A family of ducks finding shadow on a hot day.
This is the idea we always wished my mom, Maria, would have pursued.
On the grounds of an equestrian center.
On long bike rides, during water breaks, here are some of the things I see.
A family of ducks finding shadow on a hot day.
This is the idea we always wished my mom, Maria, would have pursued.
On the grounds of an equestrian center.
Strange day for me. For the past 32 years on this day, I have awoken at 5:30 a.m. for the beginning of a new school year. But at 5:30 nothing happened, other than perhaps a snore or three.
I have always loved the first day. Everywhere you turn, people are moving like they haven’t moved all summer. With trepidation maybe but with purpose, too. If you asked students if they’d welcome another week or two of summer, their eyes would drift wistfully at the prospect, reluctant to admit that they also crave the sense of order and hope the first day brings. Crisp notebooks, crumb-free backpacks, new outfits, just-sharpened pencils. Even the fresh teacher handouts, which don’t seem as fresh by the end of the day, symbolize opportunity, the chance to get it right this time. Friendships defined by school are renewed. Friendships once strained become comfortable and easy. Maybe. New ties are forged.
Teachers’ movements are especially hectic as they distribute syllabi and texts and create seating charts and struggle to find their rhythm. I decided early on that I wouldn’t stress myself with this flurry, putting off all the deadening clerical tasks for later in the week. On the first day, I simply wanted to begin to know these new faces, to convey that our time together would be authentic, filled with respectful communication and lively activities and a disdain for busywork. Really.
I missed all this today. The stepping into a classroom full of new faces, all of us gathered and settling in, wondering how this collection of individual identities would merge into a class personality that would be unlike any other class ever assembled. I remember the glare of challenge in their eyes as they sized me up, assessing how hard they’d have to work and how much they could get away with and wondering if this would be a fun class. On the first day, I was up for the challenge, handing out cool cards, explaining our need to be regarded as cool, sharing my embarrassing stories of trying to act cool as a boy and how the need never quite disappears.
By the end of the day, everyone is exhausted. Teachers’ voices are strained. Students are restless after sitting all day, which seems like a counterintuitive request we make of students: still your body and activate your mind. But it’s an earned exhaustion and restlessness. And even though the first day’s intensity pales a bit by day two, those first impressions and lofty intentions steady us as we tackle the tasks that lie ahead.
All day I thought about this.
As I reached into my mailbox in the afternoon, here’s what I pulled out. The cover is entitled, Eternal Summer.
Finally. A book I couldn’t put down. I’ve been in a reading doldrum. (My spellcheck tells me doldrums is only plural. Doubtful, I checked my battered on-the-shelf dictionary that agrees. I guess I’ve never used that word in any context. I’m a little excited.) Oh, I’ve been reading. In fact, I’m working through several books, but they seem like jobs to me. But finally. A solid, fine book.
I’ve picked up this book several times but for some reason dismissed it. The words and the cover didn’t change, of course, so I’m not quite sure why I was pulled in this time.
The book, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, has attracted rave reviews, which always makes me reluctant or suspicious or jealous, which may have kept me away. And after reading the book, I found the glowing blurbs on the back to be a little off. Most contend the book is hilarious, which makes me wonder if the blurbers actually read the book. The book is by turns joyful and dark and mysterious and suspenseful and maybe a little madcap. But hilarious?
I’m usually averse to books that include a story within a story. My mind keeps wanting to return to the main action, the primary dream. Beautiful Ruins includes many of these asides, even a play within the story, but they’re all so compelling, that I didn’t mind being torn away. And yes, the pieces all come together gracefully by the end. Some of the asides could have been shorter and still achieved their purpose, but as I said, I enjoyed them and wasn’t eager for them to end.
The novel is set mainly in 1962 Italy and modern Los Angeles, with a few other locales and times as well, and it includes endearing characters, along with famous movie stars, and all this is weaved together in surprising and satisfying ways. I highly recommend this touching and beautifully written book.
Walter has a few other books out, so I also read The Financial Lives of the Poets. And this book IS hilarious. I’m one of those readers who smiles and cries and harrumphs while reading, but rarely do I laugh aloud. But this book had me full out laughing. It’s about a broken man in financial straits with a broken marriage, which is Richard Russo and Jonathan Tropper territory, but Walter adds his own original twists. Toward the end, the story spirals a little out of control and veers close to farce, but Walter preserves the vulnerable sweetness of the main character. It’s one of those books you’ll finish in a day and that’ll make you feeling grateful for the ride.
