Sunday, June 20, 2010

My first toast

My company decided to start a Toastmasters club. One of my college professors, who is also a lawyer, said she joined Toastmasters so she'd gain confidence for speaking during trials. I've known a few other people who had joined Toastmasters, and while the idea initially sounded ridiculous to me, over time, I began to appreciate it more and more. So when my company started a Toastmasters club, I decided to join. This is my first speech. (Please bear in mind that it was meant to be spoken and not read).

Good morning. I'm Virginia, and today I'm giving my icebreaker speech. I've thought a lot about this, and I've decided that I'm not going to come up here and tell you about my family or where I went to college, or even what I did before working here, because, frankly it's not that interesting. I have a girl friend who was born in a Cambodian refugee camp. That's interesting. I was born in a hospital. With nurses and doctors. I then proceeded to have a stereotypical American childhood complete with scraped knees, hand-me-down bicycles and winter holiday concerts at school. Riveting.

Instead, I'm going to tell you all why I joined Toastmasters. I mean, we're all here, right? We all showed up, but what in the world are we doing here? I don't plan to run for president, or any other public office for that matter, so it's not as if I'm giving speeches for a living. I've been an accountant here for a year and a half, and I have yet to give a presentation on anything, so clearly my career isn't hanging on my ability to get up in front of a group of people and talk.

So what am I doing here? Well, I joined Toastmasters for three reasons. The first reason that I joined Toastmasters is because I want to be a happier person. Did you know that there is a whole science to happiness? Well, there is. And one of the things they've discovered is that learning something new makes people happier, even if they're not happy while learning it. They've also discovered that facing their fears makes people happier.

Going back to that American childhood, I had, I remember learning to ride a bike. I got on, all nervous and wobbly, and my mom or dad would hold the back with one hand and help me steer with the other. I wanted to look at my feet, to keep them on the pedals, but that didn't help me see where I was going, and the next thing I knew, suddenly I was riding a bike and it was thrilling and exciting! And I was proud!

Hopefully, Toastmasters will be a little like that. In the beginning, I'll need some guidance and I'll want to look at my feet, but eventually, hopefully, I'll get the hang of it. And even better, maybe I'll like it and feel proud and happy!

The second reason I joined Toastmasters is because, in case you haven't noticed, I'm a scattered thinker. My thoughts tend to be all over the place, and eventually I usually reign them in and tie them all together, but in the mean time, half the room is going, get to the point, Virginia, and the other half is checking their notes, going, how did she get from page six to page 92, and why did she give us 92 pages?

And suddenly I sound like a rambling idiot. 8:30 in the morning is a little early to sound like a rambling idiot, even for a Friday. Don't get me wrong: I like to start my weekend early as much as the next person, but this might be pushing the envelope a little too far. So, to avoid sounding like the neighborhood drunk at work, or anyplace else in adulthood, actually, I'm hoping to use Toastmasters to teach me how to get my thoughts organized and keep them coherent.

Finally, I joined Toastmasters because my secret dream is to be a writer. A writer needs to be able to tell a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and keep it interesting. A writer needs to introduce some memorable characters, make them interact, and wrap it up. I suck at writing conclusions. I think part of it is that when I'm reading a really good book, I don't want it to end. I want it to keep going, for those people to continue to live with me. This might explain why I like series so much.

So far this is my writing: blah, blah, blah; and when I run out of something to say, I just stop. Now no one knows what's going on, and any memorable characters I've created are sort of suspended over some cliff of unknown: do they live happily ever after? Does the boy get the girl? Does the antagonist receive just punishment? I don't even know.

For purposes of this speech, I'm going to take the easy way out: in conclusion, I joined Toastmasters to face my fears and learn something new so I can be a happier person, to learn how to organize my thoughts so I don't ramble (or at least limit said ramblings to the margarita-inspired kind), and to be come a better writer, y'know, like the kind that can reach conclusions. Thank you.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Emotional resources have limits, too

I knew it!

This post on unclutterer confirms it! One really can run out of patience (ok, the article says "self-control," but for me, at least sometimes, the two are the same).

I always thought this was possible, so I was pleased to actually read this news because after especially trying days at work, it is very hard for me to be kind and understanding and nice to Captain America, and I feel guilty about it because he really is a sweet and wonderful person. I run out of patience on a variety of things, but I think I can group them pretty well into major areas.

