Saturday, May 29, 2010

Conversation

Late last August I wrote about my most recent attempt to study and learn French. The academic year is now finished and I've completed the course, our planned trip to France did not materialize (apparently the economy has hit our students in their travel budgets) and I am nowhere near as advanced as I was 9 years ago.

Maybe I should put it down to age and the slowing of the brain cells. I think more likely it is due to lack of conversation practice. In their infinite wisdom, college administrators have decided that language learning can be accomplished via reduced time face to face and more time in front of a computer. Perhaps this is true for the younger generation. I, however, am old, with old learning styles. I need to hear and speak as much as possible to learn the language. My reading skills are actually pretty good - not fluent by any means - but I can understand much of at least the basics of what I read, if not the nuances. But conversation is tougher.

Luckily for me, the computer has actually turned out to be my friend in this area. I am listening to French radio via the web. I am visiting websites that have podcasts to listen to. It is helpful, but none of this replaces conversation. I need practice speaking and listening. Luckily, other people need the same thing so there are websites dedicated to helping us find each other. I've been able to hook up with several people online who are wanting to improve their English skills in exchange for helping me improve my French.

It's interesting, to say the least. One of my conversation partners is a woman from Versailles. She's hoping to improve her fluency in English for use in the job search venue. Another is a woman from Montreal who, like me, simply wants to improve her skill set. Our exchange is simple. We speak English for the first half hour and we speak French for the second half hour. The service I provide for these women is to ask questions to give them topics about which to speak. Once speaking I correct and give advice in the areas they have indicated they wish to improve. One woman is focused primarily on proper pronunciation and making sure she is using the correct verb tenses. The other woman is more advanced and her focus is fluency and adding to her vocabulary by picking up terminology in her professional field as well as idiom and using them correctly. In return, they correct my grammar and pronunciation and help me understand French idiom.

Both of them speak English far better than I speak French. Luckily for me, both of them are gracious and understanding and infinitely patient with the way I am (certainly) massacring their beautiful language. I am grateful for their willingness to give of their time and expertise.

In addition to my web conversations, I have been fortunate to find someone local who will also converse with me. This is a woman whom I met in a different setting and felt drawn to from the beginning. As often happens, circumstances of location and occupation did not allow a great deal of accidental contact. But I thought of her when I began speaking via Skype with my language learning partners, and decided that it never hurts to ask for what you want. I emailed. She was gracious. We met to speak yesterday for the first time.

We spent an hour at a coffee shop. While there was the occasional need to slip into English, we did spend most of our time actually conversing in French. It was wonderful! I could see her face. I could understand through context what I was not able to catch in vocabulary. I spoke far more fluently with her than I am able to speak with my Skype partners. By the time we were finished I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. She gets to speak her native language which is not something she gets to do often living in the US. I get to hear the language and improve my French speaking and understanding. It's an opportunity that is not to be passed by.

As I think about these experiences, I am struck by what happens when you actually seek what you are hoping to gain. How often do we say we want something, yet do nothing to actually attempt to achieve it? We say we want change, yet we stay in the same place. We claim we want to improve, yet we continue in our current habits. We say we want to see something new, yet we continue down the same path we have walked before. Growth and change actually require something from us - a conscious decision to do things differently.

Obviously, I will never achieve the fluency of a native French speaker. To even begin to accomplish that I would need to speak regularly, to immerse myself in the language. More importantly, I would need to be French. But I am excited at my progress over this past month. And I am reminded that it is the growth you experience that gives you the motivation and encouragement to work even harder to gain it.

Today's image was lifted from: http://www.falclearning.com/languages.php

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Garden - Part 2

As I wrote in April, I am not a fan of crouching in the sun and digging in the dirt. I've tried to be, but the reality is that I'd rather be sitting on the deck with a book and a drink. But what we want and what we get are often two different things, as my dear mama was wont to point out when I was growing up. Once again (Rats!) it turns out she was right.

