Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Yikes! Google Friend Connect Is Disappearing!

The T-shirt says "Hiding our head in the sand has never prevented us from being kicked in the ass."
I don't know that it relates to my post, but I like it.

Just a quick post for my readers who may have subscribed to my blog via Google Friend Connect.  Google is killing the GFC widget for non-Blogger websites.  I believe it happens March 1.  You can read about this move here.  Considering how many people use it, I don’t understand why there were no fireworks lighting up the sky over this.  They are probably trying to force all the Google+ hold-outs to migrate over to their new social media site.  However, you won’t see me trying to master yet another way to make “friends” until no options remain.

Although GFC is still functioning on Blogger blogs (that’s me, folks!), I’ve not found any good information to explain how this change works, what it means if I signed up to a WordPress blog through GFC, or how long before they kill it for Blogger.  For example, will I no longer be getting notifications of new posts from WP blogs?  If non-Blogger readers don’t see this alert before Mar. 1 will they never read me again?  My head hurts.  I’m too old for these whiplash technology changes.  I need much dark chocolate.

If you blog, make sure you have multiple ways for people to register.

If you are one of those trendy people on Google+, just to the right you’ll see a button to click so you can add me to a circle or something (I’ve not yet visited the dark forests of G+ so I’m not sure how that works).

For my readers who signed up via GFC through some profile other than blogger, click on my orange RSS feed button so you can keep the posts coming through your reader of choice.

If you prefer, you can sign up to receive the posts directly in your e-mail.

I’m on Twitter @Julie_Farrar and you can find me on Facebook here.

I’m looking at some new connection sites that seem as easy as GFC, so I might add another method.  For now I thank you for reading.

If you have any information to share about this, please educate us all in the comments box.  Otherwise, tell us about the best T-shirt saying you've ever seen.

I hope all my GFC subscribers don't fall off the cliff like these sheep in Scotland

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How To Tie A Scarf And Other Essential Life Knowledge

Spring is coming a little early here
In honor of Leap Day, we’ll be leaping from thought to thought in this post.  I’m sure you’ll land on something that fits you.

This has been a hit or miss week for me online.  Muscles that haven’t been used in months since even before my surgery have been spasming and rebelling as I return to exercise.  On Monday my physical therapist and I decided that 2.5 mph is the fastest I should go on the treadmill if I don’t want my back to seize up.  My 13-year old dog walks faster than that!  What all this means is I can’t sit at the computer for too long, hence missing blog posts.

I’m preparing to head off to the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago this week.  Just me and 8000 other word geeks.  I hope to post on my blog while there (pray for mild Chicago weather).  That’s why today’s post will be short and sweet.  Organizing and packing to do.

My 50/50 Challenge is moving along.  I’ve finished Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine.  Weiner has been a foreign correspondent for NPR and other outlets.  He is the prototypical curmudgeon, yet he is a fantastic observer of people.  Like his previous book, The Geography of Bliss, he travels the world in search of answers to basic questions.  In this case, after a health scare he begins to question which spiritual foundation he wants to offer his young daughter.  He protests (sort of) at abortion clinics with Franciscan monks, twirls with Sufi dervishes, and cross-dresses at a Raëlian convention.  He even delves into the Jewish roots he had ignored most of his life.  As a “spiritual voyeur,” he takes us across the globe and deep into the questions of what we are looking for when we seek a spiritual life.  And he does it all with respect for the people he encounters and a wicked sense of humor.  Read it for the travel.  Read it for the laugh-out-loud humor.  Read it to find your own answers to the questions he asks.

Click here to see where I am in the challenge.

Here are posts that gave me pause this week.

Blogger/writer Julie Hedlund took the words right out of my mouth last week with “Open Plea to Bloggers: Kick CAPTCHA’s, Word Verification to the Curb.”  I know spam can be a problems for bloggers, but they need to ask themselves if they might be driving away comments from readers who are more casual readers.  Let the spam filters do their jobs.  As for me, more than once I’ve decided not to leave comments when the squiggly words were too much trouble to figure out. 

Becky Green Aaronson brought the Holstee Manifesto to my attention recently and I thank her.  It’s a more modern play on “Just Do It.” The directive to “stop over analyzing” hit home for me.  I went searching for the origin of the manifesto, so you can read the story here.

Nadine Feldman gives us women one more thing to worry about as we age in “It Ain’t the Hot Flashes.”


Here is my two best finds of the week (drum roll please).  Remember this photo from High Line Park I posted from my New York trip?  Read the story behind the smiling face.