The first is when I've already stated or explained something. I know everyone needs reminding of things sometimes, but when you're already worn out, it's hard to remember that no one remembers everything.

The second is when I see a logical order to the things that need to be done, but either Captain America doesn't see that same order, or maybe he's missing pieces of it, so he doesn't see the importance of doing whatever it is I've asked him to do first first.

Finally, it takes a lot to wear me out, but when I get worn out, I get really, really worn out and cannot make a decision, be it what to eat for dinner, what I want to do this weekend, or if we should repaint the house this year or next.

The good news is, there are ways to improve self-control. Like a muscle, with proper exercise and rest, self-control can become stronger. Somewhat ironically, I find that the times I most need more self-control are the same times in my life when I have the least amount of time to practice self-control.

One thing that helps with self-control is getting enough sleep. It's amazing how many of my problems are more manageable when I get enough sleep. Sleep is one thing I have not been getting enough of lately, so I think I'll make that my baby-step goal. It's as good a place to start as any!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

OCD as applied to literature

My mother always says, "a little OCD is good." She would always *ALWAYS* wash her hand FIRST THING when she got home from work. Granted, where she worked was filthy. I always wash my hands first thing, too, even though my office is pretty clean. My hands just feel dirty when I get home. When my mother says a little OCD, she really just means "tidy" or "clean." Y'know, washing your hands before handling food (and after, too), putting your shoes away so you don't trip. Closing our sliding closet doors so the little finger grooves are on the outsides (and not in the middle). Yeah, that last one might be a little more compulsive than tidy.

Yup, we're mildly OCD/tidy/clean in my house. But sometimes it manifests itself in less useful ways. Example: recently I've become a bit obsessed with checking my reading list at the library. I don't know if everyone's library does this, but at mine, I can reserve up to 25 things at a time, and then "suspend" them until I'm actually ready to read them. So maybe you've found a new series that you love, but you obviously can't read all 14 books at once, so you put them on hold, suspend them, and then release them as you finish the one before it. Brilliant!

So I have this list of 25 books going on, while at the same time, I have a huge stack of books next to my bed. Four stacks, actually. Otherwise, it would be a tower that would probably fall over and concuss me as I slept. Remember how I resolved to lead a deliberate life this year? Well, I am deliberately, methodically, making my way through these books. Captain America may disagree. Mostly because these piles seem to be growing, not shrinking. Which actually must defy some law of gravity or shopping or something, as I don't actually buy books. The last books I bought were travel books back in January or February, before we went to Europe. And they're on the dining room table, not next to the bed. But all of these books all over the place make my side of the bed look very untidy.

Also, I have a written book list. As I read books on the library list, the books on the written list are added to the bottom of my library queue. See? I'm nearly crossing over that line from avid reader to literary nut-job! And my written book list is also growing, not only because people keep publishing new books, but because I'm a bit obsessive about my authors, too. If I read something I like by someone, I'm compelled to read everything they've written. Case in point: I really enjoy Ken Follett, so I made a list of everything he wrote that I hadn't read yet. And then I found out that before he became the successful Ken Follett, he wrote a bunch of gritty cultish crime fiction, under a pen name, that he even said were terrible and embarrassing and he's glad that they're no longer in print so no one can read them. And I felt, No! Not read something? And then I thought, Good God, Virginia! Even the author says they're terrible! Why waste your time on something the author doesn't even like?

And all of this nonsense is before I discuss my kindle situation. I have yet to figure out how to mark a book on my kindle as "read" without just deleting it, so I'm stuck with remembering. And no, I haven't even purchased any books for my kindle yet because at the Gutenberg project website, you can download no-longer-copyrighted books for free.

And all of this nonsense is in addition to my list on goodreads, which I've decided to only update as I read books, but still...

Yup. I am neurotic.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Positano, the Amalfi Coast, and Capri

On the evening of March 26, we rented a Fiat Panda and made our way south out of Rome. We were headed to Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. Of Positano, John Steinbeck said: Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.

Because we were there in the off-season, we couldn't take the ferry from Positano to Capri. So we climbed into a bus and had an adventurous drive along a narrow and winding coastal road (atop a cliff) to Sorrento to take the ferry to Capri.