In my quest to have the carefree yard and garden, I am faced with the reality of the work it requires. Specifically, part of the work is keeping the yard out of the garden. It's a mystery to me how the lawn grows where you don't want it to yet it resists growing where you do want it. Two summers ago I had the misfortune of losing two 60 foot elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Big bummer as they shaded my house and yard. Even bigger bummer was the $5000 it cost to have them craned out of the back yard and over the house. (In the luck department, my neighbors got it that year. Their disease-ridden tree was in the front yard, technically on city land so the city paid for removal and replacement of their tree.)

The point of this little sob story is that I have two large spots in my lawn (5-6 feet in diameter) where the trees used to be and the grass is resisting growing. Grass seed, covered by mulch filled with grass seed, water, babying, more water...Finally the grass is beginning to come up. On the other side of the yard the grass has freely crept into the garden - a good foot and a half. So, it must be dug out.

So far I've spent 3 full days re-establishing the border of the garden by digging out the sod and putting in edgers. It's slow going. Dig a four foot section, pound and cut and shake the dirt out of the sod, place the edgers, and back fill with the dirt. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Three days of work and I'm one-third of the way done.

And that's just the edging. There's also the weeding. Some of these weeds have roots the size and shape of full grown carrots. It's incredible! After the weeding is spreading the Preen, laying down the newspaper, mulching on top. And the certain knowledge that no matter what you do, next summer (or even later this summer) you'll be back out here in the sun pulling weeds and cursing the gardening gods.

So here I sit, sore muscles, sore back, sunburned shoulders. and swollen hands. The section that is finished looks great. The section that isn't, doesn't. Of course, the "useful lesson" is easy to see. "Sometimes getting the good thing requires pain and hard work." Blah. Blah. Blah. While I know it's true and I know I'll feel a sense of accomplishment when it's finished, in the moment I simply want to whine. But once again I hear my mama's voice in my head with the reminder that whining will get me nowhere. So, time to slather on the sunscreen, grab the shovel and an edger, and get back to work.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mentors

I spoke a few days ago with one of my professional mentors. He was my coach and teacher back in my undergraduate years and went on to become my colleague after college during the years when I was coaching professionally. It was a delightful conversation on so many levels. We caught up a bit on our personal lives, I gave him grief for not having a Facebook page yet, and we talked about our current careers and their respective pluses and minuses.

My main motive in calling, other than to connect, was to get information. We've hired someone new on our campus with whom he has worked in the past. I've actually known this new hire in the past also, but haven't seen or interacted with him in probably 15 years. I think my actual question came out as "Is he as nice and decent and I remember him to be, or has he turned into a troll?" Perhaps not the most careful wording of a question, but it accurately reflects the information I was seeking. The answer was reassuring.

While I was pleased with the answer to the question, in retrospect that turned out to be the least important part of the conversation. What was most important was all the things I was reminded of. Certainly a conversation like this brings up memories of times past and, quite frankly, the large majority of those memories are good ones. There was laughter, lots of laughter, adventure, achievement, and camaraderie. There was winning and losing. There was supporting and being supported. Those were good times.

One of the things our conversation made clear to me is how much I learned from that time and that relationship. As my mentor talked, I was struck by several things. One in particular was his ability to see and articulate clearly a person's strengths. He didn't rely on platitudes - "Oh he's a great guy - you'll love him." He very specifically spoke to the abilities of this person and how his strengths make him suited to the position he will be holding on our campus. He didn't gush - but he clearly saw and appreciated elements of this individual's personality and skills and was quick to point them out.

I remember clearly that this was the way my mentor spoke about most people he encountered. He spoke to people's strengths, being quick to point out what they did well and how they were effective. What is significant about that for me, is that I came to realize it was more than just his tendency to do this - it was his decision. Faced with the choice of tearing down or building up, he chose the latter. That example has stayed with me. I haven't done it nearly as well as he has or as consistently, but the longer I am in my career the more that example comes back to me as the one to emulate.

