Thursday, November 18, 2010

There and back again

This image sums up the weather and the mood around here right now. Leaves mostly gone. Skies leaden. Colors muted. Ground damp. And now it's getting colder. It's all to be expected, of course. It's that time of year. But there are normally a few sunny and dry days mixed in. Enough to lift the spirits and get us out into the yard a little.

Looking up at the overcast sky.

But so far we've had more of the gloomy and wet and less of the sunny and dry. I hope the whole winter doesn't go like this. It probably won't.

I've picked up The Lord of the Rings again. I read it every few years. This will make the tenth time in thirty-four years that I've read it. I always enjoy it; I find that I've not concentrated on some section or chapter the last time through and it's almost like reading it for the first time. And the story becomes richer and more complete. At least for me.

And another thing that I find curious: now that I've lived nearly eight years in France and have come to know many British people, I realize that the book, written by an Englishman, is filled with cultural references, words, and expressions the meanings of which I just couldn't grasp as a young, somewhat insulated American. A simple example of this is "elevenses," a tea time between breakfast and lunch. A custom we Americans don't have; for us, tea is a drink, not a meal. I can't imagine what I thought when those voracious hobbits were upset about missing "elevenses." I didn't understand then that it was one of the many meals of their day (after first breakfast and second breakfast, but before luncheon, of course).

It's interesting to re-read some of the books I've read as a young person. My understanding of things as a fifty year old is so very different from when I was high school age, or even in my twenties. I've recently re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. So much more meaningful now than when I was fifteen or sixteen. And a year or so ago, just for fun, I read The Last of the Mohicans by Cooper. Wow. I missed so much stuff the first time through. I should re-read more of that stuff from high school and finally figure out what I was supposed to have learned back then.

I wonder how many of my teenage classmates were lost in all that literature like I was. I was completely at sea with Shakespeare and poetry in general. I trudged through those plays and books and short stories by the likes of Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allen Poe, and all the others. It's not that I didn't enjoy some of them, but I just couldn't get what all the fuss was about. I supposed I absorbed enough to regurgitate what my teachers expected. At least enough to get by. I dreaded having to write essays about the motivations of protagonists and antagonists and over-arching and parallel themes and how did I interpret the subtle references to, what was it again? Ugh.

I was better at math and science. Hard cold reality. Something I could grasp and hold on to. Right answers. Wrong answers. Proofs. Reason. The only nebulous things in those subjects were clouds and gasses. What a nerd.

And I liked French, too. I took French from the sixth grade through twelfth. French was fun; it was kind of like math. One giant set of formulas. All I had to do was to plug in the right variables and it worked. And it fulfilled my foreign language requirement. Do American high schools still have foreign language requirements, I wonder?

Oh, and I liked musical theater, although I had no talent for it. Still, it was fun to watch. My high school actually had an elective class called "American Musical Theater," which of course I enrolled in. Most of the students in that class were girls, the rest of us were nerds. It got one-half of one of my English credits out of the way. We took a field trip in that class to New York City to see Yul Brenner in The King and I. That experience remains one of my coolest memories (by coincidence, Brenner is buried not far from where I currently live in France). For my final paper in that class I wrote a biography of Barbra Streisand. Stop snickering.

I got another half-credit in English for a class called "Fantasy in Literature." In addition to Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, we read Tolkien in that class. And that was my first exposure to The Lord of the Rings. As usual, I was completely lost. It was a hard read for me, complex, very long, and filled with words I didn't understand. I couldn't keep up the pace. Especially during class discussions of the chapters I had yet to slog through. Still, there was something interesting there. It just took me a little more time and a few re-readings, on my own terms, to come to appreciate it. And, after thirty-four years, I'm happily reading it again. For the tenth time.

See how nicely I wrapped that up?


  1. I hope you read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books too. Much more genuinely fantastic.

    I totally agree about Last of the Mohicans. Wonderful female characters and it is infuriating that Hollywood changed the ending in the Daniel Day-Lewis version.

