Grinching on Christmas Lists

Are written lists of material wants ever a good idea?

3094706012_4b4505805f_zHot Swede’s family is a Christmas list family. After Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law asks for gift ideas for everyone. This is the way it has always been, and her children have always handed over wish lists, often very specific lists. I know that lots of other families do this, and I honor that. I always provide her with ideas for her son and grandkids. I spend a lot of time collecting ideas and then deciding which ones to give her- considering what she might enjoy shopping for. However, I will not; I cannot provide her with a list for myself. It rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make myself do it.

I blame my parents, (as one does.) I grew up in a family where we might casually mention something we might like to receive, but the focus was on what we were going to give, or my mom ranting that she wished we could jettison all the presents and just spend time together. I can imagine the look on my mom’s face if I had presented her with an itemized written wish. (My Little Pony stable, rollerblades, a pogo ball, pocket knife, or spy jacket: the few things I remember wanting very much.) Um, no. Tell me your #1 want and go make a list of good ideas for other people.

We didn’t hang stockings on the fireplace until Christmas Eve because it looked selfish. (Hot Swede and I have skirted this argument. Currently, the stockings are up, much to my dismay.) I don’t remember nosing around under the tree to see what was for me, but that may have been because my parents were late wrappers and things didn’t appear under the tree until right before the big day.  But my distaste of wish lists expands beyond family eccentricity. I am philosophically and practically opposed to them.

Gift giving is never about what I want to get. It is about considering others’ needs and interests, and finding something they will like and I’d like to give. When I receive gifts this way, the love, time, and thought of the giver become part of the present. They are what make it meaningful. Otherwise, it is just another scarf, hat, or set of whiskey glasses. When gift exchanging is done well, it is the thought that counts.

The gifts I appreciate most are the unexpected ones- ones where someone has thought carefully about me, found something they were excited to give, and I get to enjoy something I never even had the chance to want. This goes back to my wedding and the first time I supplied the mother of all wish lists- the gift registry, to potential gift givers.  Yes, I appreciate my matching dishes, flatware, and set of pots. I think of my paternal family every time I pull out the china we picked out and they gave for us, but that doesn’t happen often. However, the handmade ceramic bowl given by a cousin and the cutting boards made by Hot Swede’s uncle delight me. They carry the additional boon of reminding me of the giver each time I use them.

There are good reasons for wedding gift registries. They are lifesavers when buying for someone I don’t know well, or looking to assess the tastes of the recipient. For newlyweds, it is nice to start out with matching sets of dishes, even though I broke all the bowls by my 10th anniversary, and we are on our 3rd set of daily glassware. (It’s like a Jewish Greek wedding every time I do dishes.) Lists are not necessary for the kind of personal giving I do at Christmas.

Sometimes I need ideas and direction. In that case, I ask the person directly if there’s anything they need or want. Even better, I’ll ask someone who knows them better than do I. In this way, I remain free to give what I can and would like to, and they still have a chance at being pleasantly surprised with my efforts.

Wish lists take the “thought that counts” out of the process. Getting something I’ve asked for is nice. The generosity of the giver is there, but it feels as if the giver has simply done my shopping for me, cheapening and limiting the role of the giver and tying up the gift with a little ribbon of guilt for me.

Okay, so this one I'll accept.

Okay, so this one I’ll accept.

It isn’t just guilt that cheapens the experience.  The writing of a wish list immediately creates expectation in the gift recipient, and nothing kills happiness like expectation. The fewer expectations we have for others to meet our needs, the happier we are. This truth extends all the way into expecting someone else to give you that Star Wars Millennium Falcon 7965 LEGO set that you’ve wanted since you were 28.

Such specific written requests limit the giver. If you give me a wish list, am I obligated to get something off the list, even if I find something else I think you’d enjoy? Will you be disappointed, or worse, irritated if I don’t purchase from your list? I much prefer the surprise and joy of receiving the thoughtfulness of the giver in a gift THEY’VE picked for me, even if it isn’t what I’d pick out for myself.