I'm not trying to make him out to be a saint. He wasn't and isn't as he would be the first to admit. But mentors aren't saints and that's what makes them so valuable to us. They are human, with shortcomings and failings. But they have a unique ability to move beyond those and to show us how to move beyond ours. And those lessons stay with us - when I am faced with a work situation and am unsure of how to handle it, I do stop and ask myself what my mentor would do in this situation.

I can honestly say that without my mentor's influence I would not be where I am today. I wouldn't have the career I do, I wouldn't hold the position I do - and I wouldn't be the person I am. It illustrates clearly the fact that we are all an influence on others, for better or worse and whether we intend to be or not. It also speaks to the power of relationship. By giving of ourselves, we impact others and make our world a better place. We may not see the impact but it is there.

So to my mentor, my unfailing gratitude, appreciation and love. And the promise that I am doing my best to be the person that you saw in me and also to be a mentor for someone else - to pass on the lessons that you so graciously and lovingly shared with me. Lessons learned. Now, get a Facebook page!

Today's photo was snatched from: http://elbertcodems.com/gpage1.html
The Elbert County Democrats don't credit the image on their website, so I'm thinking they snatched it from somewhere else!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pain

I just came home from a massage. Some of you are looking at the title and not seeing the connection between it and my first sentence. Others of you understand. I see a massage therapist every three weeks. That sounds indulgent and decadent to the uninitiated. "I'm going for a massage," we draw out the word, especially those last three letters - "Massaaaaggge." We imagine a dimly lit, luxurious spa with thick terry-cloth robes and cucumber slices on our closed eyes, scented candles burning, fuzzy watercolors of flowers and ponds decorating the walls, soothing music playing, a fountain gurgling in the background. The massage is so nice and soothing that we almost drift off into sleep, a smile on our face. Some of you may be thinking of a few other things, but this is a PG rated blog and we're not going there.

That may be the picture of some types of massage but not therapeutic massage. No. Therapeutic massage is not relaxing. You do not drift off. You do not smile. There is soothing music. The environment is designed to be relaxing and yes, there is art work and dim lighting. But in addition to that fuzzy watercolor, on the opposite wall is the chart of the trigger points in the human musculature system.
And, instead of scented candles there is the menthol/camphor aroma of the oil that's being used to help dig more deeply into your flesh.

Technically, my therapist practices 'neuro-muscular massage therapy.' The point of the massage is pain management and the way that is done is to attempt to keep the muscles loose and flexible. The more loose they are, the less they bind up and cause pain. Doing this requires pressure and digging. That digging causes pain. Once you're on the table and in the midst of the massage, you see the point of the trigger point charts. All of those muscles are connected one way or another. Pain in your knees? That might be, but what needs work is all the muscles that are connected to the knee and even some that aren't.

When we experience an injury of some sort, our bodies attempt to compensate. We adjust our stride or we limp so as not to put too much weight or pressure somewhere. We sit differently in our chairs or sleep differently at night. Our attempts to hold our bodies in certain ways to ease pain causes other parts or our bodies to bind up into unnatural positions. The longer we hold those positions, the worse the binding and the worse the pain. In our attempt to ease our pain, we create more of it.

Unfortunately, to heal those injuries we need to work through the pain. Thus, the digging. And the digging pays off, because little by little the pain starts to ease. The upshot is you need to go through the pain to get rid of the pain. And so it is with the other areas of our life. Pain is part of the deal. For some of us it is pain from relationships, for others pain from our childhood or family issues, for others pain from disappointment or unmet dreams. We try to compensate for those pains and in turn they simply show up in other areas of our lives. And in those areas, too, working through the issues is painful. And, as unpleasant as the digging might be, going through the one pain is the only way to release and ease the other pain. So, start digging. At least there's a soak in a hot tub and a martini at the end of it!

