Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fare thee well, 2011

Not a bad year, all in all.  Not perfect, but I have 2009 as an epic bad year to which all past and future years must be compared, and 2011 was not at all bad.  I even kept some of my resolutions -- but not all; I'll put mine in writing and share away next week.

A poem by a great favorite to end the year:


 Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.

Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

Dorothy Parker

I wish you all the best -- and sufficient champagne-- going into an exciting New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Not That Commonplace, Actually

My little commonplace book.  Isn't it pretty?

So have you ever heard of commonplace books?  Once upon a time, when we the people were a lot more literate and studious and didn't have electricity, we read and made notes on what we read.  Many people kept commonplace books, or notebooks with quotes or their impressions of what they read, often organized by topic, so that they could refer back to what impressed them the most rather than having to re-read a primary source, especially if it were borrowed from the library or a friend.  It was a way to keep the book with you, or at least the parts that made a difference to you.

I can't remember when I first heard about commonplacing.  Surely in my extensive primary education, especially in the history courses, it was mentioned as something that was done by the most erudite and learned. The first commonplace book I read for myself was dear E.M. Forster's, he of A Room With A View, Howard's End, A Passage to India, and more lovely Edwardian-ness.  I loved him so much as an author that I wanted to read more, and he left a commonplace book that was eventually published.  Sadly, his personal life was wracked with depression, and much of what he noted was to drive him further into isolation and despair.  But what fantastic personal insight into the man's inner world!

Historically and certainly for Forster, commonplacing was encouraged as part of an excellent education by one's better instructors as a way to self-educate for life.  Students kept commonplace books that were regularly checked and annotated by teachers; parents made notes in them to improve their children's minds and spirits, and people kept them for life as a sort of second intellectual diary.

Over the summer, our church's student minister gave a sermon about how we Unitarian Universalists can find comfort in hard times.  Since we draw from a number of sources, we don't have only one sacred book -- we have potentially any or all on which we can draw for inspiration, motivation, and comfort.  She held up a small four-by-six book in which she had been writing quotes for years, and she used this book when ministering to the sick and dying, and when she herself needed help.  I immediately recognized her book as a commonplace book.  Shortly after, I went and found myself one about the same size, and started putting a lifetime of excerpts and quotes into this one place for future reference.

I did a little research on commonplacing to inform my own practice, and should your interest also be piqued, here is a little of what I found, much of which links to other places of great interest:

Then I found the personal motherlode of commonplace books:  Thomas Jefferson kept a literary commonplace book, and it's been annotated and published.  I could not have been more thrilled about the existence of anything -- if I could go back in time to meet someone, see someone, be someone, it would be Thomas Jefferson.  I have a lot more to say about him, but suffice it to mention now that he's at the top of my admiration list.  Of course he kept a commonplace book, but how divine that it's been studied and published!
I have not wanted a book this much in a long time, and I love books.

And that my own copy of this treasure was under my Christmas tree this year makes it even more delightful. I am medulla-deep in it so far, enthralled with the intellectual landscape of Jefferson as a young man.

If you draw inspiration and intellectual stimulation from your reading as I do, you might consider keeping a little notebook and pen at your elbow to jot down those passages that truly move you.  It is powerful to leaf back through and see them, from many sources, all in one place.   It's a very old practice with a great deal of merit even in today's information age, and perhaps especially now, when information comes and goes so quickly.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Still Giving Thanks

Caroline writes her thank-you after perusing the list.  She's an early reader, too, and writes better than I did at her age.

'Tis the time of year when we give thanks.  No, not the November eating holiday, but the post-Christmas thanks-giving to which I was rigorously subjected in childhood and to which my children also adhere:  the writing of thank-you notes to family and friends who were generous enough with their thoughts, time, and resources to send a Christmas remembrance to them.

My own mother was adamant about thank-you notes.  We received stationery on gift-giving occasions from her so that there were no excuses, and before we were permitted to play with the toy, read the book, or spend the money, a note to the giver had to be duly dispatched.  Although my brother and I rolled our eyes and complained at the great effort, it ingrained a habit in us that we have passed along to our own respective children, to take a few short moments to connect with the giver in thanks.  As we grew, it would have felt odd to use something given to us without having written our notes.  My ever-efficient brother got to a point where he'd write his notes before Christmas dinner was served.

It doesn't take much.  My 4-year old daughter writes only the basics:  dear Aunt and Uncle, thank you for the gift, love Caroline.  My 9-year old son has been instructed to write a real thank-you note, which has a salutation, a thanks for the gift, something nice about the gift, and well wishes for the giver along with his closing.  It only takes him a few minutes to dash off a note, and over the past few years, he's gotten quite good at it, even with handling a diplomatic situation in which the giver meant well but the gift was entirely not to his taste.

Over the past few years, I've had relatives compliment me for having my children write these thank-yous, and I personally think it's a sad commentary on modern times that more children are not compelled to thank those who are generous to them, with more than an email or a phone call.  Of course a written note is a nod to days gone by -- but so are many gestures of thoughtfulness, and that is why we preserve them.  

Have you written your thank-you notes?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

First Half Lookback: School Days

Almost time to close out the year I turned 40.  I've been thinking a little about how I define myself, and that could be a (very boring) series of posts.  It has always been very interesting to me how one's environment shapes the person one becomes.

