Mistakes were made

I turned 49 on Friday which means I have entered my 50th year on the planet. Sad to think I only have 50 more to go. I’ve been thinking how nice it would be to really have my shit together by the time I hit the big 5-0 next August. Without trying to get all resolution-y, which is bound to fail, I do feel the desire to embark on a little self-improvement plan so that when the odometer clicks over 363 days from now I’m feeling good about my increasingly speedy march toward death.

The rule of 50
I’ve practiced the Rule of 50 ever since I read about it in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. Lately, however, 50 seems like a long way for some of the books I pick-up. With the Rule of 50 you get to subtract 1 page for every year you are over 50. As I approach that milestone, I feel that that is giving too much power to books I don’t want to read. My need to read a certain book because it is a classic, or well reviewed, or popular has diminished greatly over the past few years and I think that trend will continue. I think I might replace the Rule of 50 with the the Rule of As Soon as You Hate Something or Are Bored By It Feel Free to Move On.

I am fully aware that if I had done this with Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald earlier this summer I never would have finished what turned out to be a really wonderful, interesting book. But, you may recall that I actually did put that book aside (instead of purposely leaving it behind on a plane) but picked it up again a few weeks later. So I guess the setting aside doesn’t have to be forever.

Now, Mrs Osmond by John Banville is going to suffer a different fate. In this case I actually did get past page 50 but under my new rule, I would have put it down sooner. The thing is, I actually kind of liked aspects of it, but I have read at least two other John Banville novels and I find his writing style more tedious than interesting or beautiful. So Mrs Osmond gets banished and I never pick-up another Banville as long as I live. (Unless I do, in which case, okay.)

Voglio parlare una lingua straniera prima di morire
My class laughed when I gave this as my reason for taking Italian classes but it is the absolute truth. I want to speak a foreign language before I die. I’ve wanted this ever since 1992 when I was in a six-person couchette from Paris to Munich and my multi-lingual compartment mates could all communicate with each other, but none of them knew English. And it isn’t that they all spoke the same languages, rather it was like a game of telephone where the German guy knew Dutch and the Dutch guy spoke French to the French women, one of whom spoke Italian to the Italian guy who used his belt to further secure the couchette door so we wouldn’t get robbed (presumably). But being a language idiot, I was able to speak to no one. This was especially painful for me when, in the middle of the night, the couchette was about a thousand degrees, I was on the very top bunk, and thought I was going to die if I didn’t get some fresh air, but had no way of reasonably communicating that to the guy who had rigged the door to be intruder-proof. Twenty-six years later I still get a panic attack just thinking about it.

Hot train cars aren’t the only reason I want to speak a foreign language. I’ve always been impressed with friends who suddenly break out in a foreign language to communicate with someone (as opposed to just showing off). I sit there in awe and envy, marveling at this mostly hidden talent. And what about the Korean immigrant at my dry cleaner’s who not only speaks English but also speaks Spanish to the seamstress who works there.

So many times John and I would visit a foreign country and I would moan about wanting to spend a few months abroad learning another language. At one point it occurred to me that I can pretty much do that in the US with Spanish. Not only could I use it on a daily basis, but there are multiple TV channels, newspapers, and radio stations readily available. So about 3 years ago I started taking Spanish. For various reasons (mainly work) that became untenable for about a year. When I decided to get back into it, I realized my heart just wasn’t in it. Despite Spanish being an insanely practical language for an American to know, I kept thinking about the two years of college Italian that I took 1987-1989. Long story short, I decided to leverage that and give in to the fact that I really love Italian despite the limited opportunities I will have to use it.

So I have been taking Italian classes at the Italian Cultural Society here in DC  (well, Bethesda, but it is quite close to home). I’m very grateful to have the basis of my college studies, but my goal still seems so far away. During the last term I also met with a tutor for an hour a week in addition to my two-hour a week class. Over the summer I’ve been meeting with a tutor for two hours a week and have decided to keep that going when classes start up again next month. That way I will have at least four hours of instruction a week. And, although I haven’t been totally lazy, I need to step up how much I study at home. This is where I start to get resolution-y, I’m going to shoot for at least an hour of Italian every day. That’s only a measly 365 hours before my next birthday, but way better than if I didn’t try.

I should mention I’m using a carrot and stick approach. I’ve unilaterally made 2019 the International Year of Me Traveling. I’ve already booked a week in Milan in February on my own so I don’t fall back on talking to John in English. I can hear many of you say why February and why Milan. It has everything to do with La Scala. I want to hear a few opera at the world’s most famous opera house.

