Friday, February 21, 2014

Thank you for all the health and all the experiences that I have lived. . . . ~ Carolina Kostner


The only event of this year's Olympic games that interested me enough to look up the TV schedule for it was the ladies' figure skating--the skating is the only winter event that ever seems to catch my interest, just as gymnastics used to be the one in the summer Olympics--and I found myself enchanted by one of the skaters:  Carolina Kostner.  One of her programs was performed to "Ave Maria."  It is hauntingly beautiful, and all I have read about Kostner's road to this Olympics has only made the performance more touching to me.  Apparently, she has battled injuries the past few years, fell a number of times during her programs in the 2010 Olympics, finishing in sixteenth place--prompting the satirical newspaper "The Onion" to post a headline earlier this week that described her needing to be rescued after falling through the ice this Olympics--and had decided after 2010 to retire from skating.  She took time off but eventually came back to it, deciding to return for the pure love of it, instead of thinking in terms of competitions, judges' scores, and others' expectations.  Kostner, in her "Ave Maria" performance above, reminds me of one of those miniature ballerinas inside a music box.  I have watched this over and over.  In an interview after this Olympics--in which she finally earned an Olympic medal, at the ripe "old" age of twenty-seven--she commented that the this lovely performance "felt almost like a prayer saying, 'Thank you for all the health and all the experiences that I have lived.'"  Ah!    I think it more than shows. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Valen-Christmas 2014, or Kindness Toward Self and Others, or Issues: I Have a Few

After Mike and I exchanged cards and gifts Valentine's Day morning, he left to spend the weekend with his family.  Since he hadn't been able to visit them in December, the weekend became a combined Valentine's Day-Christmas (that I deemed "Valen-Christmas") for them.  I had packed a couple gift bags for Mike's family into his rental car, enjoying the opportunity to mix and match Christmas wrapping paper and handpainted Christmas ornaments with Valentine's Day flowers, heart-printed tissue paper, and heart-shaped cherry pies.  Two of my favorite holidays rolled into one this Friday.  


Mike returned Sunday evening with a car full of our Christmas presents from his family, and while our Christmas-in-February was fun, I was more grateful for the gift of his having made it home safely after a few hours of driving on slippery roads.  We usually take advantage of our once-or-twice-a-year car-rentals by heading to a local shopping plaza and stocking up on some things that are easier to bring home with a car, and we had planned both to do that and to enjoy a belated Valentine's dinner out, but when he called to let me know he was back and temporarily parked across the street, his first words were "I hope you're not disappointed, but the roads are awful. . . ."  No, I was not disappointed.  I was relieved, not really feeling like being out on them, or even away from home at all.  He returned the car, ordered a pizza--extra cheese with mushrooms, my favorite--we opened our presents, and we called it a day.  With his being gone and our plans abruptly changed, Valentine's Day didn't feel like it usually does here anyway.  I had sent the Valentine's Day bib to my niece but had mailed only a few cards.  I didn't even bake a cake, having expected us to eat out.  Due to my work schedule and energy level, this past Thanksgiving had the same play-it-by-ear feel.  Sometimes it's just like this. 