And this is a “must bookmark” video for all those fashion forward types.  Watch “25 Ways to Tie a Scarf in 4.5 Minutes” from Wendy’s Look Book.  I will watch this a million times until I’ve memorized every one.  In France all the women (and many men) wear them winter or summer and do it so effortlessly.  Now I’ll have their little secrets.

So tell me, now that you have this video do you think you’ll join the scarf club?  What’s your favorite fashion statement or one you wish you could pull off?  Have you seen the Holstee Manifesto before?  What’s your favorite part of it?  Read any good books lately?  Share all your thoughts in the comments box.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Constructing Childhood

From the inside looking up through the soaring arches at the sky

 When walking my dog past a neighborhood park I saw a massive cave or fort created from branches of a 4-story tree in the process of being taken down.  I was so sorry I hadn’t been there for the construction of this intricate dwelling woven out of logs and leafy bows.  A beautiful thing, it was a tribute to kids everywhere for their innate ingenuity.

(Of course, I could also hear some adult yelling, “You’re going to put somebody’s eye out with that stick!”)

It set my mind at rest that not every ounce of creativity in children was being hijacked by the ADHD-inducing digital entertainment that occupies their time 18 hours a day or more.  I’m not a Luddite, and I try not to be a crotchety old bugger always talking about “when I was a kid . . . ,” but I have to admit that the ubiquity of technology constantly in the hands of the youngest ones worries me.

My neighborhood has two public schools and three private schools all within a couple of blocks, so every morning kindergarteners through adolescents traipse down the sidewalks talking on their cell phones, lugging their laptops on their backs, or staring at their handheld game players while plugged into their iPods.  When do they look up and take in the world around them?


I grew up in the era even before Sony Walkman cassette players, so fun was a little more low-tech. We played card games like “War”, and kickball, and Red Rover, and a peculiar form of football that went in only one direction on a field that stretched across our street.  You scored by racing from the Renick’s snowball bush (the elegant Annabelle hydrangea, Mr. Renick’s pride and joy) across the street, then threw your entire body at the arborvitae in the front corner of Mr. Dependahl’s yard to ricochet across the goal line.  We climbed into treehouses to read, pow-wowed secretly in the middle of a circle of junipers to tell ghost stories or share rumors about the spook house in the next block, and built snow forts for epic battles.

So this week my heart skipped the proverbial beat to see that young people haven’t changed that dramatically.  They still recognize a chance to create something incredibly cool when it’s lying all over the ground in front of them.  And I really hope that when they were finished with their architectural achievement one of those kids whipped out his or her iPhone to snap a picture for posterity.

What is the coolest or most fun thing that you and your friends ever did to entertain yourself?  What do you see today that makes you feel young people are losing the ability to create their own fun?  Or what makes you feel that they are the same, no matter the generation?  Do tell us in the comments box.

Apropos of nothing, this is the beautiful gratin dauphinois I made last night with lots of cream and gruyere cheese
(it was Fat Tuesday, after all)

You might also want to check out this post from the past.  There is always so much to discover when walking down a sidewalk.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cruising for Travel Books -- Help Me Navigate

This is the kind of cruising I'd like -- slowly along the canals of France

It’s time to start thinking about summer travels.  Yes, another summer based in Dijon, FR.  Many people might start their plans with “What should I pack?” or “What should I see?”  For me, the first question of travel planning is “What should I read?”  What book will whet my appetite for exploring or fill me in on the spirit of a place?  What book will show me how to see with new eyes?

In scanning my bookshelves at home and the shelves in the travel section of the Big Name bookstore, a complete absence of literature by the intrepid mega-airline miles collector or the serial cruise ship cruiser becomes blazingly obvious.  Writers and travelers have spilled millions of words out on trips by train, on foot, on bike, by car and just about every possible mode of transportation that exists.  Yet not one has written a rousing tale about dinner companions on a head-swirling journey of nine ports in ten days.  Where is the book on inspiring lessons learned from a ten-hour layover in Chicago?

 According to the CLIA industry figures in 2011, 16 million people boarded a cruise ship to elsewhere, for places from Alaska to the Galapagos Islands.  You’d think that one out of those millions of people had an adventure.  I’ve yet to take a cruise or any kind of guided trip.  Many friends and family members have and talk about them as the memory of a lifetime.  They almost convince me, so I say, “Well, maybe we’ll do a week in the Caribbean.”  Discovering this literary wasteland, however, makes me reconsider one more time.

There are a million books on how to choose a cruise and how to make the best of one and why you should travel by cruise ship.  But there are no collections of lyrical essays by anyone who came back from one.