Writing a wish list manufactures want. Goody! Normally, when asked if there is anything I’d like for Christmas, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. In an effort to make gift giving easier on my family, I started brainstorming gift ideas for myself and writing them down so I could refer to them up when asked. I looked around for things I didn’t have and decided that I wanted them. Do you see the problem? I created desires for trifles that I hadn’t wanted before! And then I was asking loved ones to fulfill them for me! Talk about killing satisfaction and gratitude. What an unhealthy and unhelpful practice. This is the first year I will not do it. I won’t. I’d rather get the same food scented candle from everyone than engage in manufacturing material voids for my loved ones to fill. Thumbs down.

There is only one kind of acceptable gift list: the list of gifts I want to GIVE. You may tell me about something you’d love to receive. I want to know if there’s something you really want. However, if you hand me an itemized shopping list of your material desires, I’m going to be irked and leave it where it lies until recycling day.

I love giving gifts. I start the gift giving brainstorm in September. I love the puzzle of matching people with gifts within my budget. I like the challenge and enjoy the process. I love offering up a beautifully wrapped package. I have every Christmas giving list since 1998, so I can keep track of past ideas and what books I’ve already given. I am no Scrooge. But a gift is about receiving the goodwill and love of others, and I like it best when the giver isn’t told exactly the color, model, and shape their goodwill should take.

One of my favorite things.

One of my favorite things.

If you write and give from wish lists, tell me how you use them and why you like them. I am genuinely curious. Lots of people use them without issue. And I fully accept that my hang ups with them are my own. However you manage your gift giving, I wish you all a fun and meaningful experience, whether you like detailed lists with ISBN codes, homemade gifts, or eschew it all together and make donations to charitable organizations, whatever works for you.

Trick-or-Treat!

Do it.

I want kids to trick-or-treat. I want them out in dark, tripping over capes and clown shoes, spitting on everyone as they yell “Trick or treat!” through plastic fangs. I want the young ones to come to my door and look up at me with that look of resigned confusion that says, “Lady, I don’t know what’s 8146023035_7589abbddfgoing on. The big ones, they dressed me up like some kind of pink rodent and are parading me around in the dark. Strangers keep giving me stuff I’m not allowed to eat. I suspect I’m being used as some kind of candy lure. I’m just going along with it because it makes the big ones smile and, well, what choice do I have?”

I want to drop Butterfingers in the pillowcases of properly costumed teens who manage to drop their guard enough to offer the evening’s greeting in a clear voice. I want; I really want the cool uncostumed teens to show up so I can ask them to please sing a song or dance instead. That’s the All Hallow’s Eve deal: You show up properly dressed and call out. I admire your efforts in exchange for candy. You say, “thank you” and everyone gets what they want. There are procedures if you cannot comply, and they involve singing, dancing, or a good joke.

I get the impression that fewer and fewer kids are out on Halloween night. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a warmer climate where we only had to wear a jacket as we ran around neighborhoods. In the upper Midwest, a knit cap and puffy coat destroy the aesthetic of any dainty fairy or fearsome warrior. The weather doesn’t explain all of it; people here go fishing through a hole in the ice… and they aren’t even beginning to starve.

Parents are fun slayers. Gauntlet thrown. Parents don’t want to get cold, don’t want to traipse around in the dark and don’t trust their kids or neighbors enough to send the kids out alone. I get that. I don’t let mine go out alone… I send their father with them so I can stay home and have more conversation with small people than they desire. I understand that it’s a school night. I know that kids come home with pounds of teeth rotting, appetite killing, behavior modifying, tasty crap. I get it. But…

2991216294_c7b3bc03f9I want the tradition to continue. For one thing, it is not a holiday I want dragged out. I like it as a single evening’s activity. Sending kids out trick-or-treating is many times easier than throwing Halloween parties. I only clean the porch for trick-or-treating. I want childfree adults remember their childhoods. I want them to think about the kids in their area and buy treats for them. Yes, I wish it could be apples instead of candy corn, but I won’t throw out all the good fun of trick-or-treating just because candy isn’t a healthy choice. I want neighborhoods to open up their doors and their generosity to small wandering bands of mermaids and zombies. I want kids to wear costumes in public because it is SO FUN.  Every Batman should run through the darkness, cool night air snapping his cape behind him. I want older kids to hold the hands of the younger ones when a gory apparition runs by. I want parents to stand back at the sidewalk and let their tiny children find the courage to walk up to my door by themselves, or in a brother’s wake. I want them to talk to a grown up they don’t know in a safe way- because it builds communication skills. Don’t belittle it; these small lessons are where the growing happens. Also, I like talking to them.

