Friday, December 30, 2005

The Price of Nonconformity

I don’t know when I decided to become a nonconformist but the tendency showed up early in my life, at least in my choice of literature. I got an early start on reading and read most of the Oz books in early elementary school. (Long books to satisfy my literary appetite with large print to fit my immature eyes.) When my classmates discovered the joys of reading and were excited about the Boxcar Children, I was reading horse stories. When they moved on to the "Little House" books, I yawned and went back to my horse stories. Walter Farley. Marguerite Henry. Those were my favorite authors. I enjoyed the Bobbsey Twins somewhere along the way, but when the other girls started reading Nancy Drew books, I was already a Hardy Boys fan, having delved into my brothers’ collection, and couldn't get excited about a girl detective. I became a fan of the Lone Ranger in books without knowing anything about the radio or television versions of the stories. And I read all the childhood life fictionalized biographies I could find.

Of course, this meant I missed out on some excellent standards in children’s literature. I finally got around to reading the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder during a college break one year. I didn’t get to know the "Boxcar Children" by Gertrude Chandler Warner until my son read the series when he was in elementary school. Around that same time, I pulled the Beverly Cleary "Ramona" books out of the elementary library where I was doing volunteer work and read that complete set. I’ve slowly filled in some of the gaps in my literary background from the children’s department of the library over the years as well as sampling new juvenile selections. I enjoy children’s literature. It’s fast. It’s clean. It is often very well written. I can pick up on the underlying message more readily than in adult fiction. (At least I can now; when I read Black Beauty for probably the tenth time but first time as an adult, I was shocked to discover that it was not the horse story I had always loved as much as social commentary.)

Somehow, in my reading as a child and still as an adult, I passed over the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, even after being greatly influenced by his books written for adults. I’ve read his space trilogy but not his children’s books! I’ve read the books by Lewis’ friend, J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ve read several fairy tales by George MacDonald, whom Lewis called his mentor, and found them wonderful. Why not The Chronicles of Narnia?

It’s not that I didn’t try. I bought a boxed set of the series and read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when my children were young. They eventually read the entire set. I thought maybe I made it through the set sometime along the way. I know I read The Magician’s Nephew. Apparently, I never made it further than that.

When the movie based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was released a few weeks ago, my husband and I went to see it on opening night. I decided it was a good time to (re)read the series. However, by the time I got to The Horse and His Boy, I realized I was not reading again but for the first time.

How did I pass these up? This is the exact kind of children’s literature that most appeals to me. (Since my Oz days, I’ve enjoyed books of magic and I've read through long collections of fairy tales.) They are widely accepted as children’s classics. In fact, they are perhaps the most popular classics in children’s literature I’ve never read.

So, all you Harry Potter fans, what are your favorite selections from classic children’s literature? Have I missed anything else?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

What is it about Christmas that makes me go crazy?

Every year in December I lose my grip on sanity. Why?

Ordinarily, I don’t consider myself a perfectionist to the point of driving myself or other people crazy. However, something about the Christmas season stirs up my strongest insecurities and weighs me down with the conviction that whatever I’m doing, it’s not good enough. I’m not baking enough. I’m not entertaining enough. I’m not buying enough gifts. The gifts that I am buying are lame. The ones I bought last week are obviously totally inappropriate. I have ideas that are SO much better this week, but still probably not good enough. Someplace out there is the perfect gift for each one of my loved ones. I just have to find it and then they will see how well I know them and of what value they are to me.

My usual solution to the gift dilemma is to wait until the last possible moment to commit to anything in gift-buying so that there’s no time for second thoughts. Then I realize that the perfect gift was the one that I should have ordered two weeks ago and can’t be bought in stores anywhere the week of Christmas.

One thing I do because I want to during December (as opposed to the many things that I do out of obligation) is send Christmas cards. Even in that area, though, this temporary insanity sucks much of the joy out of sending them. A form letter? Can’t do it. How can one write a one-size-fits-all letter? That’s not good enough. Cards out of a box with our names under the pre-printed greeting? What’s the point? It’s the chance to actually communicate with long-lost and not-so-lost acquaintances that is attractive to me. Why give up that chance to communicate? So I write multiple letters that contain the same basic information but which are each somehow customized to their recipients. The problem is that this requires a substantial time commitment, even with the aid of a wordprocessor and cut-and-paste. The list of people who get letters isn’t very long.

My church family has a tradition of exchanging cards each year by dropping them in a special box in the church foyer. It’s rare to have a note included with the card. Again, I ask: What’s the point? If all we’re doing is wishing each other a generic Merry Christmas, why bother putting so much time and effort and money into it? Why not just wish each other a Merry Christmas in person and be done with it?

This year I came up with a partial solution to the church card exchange. I created my own "church families are special" greeting card in PrintMaster (by Broderbund). Ahh... much better. Hallmark doesn’t make a card that expresses the appreciation I feel for this group that so often has filled the role of extended family for me and my husband and children. But I can feel good about creating one card that embraces each family group individually but equally and expresses my appreciation for them in a special way during the Christmas season.