The Island of Capri is picturesque, although it is a long hike to the top (we did a lot of walking up and down stairs on this trip. We also ate a lot of gelato.) Despite my reading up on Capri before we went, and listing a few things to do, all we really did was walk around and enjoy the sites. We didn't even go into the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Cave). It was built by Emperor Tiberius in AD 30. I thought I read that it was sort of a summer bath house, or something, and while it apparently contains a nymphaeum, I can't find where I read about the bath house bit. We didn't see it anyway, so I suppose it hardly matters.

We found a lovely little restaurant overlooking the sea (although I suppose they all do on Capri), and I had a pasta with clam dish. Yum! Captain America had some sort of curry pasta dish that he said was the best dish he had eaten since arriving in Italy. That's pretty high praise, so it's a shame I don't remember the name of the restaurant!

That night, after getting decidedly lost (I blame the cat. Even Captain America said: That's the last time I listen to a cat!) on all of the stairs, we eventually made it to the Ristorante le Tre Sorelle, or the Restaurant of the Three Sisters, on the beach in Positano. Our friends ate this HUGE salt-crusted fish, and Captain America and I had more modest meals. I had a pumpkin ravioli. I don't remember what Captain America ate. The salt-crusted fish was impressive, but after my salt-tasting experience, that was just unnecessary to me. We had this wine that had tobacco in it (okay, I don't really know how that works. Is it scented? Infused? I'm not sure). At any rate it tasted peppery to me. That's all I could say about it. I couldn't decided if I disliked it, or if it was just the first time I had ever tasted a hint of anything in my wine. I finished the glass, so it must have been fine.

Okay: about the cat. As we were wandering down the stairs at Positano, more or less in the dark (the sun had set; the stairs were lit. It was still an adventure), we found this cat that looked at us, as if to say, follow me! I know the way (this was before the tobacco infused wine...what had we been drinking earlier?). As the cat was more or less leading us the way we wanted to go anyway, we somehow thought, sure, we'll see what happens. The cat continued to look back at us to see if we were still following. And then it climbed atop a wall and didn't go further, thus prompting Captain America to exclaim, that's the last time I listen to a cat! By this point I was doubled over with laughter and completely useless for any sort of navigational purposes.

On Sunday, we headed back to Rome by way of Ravello, another little scenic coastal town.

(This is Vesuvius, not Ravello.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Rome: the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps

On March 26, we went to the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps.

The Pantheon was built in AD 120, and is considered by many to be an architecturely perfect building, as the height of the dome exactly equals it's diameter. The word Pantheon means all gods and was originally dedicated to the classical Roman gods. Raphael's tomb is inside. My Lonely Planet says the dome is the largest masonry vault ever built, but I think Fodor's says that it was the largest dome ever built until 1960. I'm not sure what a masonry vault is, so I suppose it's possible that both are true. My research on masonry vaults yielded nothing useful.

So there's this rumor that rain coming into the Pantheon evaporates before it hits the floor. The Lonely Planet says that there are 22 small drainage holes in the floor, but I forgot to look for them. My coworker and I thought that it would get very humid if the rain was evaporating as it was raining...from a meteorological perspective, does that even work as an idea?

I liked the Trevi Fountain a lot more than I thought I would. Of course, we did the bit where we tossed a coin over our shoulder with our back to the fountain.

I had heard about the Spanish Steps before arriving in Rome, but I couldn't quite figure out the appeal. Now that I've seen them, I still can't figure out the appeal. (Captain America and I watched Roman Holiday before our trip (he commented that he thought it was so sad that that was considered a good movie in our grandparents' day).) The Spanish Steps are basically a place to hang out and people watch. It was a great spot to sit and wait for our friend who was meeting us for lunch, but if we didn't have to meet him, I would have been fine with not being there at all. Captain America was dismayed, but amused, by the lack of authority presented by Rome's police in trying to keep the crap-hawkers from selling to the tourists.