We are the parents. We can put limits on how late they’re out and how much sugar they shove in their gobs. Yes, you can do it. Put on your big girl pants and a hat, make some candy rules and a hot toddy to keep you company and take those kids outside on the last dark night in October.  It’s worth it.

Why The Arts are Essential to Your Kids’ Success

And Your Neighbor’s Kids Too.

 The case for the arts needs to be made across the entirety of American culture, but if we don’t plant artistic seeds in the young, the argument is pointless.  

The arts are being squeezed out of the American educational system. Music, theatre, dance, visual, and literary arts are all losing their place in the formation of our next generation of citizens. The reasons given are often financial: there are more demands on schools and fewer resources with which to meet them. There is also our well-intentioned push to measure and quantify student learning with standardized achievement tests, as if all students are clones and we are programing them like computers. Parents feel strapped for cash and time and don’t make the sacrifices required for music or dance lessons.

When arts education is on the chopping block, I hear the objection: “But the arts are important.” It is a throwaway line. Few people articulate why the arts belong in education and that is a shame, because it isn’t a hard case to make. So here’s my purely experiential, non-scientific stab at the case for the arts: Why the arts belong in education; why we need them and how do they serve their students.

Art as Societal Bellwether

496px-Athena_Herakles_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2648      Art is an integral part of who we are and who we’ve been. It is a primary method of recording and reading history. It reflects the general psyche of a place and time. The Renaissance fascination with all things Hellenic is reflected in the architecture, sculpture, and paintings of the era. The ennui and cynicism of Fin de siècle Europe is observed in the art of that time.

Looking through this window into history- we see the micro impact of huge historical events on individuals (the artists) and whole societies (how the art was received.) How much richer is the study of history when it is studded with songs, paintings, and literature of the people affected by the actions of governments and nations?Picasso: Guernica

We spend thousands on public art projects to charm and invigorate public spaces. In the US, the Kennedy Center honors influential artists of our nation annually. Foundation and government grants pair with private donations to fuel every major orchestra, ballet, opera and art museum in the country. Tourists all over the globe visit museums full of artistic cultural artifacts and seek out local art and music in order to get the flavor of a place.

Awareness of art’s significant influence on society makes us more critical of the art we want in our society. Anyone who thinks that violent song lyrics and misogynistic advertising are inconsequential doesn’t know art or history.

The Art of Persuasion

Elementary school textbook, 1971. Notice the use of pen as bayonet.

Elementary school textbook, 1971. Favorite bit: the use of pen as bayonet.

When we understand history and art’s role in it, we exert some power of discernment over the propaganda, advertising, and media that bombard us. Governments know the power of the arts- Soviet and Chinese communists spent a lot of energy and ruined a lot of lives trying to control it. Art had to meet Soviet standards for promoting communism. In Maoist China, artists who were permitted to create were those that toed the party line. Others were silenced (in any number of ways,) or sent to “re-education” camps. In the US, we once closely scrutinized and threatened artists we suspected of harboring communist sympathies. I doubt we would have bothered if we didn’t think them influential people.