While finding a picture of cover, I found that they’re making a movie of this book, calling it Bailout with Jack Black. I already predict that the book will be better than the movie. (Or has movie already been released?)
My sister posted this link on Facebook today: MARVIN GAYE SINGING.
If you click on the link, you’ll hear Marvin Gaye singing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” with the music electronically subtracted. His voice is silk smooth and assured and amazing. And I thought, this has to be one of my top ten favorite songs of all time. A few hours later, during a walk, I thought about the other songs that might appear on my top ten list, which is a maddening but satisfying pursuit. I know if I try this again tomorrow, I’ll recall songs that will eke out some of the ones I’ve included below.
I invite you to submit your own list. The only rule is that you can’t list an artist more than once. The top ten should include those songs that cause you to walk with a spring in your step and that sound new each time, the ones that you don’t turn off in the car even though you’ve reached your destination.
10. Spill the Wine War
9. Born to Be Wild Steppenwolf
8. Teach Your Children Crosby Stills Nash Young
7. I Heard it Through the Grapevine Marvin Gaye
6. Ball of Confusion Temptations
5. Thick as a Brick Jethro Tull
4. Rocket Man Elton John
3. Sounds of Silence Simon & Garfunkel
2. Thunder Road Bruce Springsteen
1. I Wanna Hold Your Hand Beatles
Here are a few summer reading recommendations. Or you can read them in the winter. If those two seasons aren’t available, spring or fall would also work well. I happened to read them recently, so they will forever be summer books in my mind. Two of three are quick reads—the King and Haruf books—so maybe you want to save those for a rainy spring day?—and the third will likely require a few days, which will be well worth your time. What else do you have to do?
Stephen King. Joyland.
I have minor reservations about all three of these books. If Joyland had been his usual 800 page effort, my reservation would have loomed larger (as in The Dome, a rambling mess). I’m not sure if this spoils anything, but I’m going to lay it out there. If a character has paranormal abilities, that ability should be fairly consistent. In this case, the ability comes and goes, because, we’re told, that’s how this gift works, which is merely a tool to build suspense.
Having said that, I did enjoy the book, which didn’t really need any paranormal elements. The main character is endearing, and the bonds this young man creates—the human bonds, not the ghostly ones—resonate with a sweetness that reminds me of his other book, 11/22/63, which I highly recommend. There is a ghostly element that works well, which may have been enough to keep the plot moving. In terms of the writing, the narration is breezy (is that a requirement of a beach read?), which is why you can get through the book in a day, but the ending transcends the ordinary. The ending is King at his best. Oh, and the packaging is pretty cool. Like pulp fiction from the 40s or 50s.
Kent Haruf. Benediction.
As with two of his previous books, this novel is set in Holt, Colorado. If you liked Plainsong and Eventide, you’ll have to read this one. In those previous books, the main characters converge at the end in surprising and satisfying ways. Haruf tries the same formula here, but the ending falls a bit flat. I think the novel could have gone through maybe one more revision. That aside, the great satisfaction in reading this book comes from getting to know one of the main characters, an old man who can be as generous as he can be stubborn. I loved spending time with all these characters, which is why I devoured the book in a day. There is wisdom here.
Claire Messud. The Woman Upstairs.
The only reservation I have about this one is the pacing in the middle. But the writing is so eloquent and so well crafted, that it doesn’t matter much. You settle in and go where the story takes you, satisfied that you’re in such qualified hands. The main character is a third-grade teacher, a woman who is usually ignored, hence the title, but gradually finds herself in the middle of tempestuous relationship with a family. After you read the first paragraph or two, you will not put this book down. And the last chapter is one of the most potent I’ve ever read, surprising and earned and unsettling. And perfect.
I’ll admit to a little guilt. While the rest of the country last week was stoked with patriotic fervor, I was getting in touch with my inner Italian. Which isn’t all that different from my outer Italian. Mainly because I came home from the old country three weeks ago but have resisted letting go. I think my family sensed this, and for my birthday presented me with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pasta, Panini spreads, and books about Italy.