Last summer I wrote about how much I love the idea of “elsewhere,” the momentary sense of being a stranger and having to figure out a place.  No matter how short a time I spend somewhere, I love figuring out how to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.  Maybe that’s why we have no cruise literature or cross-country airplane tales.  It’s all about the sameness.  Everyone is going to the same place.  Everyone follows the same routine. Airplane travel now is arduous.  A trek through the Amazon is arduous, too, but one is numbing and one excites us for more.  People say they like cruises because everything is provided for you.  It’s so easy.  They fly rather than drive because it’s so fast.

But where is the story in that?

Who would fly if you could travel in the comfort of French regional trains?

Right now I have on my agenda one trip to Chicago for the AWP conference, one trip to Atlanta to visit family, two trips to Nashville to catch up with friends and see my main man (Keith Urban) perform, and a summer again in Dijon.  None are new destinations, but my mind is already working on what I can do or where I can go that will surprise me.  What can I do that gives me a sense of “elsewhere,” that wonderful tingle that all is unfamiliar?

To prepare for my travels, here are the books in my reading queue right now:

Paul Theroux - The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road
Theroux has collected snippets of stories and quotations of other great travelers and travel writers (including his own) on such diverse topics as railway journeys, what to pack, the joy of walking, traveling alone vs. with companions, and epic fails.  It serves as a short history of the best travel writing out there.

Alain de BottonThe Art of Travel I reread this every other year.  One problem, de Botton, says, is when we travel we take ourselves with us.  Another is we fail to ask why we are traveling in the first place.  This book reminds me to reflect on these before I set out and decide how I will respond to them.

M.F.K FisherLong Ago in France A memoir by food writer and traveler M.F.K Fisher about her newlywed years in Dijon after WWI.  I love to reread it and compare her version of the city with mine.  Last year, making a map out of every sentence about her home and neighborhood, I finally located the exact apartment she and her husband had rented and ate a local chicken specialty named after her neighbor who had become a popular mayor.

Maybe someone will finally give me that argument that convinces me to book a cruise.  Maybe some miraculous day I’ll be bumped up to business class and airplane travel will be more than a claustrophobic drudge.  Meanwhile I’ll keep checking the collections of travel writing looking for that elusive collection of essays from a big boat.  And I’ll re-watch Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember.  Something interesting happened to them on a cruise, I seem to recall.

Can you be the one to convince me to cruise?  Tell me about it.  Do you have any exciting or life-lesson airplane stories?  What books have you read that make you want to get up and go somewhere?  How do you get ready for a trip?  Talk to me in the comments box about what excites you when you travel and what makes you want to just stay home.

The Port du Canal in Dijon -- and all the essentials for slow travel, including geraniums

Friday, February 17, 2012

Is Your House Burning? Life’s Third Act and Other Great Ideas for the Weekend

The trick to life is how not to have any

What would you save if your house were burning?  That’s the question by Foster Huntington for his Burning House project.  People have photographed collections of their most precious items to add to his website.  It’s fascinating to see and read (here) what different generations consider irreplaceable.  As fabulous as this project is, though, I hate it because it forces me to reflect on what’s most irreplaceable in my own house (beyond the people and dog, of course) and then think “Now, where did I put X?” or “How the heck would I even find my most precious Y in this house full of stuff if I needed to grab it and go?”  I can't even find the butter in my refrigerator, for gosh sake.

I need to make a plan.  I need to get rid of stuff.  I need to get organized.  Hmm, my husband and I are making plans to renovate our house so that we have more room for stuff in our kitchen and books on bookshelves and plants that will die inside of a year.  Perhaps I need to build a glass cabinet next to the front door with a sign that says, “In case of fire, take these.”

The Burning House project has you look back on your life to find your meaning.  In this same week I found a video of Jane Fonda’s TED talk on “Life’s Third Act” (see below).  She asks all the women in the room to start looking ahead in their lives. “We’re still living with the old paradigm of age as an arch,” she tells her audience, “You’re born, you peak at midlife and decline into decrepitude.”  However, thanks to better nutrition, better medical care, and a handful of other reasons that’s no longer the case.  After we retire we actually have another entire adult lifespan to live.  That’s 25 or 30 years of “what am I going to do with myself?”

She reminds these women that as young girls we were “the subjects of our own lives.”  We were smart and feisty and full of sass.  As we age, we give that all away to others.  In life’s third act, though, the time has come to reclaim the girl we used to be.  We have this wonderful chance to start something new.  I’d like to think I’ve got a bit farther to go before I hit the decrepitude stage, but this midlife transition I’m in has become a search for a new identity.  A glamorous travel writer?  A master gardener?  The definitive collector of antique factory bobbins (that's another story)?  The woman who died with the largest stack of to-be-read books on her nightstand?