Maybe don’t eat the whole cake
I love to eat. I have a huge sweet tooth. In general I keep my weight under control, but I would like to reset my baseline. If I am going to have a periodic weight swing of 10 pounds (or more) I really would like to start from somewhere lower down the scale. And perhaps even more importantly I really need to improve the type of food I eat and the amount of exercise I get. My body feels way too old for 49 and I need to get off my ass more often.

The start of my birthday cake. Angel food with mocha frosting. I’ve made it a million times. It was John’s favorite birthday cake and has become one of mine.
I decided to try a different recipe for buttercream this time.
This is how it usually looks. And should have looked.
Either I made a mistake somewhere along the way or the recipe is terribly wrong and I need to go back to my usual recipe. It was too runny to frost the cake. We ended up using it like a topping.
The worst part about baking failures is that you still have to clean up the mess.

Fewer screens
I was going to say “fewer screens and more pages”. But I’m actually reading a fair amount these days and need to use the (hopefully) found time to study Italian, get off my ass, be better about chores around the house, and just pursue other activities in general. This shouldn’t be too hard if I just cut off the time where I use screens as a crutch/time waster. If I stop sitting through shows I don’t find totally worthwhile, and if I stop clicking endlessly on internet junk, I will have plenty of time for worthwhile interactions with both media.

If I manage even 50% of these goals I will be feeling pretty good about turning 50 in 363 days. Or at least as good as a dying husk of a human can feel…

27 thoughts on “Mistakes were made

  1. BookerTalk August 19, 2018 / 1:18 pm

    Thats a lot of cleaning up – my kitchen looks even worse when I’ve been baking though. Interesting to hear about that rule of 50. If I do my arithmetic accurately (always a challenge) that means my watershed is around page 39. I’m about 200 pages over that with Line of Beauty by Alun Hollingshead….


    • Thomas August 19, 2018 / 3:05 pm

      Line of Beauty does not get any better. I’ve read it half way through twice. Feel free to donate that one to Oxfam.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan August 19, 2018 / 2:05 pm

    I’m not far behind you, age-wise, and also feel that I should make some resolutions. I keep meaning to learn French; my real aim is to be able to read in French rather than speaking in French. I just don’t get round to starting it. Grrrrr.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas August 20, 2018 / 5:25 pm

      I’ve been translating Italian magazine articles just to expand my vocabulary. I would say I need to look up about 50% of the text for full comprehension. Some of it is words I don’t know, some of it is idiomatic usage, and some is just conjugation where the wrong tense can make for a very different meaning of a sentence.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Esther August 19, 2018 / 7:00 pm

    I found it easier to learn a foreign language as an adult than I did as a teenager. I think we become better students as we get older. Plus, we learn by choice, not because we’re forced to do it. You’re smart to pick a language you love and with which you feel a connection.

    My two kitchen goals are to roast a chicken and make a layer cake from scratch. I accomplished the chicken but have yet to do the layer cake.


    • Thomas August 20, 2018 / 5:23 pm

      I’ve definitely become a better, more dedicated student, but I sure wish I had my younger brain. I’m usually much better with baking. Unless it calls for something that is fancy looking I’m a pretty proficient baker.


  4. Ruthiella August 19, 2018 / 10:21 pm

    Hope your birthday is wonderful Thomas! Your goals are laudable and if you only achieve 50%, that would be something.

    I’ve never met a Dutch person who could not speak English. I always figured the Netherlands would be the hardest place to learn the local language because as soon as they see you struggling in Dutch, they launch into perfect, unaccented English..even small children.

    Your week alone in Milan in February will do wonders I think. Language immersion has always worked best for me. If I have to do it, I can.


    • Thomas August 20, 2018 / 5:17 pm

      Trust Ruthiella to ferret out the truth. It may not have been a Dutch person. I remember there were four different languages and German, French, and Italian were three of them. The challenge with Milan will be that too many people speak English. This summer I spoke more Italian in Sicily where fewer people speak English than I did in Venice.


  5. lauratfrey August 20, 2018 / 1:02 am

    “Dying husk of a human” 😬 These are great goals and even though I’m only starting up my 39th year shortly, I relate. I’m lucky that the language i want to learn is the most convenient (French, in Canada) but I’m less committed than you, just doing Duolingo and reading Tintin comics! Good luck with your resolutions.


    • Thomas August 20, 2018 / 5:21 pm

      I’m a rather linear learner and find conversation apps (or classes for that matter) just don’t work very well for me.


  6. lethe August 20, 2018 / 5:31 am

    Happy belated birthday, Thomas!

    I too am surprised that nobody in that couchette spoke English, and in 1992!

    As it happens, I am 59 today and I recognize that need to take stock.


