Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Conversation Starter

I appreciate that a certain fast food chain is rewarding phone-free meals with free ice cream. For families with children, this is a great idea. It encourages interaction, conversation, bonding—things that probably every family with kiddos could benefit from these days. But as an empty-nester, I’m thinking I’ll keep my phone and forgo the freebie.
If I went to a restaurant with even one adorable child—infant, toddler, adolescent, teenager—I’d find plenty to talk about before and during the meal: How was your day? What did you learn at school? How did it go on the calculus quiz? Things I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t with them all day. And even if those questions were answered with no more than an “I don’t remember” or "I don't won't to talk about it," I could still keep the conversation rolling by coming up with more questions. Or in the case of a teen, more interrogating. 
But these days, my immediate family consists of two adults—Bill and me. Since we’re both retired, we spend a lot of time together—a LOT of time. We pretty much know what the other person had for breakfast, what news was in the paper that morning, what came in the mail, which team won what game, what cute thing a grandson said. And since there are no longer children at home, we don’t have that mainstay of conversation. How much more can there be to talk about?
I once read that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, aka Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, would take turns counting in French whenever they were eating out just so onlookers would think they were engaged in lively mealtime conversation. If those two world-hopping jet-setters (before there were even jets) couldn’t come up with something interesting to say to each other, what chance do we lowly, dull commoners have? There’ve been times I was tempted to use their tactic, but one thing held me back: Neither Bill nor I speak French. And if we counted in English, people would be on to us.
The solution to our dearth
of dining dialogue
We’ve all seen the couples who sit silently in restaurants, either staring blankly at each other or gazing lovingly at their food. I once swore that would never be me. But, as with so many other of my foolish claims, I was on the fast track to eating my words. Then, quite unintentionally, Bill hit upon a solution to this dining out dilemma—his cell phone.
Mind you, I’m not talking about him hunched over his screen with scrolling finger poised, oblivious to my presence. I’m talking about his sharing those bits of breaking news he has immediate access to. I’ve come to view those as “conversation starters,” and we do a good job of turning those juicy tidbits into interesting exchanges.
I can hear the criticism from those of you who possess the “gift of gab.” If I were smart or could remember what I read in the morning paper or was the sort who could ramble nonstop about . . . say my new bed sheets, I suppose I wouldn’t have to resort to technology for inspiration. But since I’m none of those, the phone has become a useful tool for “feeding” our dining out dialogue. As a bonus, I’m learning new information and keeping up with current events. I’d say that was worth the price of an ice cream cone, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Achieving Balance

In the past, a couple of my Facebook friends have posted pictures of themselves doing a headstand. Big deal, I thought, when I saw them. I can do that, and I’m older than they are. Fact is, back in the day, I was pretty good at standing on my head. But as the need to do a headstand hasn’t arisen lately—say in the past thirty years—I hadn’t put much effort into maintaining that particular skill. But I viewed those pictures as a challenge. So I got down on the floor and tried to get into the initial position for a headstand by forming a tripod with my head and hands and resting my knees on my elbows. Just let me say, it’s not like riding a bike. It doesn’t come right back to you.

Assuming crash position
Undaunted, I made it a goal to start working little-by-little, step-by-step, until I could reclaim this pretty much useless ability by my sixty-sixth birthday. I put more effort into my Pilates classes, and I practiced headstands several times a week (in the privacy of my bedroom). Before long, I could hoist my rear over my head and keep it there. But straightening my legs was another matter. They were a lot heavier to lift than I remembered. (Couldn’t possibly be those extra pounds I’d packed on, could it?) And if I tried to use momentum to swing them into place, I threw myself off balance and collapsed like an imploding building. (Remember, this is still in my bedroom. Alone.) Finally, I had one of those aha! moments. Not exactly the-secret-of-life kind of epiphany, but still, for me, an important one.
Core engaged=Success!
During the course of a forty-five minute Pilates class, the instructor must mention the word core at least twenty-five times. Every move comes with the admonishment to “engage your core,” “maintain your core,” “focus on your core.” So even with my rear mid-air and all the blood in my body pooling in my head, I remembered use my core. I drew in my breath, sucked my navel to my spine as they say, and pushed, not from my legs but from my abs. And voila! The legs rose! A little wobbly and certainly not perfectly straight, but they rose!
The point of this post isn’t to announce that at the ripe old age of sixty-six, I can do a headstand. Well, okay, that may be part of it. But my headstand and the thought process that went into it got me to thinking about the relationship between core and balance—not just in the physical sense, but in the mental, emotional, and spiritual senses as well. Many times when I feel things getting out of whack—off-balance—I have to stop and consider what’s at my core. I have to ask myself, what do I love, enjoy, value, aspire to? What are my responsibilities to God, to others? Am I focusing on those? Am I making time for all of them?
I’m not saying I always do this perfectly--just as my headstand isn't perfect--but it’s a goal. And when I do “engage my core,” I can feel myself rising.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Gem of a Book - My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg

