Of Ideas and Conversation

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

- Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

I love Eleanor Roosevelt.  In her lifetime, she had a plethora of smart things to say, including, of course, the quote above.

Isn’t it true that the most life-affirming and productive conversations we have are those about ideas?  And that the most dispiriting conversations are often those about other people?  So infrequently, it seems, do conversations about people head in directions that are positive or useful.  (I’ll grant that these days, conversations about events — oil spills, wars, and other disasters — provide their fair share of dispirited conversation, too.)

In my experience, it’s rare that people-centric conversations — what everyday people did, said, bought, thought — are filled with admiration or respect, but it’s very common that they are peppered with criticism and judgment and jabs of both the overt and subtle varieties.  (Oh, the many ways that folks tear others down to build themselves up…)

That type of conversation makes everyone feel bad.

Eleanor’s got it right.  Here’s to discussion of ideas that are great!

The One Minute Rule

Today, I decided to try venturing outside the house to work at the library again, after my long, morning-sick hiatus.  The path to the library takes me by this garden, which the William & Mary grounds crew updates regularly with flowers of the season.  (So colorful, so cheerful!)  My return to the library was a good one, in part due to something called The One Minute Rule.

I learned of The One Minute Rule from Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project book and blog.  The One Minute Rule is this: if you face a task that will take less than one minute to complete, always do it — don’t procrastinate! Wash that dish, answer that e-mail, sort that mail, wipe that counter, load that washing machine, pick up those socks.

By good nature or by good training, my husband seems to have internalized The One Minute Rule sometime in back in childhood.  He washes his dishes, he puts his books away, he answers e-mails promptly, and on trash day he brings the emptied garbage can back from the curb at his first opportunity.  (Well, most of the time, anyway.)

I, on the other hand, pile the dishes in the sink (“They’re soaking!”), leave books and magazines strewn about (“I’m reading that!”), have over 1000 messages in my inbox (“Oh, I really should answer that one…soon”), and merely stare at the garbage can from the window for much of the day until guilt and a feeling of bad-neighborliness compel me to roll it back to its proper place.

The trouble, though, is that a cluttered home is stressful to me.  When I realized that most of the clutter around our house was mine (not Matt’s!), and that mostly it was due to my habit of not finishing things that I start (on scales both small and large), I concluded it was time for action (and action on a daily basis, not action in the form of my usual sporadic whirlwinds of decluttering).

“Start small!”  I thought.  Holding myself to The One Minute Rule seemed like a good beginning.  And I must say: it works.  Committing to tackling every project that can be completed in one minute gives a person both a feeling of forward movement and an emptier inbox and a cleaner kitchen counter.

The Rule has also nudged me in the direction of breaking down larger projects into smaller, more manageable ones that can be done, if not in a minute, then in ten or fifteen — a habit which leads to a nice sense of progress, rather than a perpetual feeling of running, without moving, toward a far-off goal.  (Like the completion of a dissertation — hence, my progress at the library today.)

Try it out!  I’m still pretty new to the rule, but already have seen what a help it can be to little ol’ procrastinators like me.  Color me happy about it.

Have a happy weekend, everyone!  Tomorrow is the first full moon of summer — perfect for a moonlit stroll in the cool of the evening!  Enjoy it!

On Time and Its Brevity

Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity.

- Jean de la Bruyére, from Characters (1688)

On a time-crunched day, this quote always comes to mind.

Wishing you a Wednesday filled with the best possible uses of your time!

Oh, How I Love My Novophone

When a new season of Mad Men — the AMC drama set in a Manhattan advertising agency in the early 1960s — is released, we Netflix it.  Because, well, really, who can resist the allure of Don Draper or the curves of Joan Holloway?

The many secretaries on the show are continually lifting old-school telephone receivers to their shapely ears as they transcribe shorthand at their typewriters.  Seeing that lifting action repeated again and again made me realize how much, in this cell phone age, I have missed a real telephone: a full-size receiver with good sound quality and a nice heft.  The kind you can prop between your ear and your shoulder and still be clearly heard.  (Since 2005, Matt and I have had no landline — only cell phones.)

“I want a retro handset,” I said to Matt as Mad Men played in the background.

“Well, they do make them for cell phones,” Matt said.