I don’t believe in leading the life of an ascetic wanderer, chucking it all and possessing nothing from the past while planning nothing for the future.  The trick I’m finding at this stage (not quite the third stage) is striking that balance between unencumbering my life from the “stuff” I trip over every day – discerning my greatest treasures from the past vs. things that possess me now – and purposefully looking ahead to another well-lived 25 or 30 years.  I’ll let you know if I find it.

What would you save from a burning house?  What are your plans for life’s third act?  Have you taken any steps to unencumber your life yet?  Share your thoughts with everyone in the comments box and enjoy your weekend.

Meanwhile, here are some great things to read in your down time during the weekend.

Somebody needs to give the publishing houses in New York a slap upside the head.  And Kristen Lamb is the person to do it.  Perhaps anyone who cares about the written word (whether you’re a reader or a writer) needs to send this manifesto to every agent and editor who has yet to see the future.

While were on the subject of precious possessions and third acts, read what
Kristin McFarland has to say about the tenuous road we sometimes find in finding new adult friendships.  Sex and The City made it look so easy.

Why not create something so precious that it would be added to someone else’s “burning house” list? 
Mary Robinette Kowal talks about “The Month of Letters Challenge.”  While this month might be over soon, there’s no reason you can’t challenge yourself in March.

And if you just want to laugh your pants off, both literally and figuratively, then read
Sara Walpert Foster on the new trend of naked yoga and Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) all the amazing things you can do with a dead weasel.  I kid you not.  It’s brilliant.  And high couture is involved.  And lots and lots of photos to demonstrate.  And lots of doubling over in hysterics until you fall off of your chair.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dahling, You Don't Look a Blog Post Over 50

Cats in the window and copper pots.  This must be France
Wow, can you believe it?  I just turned 100 this week.  One hundred blog posts, that is.  I didn’t notice it until after I posted my Valentine’s Day piece.  Note to self – start looking at all the statistics generated by the statistics-gathering plug-ins I plugged into this webpage.  Considering that I started this project in 2009, I might reach my second hundred before retirement age. 

When I set up home on the internet as a way to share with my family the stories and pictures of a summer in France, I had no idea that I would still be doing it and that people I’ve never met would be reading it and joining in conversation with me.

In developing my own blog, I’ve found many others writing with voices stronger than my own and with so much to teach me – about writing and about life.  They may not be headlines on today’s celebrity news, but they tell stories of remarkable encounters, of the poignancy of everyday life, and of the uproariously funny oddities of the world that confound us all.  In the span of 100 posts I’ve gotten inspired to up my writing game.  I’ve gotten more disciplined with putting words down on paper (digitally speaking).  I’ve seen that it is possible to be that strange creature called “writer.”

I’d like to thank everyone who has read during these growing years.  And if you have taken time to share your thoughts, I doubly thank you.  I’m trying to get to the websites of each commenter, but it’s a slow business.  Knowing you’re out there makes me eager to sit down and start each new online conversation.  Especially when I return yet again this summer to the place that started it all.

To mark this day, I’m turning on the Wayback Machine and sharing a few of my posts from the summer in France that started this whole writing experiment.  Enjoy.

J’ecris (I Write) -- “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.” --Alain de Botton The Art of Travel
This quotation started off my blog.  It expresses why I travel.  The post says why I write.

Look Up -- Up is where the French obsession with geraniums takes root. Up is where the lights glow. Up is where the architectural intricacies hide. Up is where unrecognized music drifts out of unknown windows.
You could get vertigo trying to keep alert to all the life that happens above street level in cities like Dijon, FR.

Suits Me To A Thé -- French cafés invite engagement with the world. There is nothing on the internet more entertaining than a French street on market day. My senses overflow.
American coffee shops may offer free wi-fi, but their atmosphere pales in comparison to a ringside table at a French salon de thé on market day.

While I hope that you’ll click on the post links, above, and make comments on them, I also hope you’ll come back here for some more conversation.  How does travel inspire you?  What projects or activities did you start on a whim then find you couldn’t stop doing?  Where are you traveling this summer?  What do you want me to write about next?  Share your responses to these questions or add any other thoughts you have in the comments box.

I think it is not possible to have too many geraniums on too many bridges over too many rivers

Sunday, February 12, 2012

No Reservations? 12 Cheap and Easy Ways To Celebrate Valentine's Day

This is what young love looks like along the Seine in Paris

“Aaaack!  It’s Valentine’s Day.  Why didn’t somebody tell me?  You know I live under a cone of silence and didn’t hear a thing about this.  Is it too late to order those giant chocolate-covered strawberries from that expensive chocolate store?  Where can I get a dinner reservation now?  I can’t spend my lunch hour standing in line for a dozen long-stemmed roses because I have an appointment to get my car detailed.  Valentine’s Day again?  Give me a break.”