More than one of my friends has commented that the first thing they do when their copy of Southern Living arrives is turn to the Rick Bragg essay in the back. Ditto for me. So when I saw the magazine had published a collection of those essays, I immediately bought the book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for me. It was for a gift, and as it was a little pricey, I didn’t purchase one for myself. But until I could justify buying my own copy, I made the best of the situation. I read the book before giving it away. I very carefully turned each page by the corner and not so much as drank a cup of tea anywhere near it. I also had to keep pens out of reach. Whenever I read, I  underline words or ideas or clever or unique expressions that especially appeal to me. I knew if I had a pen anywhere near me while reading this book, every page would be covered in as much ball-point pen ink as printer’s ink by the time I finished. If “previewing” a book before giving it away constitutes re-gifting, so be it. It’s not like I haven’t done that before. (And don’t even try to tell me you’ve never done it!)
            I love Bragg’s writing because something in his Southern experience resonates with my own. Unlike him, I wasn’t brought up in the “deep South,” but I spent many days of my youth in East Texas, which—according to the movie Bernie—“is where the South begins.” I know about red clay, tar roads, and practical, no-nonsense pet names. Good Dog, the name my dad gave to a stray he adopted, comes to mind. 
            Yes, I love what Bragg has to say. But, even more, I love the way he says it. His ability to “turn a phrase” is genius bordering on magic. I challenge even Yankees not to find intricate beauty in silver chewing gum wrappers placed between the pages of a grandmother’s Bible. There's a multitude of story possibilities in that detail alone.
            I confess I usually hurry through book introductions and sometimes skip them altogether. But not in this book. I knew even in the intro there’d be words and phrases and imagery and  “southernisms” I didn’t want to miss. I wasn’t disappointed. I laughed and cried and laughed till I cried . . . all before reading the first essay.
            In addition to it being a pure pleasure, reading Bragg is a writing lesson for me. Unintentionally, I’m sure, he offers great instruction. I always keep an eye out for an especially creative technique to incorporate into my own writing. And on page twenty-one of this book, he offers an excellent piece of advice for writers. He confesses that whenever he finishes a book, he lets his mother read it first. He contends your first critic should be “in your pocket.”
            I laughed when I read that because it goes against all I’ve read or heard concerning beta readers. Conventional wisdom insists such people should be tough and relentless. I like Bragg’s advice better. I bet if more writers followed it, we wouldn’t be such a frustrated lot!



Friday, January 1, 2016

2016 A Year of Passionate Planning

         Usually, I’m like most people in that I look forward to the beginning of a new year. Even if it’s mostly wishful thinking, I like the idea of making a fresh start, establishing new and positive habits and all that. But this new year’s morning I woke up in a funk and at first wasn’t sure why. Many times when I go into one of these unexplained visits to the proverbial “dumps,” I can pull myself out by identifying the trigger. So after taking some soul-searching inventory, I discovered the source of my doldrums: my new Passion Planner.

I was excited to receive my
new planner...
until I realized I had to
make the plans
         Yes, a seemingly innocent-looking planner was the culprit. I’d been excited to receive it at our annual Inklings Christmas Tea and book exchange. I’m a big fan of day-planners in which I write down my activities for the day, week, month. In fact, I couldn’t function without one—or two. But when I got this little gem home and started perusing it, I went into a tailspin. This wasn’t an ordinary planner. It was a Passion Planner. Not one in which I simply wrote down the activities planned for me by others, but one that required I actually make plans. And not only day plans, but three-month, three-year, lifetime plans! Plans I was passionate about! For a pin-ball person like me—the kind who basically goes through life bouncing off and among the plans others make—an exercise such as this can be daunting . . . and a little depressing.