When I was younger, even a couple years younger, I would have beaten myself up a bit about these things--I should have made a cake and cookies, I should have knocked his socks off with some beautifully-creative impromptu dinner for us, I should have gotten more mail out, what happened to the homemade heart-shaped gluten-free cookies I was going to send to Mom--but ohhh noooooo.  One of my wishes for my thirty-sixth birthday was to be kinder not only to others, but to myself, as well.  It wasn't just words randomly typed into the text-box here; It's something I always need to work on.  I'll eat junk food in my packed lunches for a few days and spend my lunch money on a gift for someone instead.  I'll skip an extra couple hours of sleep in order to catch up on emails or get a long letter written.  I'll treat Mike to a book or cd he's mentioned but will rarely do the same for myself.  I go through phases and sometime long stretches of taking the time to watch movies and go for my beloved long walks, but spending this time on myself usually takes a backseat to looking out for my loved ones.  (I always make the time for journal-writing and that kind of reflective and prayerful quiet time, so that's in my favor here, at least.)  There is always more (and more and more) I want to be doing for people--and I love doing it--and I'm better at taking care of them than of myself.  It's just one of my issues.  When I mentioned this to my mom years ago, she seemed almost puzzled by the fact that I didn't "get it" and just said, "Well, Vally, there's always more that it would be nice to be able to do for people"--with an implied "???" clearly heard at the end of her statement.  And she's right, but I can be hard on myself and this runs deep with me. 
Almost a year after declaring that I wanted to do better in this regard, though, I can say that I'm getting somewhere.  I'm more likely to allow myself to sleep when I need it.   If I send ten Valentines instead of twenty, life goes on.  My loved ones know I love them even if their cards arrive a day late.  I am finally, in my late thirties, becoming gentler with myself.  I splurged last month and treated myself to a bottle of long-wished-for L'Air Du Temps perfume.  I recently bought myself a couple nightgowns.  I've been watching more movies.  Owning a camera now that can take good pictures outdoors should help me stay on-track with my daily walks.  Slowly, I am finding ways to balance showing love toward others with showing love toward self.   (Why is it just sooooo fun to give to others, though, and such work to take care of myself?!)  When I say that I like growing older, this kind of learning is one of the reasons why.  It is fascinating to me to see how issues that were so big to me ten years ago are no longer things I even think about, let alone "get hung up on," and how characteristics I accept as simply being my personality end up, given enough time, having been just quirks or the way I was during certain stages of my life.  Finding these patterns and putting these sorts of puzzle pieces together:  That's so much of the beauty and benefit and fun of aging. 
After all that, it will likely not surprise you to hear that while I nestled a number of mini heart-shaped pies into tissue paper for Mike's parents on Friday, I also set aside a few for myself.  And that a Valentine's Day that began with wrapping presents for others ended with curling up in a granny square afghan watching movies with Stuffed on my lap. This balance, even if it needs to be re-calibrated from time to time, has been one of the great gifts and lessons of my thirties, and I am most thankful for it. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In Love with a Tree

Saturday morning was a slushy mess here, but the sun was shining and I needed fresh air, so I walked around taking pictures for awhile.  I think trees are beautiful in every season but that they're best shown-off in winter--handsome women without any makeup on, nothing to hide.  Much of my first few visits with Mike here in 2007 was spent walking, and one of the beautiful things that kept grabbing my attention on our long treks all over the city was this tree.  After inquiring about it in an online forum back then, I was told it was the London Plane tree.  It is one of the things I most love seeing when I head outdoors here. 
The amazing jigsaw puzzle-ish camouflage bark is what caught my eye in 2007, enough that I mentioned it in a journal entry that summer. 
At the time, I jokingly called these "inflatable trees" and "papier-mâché trees."  Their bark and sometimes-saggy-looking trunks can make them look unreal, like hollow, painted stage props.   
From all I've read, it seems London Planes and American Sycamores are often confused.  The city has been working to save its old London Planes and has been planting a new-and-improved disease-resistant variety, as well.
Look at this incredible bark.
Just lovely. 
And majestic!  The height!  The strong curves of the trunk and branches! 
And well-worth the trudge through the snow. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Two Pictures of a Pretty Baby

My younger brother sent me the picture above of my newest niece last week, and his wife sent the picture below on Friday.  (I found the bib online and had it delivered as a Valentine gift.  Bianca wears it well.)  Ideally, my niece will grow to become kind and good and strong and funny.  In the meantime, she is the prettiest baby I've ever seen.  I get to see her again next week for the first time since Christmas, and I'm so looking forward to it.  She was three months old yesterday--already!--and looks gigglier and happier in each photo my family shares.  
Darling girl! 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Last Valentine's Day

I pass an elementary school on my walk to work and thus encounter a few crossing guards along the way.  One acts as though she can barely be bothered to return a hello but eventually mumbles one in response as she marches her charges across the street.  Another ignores all pleasantries outright.  "Good morning!" I'll greet her with a smile, adding "You must be so happy it's warmed up!"  She will stare back as though I've offended her and then mutter, "Okay, walk now."  ("Chatty gal!" Elaine would sarcastically comment on "Seinfeld.")  Mike passes the same women the days he walks to work, so he knows. . .and when the subject comes up between us can usually be counted on to say something like "I wouldn't even bother.  You know she's not going to be friendly.  Just cross the street!"  I would rather know that I made an effort even if it went unappreciated, so we agree to disagree on that.  Also, the older I get, the more I seem to possess a perverse determination to be especially nice to people who seem annoyed by it.  One of the local crossing guards makes up for the others, though, taking the time to talk about the weather and traffic and pointing out any icy patches she knows I'll pass in the next block or so of my walk after she guides me across "her" intersection.  Such cheerfulness and thoughtfulness in a job that requires her to be outside and on her feet in all kinds of weather!  When either Mike or I have an anecdote about our walk to work, we know to whom "The Nice Crossing Guard" refers when we say it.  She's just one of those nice people in the neighborhood.  