So I made the card. I printed multiple copies of the card. I signed our names. I wrote names on envelopes. I piled up the cards to take over to the church for distribution. I even went so far as to carry them into the church. Then I carried them back home. I realized that I had failed to include children when putting names on the envelopes. I realized that there was a chance that a few of the people might ask, "Dave & Marsha who???" I realized that just one slight modification would have made the card so much better. I realized there was a flaw that will likely be pointed out by a few. Perfectionism caused paralysis again. I had to push it aside, add the children’s names and our last name for the cases where there might be doubt and take those terribly imperfect homemade cards back over for distribution. It’s only a pile of greeting cards to people I see every week, often multiple times each week. Why would I let myself get in such a twist over making them perfect?

Making my own cards has allowed me to expand my mailing list by providing opportunity to customize the greeting itself to fit various groups. In this first year of the empty nest, I’m missing the interaction I’ve had over the years with my peers in the community, the parents of my children’s classmates. I made a special greeting card for my favorite people from that group. I’ve completed around 60 cards (mostly going to people either in the church or the community) and have another 30 or so to go. Most of the cards that will actually include a letter are left and I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, wondering if I’ll ever complete this task. And this is one of the most enjoyable parts of Christmas for me! I don’t even want to think about the gifts!

Christmas is a week away and I’m not even close to ready. I have a bare evergreen tree in my livingroom and colored lights running down the banister. That’s the extent of my decorations thus far. There are no Christmas goodies in the house and all my kids are coming home in the next 48 hours. (Yea!)

Maybe it’s the absolute drop-dead deadlines of the Christmas season that do this to me. Not only are there multiple obligations that could be done with excellence if there were a little more time in which to do them, but the deadlines are mostly non-negotiable.

Obviously, blog posts need to go way down on my list of priorities. In defiance of my compulsiveness during this season, I will now post this in its imperfect first-draft form. Maybe. After I fix up just a few minor problems.

I’ll see you after Christmas.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Me, Me, Me

Blog (Weblog): An online journal.

Journal: An account of what happens or of what one thinks, feels, or notices, such as a diary, a ship’s log, or the written account of what happens at each meeting of a society or town meeting. (World Book Dictionary, Thorndike Barnhart, 1984)

Ponder: To consider carefully, think over. (1984 World Book Dictionary again)

Ponderings: Considerations, personal analyses. (Not in dictionary)

So I have a blog, an online account of either what happens or what I think, feel, or notice, carrying a title coined from a term meaning personal thoughts. I think that takes the focus off of actual happenings and leaves me with just thoughts. My thoughts. My feelings. What I notice.

I was sharing my feelings on a particular matter with someone this week while trying to resolve a conflict which had popped up unexpectedly. It felt so self-centered. Does it matter what I think on the matter? It would be foolish to think that anyone else thinks exactly like I do. There’s NO one who thinks like I do on every subject. There may not be many who share my feelings on most subjects. If I’m the only one who is bothered by something, is it even worth mentioning?

Perhaps I should check to see how others feel on various subjects so that I can report their thoughts, feelings, and observations instead of focusing in on my own. Of course, I’d have to make sure I completely understood what they told me so that I could report it accurately. And I’d need permission to broadcast those thoughts and feelings on a public blog site. Even if I’m not planning to share those thoughts publicly, there are still difficulties in accurately understanding and reporting what other people think and feel. I may THINK I know how others are responding to something, but I don’t really have a complete grasp on their thoughts even after they attempt to share them with me. Sometimes the thoughts don’t fit well into words. Sometimes I look behind the words for hidden meanings and guess incorrectly as to what the unspoken undertones are saying. Sometimes I have filters installed that interpret the meanings of the words and give them a slightly different hue. I might filter them to be more in keeping with my own thoughts. Or I might give them more or less charitable interpretations.

Back to this week's conversation. I shared that a particular approach to management makes me feel a certain way. I was guessing that maybe other people respond in a similarly negative way but I don’t really know that to be the case. If it’s true, it might be helpful to the person doing the managing to hear my thoughts as representative of those of other people. But if my response reflects personal hangups, maybe I’m better off trying to disarm my ‘hot buttons’ rather than complaining to the one who pushes them. Even if my thoughts and feelings are representative of how others respond, will the person with whom I share dismiss them as springing from my own personality problems?

The thoughts, feelings, and observations I know best and am most authorized to publicize are my own. Some of what I share might reflect a common thought process. Other times I might verbalize the unformed thoughts of others. Much of what I share may simply seem like it’s coming out of left field. My thoughts are not always rational or ‘correct’ or helpful. They may not even be particularly interesting most of the time. They’re just the ones I have. If anyone would like to share some of their own thoughts here (in the comments), they’re welcome to do so. Meanwhile, it's a blog. It's all about me. Which may get pretty boring after a while.