Once again I have 'acquired' photos off the web. Photo 1 is from: www.riversidecampground.com/Massage.html
Photo 2 is from: www.timberlakeseminars.com/catalog/index.php?...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cooking

I have come to love cooking. I didn't start out loving it. My mother spent a good chunk of her working life before I was born working as a diner cook. By the time I came along, she was good and tired of being in the kitchen. She cooked meals - that's what women of that era did, after all. But she really didn't enjoy it and wasn't particularly creative about it. My father was one of those clich├ęd "meat and potatoes" men, and if vegetables weren't cooked to the point of mush his opinion was they should be fed to the pigs - and we didn't even live on the farm! When you add in the factor that there wasn't a whole lot of money, cooking for my mother became even more of a chore - trying to figure out how to make the grocery budget stretch to feed the family until the next payday.

Food at our house was serviceable, not bad by any means, but certainly not gourmet. There are dishes from my childhood that I remember as being wonderful and thoughts of them bring back fond memories. Yet, my mother's lack of enthusiasm for cooking passed itself on to me for many years. I didn't really know how to cook and, therefore, didn't really have any interest in it.

I can't pinpoint, exactly, when my interest in cooking began to develop. But I suspect it had something to do with entertaining. I'm pretty social, and I love spending time with people. Having people over for dinner seems a common way of expressing that. Yet, to do that, you have to feed them. At first, I had a couple of meals that I relied pretty heavily on. They worked well, guests complimented me on them and considering the fact that people cleaned their plates and asked for seconds, I don't think they were just blowing sunshine up my skirt.

But one or two meals, even good ones, get old pretty quickly, so I began to branch out. At first, it was cookbooks, but then - the miracle of all miracles for an aspiring cook -- the internet. The internet is heaven for anyone looking to learn anything (as high school students and would be terrorists will attest) but is a source of never-ending delight for a would-be cook. There are thousands of sites. Recipes, cooking instructions, how-to-videos, photos, blogs -- everything you could possibly want or need to know as you navigate through the chemistry and the art of playing with food.

There are countless bloggers whose sole content is cooking. They post their recipes and their photos (I've heard people use the term 'food porn' to describe some of the photos and it's somewhat apt!) and their tips on how-to and how-not-to. What I like about these is that they are most often just ordinary people. They aren't a food network star, they haven't written a cookbook, they don't own a restaurant. They're just regular people experimenting with cooking and sharing the results.

Other sites are community sites. There's one in particular that I use quite often. Their recipe base is mostly made up of user-submitted recipes, although they also publish sponsor recipes. But this is where you find the type of recipe that's been passed down for generations in a family and been printed up in church-basement-lady cookbooks. You can search these sites by recipe title. You can also search by ingredient. Say you have a neighbor gift you a bushel of zucchini at the end of the season - you can type in that ingredient and a list of recipes using it will pop up right before your eyes. They have categories - desserts, salads, main dishes, holidays - and ideas for complete dinners including everything from the appetizer and beverage all the way down to the dessert.

They also have a community tab where you can ask questions and advice or request a recipe. You can also give your advice and suggestions to others. As with all communities, there are some who are there for something other than cooking. There are always people who look for drama and who are willing to create it if there isn't any to be found and cyber communities are no different. But after a little while on the site it's pretty easy to figure out who is there for what and you can just skip on by and avoid that type of thing. And, proportionately, it's a small part of the whole. Mostly, people are there to talk food and to share their knowledge and expertise and passion.

People are also able to rate and review recipes. You can read how others have adapted a particular recipe to their tastes, and help judge whether you need to adapt as well and how best to do it. You can submit your own recipes for review, if you are the competitive type. Mostly, though, you can indulge your interest in figuring out how to make dinner a delight instead of a chore.

So yesterday an old friend came for lunch and I made a new recipe for an asparagus quiche, a new recipe for a cucumber salad, a new recipe for some cheddar and scallion biscuits, and a new recipe for a lemon-mango cake. Tonight, another friend is coming for dinner and I'm trying a new recipe for beef stroganoff. Food is nourishment, yes. But it doesn't need to stop there. It can also be an adventure. So next time you're at the grocery store, buy that jar of something new and different, and figure out what to do with it.