Canadian WWII Poster      Politicians carefully consider the music they will use on the campaign trail, trying to set just the right tone and make all the helpful inferences that a piece of music carries with it. Advertising has put cash in many a jingle writer’s pocket. Visual artists create graphics to encourage everything from buying war bonds to drinking brand name soft drinks. Multiple artistic professionals are employed to sell the latest earworm of a song from the pop star of the moment (a melding of capitalist and artistic aims, not that they are mutually exclusive.) Songs motivate and give voice to social movements from the French Revolution to American civil rights.
Persuasion and motivation are, most often, emotional pursuits, despite our delusions of being rational creatures.  The arts are the tools to manipulate the heart. Knowing this, we may still be taken in, but we will know the forces at work. It makes us harder targets and we are better equipped to use the arts of persuasion to our own advantage and to the advantage of causes dear to us.

Fluency in the Languages of Human Expression

In order to benefit from art, we must know its vocabulary and have some basis from which to approach it. Most of us have perfunctory reactions to art we see or hear, even if we don’t know why. But knowledge deepens understanding of any subject.

If I had not been forced to study poetry, I wouldn’t know to consider the words that are left out as much as the ones that are chosen. There are mime gestures in ballet that function as sign language but I am wholly ignorant of their meaning, so I barely notice them. I often hear people not trained in classical music say that they find it relaxing. That is not my experience because I know its language. I know the aural vocabulary of consonance and dissonance, and some of its history. I hear detail and technique. I glean more because I know more.

Education in the arts teaches the languages of human expression, enabling us to not only understand others, but to better communicate our own ideas, both of which are important to the individual and to the health of greater society.

Know Thyself

Art (visual, performing, and linguistic) is communication. The arts are apparatus for communicating delicate and 364px-Van_Gogh_-_Trauernder_alter_Mannnuanced ideas, emotions, and experiences. They convey meaning at deeply human levels- levels that may not have words, or visuals, or sound, but are real and part of who we are and how we experience this shocking world. I have been moved to tears by a carefully composed photograph, been challenged by a painting, dug through a poem until I found a nugget of understanding, and had my mood changed by a song.

In order to communicate in any medium, I must examine and know my own mind. I must discover what it is that I want to convey. Creating artful expression forces me to first know myself better by seeking that clarity of mind.  I must isolate the idea I am trying to bring into the world, figure out how to present it, and make plans to build it.

Art is a safe place in which to do this work of self study. It offers a space to test ideas and affects, a space to express thought, a space to untangle ideas, and a space in which to safely experiment with modes of being. In the words of the composer and secular saint, Mr. Rogers: “[Art] is a way, that doesn’t hurt you or anybody else, to say who you are and how you feel.” What young person would not benefit from such exercise?

Honor the Other

Once I know my mind, I must consider the other- the audience. Who is my audience? What is their frame of reference? What do they need from me in order to understand my purpose? Effective communication requires me to honor my audience, increasing our mutual understanding.

That isn’t to say that effective art always results in the artist and consumer coming to harmonious conclusions. Far from it, but it does mean that artist and audience have both considered each other, possibly gleaning insights into themselves and one another. Society would be better if we made a habit of studying the frame of reference of others, instead of just trying to prove ourselves more right than someone else. Maybe the US Congress should be forced to play chamber music.

Discovery and Problem Solving

The imaginative skills required for making beautiful music and effective literature are the same skills for creative problem solving in the rest of life. Life is full of opportunities for a facile mind to find ways around problems, from organizing a home, to making a dollar stretch, to marketing a business.

Making art, like doing science, teaching, or plumbing, is full of problem solving. It is all about finding ways of bringing ideas into the world, a world full of rigid considerations. Art is always created within constraints. Children get frustrated when watercolors run into each other on a saturated page, or play dough refuses to have the rigidity and spring required to make usable fairy wands. Learning to work around and within a framework is where human creativity is at it’s best. Creative problem solving is the stuff of invention, and it bears all of our technological and much of our scientific progress.

A feat of creative problem solving. And then we paint it red, because it is awesome.

A feat of creative problem solving. Then we paint it red, because it is awesome.

Creative people find multiple approaches to a problem. They see connections where others’ haven’t and they discover new solutions to old problems. Developing a powerful creative process requires a good amount of practice. The arts, with their disparate mediums, styles, and skill sets, are stimulating places to begin resolving dissonance between a mental goal and the hard realities of materials and the limitations of one’s own skills.