Right now I’m poring through Ross King’s superb book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, which not only captures the former’s quirky genius and the latter’s boorish bullying but also the Italian character, which I described in a recent post. One example: The word nepotism comes from the Italian word nipote, or nephew. Nepotism is not exclusive to Italians, of course, but Italians don’t pretend to conceal the practice, which I suppose can be seen as refreshing.
On the Pope’s character. He was known as il papa terrible, who viewed himself as a messiah and who assembled his own army to invade regions of Italy. He fathered children. He ordered Michelangelo to build 40 statues for his tomb but then reassigned him to complete other projects, refusing to pay Michelangelo for the marble he had to purchase. Probably the only reason he became Pope is because he was the nipote of a previous pope. And did I mention that he fathered children?
On Michelangelo’s habits and genius. He had to create 100s of sketches for the Sistine ceiling. Early on, he destroyed a month of his work when the completed panels didn’t meet his standards. He helped design the elaborate scaffolding suspended on window hooks near the ceiling so that bishops could continue to use the chapel. Then he added a layer of canvas below the scaffold to collect spilled paint and so that no one could see the progress of his work. (I still vividly recall his unfinished sculptures for the Pope that are housed in a Florence museum right next to David…the chisel marks that suggest brawn and sweat and vision.)
On Michelangelo’s quirkiness. It was common to bathe only once a week back in the 1500s, but Michelangelo hardly ever bathed and rarely took off his boots, which simply withered away. He ate little and kept mostly to himself. If he were alive today, he’d probably be one of those guys who believed that tornadoes were a sign of God’s wrath for sinful behavior.
Myths corrected. He did not paint the ceiling single-handedly. He had many assistants and fellow painters and laborers. He did not paint on his back.
The book may be too detailed for some readers, but I’m finding the specifics fascinating, from the arduous process of actually getting the paint on the ceiling (the coat of plaster applied just before painting had to be wet!) to the many rivalries Michelangelo had to endure, most of them with polysyllabic names difficult to remember.
In my defense, I did attend a Fourth of July parade in the afternoon. I clapped for the firemen and cheered for my fellow patriots. At night, I watched fireworks and thought about the significance of the date, though John Adams predicted July 2nd would forever be associated with independence. I didn’t eat a hot dog or a slice of apple pie, but I didn’t eat pizza either. Though I would maintain that there’s no better pizza than in Chicago. Is that patriotic enough for you?
I celebrated a birthday a few days ago. When asked how old I was, I needed a second or two the first few times, which baffles young people. The thing is, 53 ain’t that much different than 52, so it takes these precious seconds to arrive at the correct number. I’m not saying I’m 53. I’m 29 actually. That used to be the standard response for someone who didn’t care to reveal one’s real age.
I don’t hear 29 so much anymore, so my intent here is to start a new trend, inspired by my beloved Pop. He would calculate half his age, and claim he was, say, 41 when he turned 82. Then he’d pause—he had such great timing—and finally add, “One side.”
That became my ploy a few days ago, which confused people unfamiliar with my dad’s humor, which made me miss him all the more. Something was off. The timing? The glint in his eye and the wry smile? I’m not sure, but I’m going to work on it. This year should have been easy because my age is an even number. Did Pop only use this joke when his age was an even number? I don’t recall ever thinking that his math was slightly off. Hmm.
Anyway, I am now 28 years old, if you really want to know. One side.
I grew up on Superman comics. I don’t know what lessons they taught, I don’t even remember a single storyline. All I recall is holding each one, taking in the colors on the shiny covers, and anticipating the new issues that would arrive every Thursday. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, especially for something as frivolous as a comic book. But no worries. I easily scrounged together six empty pop bottles at two cents a piece and lugged them to the store for a refund each week.
When the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve came out, my hopes weren’t that high. As long as it was better than that awful television series in the 50s, I was content. Then they made another and another, increasingly campy, with Gene Hackman as a bumbling Lex Luthor, and I stopped watching. Superman Returns in 2006 was a welcome shift, though I don’t recall much about it, only that it was a more serious attempt at making not only a superhero movie but a good movie overall.
