Habitual Reading


“It’s called reading. It’s how people install new software into their brains.” – Unknown

One fall, I was in the middle of my beginning-of-the-school-year pitch about the eighth graders’ reading log, a requirement of our curriculum, when I heard myself say, “A reading log is a great lifelong habit to begin. Wouldn’t it be fun to look back some day and see what you read in eighth grade, or any year of your life?” As I said these words, I stopped short. Really, wouldn’t I love to have a list of all the books I’d read year after year?

Well, it was way, way too late to list the books I’d read in eighth grade. But, even though I’d squandered years of list-free reading, I vowed to start right then. I bought a little journal and began my geeky little habit.

That was in 1997. I’ve filled three journals (I just started my fourth) with hundreds of short synopses and opinions on every book I’ve read over the past eighteen years. This afternoon, I curled up on the couch in my sunroom and paged through every one. It felt like going through old photo albums, where one pauses to remember a long-ago vacation or family celebration. Instead of “Did I really wear that?” or “Aw, look how beautiful the lake was” or “Gee, wasn’t it always fun to see the cousins”, today I reminisced and revisited old friends on the printed page.

Back in ‘97, my entries were heavy with young adult selections as I tried to keep up with the newest books for my eighth graders. A good book for young adults is a good book, period. I remembered with pleasure reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Sharon Creech’s Bloomability, Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, Edward Bloor’s Tangerine. I often told my students that the best books on my classroom shelves were the ones that were a bit tattered, because that meant they were read by lots of kids. Today, it made me smile to picture the frayed edges of old favorites in the hands of an engrossed teenager back in Room 232.

Like the familiar faces in an old photo album, authors I’ve loved popped up over and over again. Just how many books by Elizabeth Berg, or Anita Shreve, or Jacqueline Winspear have I read? Some people collect Kate Spade handbags; I snap up anything by Ann Patchett or Anna Quindlen.

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith in 1999 and The Great Gatsby in 2007, finally getting around to these classics. In high school we were assigned Pride and Prejudice over the summer and were given a test about it on the first day of school with no discussion or instruction. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered the delights of Jane Austen, and my journals include Emma and Persuasion, two Austen gems.

Not every book I’ve read has been a winner, even some by authors I like. A couple of duds were Doublebind by Chris Bohjalian and The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, but both authors have redeemed themselves with some great stories: Bohjalian’s The Light in the Ruins and Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. While I’ve generally avoid chick-lit and schmaltz, I discovered that I’d read The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. Must have been desperate that day.

So many titles made me relive the lively conversations with my book club friends as we hashed out our favorites and not-so-favorites. Today I remembered how much we loved The Well and The Mine by Gin Phillips, how we sympathized with Olive Kitteridge, how we scoffed at One thousand White Women by Jim Fergus, and how fascinated we were by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. When I came across Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, I was drawn back to my friend Joanna’s Cape Cod terrace with my teacher pals, discussing this historical fiction set on Martha’s Vineyard before we headed off on our island excursion.

In one of my recent favorite books, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, the main character states that he can tell a lot about a person by finding out what they read. I don’t know what my list reveals about me, other than that I tend to read historical fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, often about families, memoirs and mysteries. You won’t find sci-fi, fantasy, or espionage anywhere in my journals.

I’m listing a bunch of goodies I’ve been reminded of today. If you’re looking for something to read, I’d recommend any of them. And, as soon as I post this, I have Sarah Gruen’s The Water’s Edge waiting for me.

Plainsong and Eventide; Kent Haruf

A Ship Made of Paper; Scott Spencer

You Remind Me of You; Dan Chaon

The Year We Left Home; Jean Thompson

Travel Writing; Peter Ferry

March; Geraldine Brooks

Abundance; Sena Jeter Nastlund

The Distant Hours; Kate Morton

The Post-Birthday World; Lionel Shriver (Thanks, Maureen and Kath!)

The Tender Bar; J.R. Moehringer

The Shipping News; Annie Proux

Crow Lake; Mary Lawson




Thursdays in the Park

band concert

NMB wine glass

“Seventy-six trombones led the big parade

With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.

They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuo-

Sos, the cream of every famous band.” — from “Seventy-Six Trombones,” The Music Man, Meredith Wilson


A Thursday night in June, the sky blessedly free of rain clouds, and the temperature hovering at a pleasant seventy degrees. It was a perfect night for one of my favorite things to do in Naperville – the weekly Naperville Municipal Band concert in Central Park.

I loaded a thermal bag with our favorite appetizers and some fresh cherries, and Mike tucked a bottle of chardonnay, our plastic wine glasses, and our metal wine glass holders into its carrying case. Our folding chairs slung over our shoulders, we headed to Central Park. There, we set up our chairs in their usual spots, behind the last row of benches, and twisted our wine glass holders into the dirt. Arriving early enough to watch the benches fill in, we enjoyed our wine and snacks and people-watched before the concert began.

Right here in our own little River City, the Municipal Band has been around since 1859, and has only had two directors since 1928. Our Naperville Music Man, Ron Keller, began directing the band in 1966 when his predecessor Elmer Koerner died, and Ann Lord, the concert emcee, has been moderating the concerts for fifty-seven years. There’s longevity among the band members as well. Many of them have been playing for over twenty years, and musicians interested in joining must audition before getting placed on a waiting list to earn a coveted spot on stage.