I didn't have to work last Valentine's Day and finished buying Mike his traditional sweets that morning.  A peanut butter cup heart would have been enough to make him happy, but I added a few other things to my stash for his little treat bag:  A small packet of peanut butter cookies, a chocolate-covered marshmallow heart, and whatever else.  As I headed toward the apartment with my bag of candy in the drizzly cold, I realized "our" crossing guard was likely still at her post, and on the spur of the moment, I decided to find her and wish her a happy Valentine's Day.  When I reached her, I suddenly felt shy and stupid, wondering if she would think this a bit over the top or odd since we only knew each other as crossing guard and pedestrain.  I handed her the marshmallow heart and said whatever I said to wish her a good day, and she was so touched and got such a kick out of it.  "I always take a break mid-morning and sit in my car awhile with coffee I keep in a thermos," she told me as she tucked the little red foil package into a coat pocket.  "Today I'll have something to eat with my coffee!"  Hearing that made me feel better again--in the vein of "Whew!  I'm not an idiot!  She understood and just enjoyed it!"--and even now, a year later, it is one of only a few Valentine's Day moments I've ever experienced that are memorable.  

I am neurotic enough to wonder as I write this if maybe the bolder and more generous act would have been to surprise one of the two cranky crossing guards with the marshmallow heart, and if I had, how that would have played-out--"What happened then?  Well. . .in Whoville they say, that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!"--but giving it to "The Nice Crossing Guard" seemed the right thing to do.  I found a quote awhile back attributed to writer Robert Brault that I love:  "Inner beauty, too, needs occasionally to be told it is beautiful."  That's my defense.  :)  The crossing guard is pleasant to everyone she encounters every day, and that alone is beautiful and marshmallow heart-worthy to me.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Pig ID Photo Commercial


I practically cackle every time this commercial airs.  ". . .Gots all my pertinents on it and such."  And the bewildered look on the pig's face when the disinterested clerk says "Turn to the camera."  The way she bellows "Next!" like it has three syllables.  I laugh and laugh, every time.  And the shot of his new photo!  Ahhhh!  I love it.  
I first saw it about two days before having my own photo taken for a new badge for work, and it is putting it kindly to say that my old photo was better, making this commercial even funnier to me every time it comes on this winter. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

On a Lamp Post Downtown

Graffiti fascinates me.  The least significant of my wonderings about it:  How do so many people create it without getting caught? 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cat Paws and Baby Legs

Cat paws in a bit of sunshine:  So dear!    The subtle fold-line across a cat's front paws is a "cat thing" that always charms me, just as chubby baby legs do.  (My nephew, below at a year-old, took that prize.  And now he's a lanky almost-ten-year-old?!)
'Two happy bits for a February day in need of some warmth. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Thirty-One Thoughts About Words This Thursday

 1.)  I am a lover of words.  I collect quotes, memorize poems, am fascinated by language, and hang favorite verses and thoughts on my fridge and walls.

2.)  My favorite words, mostly for the way they sound, are "love," "luscious," "voluptuous," "pumpkin," "Papa," "Mama," and "kiddo."  Sweet, plump, kind words, those.  

3.)  My ninth-grade English teacher told our class early in the school year that Japanese people were once surveyed and asked which English word sounded the prettiest to them.  The word that was deemed prettiest-sounding when all the responses had been tallied was "diarrhea." 

4.)  It delights me that in the last segment of every interview for "Inside the Actors Studio," host James Lipton asks his guests to say their favorite and least-favorite words.

5.)  On my amazon wish list is the book Favorite Words of Famous People

6.)  I loved learning--probably in middle school when I took my first foreign language class, unless a Reader's Digest article or similar reading taught me this even before that--that words exist in one language that don't exist in others.  Age-otori:  looking worse after a haircut [Japanese].  Meraki:  Putting your heart and soul into what you're doing [Greek].  

7.)  In a college Spanish class, I learned this:  "Murió" means "He died," stated matter-of-factly.  "Se me murió" captures the feeling of "He went and died on me, I didn't see it coming."  It's more personal and more heartfelt.  I love that and loved Spanish all the more for it. 

8.)  Babies' language acquisition fascinates me.  I have told my brothers and sisters-in-law so many times how interesting it is to see their little ones learn words and sentences.  None of us can remember exactly how my now-almost-ten-year-old nephew used to string the words together, but when he was just learning to talk, he would ask for what he needed by saying something like "You will get me something this?"  It was funny and enchanting.  The entire process amazes me.