            But, this being the time for new beginnings, I reluctantly took the challenge. Fortunately, the planner gives some step-by-step directions for creating my “passion roadmap,” and I followed them as best I could, even setting a timer as suggested. As one who never made it past the introduction of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I didn’t have much hope going into this exercise. But I was pleasantly surprised by the results. I think it had a lot to do with the admonition to “not feel the need to be realistic or justify [my] dreams.” In no time at all, I had identified and prioritized some specific dreams and goals for the coming days, months, years, lifetime!

            Will all these goals come to fruition? Probably not. But that’s not going to discourage me from dreaming and planning. Because even if just some become reality, I’ll be in a much better place. And the dreaming and planning can be half the fun.

            Along with directions for planning, a month-at-a-glance calendar, and day-by-day scheduling, my new planner also provides a “Space of Infinite Possibility.” I pray that is what 2016 will be for you!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Post of Christmases Past

Pour yourself a cup of tean
and join me in a stroll down
memory lane.
Since Christmas is an excellent time for reflecting, I'm reviving some of my posts from past Christmases. If you missed them, I hope you enjoy them. If you read them but your memory is like mine, you can read them again for the first time!

My favorite Christmas recipe

Favorite Christmas song

Favorite Christmas story (not counting the original)

And I'll close with my Favorite Christmas thought

Thank you for visiting (or re-visiting) Christmases Past with me. Wishing you and your loved ones a Very Merry and Blessed Christmas Present!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dirty Santa Is Fraught with Faux Pas-sibilities

            I for one am NOT a fan of Dirty Santa, that activity where, right under your nose, people exchange a gift you gave them for one they like better. Anyone with even a modicum of manners knows that such behavior is just plain tacky. It is my fervent Christmas wish that eventually Dirty Santa will go the way of friendship bread and fruitcake. But just in case you're planning to attend an event involving this onslaught to your holiday cheer and your ego, here are a few hints for surviving it.
One-stop shopping for all your Naughty Santa needs!
 1.  Dirty Santa does not mean Naughty Santa. My friends “Nola” and “Nick” learned this the hard way. They were invited to a church party for which they were to bring a Dirty Santa gift. They’d never heard of Dirty Santa and quite understandably interpreted dirty as naughty. They thought it a bit strange that a church would be doing this, but, hey, it was a progressive church. The pastor wore jeans and the “choir” was basically a rock band. So snickering and elbowing each other like a couple of teenagers, they searched the aisles of a marital aids store and selected an appropriately inappropriate gift. Imagine their horror at the party when the first couple of gifts were unwrapped, and Lola and Nick realized their social gaffe. This unfortunate incident does, however, have a happy ending. This was indeed a progressive church, and their gift proved to be the most popular. Which leads to my next survival hint...
2a. It’s all about the gift. If you remember nothing else, remember this: Dirty Santa involves cut-throat competition and is best left to seasoned gift-giving professionals. Unlike a White Elephant exchange, the ultimate goal of Dirty Santa is to bring the gift everyone will covet and the one that will be stolen the maximum number of times. If the gift you bring isn’t stolen at all, you brought a dud. I brought a perfectly lovely scented candle to my first Dirty Santa exchange. The first hint of my rookie status was that my gift was chosen last. I’d made the mistake of not"staging" it properly, not placing the candle in a sparkly gift bag with a huge bow and enough tissue paper to stuff a mattress. The second hint that my gift was a loser was the stiff half-smile and unenthusiastic “Well, isn’t this nice” from the recipient. She knew, and at that point I knew, no one would be stealing that candle.
Half the battle of Dirty Santa success
is in the presentation.
2b. The $10 maximum is only a suggestion. Like most interstate drivers, no one takes the limit seriously. If you properly stage your gift, that alone can cost ten bucks. And bear in mind you’re up against the pros here—those people who Christmas shop in January or who can snag a 42" smart TV on Deal Dash for about the same price as a ... well, a scented candle. 
Apparently, scented candles aren't coveted
gifts among Dirty Santa participants.
2c. The pain is acute, and recovery will take time. Sadly, my first Dirty Santa experience didn’t end as happily as Nick and Lola’s did. It was March when the recipient of my gift informed me she’d finally lit the candle (another indication of her excitement over it). I stood there with an expectant smile, waiting for her to tell me how it calmed her frazzled nerves or reminded her of a walk in a garden. Instead, I got, “My son came home and said, ‘Something stinks.’”
I guess it could’ve been worse. My friend Norma, another Dirty Santa victim, once told me she couldn’t attend a party, so she sent a crystal salad bowl with the instructions to just bring her whatever gift was left. She got her salad bowl back. 
The painful humiliation inflicted by Dirty Santa is a long, drawn-out affair. You must wait an entire year to redeem yourself because, hello, there is no Dirty Cupid, Dirty Easter Bunny, or Dirty Turkey.
2c. Only slightly less mortifying than bringing the loser gift is receiving the loser gift. (As in poor Norma’s case, these events can sometimes occur at the same party and to the same person, although it is rare.) From the moment you unwrap that gold, spray-painted Christmas tree made out of coat hangers, you know there’s not a snowball’s chance it’s going to be stolen. When that happens, Dirty Santa can become character building. There’s not a dang thing you can do but force a smile and mutter, “Well, isn’t this nice.”
3. There is no such thing as “getting into the spirit” of Dirty Santa. I can hear you saying, “Aw, Dee Dee, lighten up.That candle incident happened over fifteen years ago, and you're still whinging about it.” There may be some truth to your accusation, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing—and I mean nothing—zaps the joy from gift-giving faster than this activity. Whoever came up with the whole idea surely must’ve been a cohort of Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch...before their miraculous transformations.
          I haven’t heard a lot about Dirty Santa lately. I think the trend is being replaced by Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties, those activities where Generation X-ers and Millenials make fun of the beautiful sweaters I wore until they started having Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties. Please excuse me, I feel another post coming on.          
I believe that eventually Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties
will become passe' and I can again wear my festive sweater collection
to all my holiday events.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Tree-Top Christmas