    It's worth re-reading Walter Scott every now and then - great stories and characters.

    I'm surprised you didn't get Edgar Allan Poe though.

  2. I think you have to get a little older to appreciate all the finer things in life, good food, wine, books..... Young people are too busy hurtling about to devote the time to really appreciate such things.

    Elevenses - seriously important. My stomach alarm reminds me every morning that it is time.....!!

  3. Aaaaah! Retirement, time to read, relax and read some more.
    Until then its a movie based on a book or a talking book whacked in the car CD player for me on the way to work.

  4. It's funny how as an adult we get a different perspective on things. Part maturity or part, in your situation, just taking the time to reacquaint. What a great idea to take some of the classic literary works and go through them, at our own pace, in our maturity...not "slog".

  5. Ah the dark days are bringing us, your faithful readers, some great reflections of your early years.

    You've made me want to reread some of the books you've mentioned. My book club did "A Catcher in the Rye" which I hated as a teenager. Maybe our youth makes better sense in our old age;)

    You were lucky to have gone to a HS that offered so much French. I was lucky to have had four years of Latin in HS, plus three years of French. My teachers were also great which helps.

    Our schools don't offer as much in foreign languages now, especially in Alabama. I suppose Latin teachers are hard to find and there aren't many French ones either. Spanish rules for now.

  6. I think you need to be friends with Raybeard.

  7. My last position was a great distance from my home so I relied on and looked forward to the drive with books on tape. I sometimes went through 2 big books a week.

    For many years I've wanted to read many of the classics I either didn't "get" in Jr. or High School or hadn't read yet. Now, I have been enjoying many of those books.
    Just like you, again, Walt! In school there were so many other fun things to occupy one's mind. Now, I am fully focused on the topic at hand; I even have time to actually evaluate the way the writer expresses his thoughts and feelings??? Who would guess I would be questionning my comprehension with no test looming or paper due? I so enjoy that part of my reading.

    Now, I'm reading about the financial crisis from the Sub-Prime Mortgage situation: The Big Short by Michael Lewis. It seems there was only one person on Wall Street who really recognized how dangerous all those loans to people without funds was going to be for AIG (the only company holding the paper).

    I'll have to put Lord of the Rings on my Reserve List at the library. I don't remember too much about it from H.S. We do seem to have a different viewpoint after a few decades of experience under our belt, n'est-ce pas?

    Here in Eugene, there are plenty of students who want to take Spanish. There are five or six classes available at night for others through our Community College whereas my daughter who teaches french privately as well as at the C.C. worries that the 3 classes she teaches there will have enough students so the classes won't be cancelled. A couple of my friends are french teachers in the high schools and report that their numbers of incoming students keep going down while the spanish teacher's numbers keep going up... Too bad.
    We have Spanish, French and Japanese Immersion programs K-12 available in our system at present. But there is a huge budge shortfall and who knows what's in the future?

  8. I agree with you about the different frame of reference now (at our advanced age) for reading. When I read the French poetry that I had to read in college, I get it! I didn't get it back then... and, it's not a language thing, it's a life-experience thing.

    As for required foreign language: not many schools require it for graduation anymore, but any kids heading to college know that they need minimum two years to be accepted, so that's where most of our level 1 & 2 kids come from. Almost all of my Spanish-1 kids are in it strictly for that reason.

    French, however, is certainly not the top language anymore. We are lucky to have a fantastic middle school teacher who draws in a good crowd, so it helps us keep our numbers up, but still, we don't even have enough students to keep two full-time French teachers (this in a school of almost 2000 students).


  9. French for six years years of French and two years of Latin. My only other option was Spanish. But my school only offered four years of languages.

  10. Great post! I had a British friend so i knew what elevensies were...and now that i farm i eat like a hobbit so i'm well acquainted with first and second breakfast.

  11. Thanks for all the great comments. I would have responded to them all, but I was too busy eating...


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