I’m glad no one got badly hurt.

Reina is snoozing on a chair and Glendower is dozing in a cat carrier with his head poking out just a little so I can see his tufty ears. It’s nice to have their company. Research . . . well, I should do some. I gave a talk this week that went well but it has just dawned on me that I’m supposed to contribute to my writing group this week so I can’t rest on my laurels. It’s a good thing there’s still some time today!

Doing and dreaming

There are those who do, and those who dream.

It has taken much of my life to realize that there are very few things I’d rather do than read about doing. That number keeps shrinking. You might think eating would be a definite Do, but as I am at present on a fairly restricted diet, there are a lot of foods I enjoy only vicariously, by reading about other people’s enjoyment of them. Easy country walks fall into both categories; travel to countries other than those in Europe and North America, however, is strictly Read/Dream. I also love reading about detectives solving murder mysteries, and about Bren Cameron translating for aliens, but I have zero desire to do either, myself.

Currently I have tabs open for four gardening blogs, whose archives I am reading with considerable pleasure. And then I look at my own garden, and wonder how much work it needs to make it possible to offload it, along with this house, onto someone else, and how much of that work I’m willing to pay someone else to do. Despite all my efforts, the garden is still afflicted with creeping bellflower and bishop’s weed; various ornamental grasses and flowers that dry to ornamental interest need to be cut back now that it’s spring; the lawn is patchy; the flowerbeds are covered in last year’s leaf mulch, though some bulbs are popping bravely through.

The gardening blogs I’m dipping into are almost entirely those of people living in the U.K., with a far kinder climate than U.S. zone whatever I’m in (five? six?). Their “winter garden” pictures are of greenery artistically rimed with frost, at times when my garden is usually under a foot or two of snow. At the end of February, their gardens are farther along than mine is in April, and their idea of a baking summer afternoon is what the thermometer here hits by 10:00 a.m. on a July morning before soaring into temperatures that demand drawn curtains and air conditioning.

Possibly in other circumstances, I would be a gardener, as in other circumstances, I might be a number of other things that, either by decision or happenstance, I am not: a mother, an interpreter, an accountant, a superstar scholar, a third-grade teacher. But I think I should pay more attention to what I like to do, and not assume that the things that interest me in print are things I want to do IRL. Gardening is hard on back, hands, fingernails and complexion. I am fair-skinned and not particularly sturdy, in fact in some ways rather fragile. I can see that there must be great creative satisfaction in producing a glorious garden, but it is clear to me that what I like most is reading. I’m just as happy to spend my outdoor time going for walks on which I admire other people’s gardens. I do want some small private place where I can sit outdoors to read on a nice day without being spare-changed or otherwise harassed, as too often happens in parks, but a balcony, patio or front stoop would suit me fine.

Spring break, day 4

I did several loads of laundry, put in about 45 minutes on a research project, wrote a couple of long e-mails regarding a summer program, went to the gym, went to the bank, and packed two boxes of my clothing for storage. This entailed trying on a few items. Three skirts will be given away, but my flirty little black dress still fits and looks good. I also finished shredding the clean paper from basement boxes.

It seems like not very much.

In the evening I tried to figure out the extent of my clear memories of the Foreigner series. I had forgotten that there were so many books after the return to the planet. Lots of atevi politics, mostly taking place during a very short time. People like Sir John, who love plot, no doubt prefer these. Given my bent, I like the earlier books, where Bren is still learning the fine points of the language and culture.

Spring break, day 3

I spoke too soon about being done with the boxes of moldy stuff. I found two more yesterday, and dealt with them. Both were drier on the top layers than previous ones, so I was able to salvage more items.

One that cannot be salvaged, but which inspired a bit of mental time-traveling, is a bound copy of the 1961 dissertation of the professor who directed the dissertation of Sir John’s witness at our wedding. I took a class with that man (not the witness, his diss director) when I was an undergrad. I can still picture the classroom, the prof with his distinctive hair and mannerisms, the chalkboard, a few of my classmates; can still remember some of my thoughts and feelings as I took notes: trying to focus without thinking about my recently-ex-boyfriend, wondering why topics seemed so clear in the classroom and so difficult when I tried to do homework, fascination with some of the aspects of the class mixed with distaste for the professor. If I could somehow have known that one day I would marry the friend of one of the prof’s graduate students, I expect I would have tried to get to know his students (it wouldn’t have been hard; I was friends with a couple of my TAs) and figure out who their friends were. But Sir John hadn’t yet met the man who witnessed our wedding, so that wouldn’t have helped me fast-forward my life.