Is any of this you?

Have no fear.  You might think that there’s no time to plan something for that special someone.  Or your lottery ticket hasn’t paid out yet.  Or you might be like me – married for over 25 years and worn out over the V-Day hype and hoopla.  If you like the idea of dedicating a single day to your sweetheart but not all the work or money it can involve, here’s a sweet bouquet of a dozen ways to celebrate the one you love.  They all cost less than those long-stemmed roses or fancy meal.  And since we are trés environmentally conscious here, feel free to recycle them on birthdays and anniversaries.

12.  Make a meal out of food that is red or heart-shaped.  Try your hand at red velvet cake – or buy one.  Make a pot of chili and serve it with a spinach salad topped with red pepper slices, red onions, strawberries, and raspberry vinaigrette.  Add some feta cheese for contrast.

11.  Make progress – together – on your household chore list.  Nothing generates good feelings in a relationship like working together to achieve a goal.  When finished, toast your achievement with a bit of champagne or red wine.  An alternative might be to take a project on your partner’s to-do list (tax forms, cleaning file cabinets, etc.) and complete the task yourself.  Consider it a new kind of foreplay.

10.  Buy red balloons and before you blow them up, stick love notes inside or notes detailing a memory.  A dozen sounds about right.

9.  Visit the Dollar Store and buy a decorative basket that you fill with anything your sweetie might like – craft supplies, beauty supplies, snack food, automotive doodads, batteries for every electronic device he or she owns.

8.  Give a small amount of artisan chocolate.  In this case, quality can trump quantity.  On the flip side, head to a candy store where you can fill a decorative cellophane bag with every possible gummy variety that is suitable for movie viewing.  Then go to a movie together.

7.  Make a field trip together to that distant shop that sells great cheese or beef jerky or whatever indulgence suits your fancy.  Top it off with a great hamburger at a local grill.

6.  Play a board game like Go or Scrabble or put together a puzzle, perhaps in front of a fire with a bottle of wine and ingredients for s’mores.

5.  Eat at a great Mexican or pizza place.  No reservations required.  Let’s face it, white tablecloth restaurants can be highly overrated.  Valentine’s Day is not about the meal.  It’s about the company and the conversation.

4.  Cook together.  Make a menu, divide the chores, set the table nicely, clean up together.  The easier the meal the better.  Or you could even experiment and try your hands at a chocolate soufflé (they’re really not that hard).  For V-day it’s really about spending time together, not trying to recreate a Kay Jeweler commercial.

3.  Put a picture of the two of you in a very nice frame and display it prominently.

2.  Get up and move.  Bike, hike, ice skate, play basketball.  Or even go bowling.  Finish the evening someplace with great hot chocolate or fabulous ice cream.

1.  Turn off all electronics from the moment you get home until the next morning.  Talk with each other, or sit and read in the same room.  The list of things you could do is endless, but whatever you choose, disconnecting from all of your cyber-friends to give undivided attention to the flesh-and-blood loved one in front of you can be the best way of all to say “I love you.”

In other words, don’t sweat the day.  It should be enough just to shut out the busy-ness of life long enough to reconnect and show you care.

Do you enjoy making a big deal out of V-day, or do you and your sweetie reduce it to a greeting card at most?  What’s your best or worst Valentine’s Day story from your past? What other activities or gifts can you add to the list?  Share it in the comments box so we can stash it away for next year. - Just a reminder that your Valentine's Day plans for me will be broadcast in real-time on at least three social media platforms

Saturday, February 11, 2012

In Case You Missed It -- A Weekend Roundup

On this snowy day I feel like visiting the green on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.  How about you?

For your weekend reading and viewing pleasure, here are several bits of wit, wisdom, and whimsy that you might have missed during the week.  So put another log on the fire this snowy day and enjoy.

If you are currently single and have had it up to your earlobes with the Hallmark holiday, aka Valentine’s Day, then this poem by Kristen Lamb is meant for you.  Read it before the next treacle-y Kay’s Jeweler commercial makes you go postal.  Then buy your own heart-shaped box of chocolates and celebrate your strong, good self.

Bob Mayer always has great advice for writers.  I never knew about the rule of 7.  Read this to find out what else you need to do to keep from being invisible on the internet.

“Love Yourself” is a good theme to consider as we head toward a day that has convinced us that we’re nobody until somebody loves us and gives us a heart-shaped diamond necklace.  Brenda Moguez and Kristen Lamb inspire us to accept who we are by teaching us where to look for our strengths and that we are not our thighs, no matter how many shots of Victoria Secret models make us believe that.