Grit: More Powerful Than Talent

Art requires high-level skills to be effective and satisfying and these take work and time to acquire. My children are dissatisfied when the eyes on a face they’ve drawn don’t match, or they can’t play a piano piece as fast as they’d like. They already have an ideal in mind, but their skills don’t yet match up.

This mismatch can be powerfully motivating. People work hard for things they really want, and if a child’s mind is captured by an artistic ideal, they may be convinced to work diligently toward the goal. And diligence is what it will take. There are no shortcuts when it comes to building skill.3602584451_a3b9222310_m

Desire for skill does not mean that they will always work joyfully and willingly. They will want to give up when it gets hard, like any normal person. That is where teachers and parents come in- people who can see the end game, people who already know that to give up is the surest way to fail, and who know that perseverance is one of the hardest skills to instill.

The wonderful thing about learning perseverance in the arts is that art interests so many young people and they are motivated by a desire to do it well.  Scientific discovery motivates some children, but the arts catch the interest of many.

For people with an interest in visual, performing, or linguistic art, the pay off is satisfying. Seeing yourself approach your ideal through your own hard work is powerful. Knowing that you got there by your own sweat and effort builds confidence and pride. Achievement and mastery of skills is the way to true self-confidence.

This is not to say that artistic satisfaction is possible with only the skills of a superlative artist. Yes, it takes years of diligent work to gain aptitude, but the near inhuman skills of top performing artists are not what are required for individual delight. Enrichment through the arts requires people who have creative vision and have worked hard for some basic artistic skills with which to strive and discover what is possible.

Cooperation

Practice and solitary work builds character and work ethic, but if art is communication, it is at its absolute best when

This worked out okay.

This worked out okay.

made and shared with others. I hated group projects in school. They took so much time, and there was always one person who’s dead weight the rest of us dragged across the finish line. However, I never thought of theatre productions, string quartet, or orchestra as group projects, even though they were.

These were voluntary collaborations, cooperative endeavors. Everyone had a useful skill set, skill sets that I understood and respected. We were patient with each other because we understood the difficulties of making ideas heard, seen and experienced as clearly as possible. We learned to offer criticism gently. Even more importantly, we learned to take criticism constructively. We helped each other and celebrated our triumphs. Even less than stellar efforts were easier to accept, because we had each other.

My highest emotional highs occurred when I fell in love and when I made impossibly beautiful music with people I liked, music that I could not make on my own. Love for my quartet members grew out of our explorations of Schubert and Dvorak. There is simply nothing like creating beauty with someone else. It is one of the profound delights on Earth.

Collaborative art fosters appreciation of others and their skills and imagination. Actors cannot put on a production without lighting designers. 1st Violins need 2nd violins. Dancers need costumers. Drummers need guitarists. None of it works without all of its pieces in place.

Finding Purpose in Creation

Knit GraffitiHumans are creative beings and nothing breathes life into daily existence like finding a place to stretch our creativity. The main reason there are so many craft, yarn, woodworking, and DIY home improvement stores is because people need to make stuff. The satisfaction that comes from building raised garden beds is soul feeding. People craft, build, and make art because it quenches a universal creative desire. I have friends who practice a creative hobby as an exercise for mental health. They find it calming and nourishing: concentrating on something they love, making it fit their own purpose and ideas. As creators, we take control over a small piece of our existence. And that is a thing of great psychological consequence.

Children know that they are not in control of much. Adults become wise when they realize the same thing. A creative outlet can do much to improve our mental health and help us cope with a world beyond our control, by giving us a small space in which to make things as we’d like them to be. And art is an outlet that is readily available, can be pursued at varying intensities of finance and time, and bends to meet the needs of the practitioner. Why would we keep such a gift from children?

Synthesizing Algebra, and Other Lessons.

I remember sitting in math class and wondering, “Why are we doing this? When will I ever need this?” It seemed like such busy work and I didn’t see the point. It wasn’t until I set out to make a sewing pattern for a skirt (something I would never have attempted if I did not have some practice in creative problem solving,) that I finally synthesized the need for algebra and was thankful for geometry. Making stuff puts theories and abstractions into concrete practice.