I wish I had thought to take a photo of yesterday's lunch, but did not. Credit for this photo goes to: http://www.thecnj.com/review/2008/071708/foodanddrink071708_116.html

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mistakes

I crochet. I know, I know. It's an incredibly old-fashioned hobby and it makes me sound (and I suspect look) like someone's grandma. My mother taught me how to do it (along with embroidery and sewing) when I was a child and it stuck, unlike knitting which she tried to teach me repeatedly. I was a miserable failure. I cannot knit. But I can crochet.

Not only can I crochet, I like to crochet. I find it to be incredibly relaxing and almost zen-like in its therapeutic benefits. I can get lost in it. I think it's the repetition. The feel of the yarn sliding through my fingers. The movement of the hook in my hand. The sense of accomplishment as you work. You can see your progress growing around you. Row after row, your product gets longer, bigger, more complete. There is almost immediate gratification - it looks like something after only a couple of inches of work. You can see the potential of what it will become.

I've been working on a couple of different projects this winter. One was an afghan, a gift for Fran's 85th birthday. It's a nice colonial blue and it will look beautiful laying on the back of the sofa in her living room, her cream sofa with the blue stripes. The pattern is open and delicate. It came together smoothly, easily, quickly.

Then there's the other afghan that I've been working on. It, also, is a gift for a friend. It also came together smoothly and easily. The body of the afghan is a basic shell that is repeated over and over. Once you get the pattern down, you just repeat and repeat until the afghan reaches the proper size. I had the body completed. It measured 62 inches across and 68 inches tall -- about 5 inches taller than me.

The complexity of this particular pattern is in the border - the last 7or 8 rows. This is often the case in crochet. In this particular case, the first row of the border involves doing some math. You have to space out a number of stitches equally across the row - not work in every stitch. So, I did the math - counted my stitches, figured how to space them out and went to work. Success - first row across done. Then I had to turn and go down the side of the afghan - the height of it - and do the same thing.

I counted my stitches. There weren't enough. That couldn't be right. I counted again. I got the same number. I counted a third time - and it was during that third count that I discovered my mistake. The pattern calls for ending each row of the body with a double crochet and 2 chain stitches before turning to work your way back across. I started out that way - but at a certain point in the afghan I made a mistake. I wasn't thinking, or I wasn't paying attention. Or I had set it down for a few days and when I went back and picked it up again I thought I remembered the pattern and was too lazy to check it so I just went with my memory. Whatever the case, I switched from a double crochet at the end of the row to a single crochet at the end of the row. That difference meant that I was significantly short of stitches in length when the body was complete.

I considered my options. Could I simply add more rows? No. If I just
did that I wouldn't have enough yarn in the right dye lot to finish the project. Could I adjust the edging, reconfigure it, or simply do a different border from another pattern instead of this one? No. It's the border that makes this piece what it is - and even if I were to switch I'd run into a similar problem with the math and making the pattern work. No. There was only one option. Tear it out.

So I did. I tore the completed work out -- all the way back to where I made the original mistake -- 6 inches from the beginning of the afghan. That's right. 62 inches of work pulled out and wound up into balls. I can't begin to tell you how many hours of work that 62 inches represents but believe me when I say it is many. Then I started over, doing it correctly. A double crochet and 2 chain stitches at the end of each row before turning.

Some of you are probably thinking that I'm nuts - taking almost all of it out and starting over. Yes, it took time. Yes, it was frustrating. But the lesson was oh so valuable. How many times in life do I make a mistake and try to finagle a fix to it. I try to cover it up or re-configure things to make it work. I try to pretend it wasn't a mistake at all - that I actually meant to do it this way or that. I try to make it work and in the process I make it worse.

I'm not saying we always have to start over. Sometimes a mistake truly is minor - and it won't have a deep or lasting impact. It can be tweaked or maneuvered. It can be 'fixed' with a little bit of a change in direction or execution. But sometimes, the best course is to start fresh. Go back. Make it right. There's an old Turkish proverb that says "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back." Once you do that you can go forward from there knowing that in the end, this time you've done it right.