And for a bit of attitude read Becky Green Aaronson’s take on what holds us back, how she learned that it’s not excuses that help us climb that mountain.  Read Tami Clayton, too.  She reminds us that by living in the moment we can work ourselves into a state of gratitude, even when everything seems to be going in the wrong direction.

Finally, you have to watch this video that Julie Kenner found for us.  Even if you’re not a writer or artist, you’ve encountered some a$$hat in your life who has blocked your vision or creative energy with his extreme a$$hatness.  At least by watching this frightenly hilarious video you can reap some vicarious revenge.

Thanks to all who read my scribbles this week.  Pop into the comments box to share with us the best thing that happened to you in the last seven days, or the worst.  Or comment on anything these other fine bloggers offered up for thought.
Okay, I admit that I need a haircut.  But don't worry.  I have an appointment scheduled this week.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Face of Beauty

Bertha Myrtle Rule as a young woman

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stole that quotation from August McLaughlin and her Beauty of a Woman Blogfest.  She celebrates the beauty in all of us with each post, but for the blogfest she asked others to join.  While I was too late to enter the blogfest, it did send me back a couple of years to resurrect a piece on aging I wrote and promptly filed away.  So today I join others in honoring beauty in all its forms.

I’ll also try to hold Emerson’s words tight as I head back to the gym to lose the weight I’ve gained during this five-year roadblock of pain.  When I see myself in the mirrors by the free weights, I will look not at my chicken wings flapping in the breeze, but I’ll use my X-ray vision to see the beautiful triceps and biceps still hiding under there – waiting to come to the surface again. 


“You have a fit face.  I wouldn’t do anything to it yet,” a plastic surgeon told my older sister.  She and the other nurses at her hospital are always asking the plastic surgeons about different procedures.  At an online news site I read this week about a 50-something woman who had an expansive list of surgeries in order to look more like her daughter.

Yesterday I looked in the mirror and for the first time noticed some newly formed canyons settling into my forehead.  My options for erasing these are limited because just about everything I could plaster over them to “cure” aging would make my face break out in hives that will radiate all the way down to my stomach.  But I look again in the mirror and wonder why would I want to change anything.  For every plastic surgery procedure I could have, I would look less and less like all of those people I love and who made me what I am.  I will never be tall, thin, and with sharply defined features.

I am my Grandma.  We have a photo of her sitting on the porch railing of the house of a family she worked for most of her young life.  Her father sent her there in her early teens because they had no money and her mother was mentally ill.  This family took her in, sent her through high school, dressed her in the beautiful white summer dress she wore in the photo, treated her like family.  And when I look at my 18-year old Grandma sitting on that porch on a summer afternoon, I see myself.  And I see my sisters, all of us when we were 18.  And I still see Grandma when I sit at the table for a family celebration.

Our faces are too round, and our noses are too snub.  We got her thighs instead of my mom’s long, thin legs.  But we also got her fair, smooth skin.  I know that when I’m 96 my mind will be sharp and my eyes clear.  I will be a little too hard on those I care about the most, but I will also have the spirit to thrive up to the end.  I’ll probably be even shorter than I am now, shrinking a smidgen each year like she did.

No, I don’t think I’ll fight aging.  Other than trying to take care of my health, adding a little hair color, and using an SPF 30 daytime moisturizer and a gentle night cream, I think I’ll just let nature take its course.  I like looking in the mirror and seeing all the people I’ve loved.

What is beauty? What does it mean to you? When do you feel beautiful? Share your own stories on the beauty of a woman then head over to August’s website to read the fabulous entries.

And while we're on the subject of beauty, visit this post from April 2010 about an unexpected moment of beauty that interrupted a normally chaotic day.
bells and beauty1

Monday, February 6, 2012

GPS -- Is It A Map To Nowheresville?

Few maps could actually lead you safely through the hills and valleys on the Isle of Skye.
 You have to be able to read the signs of the terrain

When’s the last time you looked at a map?  And, no, I don’t mean the last time you googled the location of that new restaurant everyone was talking about.  When was the last time you unfolded a map or opened a road atlas to get from here to there?

I love maps.  I love studying road atlases, finding landmarks, estimating distances, and looking for alternative routes.  I want to know what rivers are in the area and what’s the history behind the odd names that mark the route.  What could a GPS do for me that a good road atlas couldn’t?

Yet I’m considering whether or not I should buy a GPS before I head to France this summer.