Art is for Children.

Does it matter if students can manipulate mathematics, or does it only matter if they punch the right answers on their assessment tests? Do we think it wise to shove the diversity of the human mind down shallow road of knowledge without understanding or synthesizing it? Do we want adults who come to their productive years with problem solving skills, the ability to work with others, engaged minds that are always looking for better ways to do things, who have healthy outlets for their emotions and are practiced communicators?

Zack, age 8, oil painting after Wyeth

Zack, age 8, oil painting after Wyeth

If this is what we want, the arts must be part of their education. Not every child needs all of them, but they all need some. They should have visual art to learn to see, literature to learn to consider beyond themselves, theatre and language arts to make themselves understood, music to voice the depths of the soul, shop class to bring abstractions into reality, and places to try, see, and learn the languages that tell of the human experience.

How to Lose Friends and Irritate People

I like social media. It connects me to people I would never see in person, but who enrich my life through our digital society. That said, I am sometimes made ill by the behavior I see online- the vile way people talk to and about each other. We behave abominably online in ways that, I hope to God, (I actually do; this is not a taking-name-in-vain violation.) we would never ever behave face to face. After years on Facebook and being witness to much keyboard ugliness, I’ve developed a rule for myself. If you are tired of rabid pedants, aggressive strangers, and other senseless bile, read on.

The Cocktail Party Rule

Old-Fashioned

Old-Fashioned.

Here’s the groundbreaking idea: If you wouldn’t do something at a cocktail party, don’t do it online. Mind blown? No? Good, then there is hope for us.

Before I flesh out this common sense, shouldn’t even have to mention it idea, let me say that all this assumes that the reader has basic adult social skills and is not a complete ninny.

Other People’s Houses

Pages, updates, editorials, etc.

When you arrive at a friend’s house/online space, you are on her turf, interacting with her life and her family/friends/co-workers. For goodness sake, be on good behavior. Assess the tone of conversation; watch your language; engage in charming and mindful small talk. Save complaining about your gouty toe until after dinner and a few glasses of wine. While the other guests there are strangers to you, you are all valued friends of the host.

If someone starts talking about a movie they hate and you love, do you call them a tasteless hack and curse at them? No, because that shows disrespect for your friend’s friend and, by extension, your friend. Also, you are an adult and understand that people have different opinions about every single thing in life.

There are a few types of individuals who damage good social interaction, in person or online. Here are a few of most odious.

The Blowhard

This individual operates under the false notion that passion and knowledge for a subject override common decency towards complete strangers. Even more confounding is when her passion overrides respect for people she does know and calls “friends.”

316350341_00239c8fc2The Blowhard typically sees herself as exceedingly correct in her opinions and feels the need to enlighten or shame everyone within range with her brilliant take on a given subject. She thinks she holds the monopoly on truth and that only misled, bad, or stupid people could have an opinion different from hers. It is a precariously high pedestal on which to balance, and if you rock it, even just a little bit, she will respond defensively with a hiss of vitriol and anger, instead of setting her feet on solid reason.

Don’t attack your friends’ friends, ever- in person or online. Learn to disagree on point without belittling the individual. No one was ever persuaded to change his mind on a subject by being called an idiot.

Changing opinions is a long process, unless the opinion under pressure is not well formed in the first place. We are far likelier to succeed at increasing the understanding of both parties. The best way is to welcome the examination of ideas. This requires both sides to remove their opinions from their person, lay them out and examine them together, as partners. This is far less emotionally satisfying because it requires us to control and scrutinize ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem incapable or unwilling to do this.

If you want to rant against the Republicans or excoriate the President, that’s fine; do it on your own wall. I don’t like this either because vitriol is poison, but at least don’t inject it into others’ space. I have seen countless good Facebook conversations hijacked or ended by a blowhard with an ax to grind. The great thing about social media is that you don’t have to get involved in a conversation if you are angry or can’t set aside your righteous indignation. Rest your fingers; you might get carpal tunnel.