I also picked up some items that didn’t make it onto the weekend grocery list, and discovered that my library card has expired. I couldn’t renew it, because I have been using the card from the town where I used to live. It is recognized by a consortium of local libraries, which is why I hadn’t bothered to get a new one. Or, more accurately, that is why I didn’t need to get a new one when we moved. The real reason I didn’t get a new one is that by the time I got around to dealing with that sort of paperwork, I was sulking about having to move from a house I did like, with wonderful neighbors, in a town with very friendly Town Hall staff, into a house that has been an albatross around our necks, with neighbors ranging from nasty to indifferent, in a larger town with more reserved and perfunctory official staff. Using my old library card consoled me, a tiny bit. Or let me keep a tiny corner of denial, I suppose.

It would take about ten minutes to get a new library card for this town. But I think I’m not going to get one. I’m taking the expiration as encouragement to get out of this house. I’ll get a library card after we move.

Or, I suppose, if the house doesn’t sell and we have to stay here another year, after that becomes clear.

I did spend awhile in the library looking at recent issues in Cherryh’s Foreigner series and realized I’m several behind. In fact, in April I’ll be a whole trilogy behind. I wasn’t sure about one book, which seemed somewhat but not wholly familiar; back at home, I found that I own it. Brain, do try and keep up. I’ll re-read that one, and maybe at the end of term I’ll have a binge on the most recent three.

I watched the last stage of Paris-Nice, which was very exciting thanks to Alberto Contador (but I’m glad Henao kept the yellow jersey), and took another long bath.

Spring break, day 1

I’m a copy-cat. Clarissa reported on her spring break, last week, so I’ll do the same this week. The exciting life of a professor on break. I’m sure you can hardly wait to hear what I’ve been up to.

I worked out, bought cat treats, re-tested a new food that I think will make it back into my diet, cooked a meal that will provide leftovers for several more meals, and sorted through five boxes and three bags in the basement. This means I’m done with the nasty ones that got wet and subsequently moldy, following the Great Basement Flood of almost two years ago. Done! Obviously neither one of us was really eager to deal with these boxes. Fortunately nothing crucial was damaged or lost. Most of what I looked at can go into the trash, no bother, and I have managed to save a few sentimental items.

There’s still a lot of stuff in the basement to go through, and either give away, throw away, or re-pack. But the really icky part is now over.

Then I watched a stage of Paris-Nice and stayed up too late re-reading a favorite book, one of Cherryh’s Er-series (ForeignER, DefendER, etc). I love this series because the main character is a fragile, scholarly translator-diplomat plunged into highly dramatic space opera involving aliens, shooting wars, and tense political negotiation. It’s his skill with words and languages that repeatedly staves off disaster.

Golden Days

“On the whole, they say, people got what they expected. The generals and the military were very hard hit. A certain kind of women and children were devastated. . . . But, as in any catastrophe, there were the crackpots who hadn’t paid much attention; the ones who, in a sense, went on playing poker through the quake. They were the dumb ones, the sissies, the . . . hedonists who were too enchanted by their own lives to get excited by Death descending.

“The ones I know who lived were the ones who had been making love, or napping, or fixing dinner, when the End came, or the ones at the beach—who still talked about the great crystallization of the sand, the ones far out windsurfing who dove beneath the waves and felt the whole Pacific turn lukewarm, the ones whose boats were out on the far side of Catalina when it happened and hove to, sailing back out of pure curiosity. And, of course, all of the scrabbling canyon weirdos, who saw the whole global collapse as just another brush fire.”

Carolyn See (1934-2016), Golden Days (McGraw Hill, 1987), 192-193.

Living in the past

“The reading of jestbooks could be, and was, justified on the ground that they were pills to purge melancholy and thus (since the Elizabethans were firm believers in psychosomatic medicine) could improve one’s physical health. Similarly, because the reading of history was recommended as perfectly safe and useful, it was possible to take up with a clear conscience any book, however fantastic, that had the word ‘history’ displayed on its title page.” Richard Altick,  The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (1957; rpt. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1998), 42.

It’s the same principle as looking at photographs of kittens, and supports me in reading history as escape/distraction. I would like to urge my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers to subtitle their works with “A history of . . . .” Would it work just to write in my own sub-titles? “An alternative history of Regency England.” “A History of Riverside.” “A History of the Hidden Land.”

What is poetry good for?

Many things, of course; building vocabulary is one.

When I was in high school, I encountered Lorca’s poetry via two books, two exposures in different classrooms. A translation of one of his poems appeared in my literature anthology for English class, and my Spanish teacher had a volume of Lorca’s collected poems on a shelf from which we got to choose a book, one day when we were allowed some free reading time (looking back, I suspect my teacher hadn’t prepared the day’s lesson, but at the time, I found it a delightful change to the usual routine). I loved his poetry; I bought my own copy of the facing-page collected poems; they led me on to Lorca’s other work, and to other Spanish-language poets, notably Neruda and a few of the members of the Generation of ’98.