“Really.”  And he sent me to this site.

The folks at Novophone — and soon, I imagine, other companies — do indeed make the very object of my desire, but for $27.95 — a price steep enough that I hemmed and hawed for several weeks over the decision to drop so much cash on what is essentially a mound of molded plastic with a cord.

But then I happened across the third act of this episode of This American Life (which begins at minute 45:55): an interview with journalist Christopher Ketcham, who wrote this article for GQ on the biological effects of cell phone radiation.  (As a sidenote, there is also this recent article on the subject in Harper’s Magazine.)

On the surface, the results of research into the matter seem to be a toss-up, with half of the studies showing negative health effects (i.e., increased brain cancer risk), and half not.  But when the research is divided by who funded it (the cell phone industry, or independent funding agencies), an interesting pattern emerges: while only 25% of studies funded by the industry show biological effects, 75% of the independently-funded studies do.  The risks appear to be greatest for individuals who begin using cell phones under the age of 20, as their brains are still developing and their skulls are thinner than adult skulls, and therefore do not provide as much of a radiation barrier.  But young’uns aren’t the only ones at risk.

There was the nudge I needed to get my cell away from my ear.  I ordered my Novophone that very afternoon.  The handset comes in two colors (red or black) and two styles (with or without a button on the handset that allows you to answer the phone without touching your cell).

I opted for black and buttonless, since various reviewers at Amazon.com (where I ordered the phone with free shipping) commented that it was easy to accidentally hit the button and hang up in the middle of a call.  (If you’re interested, check here to see if your cell is compatible with the Novophone, or if you’d need an adapter.)

I have to say: I LOVE this phone handset.  The feel of it in my hand, and the quality of the sound, are exactly what I had hoped for.  And it has the added bonus of cutting down my daily EMF exposure!  I’d had a hands-free headset for my cell, but never liked it much — and the people on the other end of the line had complained that I sounded like I was talking from a tunnel.  Not so with the Novophone!

As I talk on it, I invariably think of the Mad Men secretaries, and of the inventions that each generation creates and brings into widespread use, insisting on their innocuousness until faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary (the type of evidence that takes decades to build and great effort to bring to light).  The Mad Men era had asbestos, leaded gasoline and paint, and widespread cigarette use.  My best guesses for our era’s follies?  To name a few: widespread use of pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors like flame retardants (which we’ve applied to just about every upholstered, electronic, and synthetic-furniture item in the U.S.), and phthalates and parabens (which we’ve managed to mix into just about every personal care product Americans use).

And, of course, cell phones.  Only time will tell.

Amaryllis in Bloom

Last week, our rescued amaryllis began to bloom!  Three are flowering now, and one more is busily forming buds.  Such thick, velvety petals and beautiful curves — a delight to view outside the kitchen window.

The last few weeks have been a fine time for both new flowers AND new babies to make their debut: congratulations to our many friends who have recently welcomed little ones!

May is an excellent month to enter the world.

Garden Peach Porch Tomatoes

A yoga friend gifted us some heirloom garden peach and yellow pear tomato plants.

We potted them up on our front porch: the only part of our yard in good sun and safe from deer.

Heirloom varieties are so fun — heirloom animals as well as plants!

Someday, I’d love some Black Breasted Red Kraienkoppes and Golden Lakenvelders from this heirloom poultry preservation center.

(And yes, the glorious names DO have something to do with it.)

Animal Dreams

In the fall, I crave poetry.  In the winter, I crave food writing.  In the spring, I crave nonfiction.  In the summertime, I crave novels.  The transitions between my literary seasons are marked by intense and sudden shifts of interest, as though my inner librarian flips a switch, thrusting the stacks of last season’s books into darkness and this season’s into light.

This afternoon, my first summer fiction craving hit, with nary a new option in sight, given that my nightstand is still piled high with springtime’s nonfiction selections, all in various states of completion.

Hungry for stories, I cased our bookshelves for a promising lead — something I hadn’t read yet, or had read so long ago that I’d forgotten its salient points.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams fit the latter category.  The last time I’d opened it, it was the 1990s.  By now I only recalled a few images and the vague memory of having liked it.

I pulled it down and began to read.  At thirtysomething, I must say, the novel resonates a bit deeper than it did at twentysomething.