The latest installment, Man of Steel, is easily the best Superman movie of all of them, which isn’t saying much, given the above. Winks and jokes are out. There’s not even much of an attempt to make this Superman above reproach, which is refreshing. This Superman can be as petty as the rest of us. And for the first time, there’s some attention to the sensory disturbances that might occur to an alien living on earth, not just strength and x-ray vision and the rest, but bothersome effects. Which makes sense. The movie is clever and well paced and well acted.
World War Z is another movie worth seeing. During the first ten minutes, I did wonder what I was doing there. I haven’t seen a zombie movie since—well, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a zombie movie. I felt like I’d just strapped myself into a roller coaster, unsure whether I wanted to take this ride. I didn’t know if I needed the gore and the sound effects that accompanied the gore and the utter helplessness in the face of destroying that which is already dead. But the ride was a thrill. I sat there tense the entire time. I never know what to make of Brad Pitt’s acting. He always seems pretty much the same character, but he was convincing here, playing Brad Pitt, the non-celebrity.
Of the two movies, I think I admired and enjoyed World War Z a bit more. Superman relied more on brawn than brain, while Pitt’s character is wily and clever and brave. World War Z is more emotionally satisfying as well, though Superman offers many touching moments, especially the ones between Clark and his father, played by Kevin Costner.
The problem I had with both movies was the reliance on special effects. Just because you can destroy an entire city with computer-generated imagery doesn’t mean you have to or that you should. After six or seven towers collapse, there’s not much thrill in seeing the 46th one crumble. The threat of a single building falling could be pretty damn dramatic. And there’s this callous disregard for the possible inhabitants in those buildings. As long as our main characters are okay, then all is well with the world. I fall victim to this as well of course, rooting for the characters I’ve come to know, but after a while, it strains plain common sense that we should feel nothing for the nameless and faceless being destroyed by the thousands.
So sometimes special effects are not so special. In fact, the greatest tension in World War Z arrives when Pitt faces a single zombie.
Though I will admit that the aerial battle between Superman and his nemesis—the punches sending each one caroming off the ledges of towering buildings—is pretty cool. The little boy who collected bottles each Thursday would have approved—though he wouldn’t have needed any special effects to get his imagination brewing. Just pictures. And words. Always words.
I’ve been home almost a week from a twelve-day trip to Italy, yet I still feel a trace of jet lag, often waking at 4:30 a.m. Traveling to Italy, where it’s six hours ahead, I didn’t feel tired at all. Part of my exhaustion could stem from all the transportation required there. We traveled, in order of most to least time spent, by plane, bus, train, ferry, boat, water taxi, car, taxi, shuttle, and gondola. The gondola included an accordionist, an opera singer, and a bottle of champagne. A little different from how I spend my time in Illinois.
Though my family came to America when I was just an infant, I still feel a special connection to my homeland. But the feelings are mixed. On one hand, there’s beauty and history and gelato at every turn. There’s Pepino, the chef who made us fresh omelets in Salerno. And the outdoor restaurant, La Tagliata, at the top of Positano that looks out along the Amalfi Coast, where they offer not a menu but a feast of their choosing. The canals of Venice. The narrow streets of Assissi where every balcony is adorned with colorful flowers. The art of Florence and Rome. Outdoor magazine stands and bookstores on many corners. Towering cypresses and hardy olive trees. And there’s my personal history. Cousins and aunts and uncles, many of whom I’d never met, who told stories I’d never heard. There’s Zio Filuccio who made the sign of the cross every time he drove past the cemetery, and cousin Mario, the fireman who marched in the feast of Padre Pio parade one night and suddenly broke ranks when he spotted me to shake my hand, the first time we’d ever met. There’s the outdoor “laundry” across from Mario’s house, a low brick rectangular pool into which fresh water flows throughout the year. I can go on and on, but all words will prove lacking.
We showed up in the village where I was born on a Tuesday, the day for baking bread and making pizzas.
On the other hand, Italians have their particular way of navigating the world, sometimes peculiar and at other times quaint and charming. You can decide for yourself into which category these items fall:
1. The Italian embrace. Two cheeks, right? Everyone knows this. But after butting heads the first few times, I soon realized that the right cheek always gets kissed first.