And so, many years later, when I listen to call-in shows on Spanish radio, I can follow the ones about relationships without difficulty. I soon lose the thread of the shows about politics, mortgages, and health problems, but it’s remarkable how well poetry prepares a person for conversations about emotion. Corazón, lácrimas, amargura, cariño, amor: these words stuck with me. They stuck because I loved the poetry; even if I had read about mortgages, at that age, I doubt I would have carried the lines and words in my head.

Why am I listening to these shows? Because I like languages; because I want to hang onto the ones I have; because I haven’t given up on learning one or two more before I die. I have no purpose in mind. I just enjoy the process, the feeling of growing mastery over another language. In at least one way, this activity is counter-productive: it distances me ever further from the mass of my students, makes it even harder to understand what it is that they don’t understand. I think I am a better teacher of the things I struggled to learn than I am of the topics that came easily to me. Studying languages could perhaps lead to a second career or interesting volunteer work as a translator, interpreter, or guide. I have no such ambitions. Nonetheless, since the possibility is there, I would say, Poetry does too make things happen.

Has it ever made something happen for you?


The War of the Emerald Ash Borer

One chilly autumn afternoon, Sir John and I set out to walk in a bit of urban greenbelt which we haven’t visited in some time. The sky was grey, the trees were bare, the path was covered in dull brown leaves. Since this is an urban area, even when we appeared to be deep in the woods, we could still hear the roar of traffic at a distance, and since even the vines had lost their leaves, we could see houses and their back gardens through a fence. It was all very drab, chilly, and ordinary.

We walked about five miles, looping out on a paved path shared with runners and cyclists, and back on a once-gravelled trail used only by walkers and the occasional horse. When we were about half a mile from the parking lot we’d started from, the trail began to slant downhill, toward a branch of the river, and suddenly the undergrowth was bright green again. We saw a deer grazing, her tail a white flag. We walked on toward a gently arched bridge, passing a white deer skull balanced at the edge of the stream. I said, “You know if we cross that bridge, we’ve had enough signs that we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in the middle of the War for the Oaks or the War of the Emerald Ash Borer or something.”

We crossed. We reached a liminal space, where woods, prairie, and houses came together. We met only a mountain biker in a fluorescent vest, accompanied by two black Labradors each wearing a glowing collar, one green, one blue. And then when we were nearly back to our car, another group approached us: a silver-muzzled blond Lab leashed by a silver-haired man, and by his side a woman with an owl’s head . . . .

Lawrence Durrell, morning writer

Watching The Durrells in Corfu prompted me to return to the novels of Lawrence Durrell, which I enjoyed when I was in my teens (I moved on to them after devouring Gerald’s memoirs, and was surprised to find them so different; but I loved the lyricism). It was very strange to re-read books that I once knew so well, and to have a completely different perspective on them now. When I was young, I was definitely an immasculated reader: able to read in sympathy with a male narrator. Now, not so much. And now I am not only older than most of the characters but also older than the author of the Alexandria Quartet. That also changes my perspective, as does being trained as a literary critic. As a teenager, I was completely uninterested in the political intrigue of the Quartet, which distorted my understanding of the work. Now I see better what Durrell was doing, and while I admire his female characters less, I see why, as a writer, he needed them to behave in certain ways.

I am particularly skeptical about Leila, the older woman whose vanity, after smallpox ravaged her once-beautiful face, kept her veiled on her Egyptian country estates rather than moving from Alexandria to Paris or London. I think she would have said “the hell with what people think,” moved anyway, dressed exquisitely and been accepted as a jolie laide. But then, I am the product of ’70s feminism, and in my London and Paris, there are women who veil. And the novelist needed her on the scene, as both mother and former lover; she wouldn’t have been effective as an emotional force in the novel if she were in Europe living her own life.

I moved on from Durrell’s own work to biographies and to Michael Haag‘s study of literary Alexandria during/between the World Wars, where I found this quotation about the way Larry worked while living on Cyprus in the late ’40s:

“With his teaching day beginning at seven in the morning, Durrell would rise at four-thirty and over a mug of black coffee add a few more lines to his novel, writing in longhand in his ‘Caballi’ notebook so as not to disturb his sleeping household, before driving thirty miles round the shoulder of the coastal range and onto the plain of Nicosia. In those dawns and in the lengthening shadows of his return drive to Bellapaix he was composing his novel in his head; these were the passages he set down by candlelight the following morning in ‘The Caballi’. At weekends he would type out the fifteen hundred words he had written there; it was a slow process of distillation. ‘Never have I worked under such adverse conditions’, Durrell wrote to Miller in October, but also ‘I have never felt in better writing form’.”   Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory, pp. 319-320.