    • Thomas August 20, 2018 / 5:20 pm

      Happy Birthday! I was a little surprised myself. One of the French women tried to communicate with me but our exchange consisted of about 3 words.


  7. Carol O August 20, 2018 / 8:31 am

    Happy Birthday! Yes, put it down and move on when you don’t like it. I wish I had done that with Goldfinch but people kept convincing me it would be worth it to finish. For me, it wasn’t. Ask Simon if he knows what Angel Food Cake is. I love it. But on the Great British Baking show many of them have never heard of it. Of course I haven’t heard of 90% of what they make!


    • Thomas August 21, 2018 / 9:20 am

      Was there some sort of plot twist in the Goldfinch that was supposed to make the rest of it worth it? I owned it at one point, but gave it away prior to reading a word of it.


  8. Claire (The Captive Reader) August 20, 2018 / 9:26 am

    Lots of wonderful goals, Thomas! I particularly relate to the language one. I have enough to get by in three other languages when I’m travelling but it would be so nice to speak at least one of them really properly.

    If you’re ever looking for a fun Italian experience, I attended the Lucca Italian School for two weeks last year and it was a really delightful environment for learning Italian. They have all levels, wonderful teachers, and fascinating students from around the world. Plus, you’re in beautiful Lucca.


    • Thomas August 20, 2018 / 5:19 pm

      I would love to go spend 2 weeks in Italy on an Italian language program, but I would have to give up too much precious leave to do it. When I take two weeks at the same time it would be with John and he might get bored while I am off studying Italian.

      How nice that you can get by in 3 other languages.


  9. Cynthia Dunn August 20, 2018 / 7:08 pm

    I loved this post, Thomas, but now I’m depressed that I’m so much older than you and have even less time to read everything, learn to play an instrument and learn another language. And hopefully to see the pos in the White House in jail.

    I’ve also had a bookmark in The Stranger’s Child for a few years. Should I donate it?


    • Thomas August 21, 2018 / 9:06 am

      Well, it isn’t so much about the finish line as it is about using my time in a more productive, stimulating way. The cult of Alan Hollinghurst has a lot to answer for. Donate it!


  10. Annie D August 20, 2018 / 7:32 pm

    Happy belated birthday! Almost 50 is definitely a time to take stock and try to tweak and adjust, especially when the important aspects (spouse, family & friends, health) are all in order.

    I turned 55 this summer, really can’t believe how the last few years have flown by. I’m still trying to lose weight, eat healthier, and exercise more. I do travel a lot, give up on books that aren’t working, and try very hard to be easier on myself. Languages are a bust for me, so I admire your efforts to become fluent in Italian. Having goals and dreams, and being willing to learn new things are what keeps us young.

    Good luck on all your goals – here’s to a splendid year at 49.


    • Thomas August 21, 2018 / 9:16 am

      Almost 50. Sounds like it could be a sitcom.


  11. Chris Wolak August 20, 2018 / 10:10 pm

    From one dying husk of a human to another, happy belated birthday! Neat to hear you’re studying Italian. I usually think of age as “just a number,” but 50 is a heck of a number when it comes to the human lifespan. I’m 52 now and feel both younger and older than I’ve ever felt before. It’s weird.


    • Thomas August 21, 2018 / 9:18 am

      For me I’ve always felt like an immature old man. Goofy but with all the curmudgeon-y-ness of an 80 year old.


  12. thepagecountalsorises August 23, 2018 / 10:59 am

    I like your rule better than the rule of 50. There are some books that sound great, but when I begin reading, the thought of 50 pages and how long it’ll take me to get there with that kind of attitude is disheartening.


  13. Susan in TX August 26, 2018 / 6:31 pm

    A very belated happy birthday to you from another “dying husk.” I wish you much success as you pursue your goals in the coming year!


  14. dhanff August 28, 2018 / 8:21 am

    Happy Belated Birthday, Thomas. I really enjoyed reading your post and identify strongly with your goals, although I’m quite a bit older than you: 61! ❤️🎂


  15. Roz August 28, 2018 / 10:03 am

    I’m also in the run up to a birthday milestone and have had similar musings. Though not on the language learning front – having given Japanese a really good go I think I’m resigned to not being a language speaker. Where else do you plan to go in your year of travelling?


  16. Kat August 31, 2018 / 6:41 pm

    Happy Birthday! 50 really won’t be so bad next year. It’s the new 40, blah blah blah, and I assure you there will be no difference from turning 40.

    I love Nancy Pearl dearly, but my own Rule of 50 is 25.

    And congratulations on learning Italian. Sounds like fun.


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