2. The farther south you drive, the worse the drivers. By the time we got to Rome, there were countless times when I thought, “Oh, no way that car is going to fit there, not this time.” And there the car would squeeze. During our last taxi ride, the driver sped along the highway at 160 kph. I didn’t know what this meant, but when I got to our hotel I consulted a conversion table and calculated that we were screaming along at 100 mph. But we didn’t see a single accident.
3. The farther south you drive, the better the food.
4. For one euro, you can buy a thong from a gumball machine at a truck stop. You can also buy a power saw, a fresh sandwich, olive oil, and the newest Dan Brown book, translated into Italian.
5. Every hotel has a bidet. I think they were bidets. I still don’t know how one would use a bidet. They just took up space, which was the conclusion of every American we met.
6. At restaurants, waiters and waitresses are efficient but unfriendly. After they take your order and bring your food, they never return to ask if you’d like another drink or if you’d like your check. You are obliged to find one to request the bill. How much do you tip someone who seems put out to be waiting on you? Beyond pizza and pasta, menu choices are slim. The salad arrives after the main meal. Oh, it’s typical to begin eating dinner at 9:00 p.m. At my cousin’s beautiful new restaurant in the middle of a tiny village, surrounded by mountains, we didn’t begin our meal until 9:30. There were plenty of young children still there near midnight when we finally finished, and we wondered if children had certain bedtimes.
7. Hotel breakfast buffets include, along with scrambled eggs and toast, carrots, green beans, salad with vinegar and oil, hot dogs dipped in some tangy red sauce, figs, canned peaches, and prosciutto.
8. French fries on pizza.
9. At one outdoor, seaside café, we saw a huge drink menu along the curb that included iced coffee. I approached the counter and asked for this. The man and woman inside both glared at me like I was crazy. How much does it say? they wanted to know. I told them, and they looked at each other and improvised how they’d make this new drink. It turned out to be delicious.
10. Italians, when asked for directions, seem helpful. But most of them simply point ahead and tell you to keep going.
11. They believe that the air from a fan will cause your shoulder to be sore. We didn’t see many fans, and the ones we did see were never spinning.
12. Train tickets need to be validated after they’re purchased; otherwise, you can be fined a stiff penalty. To validate, you insert the ticket and get the time stamped. But no one checks your ticket after you board.
13. Tiny showers. Which helped me understand why there are few obese people in Italy. At least we didn’t see many.
14. We saw an elderly man and a middle aged woman doing some serious hanky panky in public along a tree lined street in Florence.
15. On a plane to Venice from Rome, we waited on the plane for over an hour because they had only one runway open. In Rome. On a Saturday afternoon. On the way home, we boarded a plane in Rome again, then were told we’d have to un-board because they needed to fuel the plane.
The house where my father lived as a boy. During the war, nazis took the house. My grandfather came later to check if they were gone. As he was leaving, they told him to stop, which he did not for some reason. And they shot him.
I was particularly torn when viewing the majestic statues inside holy basilicas or admiring the grand fountains built my rich nobleman. No one can deny the awe these treasures generate. But when you hear the stories behind the art, you pause. For example, in Venice in the 16th century, dukes who ordered artists to create busts and frescoes and domes, all in the name of maintaining power, were vicious, and in some cases deadly. Pope Julius II ordered Michelangelo to build 40 statues for his tomb. Why anyone needs 40 escapes me. Michelangelo never finished because the pope assigned him other tasks, such as painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he did standing up. Have you ever painted a ceiling with a roller? After ten minutes you’ve had enough. So yes, artists were bullied and coerced and in some cases enslaved, yet without that, little of the art or the ruins that still exist would have ever been created. Sure, there would have been something created somewhere, but not anywhere near the same scale.
Our tour guide told us that Michelangelo was a little different, weird maybe. Single-minded, as genius sometimes commands. Even when pushed around. And sometimes a little rebellious. Apparently, he painted his own face on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the face is on the skin of Bartholomew, a silent protest over being the pope’s puppet.
One final highlight that caused no qualms. Only awe. Michelangelo’s David in Florence. You meander around it and take in the meticulous precision of each chiseled indentation of collar bone or taut tendon or clawed finger. And you can’t believe what you’re seeing. It’s perfect.
I want to go back.
Waiting for the plane to be fueled. After we'd boarded and de-boarded.