That Barbara Kingsolver.  She’s a good egg.

Maybe next spring, when the nonfiction craving hits again, I’ll root out her latest.

* * *

“What do you think animals dream about?”

“I don’t know.  Animal heaven.”  I laughed.

“I think they dream about whatever they do when they’re awake.  Jake chases rabbits, and city dogs chase, I don’t know what.  Meter readers.”

“But that’s kind of sad.  Couldn’t a dog have an imagination, like a person?”

“It’s the same with people.  There’s nothing sad about it.  People dream about what they do when they’re awake.  God, when I used to work for Tia sorting the pecans [from the orchard] I’d go to bed and dream about pecans, pecans, pecans.”

I studied his face.  “Didn’t you ever dream you could fly?”

“Not when I was sorting pecans all day.”

“Really, though.  Didn’t you ever fly in your dreams?”  Even I had done that, though not often.

“Only when I was real close to flying in real life,” he said.  “Your dreams, what you hope for and all that, it’s not separate from your life.  It grows right up out of it.”

“So you think we all just have animal dreams.  We can’t think of anything to dream about except our ordinary lives.”

…”Only if you have an ordinary life.  If you want sweet dreams, you’ve got to live a sweet life.”

- Barbara Kingsolver, from Animal Dreams (1990)

* * *

Wishing you all a sweet life and sweet animal dreams.

Backyard Lakeview

What a transformation our backyard has undergone since January!

Then: bare branches, rattling leaves, and a cold and frozen lake.

Now:  a profusion of foliage and a hot haze over the water.

Today, the temperature crept to an unseasonable 93 F.

(The average May high in Williamsburg is 78 F.)

We cried uncle and turned on the AC.

It’s warmer here than at my Mojave field sites!

Lessons at the Full Moon

Highest ridge of the Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, San Bernardino Co., California, USA.  Night hiking without a light; full moon bright as dawn.
12 April 2006.

We all have lessons to learn.

In some cases, years pass between the time a lesson is given and the time it is taken to heart.

The spring this photo was taken, lessons in the following presented themselves to me:

- How sharing yourself can be wise, and how holding back can sometimes be wiser.
- How self-possession can bring people near to you, and how neediness can drive them away.
- How happiness comes when you embrace life, and how sadness stays when you sit on its sidelines.
- How Nature can make you whole, and how Modern Living can take you apart.

Only in the intervening years did these lessons sink in, reiterated by new teachers.
For each of the lessons, I am grateful.

To the author of that first springtime primer, I say, “Thank you.”

The older I get, the longer the list of people to which I owe such thanks.

Almost all of them: the folks who made me uncomfortable, the folks who questioned me, the folks who – wittingly or unwittingly – challenged me to take a hard look at myself, my actions, and my true motives: the way I really was rather than the way I thought I was.

The folks who took my cherished and carefully protected view of myself and tested it for verity.

Always, these people are our best teachers.  And to them, we become grateful.

In due time, of course.  In due time.

* * *
Enjoy the full moon tonight, everyone.

Gray Morning Walk

This morning:
Dense gray clouds filling the sky.
Air cool and thick and wet.
Good walking weather.

Three weeks ago:
Leaves just making their annual debut.

Now, through the neighborhood:
Every tree in full summer regalia.
Magnolias casting aside their old yellow leaves, freshening their wardrobes for the season.
Azaleas fluffing their petticoats of fuchsia, pink, white, and rose.
Rhododendrons about to follow suit.

Last night’s rain still lying about.
Water droplets glowing in the low early light.
Puddles filling every hollow: cupped leaves, divets in the road.

At the trailhead:
A box turtle resting in the middle of the path.
Eau de skunk wafting through the air.

In the woods:
The trail now winding through a tunnel of green.
Forest sounds, so loud in winter — creaks, breaks, scuffles, calls — muffled in a cocoon of leaves.
Tight white blackberry buds beginning to unfurl.
A barn owl muttering from the treetop.

At the water:
Ospreys scouting sticks to add to their fine high nests.
Tadpoles, black and clustering in the shallows.

Across the field:
The cropped spring green of two weeks ago now grown dark and lush.

Our Sunday:
A lovely one!

[* * * More photos from our gray morning walk on Flickr * * *]


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