The Honest Jerk

“I’m sorry, but I’m just being honest.” This is a common excuse for being rude, as if honesty and respect are mutually exclusive.  What exactly is the Jerk being honest about? It can’t be the facts of an argument because facts and logic stand on their merits and are not dependent on verbal muscle to be convincing.

This is an honesty of emotion. The Jerk is irritated/threatened/mad that others don’t share his view, so he expresses that to the detriment of his argument. Because the Jerk is ruled by his emotions, he will call you names and make wild, hysterical assumptions about the other. I recently saw a comment by a woman who said that she teaches her children that any man who is pro-life is a child-molester… – wild, hysterical assumption. Oh, her lucky, lucky children.

I’m not sure why people hold public emotional honesty in such high esteem. When children indulge in it, we call it a ‘tantrum.’ It must make Jerks feel better and they justify it by its being honest and natural. Body odor is also honest and natural, but I don’t particularly enjoy my own, why should I put up with yours?

If you are interested in a good exchange of ideas, a dance of minds- temper your temper. It takes self-control and effort to construct a disagreement around ideas and not emotions, but you will get your point across better. It will not be overshadowed by a tantrum. Yell your anger/fear/disdain at your screen, in the privacy of your own home where no one will see the ugliness.  Don’t put it on a public forum, where the outburst will live forever.

The Quoter

You know that guy you knew in your 20s, the one who communicated almost exclusively in movie quotes? While impressive in the sheer volume of minutia committed to memory, that guy is tedious. Don’t be his equal in digital society- the person who only posts third-party links and never has an original thought. If I’ve added you to my social circle, it is because of you, not because I need you to filter for me everything that Huffington posts.

All those memes are not funny either, not in aggregate. It’s like the drunk at a party who holds everyone hostage with a chain of knock-knock jokes. Share one or two, then give it a rest. Political memes are the digital equivalent of protest signs and are therefore obnoxious by default. Use them sparingly.

Tell me what you are thinking. Hell, show me what you’re eating for lunch. Show me your cute pets. Tell me about your kids. Give me a good book review. Express yourself directly because we are friends and I want to read about you.

The Competitor

Red Boxing Gloves Hanging on WallThis one is easily combined with the other social irritants. The Competitor sees any argument as a win or lose proposition. She does not let up. It is as if she wants her “opponent” to tap out and declare her the winner. Sorry, hon, that is not how the real world works. State your case as best you can, answer any resulting queries, and leave your brilliant rhetoric to simmer in the brains of your conversation partners. If you argument is convincing and you have not been a Jerk, they may come back for a second helping of your wisdom.

Be A Bouncer

It is so easy to fall into these patterns. We’ve all done it, but we need to control ourselves, like we do in real life. Because, in modern culture, digital society is real life. Unfortunately, social media is a terrible medium for dialectic. Only telegram could be worse. Good written arguments take a lot of time and words to construct, and even then, nuance is tricky and the recipient can’t interrupt and ask for clarification. A public space full of knee-jerk writing is simply not the place to discuss important and delicate issues. It is barely the place to take a stand on something as benign as feta vs. chèvre. There is always some troll lurking about.

We can encourage good behavior by practicing it ourselves, and reminding ourselves that a difference of opinion is just that. It does not lessen or threaten anyone’s validity or humanity.

Let’s be less tolerant of rabid pedants. Don’t engage with a name-calling jerk. Don’t respond to a blowhard. Tell them that you won’t continue the exchange because of their rude behavior and failure to control their emotions.  Then, stay away or unfollow the thread.  If the pedant is on your wall, insulting your friends, remind them to be civil and, if they persist, erase their comments and send them a private message explaining why. I would love to know how you respond to bad behavior in your online space.

Please, let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard. I will likely have to log out during the next election year. And then I will miss out on countless pictures of dinner and trifling cat memes.