Promptly at 7:30 last night, the stage’s muraled wall lifted to reveal our band, playing their traditional opening tune, “Strike Up the Band.” As he does each week, the director asked all to stand for “The Star Spangled Banner”, and the crowd rose and sang along. Then, we settled in. Last night’s program “Opera For People Who Don’t Like Opera” treated us to LaTraviata, Figaro, Carmen, Mamma Mia, Tommy. Ann Lord, ever the teacher, introduced each piece with a few tidbits about the music’s origins — just enough to educate the crowd a bit without boring us. Some of her jokes are a little cornball, but I don’t mind. Midway through the concert, Ann always reminds us to patronize the local organization running the ice cream social in the gazebo, and we never hesitate. Last night’s treat was a big gooey slice of chocolate cake, made by a member of the Naperville Woman’s Club. And every week, winners with a lucky program number get gift certificates to spend in downtown Naperville.

From my vantage point in the back row, I overlook a sea of gray heads bobbing, swaying to the music. Maybe the concerts are too cheesy or old-fogeyish for younger Napervillians, or maybe people are just too busy running to swim meets and tee ball games on summer nights. I know I was a couple decades ago. How nice it is to be free of must-be-there games and meets, to savor the beautiful music wafting around us!

Last night, near the concert’s end, the band played a lovely medley from Phantom of the Opera. The haunting melodies of “Think of Me,’ “The Music of the Night,” “Angel of Music,” and “All I Ask of You” floated over me and carried my imagination along into the Paris Opera. The sun dipped behind the band shell, painting the clouds a soft pink, turning the leafy maples surrounding us into dark silhouettes.

Right down the street and free of charge, this is our own version of Ravinia, the Boston Pops, Aunt Bea’s Mayberry, and old-fashioned Americana all rolled into one glorious Naperville evening. Just one of the many reasons why I love my hometown.

Summertime Summertime Sum Sum Summertime

“Well we’ll go swimming every day

No time to work, just time to play

If your folks complain, just say,

It’s summertime.” — Summertime, Summertime; The Jamies

Lately I’ve seen several Facebook posts waxing nostalgic about the way things were back in the good old days. You remember… our moms shoved us out the door and told us, “Go play.” We were outside except for the occasional bathroom break, or our lunch of boloney sandwiches on white bread and later, our dinner. After dinner, we were off again, until the street lights went on. Conventional wisdom, at least from those of us who lived back then, tells us that we had a better childhood than kids today. We made our own fun, remember? We rode our bikes through the streets, hung by our ankles form the monkey bars imbedded into concrete, caught lightning bugs and kept them in jars, and played baseball in the street, using the storm sewers to indicate the bases.

Yeah, life was simpler then, and some of today’s kids seem over-programmed. But were things really better when kids were left to their own devices, making up their own ways to pass the time? I’ve thought quite a bit about this in the last few days, as we’ve gone from one grandkid activity to another. While I’d like to see the new generation have some alone time to create their own fun, I’m happy to see kids actively involved in anything that they love, getting some attention and guidance along the way.

Last week our grandson Owen went to a school-district-sponsored percussion camp. In one short week, ten-year-old Owen learned some fundamentals about playing the drums, memorized some pieces of music like the Harry Bellefonte classic “Mary Anne”, and performed in front of an audience, including his very impressed parents and grandparents. After, he explained to us that while he was playing the steel drums, he experimented with pounding versus tapping, and discovered how to vary the sound. So, during the concert, he improvised to get the effect he wanted. Owen, who is also an oboist, now has a basic understanding of how to play some percussion instruments, a new sense of accomplishment, and a desire to learn more. He knows more about drumming than anyone else in the family, and can articulately explain what he knows. I’m pretty sure that no kid in my neighborhood back in the day knew diddly-squat about playing the drums. Where I grew up, music lessons were generally out of reach, and the schools sure didn’t provide lessons, either. Musical talents often died on the vine for kids who may have possessed a smidge of aptitude or interest.

On Saturday, at the Paramount Theater in Aurora, we were enthralled by a troupe of young dancers, especially our own little performer Francesca. I was teary-eyed seeing her energy and talent bubble over to the tunes “Stay” and “Who Loves You, Pretty Baby.” Yes, she can kick her leg straight up over her head. Such poise, confidence, talent, and most importantly, joy! What must it be like to be so good at something? To express oneself so beautifully through dance? To synchronize with your fellow dancers in a beautiful pattern? To hear the roar of the audience applauding and cheering? To know that you are truly accomplished, that you possess a talent that sets you apart? To understand that those hours of practice to make it all perfect pay off in the end? Francesca may have little time for just hanging around, but, oh, she’s gained so much more. Even at age nine, this young lady has a passion and a confidence that few of those olden-days kids ever experienced.

Today’s kids, at least those around here, can go to science camp, act in a community theater production, learn improv, develop computer skills, tackle a foreign language, volunteer at the Naper Settlement, join a library book club, create art, hone their skills in any sport imaginable to fill their summer months. Some of these activities are pretty pricy, but our community has lots of free or inexpensive things to do. Can kids be too busy? Sure. But I would have happily given up all my jars of lightning bugs for the opportunity to test uncharted territories to discover what I might have been good at, to uncover a passion lying dormant. Who knows? Maybe Broadway has just muddled along for decades without my name on their marquees. Or not.