            In the mid-seventies, a fire gutted my parents’ house. Of course, there was the initial shock and depression that accompanies such a traumatic event, but as with most tragedies in life, good things followed. In my parents’ case, the good things came in a house that, while not entirely new, was completely remodeled and refreshed. And since many of the Christmas decorations had been stored in the attic—where the fire started—Mama was able to celebrate the first Christmas in her beautifully restored house with new Christmas finery. Replacing the pitiful, “Charlie Brown” live trees we’d always had in the past was an artificial tree with full and perfectly arranged branches. Like most of these trees, it came in three sections and reached all the way to the ceiling. Instead of the scratched, lusterless ornaments that had survived decades of being tossed willy-nilly into a box after Christmas, there were elegant decorations in the form of red velvet bows and snowy-feathered doves.

            The fake tree and fake doves and velvet bows faithfully served for years. But eventually, the doves’ feathers yellowed. They also lost their “fluffiness,” as did the bows. The tree, however, continued to stand stalwart and tall for years to come. At Christmas time, my sister, brother, and I would return home with our growing families to find the tree decked out in more traditional decorations of colored lights, shiny balls, and ornaments hand-made by grandkids.
The Hallmark dream
            As we all grew older, the tree began to shrink, and I don’t mean in a metaphorical sense. It actually shrank—as in Mama began to leave off the bottom section in order to save space and decorating effort. Then the last couple of Christmases she decorated, we found only the top section of the tree placed squarely in the middle of the coffee table.
            While I didn’t always achieve it—I always dreamed of a Hallmark kind of Christmas. For me, there was no such thing as too many lights or too much sparkle and shine. So the first time I saw that topper excuse for a tree on Mama’s table, I remember hoping I never came to that place. That place where shiny ornaments and twinkling lights and a glittering tree wouldn’t fill me with giddy pleasure.
            You know what I’m about to say.
The tree-top Christmas reality
            Yes, I’ve come to that place. Almost. I haven’t completely abandoned decorating a la Clark Griswold, but when my daughter moved to another state and married, we adopted the every-other-year plan. We alternate the Christmas venues—our house one year, her house the next. For a while, I continued to do my annual decorating. But a couple of years ago I got smart.  Now, I have a tree-top Christmas every other year. Like Mama, I make a nod toward decorating—a few outside lights, a wreath here, a Santa there, and, of course, a nativity scene. But it’s not a winter fantasy by a long-shot.  
            And you know what? I kind of like downsizing my Christmas decorating. Downsizing every other year means that every other year I can take it easy. I can take time to actually enjoy shopping and baking and attending parties and events. I can spend more time reflecting on the meaning of the season. I can ooh and aah over other people’s decorations. And every other year, I can miss out on the after-Christmas slump of taking down and packing away tubs of decorations.
            Maybe it’s a sign of age, but this year I’m rather enjoying my tree-top Christmas. Hope you're enjoying your Christmas preparations, too, whether tree-top, Hallmark, or somwhere in between.