When I had just started first grade, my parents made the executive decision to move our family out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, which had the disparaging nickname of "Fayette-nam."  The war was wrapping up, the troops were coming back, and it was a place of chaos and discouragement.  Our little neighborhood was nice enough, tucked just south of Ft. Bragg, and my father had a good job with the US Army Corps of Engineers, having served in the south of Vietnam before I was born.  He got an offer to work with Ft Belvoir in Northern Virginia, and a quick comparison of the NC school system and the Fairfax County offerings made it a fairly easy decision.
Market House in downtown Fayetteville.

I learned to read at age two.  Possibly I was more intelligent than an average toddler, but more likely it was my added advantage of a severe hearing disability:  I could not hear well enough to communicate reliably, so that gave me plenty of time and brainspace to learn written communication earlier than most.  My hearing was mostly corrected later, but in the interim I was a voracious reader, which made my preschool teachers thin-lipped as they taught my peers their alphabet.  My first-grade teacher in North Carolina said, "oh, that's wonderful!" when my mother met with her to tell her about our impending move.  Rather than participate in the curriculum in that room, I spent many hours each school day teaching a Vietnamese-American child in my class how to sound out letters in English.

So off we went to Northern Virginia.  The schools there were and are rigorous; packed with the children of the nation's overachievers.   I suddenly had classrooms full of intellectual peers and no more easy A's!  Elementary was full of multilingual, well-traveled and well-cultured classmates; I recall a theological discussion in fourth grade that hasn't been topped since.  Our house was zoned for me to attend Lake Braddock Secondary  from 7th grade through 12th grade.
They've upgraded it a good bit since I graduated in 1989.

Now I was part of a cast of thousands!  LB had around 5,000 students and I graduated with just over 1,000 of them.  My grades were fine; I took GT and AP courses when available, and in any other school, I would have perhaps been a top student.  But not at Lake Braddock.  You want to play soccer?  You'll be on Mia Hamm's team.  Rather try track?  Run fast, because Allen Johnson,  another Olympic gold medalist is already over that hurdle.  Maybe you'd rather pursue music.   Drummer Greg Eklund of Everclear is front-and-center.    Basketball, then?  You'll have to get a spot on Hubert Davis' team.   Also countless top attorneys, political analysts, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, all the members of The Dismemberment Plan, actors, literati and glitterati from and of all over the globe.   The parents were politicians, chiefs of staff, astronauts, war heroes, lobbyists, lawyers, writers, pundits.  And darned good parents.
Here's Allen.  Not just an Olympic gold medalist x2, but smart and a good guy as well.

These were amazing classmates.  We all sort of pushed each other to do and be better at everything, and because everyone else was doing it, it didn't seem like anyone was really getting ahead of anyone else.
That's me in the blonde hair, graduating right ahead of yet another NHS student.

Just a sliver of the Class of '89, on our way to bigger and better things.

So in a rather stark way, this explains my drive to be accomplished along with my lack of competitiveness about it.  To this day, I'm surprised to be good at anything.  I'm also no good at being a spectator -- I like to be part of the production.   It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a learning community that had such high standards, and those eminent people uncovered the drive in me to make this "second half" even better than the first.  Thank you, LB cast of thousands!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Well, hello!

Here I go again with writing a blog! I used to write MyDailyMail until my midlife crisis three years ago, and among many things I discovered about myself, I learned that it's really hard for me not to write. It was fun a few years back to be part of the outfit-a-day community and to share bits of my life with other bloggers.

Then my husband lost his career job in the 2009 economic upheaval, I had some serious health issues, and I more or less dropped my basket as far as normal life was concerned. Fortunately, I kept my wits about me enough to cushion the blow for my two dear children, who did not realize that much, if anything, was wrong, except for that Daddy was home all the time. Eventually, he found an OK job (health insurance again) and then a pretty good job, and then a second international job. I worked part-time while the children were in grade school and morning preschool so we could supplement our income. I left that position earlier this year to take a Spanish class, in order to get a better social work job when I decide to re-enter the job market. Where we live, Spanish is an important second language, and I've enjoyed learning it this past semester. I miss going to work, but the job was well beneath my skill set, and I was able to pinpoint what I need to be marketable after almost a decade out of the social work scene.

I'm healthy now, but I'm north of 40 as of this year -- so my focus on health has changed from barely noticeable to "time to step it up." 2012 is going to see a lot of changes for me: I need to lose a good 15 pounds by improving my diet, I'd like to get comfortable speaking my second language, we have a lot of work to do on the house, and my daughter will start kindergarten, giving me a green light to use some daytime hours to go back to my career.

I have a lot to look forward to in 2012, and sharing some of it with you is part of that. I am delighted to be writing again. This blog will be sort of awful at first, but bear with me as I learn the Blogger platform again, and we'll be off and running in no time.

Oh, the title: I'm definitely going for a second half win in this life. I was raised on Kentucky basketball, went to college at Auburn to learn football and social work, finished grad school at UNC-Chapel Hill, and we're season ticket holders for our local NASL soccer team -- I love a great second-half win even more than a steady lead. Watch me go for it!