This decision leaves me of two minds.  First, I remember last year’s rented car that came without a navigation system.  My husband and I spent a tremendous amount of time circling small towns looking for exits, any road signs that would take us to the route we wanted.  After awhile we realized that France doesn’t regularly make signs that point you to roads (as did our carefully googled directions).  French road and highway signs inform you of one or two towns you’d find if you turned off here.  Eventually we came to consult our pocket atlas for town names instead of route numbers to understand the entire region as we advanced toward our destination.  Maybe we could have used a GPS.

On the other hand, the previous year I had a car with GPS for my trip to the Loire Valley.  It became a mighty contest of wills (I wrote about it here) between my French electronic dictator who wanted me only to take major highways and moi who wanted to take the scenic route.  We finally made a truce when my directional instincts failed occasionally upon hitting town centers where a half dozen roads radiated out like spokes on a wheel.  It would set me on the right path then I’d turn it off and check back with my atlas, familiarizing myself with all the village names along the route to keep myself on track before the next big town.

A recent article by Julie Frankenstein in the New York Times discusses the effect on our brains as we shift now from physical maps and landmarks to a reliance on technology to get where we’re going.  As GPS units become standard in cars and on our phones for walking trips, we risk losing the “muscles” of our cognitive mapping abilities because we lack a spatial context for where we are.  The human brain is quite good at developing “mental maps” of an area, the research explains.  We see landmarks and remember them in spatial relation to other landmarks along the route we travel.

However, if all we see on the GPS screen is the road in front of us from point A to point B, when the technology breaks down, we find ourselves completely lost.  Since the GPS, by default, maps the fastest and most efficient route, we don’t know the alternatives.
Only the cognitive map of our guide kept us on the trail
and off the rocky slopes to oblivion
Several years ago on a trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland, my husband and I hired a guide to take us to a waterfall we had seen on a map.  When I asked him why our trail had no arrows and only a few cairns (piles of stones) to tell us we were on the right path, he said, “We don’t want to make it too easy for people who really have no business being out here in this rough country.”  So on we hiked, with our guide leading us through Scottish fog so thick I could have walked off the side of a cliff before I knew it.  Every step of that trail was tattoo’ed on his brain.  A handheld device might have gotten us to the navigational coordinate of that waterfall, but it would not have led us safely through the almost invisible bogs and the steep drop-offs on the rocky way.

What about our personal mental maps, though?  I kept my eye on that “professional” GPS arrow down the highway to undergraduate school, graduate school, university teaching, research.  Then a “road closed” sign stopped me.  Life had thrown up a barrier that my personal GPS had not anticipated. I turned this way and that, looking for a new route.  Life kept yelling “recalculating, recalculating.”  Then the system crashed and I had no mental map, no idea what my options were, whether to turn left or right.  I was stuck.  Since then I’ve found a new route to travel and am having fun building a new cognitive map from scratch.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have those turn-by-turn instructions, e.g., if you’re trying to drive in downtown Chicago or you’re trying to survive law school.  But still, the GPS can make a mistake and send you left when you should have gone right.  If you don’t have a sense of the lay of the land, if you don’t have the big picture of your life and all the options, then you can lose a lot of time before you realize you’re on a limited access highway and the next exit is twenty miles down the road and thirty miles back to where your navigational instincts had told you to turn in the first place.

If you encounter an unexpected “road closed” sign in your life and a crashed GPS, do you have a mental atlas you can open to find yourself a new route – or maybe even a new and exciting destination that you never would have seen if you kept your eye only on the lurching little arrow on a 4-inch screen instead of all the looming landmarks and warning signs around you?  Or is your personal GPS sending you, quite quickly and efficiently, straight to Nowheresville?

So, tell me.  Should I or shouldn’t I buy a GPS?  Tell us about times the GPS saved you or times you wouldn’t have even thought of using it?  For your own life destinations are you more a GPS kind of person or a road atlas type?  Share with us in the comments box how you navigate through the world and your life.

Check out these other posts also.  Leah Singer has a interesting new exercise to describe who you are.  It’s a different kind of personal mapping system that gives you a wider lay of the land, if you will.  And with Valentine’s Day bearing down on us, American ex-pat Lynn McBride gives us lessons on French, the language of love.  It’s not what you’d expect.

Sometimes when you ignore what the GPS is telling you, you find beautiful surprises

Friday, February 3, 2012

When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear . . .

. . . gladiator sandals in France, no matter the age of the woman

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple …” warned poet Jenny Joseph.  She wrote it during an era that women got married, had children, managed households, cut their hair short, and wore incredibly sensible outfits.  Now, we have mothers competing with daughters over who can wear their jeans tighter or their heels higher.  At the opposite spectrum, I can walk into a grocery store and see so many women my age who have surrendered their style to gray fleece comfort.  “Please,” I pray, “don’t let me look like I’ve given up on life.”