9.)   When I read blog posts or other online pieces that have been written particularly well or memorably, I save them.  At any time, I have a number of posts bookmarked and copied into my email folders.

10.)  Janine over at "writing as jo(e)" recently described the sparkles in snow as looking "like sugar tossed on the crust of a homemade apple pie."  That was from January 23rd's post.  Lovely. 

11.)  "Lovely" is another word I love.  If I've left you a comment before, you likely know that and you know that I mean it most sincerely when I say it.

12.)  And yes, if I had to choose a true favorite word, I probably would go with "love."  Love implies respect and enthusiasm and kindness and true feeling.  It's not a wishy-washy word.  When people talk about what they love, whether it be a song or a season or a movie or a person, they're telling you something about themselves at least as much as they're telling you about the object of their affection. 

13.)  That President Roosevelt's "fireside chats" are part of his legacy impresses me.  It is no small thing to buoy a person's spirits merely with one's words, and to do that for an entire nation, and in such trying times. . .!

14.)  I don't watch awards shows but like reading the day-after recaps in the news to learn what the winners said in their speeches.  Few people ever have the opportunity to have that One Big Moment to thank publicly those who helped them reach that moment and to offer thoughts on it in such a grand way, so to hear what is said can be interesting. 

15.)  One of my favorite Oscar speeches is Dustin Hoffman's after he won Best Actor for his work in Kramer vs. Kramer:  ". . . I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon, that I beat Al Pacino, that I beat Peter Sellers.  I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost.  We are part of an artistic family.  There are sixty-thousand actors in the. . .Screen Actors Guild. . . .And most actors don't work.  And a few of us are so lucky to have a chance to work. . .Beacuse when you're a broke actor, you can't write, you can't paint, you have to practice accents while you're driving a taxi cab.  And to that artistic family that strives for excellence, none of you have ever lost, and I'm proud to share this with you."  The power of well-chosen words!  To be one of his fellow nominees and hear that speech moments after one's own name wasn't called, had to have taken some of the sting out.  Just beautiful,  this generosity of both words and gesture.  

16.)  When Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize, he concluded his acceptance speech by stating that, "No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.  We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.  Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately."  Ah!

17.)  In the wise little book The Four Agreements, author Miguel Ruiz shares many worthwhile thoughts on the power of words and sums up the chapter on it with the tagline "be impeccable with your word."  Especially in a world in which people increasingly communicate online, the advice to choose words that will cause the least melodrama, is advice to remember.  I myself didn't think before "speaking" while leaving a comment on dear Sandra's blog last year and still feel sick when I think about.  It was a good reminder of the necessity to take the time to find a clear way to express myself before speaking or hitting "publish comment." 

18.)  There are words I often read and never remember how to say.  Is brother-and-sister actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal's last name pronounced Jill-en-hall or Gill-en-hall, for example?  I am told and then forget again, so when I do mention one of them, I end up saying things like "[Maggie/Jake] Jill-en-hall-or-Gill-en-hall is in it."  

19.)  In the fifth grade, I almost qualified for a regional spelling bee but lost because my word was "capitol" and I was too shy to speak up and ask the judge which form of the word--"capitol-with-an-O" or "capital-with-an-A"--she meant.  I didn't want all my eyes on me (any more than they already were?! so silly of me), so I didn't ask and instead just decided on one and spelled it.  It was the "wrong" one, and I was thus forced out.  Looking back, everything about that is bizarre to me.  Why wouldn't the judge have specified one or the other in the first place?  And since she hadn't, why was "my" spelling deemed incorrect?  And why if I was already spelling and speaking in front of however-many people did I not have the courage to speak up to ask such a simple and appropriate question?!  I was ten years old, and maybe that's explanation enough.  Just goofy all-around.  I ended up having to attend the next round/event at the local college campus as an alternate or something like that.  I wasn't heartbroken--just annoyed with myself and my (lack of) actions--but every time the subjects of spelling bees or homonyms come up, this is what I immediately remember. 