To the Letter

An appreciation of the ancient pairing of pen and paper.
vermeer-20-51

I have carefully saved every single letter I’ve received since I was a child, and a rough draft for every letter I sent out before I was too busy to write rough drafts (about age 23.) The oldest are yellowing in an old square cookie tin in my childhood room. I’m sure my mother would love me to finally empty out that closet. The more recent are in a file cabinet, each in its envelope.  I burned and discarded my adolescent journals. (They practically burned themselves, so full of sap and crackling teenage angst.) But I will not willfully part with the letters. They are the souvenirs of affections and friendships, and the memories of the very best times. No one takes the time to write a trivial letter. They are all precious.

Poetry and power lie in the very physicality of letters, in holding the words of another. Letters reflect the time and place of the writing- postcards, stationary unique to locale, the age and type of paper. They bear witness to the state of the writer at the moment of composition- the way he shaped his letters, the speed and neatness of the writing, the strength of the pen strokes. They can carry the scent of a place and the markings of their place of origin.  They may be read over and over again without the aide of an electric screen. They can be kept in a pocket. They can be treasured.

Reading a letter in someone’s handwriting is like hearing her voice. I know the handwriting of my family members and letter writing friends by sight.  For the recipient, there is meaning in holding this thing that was created in the hands of a friend, lover, family member, honored or even unknown person. I love letters- short ones, long ones, ones with doodles, tear stains, or chocolate smudges.

(Not Hot Swede)

Hot Swede and I spent the summer before we were married apart. I was at the Chautauqua Institution for most of the summer. He was at home in Minnesota and on tour as a member of a nascent chamber music ensemble.  I received a letter from him every day but Sunday, when the mail was not delivered. Every day. They are written on proper stationary, with interesting stamps, in as neat a penmanship as his left-hand and our right-handed language allows. I treasure each one. Combined with all the letters I sent in reply, they make a stack just under a foot tall.

Nothing did more to convince me that this was a man worth combing my hair for than receiving and reading all those letters. Each one was a gift. Hot Swede had never written letters before but did so because he knew how much I value them. They are love letters, descriptions of the day, musings on music and friends, questions begging reply. I soaked them all up. (Since saying the old “I do” 13 years ago, he’s written me one letter…and it was an apology. Ha!)

A handwritten letter is always a gift- completely unique and created with only one reader in mind. The sender takes the time to craft a personal message and present it in a way that reflects not only her thoughts, but the very movement of her hand and the tactile imprint of her surroundings. A letter is a record of a moment of her thinking of someone else.

Of course, these memories can be recorded digitally. Social media makes it easier than ever to stay in touch. We share messages, photos, jokes, and have destructive ideological typing matches that only result in raised cortisol levels and people behaving like the very worst kind of pedants. We Skype family around the globe for less than the cost of a .44¢ stamp. People are doing plenty of writing. My 2nd grader has a blog. (We started ours at the same time, how cute.) Facebook et al are powerful tools- facile, ubiquitous, and cheap. I like Facebook. I’ve rekindled valuable relationships that enrich my inner life and significantly allay the loneliness of being a stay at home parent of young children. It is useful and I enjoy it.

IMG_4181

Twsbi 540, medium nib. It even makes writing checks less painful.

None of it replaces ink and paper for its ability to carry deep significance and leave its mark on the soul. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a real letter? I love writing them too- choosing my ink, pen and stationary, feeling the scratch of my nib on paper, enjoying the pleasing sight of a sheet filled with the lines and curls of the Latin alphabet in cursive. Each time I write a letter, thank you note, or sympathy card, I say, in the very action of taking the time to connect in this ancient way, “I value you. This is important. I mean what I say.”

I am resolved to write more letters. I am resolved to write to remaining influential pedagogues and family and thank them for their lessons. I am resolved to keep my promise of writing letters to my children each year.  I want my words and gratitude to be present in their lives, even when I cannot, and not as a memory, but actually there, in hand, in view.

Need more inspiration to write a letter? Check out the amazing collections of letters over at Letters of Note. (Yes, I know it’s run by a company who trades in online correspondence. The irony is not lost on me. Check it out anyway. You will be rewarded.)