My trips to France inspire me because I can travel the entire country and not see one woman in sweat pants or athletic shoes.  They may not be dressed in purple, but they all have style, that unique sense of who they are and what they want to say with their clothes.  There are not teenager clothes here and old lady clothes there in the stores.  There are just beautiful clothes that make you feel like you could float down the street.  Even just draping one of their colorful scarves around my neck quickens my step at home today.

The idea that you don’t have to capitulate to your age is the topic of a fun blog, Advanced Style, by Ari Seth Cohen.  He’s working on a documentary (see the video below) about the uniquely fashionable women of a certain age who stroll the sidewalks of New York City.  One of his spirited characters declares “I dress for the theater of my life every day.”

“Theater of my life.”  What a wonderful sentiment.  My favorite costume ever for my own theater was a jacket I bought when I first became an assistant professor.
I bought the jacket when I first started earning real money and didn’t have to shop discount. The wool-blend piece, sans lapels, was adorned with quarter-sized flat pearl buttons down the front and smaller versions on the cuffs.  With bold, oversized black-and-white houndstooth checks, it trumpeted my arrival with threads of fuchsia, pumpkin orange, teal, and Easter-grass green woven through the black rows.
Close-up details

It marked that I had arrived where I wanted to be in my academic profession.  It set me apart from the typical university wardrobe of olive tweeds and sensible shoes.  I wore it over knit dresses and I wore it with skirts and slacks.  I wore it to mark the blossoming of spring and I wore it to brighten a dreary winter day.  And I wore it because I planned on standing out in my world.  And it did the trick.

On one of the last days I wore it one of my female academic gods walked up to me at an evening party at a professional conference and told me that she like this jacket much better than the blue one I had worn that afternoon at my presentation.  I was floored.  Of course, I would have preferred she told me what she had thought about theories actually raised in my talk, but for now this was enough.  She had been there and she knew who I was and she had noticed.  Next year would be soon enough to dazzle her with my brilliant analysis of the work she had published. 

But next year didn’t come.  I found out I couldn’t have it all.  The children my husband and I had adopted needed me more.  I knew where I had to be.  So I let go of that life I had thought was my destiny for the life that was my reality.  But I couldn’t let go of that jacket.

Fifteen years later it barely fits, but it still hangs there in a back corner of my closet.  Some days it mocks me with what I once was; some days it reminds me of whom I could still be.  But mostly it reminds me not to wait until old to live a life colored in shades of purple, or fuchsia, or teal.  My daughter recently told me I was wearing “mom” glasses.  I think I’ll go out next week and find new frames in blue or green or leopard print.  And maybe I’ll buy some red shoes.

My jacket and my rainbow of scarves from France
Photobucket Photobucket

What’s in the back of your closet to remind you of another you? What do you wear that wakes you up and makes you feel young, that makes you ready to face the theater of your life?  Or do you dress strictly for comfort and efficiency?  Which is your favorite stylish lady in Cohen’s video?  Do you wear hats? What about men of a certain age and their fashion choices?  Give us your fashion philosophy in the comments box.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Poetry of Friendship - If you ever disappeared while hiking, I'd remain with the search party until it started raining

Recently I took some food to my oldest friend who had been laid up by her first horse accident in almost 40 years of owning horses.  Our conversation was the same one we had when we were ten years old, and sixteen, and forty.  Over the course of an afternoon we shared our latest book finds, we continued in our ongoing quest to straighten out in our minds the geneology chart of British monarchs (the Tudors always trip us up), and we talked about our dogs past and present.  We occasionally digressed to the aches and pains of midlife, our children, and household maintenance, but our conversation traveled easily back and forth across the decades of our friendship.

Friendship comes in all shapes

The Poetry of Friendship

Friendship is a poem
Wrapped up in metaphors.
I, like you
You, like me
We are alike but different

Ancient bonds are marked like
   the brevity of poetry.
Few words say much.
We dig below the layers
And see yesterday’s four-year old as well as
   the fifty-year old today
We unpack each other’s symbols
And understand the essence, the deep down

The rhythm of the relationship sashays,
It swoops and twirls, turns toward then turns away
   and back again.
The free verse of youth concedes to iambic pentameter
   of settled lives.
It leaves us breathless
but remains until we are breath no more

Poet has reader
You have me
I, Thou.

Again, another good topic prompted by Write on Edge.  How old is your oldest friendship?  What object would you use to describe friendship?  Tell me a story about signs of a true friend or that told you one was false.  Let’s make friends in the comments box today.

How many of you still have friends you made when you were 4-years old?  Here's me (on the left) with my oldest.
In our minds, we're still only in kindergarten.
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