20.)  Screenplay writers impress me more and more the older I get.  I've been working on the same screenplay off and on since 2010.  It is hard going.  Every time I watch what I consider a good movie, I find myself thinking about the fact that someone wrote that.  Every scene in every movie that's ever made you laugh, every moment that's made you cry, every line you and your loved ones quote back to each other all the time, every moment that so perfectly captures a time or an experience or a feeling:  Someone wrote that.  It was once part of a first draft, then part of another rough draft, words were added to it, words were taken out of it, the actors added their own input, it was completely scrapped, it was saved from the trash, it was rewritten again. . . .Someone wrote it.  Your favorite movies are someone's words

21.)  Along those lines, when Sofia Coppola won the Oscar for her screenplay for Lost in Translation, she included a "Thank you to my brother Roman and all my friends who were there for me when I was stuck at twelves pages and encouraged me to keep writing."  I love that.

22.)  My mom, aunt, and mother-in-law all tend to give me quotation books as gifts.  

23.)  I would bet artist Susan Branch's home studio is much the same, since she's clearly a quote-collector too, but I remember a photo of artist Mary Englebreit's painting desk and studio in one of her old magazines, and there were big books of quotes alongside the art supplies.  Both artists' appreciation of quotes charms me.  

24.)  One of my favorite things to do in the late 1980s was to transcribe the lyrics to my favorite songs as they played on either my cassette tapes or the radio.  Do kids still do this, or do they just look up the lyrics online these days?  Sometimes an album came with the lyrics printed inside the cassette's fold-out sleeve, saving me the "trouble."  I can't explain why this was fun, but writing out the words to the songs was something I spent a good bit of time enjoying as a twelve-and-thirteen-year-old.  I had notebooks of transcribed song lyrics.  Many kids in my generation surely did.  When Billy Joel's mile-a-minute "We Didn't Start the Fire" came out a couple weeks after I started the seventh grade, I had my hands full.  :)

25.)  I think it would be nice if at the end of every year, the media would report on "Greatest Uses of Words This Year," the way they create lists for best albums, top movies, and biggest news stories. 

26.)  If you read Alicia Paulson's beautiful blog, "Posie Gets Cozy," you probably saw the sweet piece she wrote Tuesday in which she describes what reading to her little girl is like lately.  Alicia's daughter is going through that toddler stage of being more interested in turning a book's pages than in hearing the words printed on them, so "I read out loud like an auctioneer," Alicia reports.  "Here's a little baby onetwothree standsinhiscribwhatdoesheseeee?  Quick, before she turns the page."  Brilliantly descriptive writing, that. 

27.)  Alison at Brocante Home begins a recent smart little piece ("Other Peoples' Marriages" from January 25th) with words that made me laugh when I first read them:  "I could stare at the spectacle that is other peoples' marriages all day long."  Her observations are so funny, and her website is so dear.  We've probably all had moments of being the "spectacle," which makes it even easier to laugh.  

28.)   "Letters of Note" is one of my favorite websites.  Its editor has also published a book of the best letters he's discovered.  They have been written by everyone from Amelia Earhart to Leonardo da Vinci to Charles Dickens to Katherine Hepburn.

29.)  Peoples' last words fascinate me.  What is not interesting about learning what people say as they leave this life (and transition into the next realm, if you believe as much)? 

30.)  Inventor and Apple (computer) CEO Steve Jobs died in 2011 after a long illness.  His sister, wife, and children were around him.  His sister shared in her eulogy his last words:  "OH WOW.  OH WOW.  OH WOW." 

31.)  One of my favorite poems is Leigh Hunt's sweet "Jenny Kissed Me."  Pure joy captured in fifty words. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Bird Window

Parallel to our apartment's entrance door is a set of double windows I've been cheering-up with my little bird collection.  Some of the birds are gifts, one I made, and a few are ornaments from Target's dollar bins.  One of these days, I want to paint or make a Baltimore Oriole for the window at right (not shown).  I've only ever seen two, the first high in a tree my grandfather pointed out in his backyard, and another in the thicket across the road from my parents' house as I was returning home from one of my long walks in the summer of 2007.  Good memories, both.  And there should be a Cardinal for my younger brother, the St. Louis Cardinals fanatic.  I'll likely paint or make another  Black-capped Chickadee too. 
One of the best things about our old apartment was that it offered a good view of its its side-yard from our bathroom window and it was woodsy enough that we got to see (and feed) birds every day.  Birds would land on our fire escape there too, much to Stuffed's delight.  (He would perch on the window sill as he watched the birds, one of his front paws occasionally up against the windowpane, tail steadily wagging left, right, left, right. . . .)  This apartment's windows, with two exceptions, don't look out onto nature at all, so we all see fewer birds these days.  My bird window and potted plants and vases of grocery store-bought flowers are hardly substitutes for the real things, but in a "Bloom where you're planted" sense, they cheer up the space and are even that much of a balm to the soul.