The piazza was named after the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, but the stairs were built by a legacy from the French, and lead up to the French Church, Trinita di Monti. The steps are right next to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, but we didn't realize this until about five minutes before our friend was supposed to arrive.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ode to the Berger Cookie

How I love thee so!
You are a culinary dichotomy and delight!
The light, gentle perfection of a cake-like cookie.
I wonder:
How do you manage to support
the fudgy, chocolate decadence
which covers you like a blanket?
Nay, like a shield,
protecting you
from unsuspecting
would-be imbibers.
Alas! I know better
than to sit,
contemplating your perfection,
when I could be
sacrificing my waistline
to your ultimate purpose!
In perfect accord
with a glass of milk!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Feelings and Thoughts

I recently read 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, by John M. Gottman, Ph.D and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D. No, my marriage is not in trouble. The book was recommended by a friend, and I'm in the same camp as Happiness Project lady, Gretchen Rubin. (Mom, please don't even bother to comment about my use of the word "happy,"--that is totally not the point of this post.) Gretchen believes that happiness, like health, is something most people take for granted until they don't have it. Generally if you eat a mostly healthy diet, and move around a bit every day, it's no big deal to have a burger and a milkshake on the weekends, right? Gretchen says the same thing for happiness. If everyday, you do a few little things that make you happy, then when you have some big problem in your life, you're better prepared to deal with it.

I think the same thing about a good marriage. Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen. I don't sit around worrying about it, but I know that our parents are going to get older and might get sick, or a major earthquake will come and demolish our house, or one of our siblings might get cancer, or I might lose my job. The list could go on and on. But, if we have a stable marriage now, and work to make it better now, we'll be better able to handle problems that might come up in the future.

10 Lessons basically says it's possible to learn how to fight fairly, balance priorities, and ensure that both partners feel important to the marriage. Anyone who has ever lived with someone ever knows that it's impossible to never disagree or argue. That's because the people are still different people. 10 Lessons says that there are more constructive, less hurtful, ways to disagree and argue in which both party feels respected, and that it's possible to learn and practice these techniques.

This makes a lot of sense to me. If Captain America and I can practice having a civil conversation about our budget now, while we're both employed and in good health, etc., then we will be better prepared for the probably much more emotional conversations of what to do with our (potentially) ailing parents if and when they can no longer live on their own (my mother's genetics and good health suggest she'll live to her 80s or 90s, so this really will be a conversation down the road).

However, (you knew there was a however coming right?), the book talks about expressing emotions, not thoughts and ideas. I understand that emotions can be more overpowering than thoughts and ideas because you can't control them. You can't do a single thing about how you feel about something. You can do something about how you react to that feeling, but that feeling is still whatever it is you feel. This is actually a distinction many people don't understand, but that conversation is a major digression from the topic at hand.

For example, many married couples argue about money. Captain America and I are fortunate that we don't. We both have ideas about what to do with our money. He's better at saving than I am, but I'm very good at sticking to a budget. Maybe it's because we're so aligned on our financial situation that I don't have feelings about it. I don't feel we're doing fine financially. I, I know we are. I know we are because we pay our bills on time, have retirement accounts, don't have credit card debt, and still have spending money for fun things.

I also don't really think I have feelings about making dinner, cleaning the bathrooms, or doing laundry. We have to eat. I guess we don't technically have to clean the bathrooms, but, ugh, I don't even want to think about that! And, honestly, I think laundry is relaxing: you take a big pile of messy, dirty stuff and then when you're done you have neat, tidy piles of clean stuff. I don't feel relaxed while I'm doing laundry, though. In fact, I don't think I feel a thing, other than maybe a sense of order, and the peace that comes with knowing where things are.

Maybe I'm lacking a whole depth of feeling that other people have, or maybe I'm very, very fortunate to have such a good marriage. No, I know I'm fortunate to have such a good marriage. That's not a feeling, either. I guess I feel fortunate that I have a good marriage, but I also know my marriage is good.

The other thing that might be going on is that the book lists 10 basic types of disagreements (you did pick that up in the title, right?). Maybe it's one of those books that should be read a chapter here, a chapter next month, and so on. I don't read like that. If it's not the sort of book that's meant to be read cover to cover in a week or two, it's not a book for me. I'm sure the case studies in the book had thoughts and ideas, too. I think if I had spent more than five days reading the book (it's short), I might have felt less like, does anybody think in these marriages?, and more like, it can be hard to discuss feelings!

No doubt it's important to be able to express feelings in a healthy way, but I also think that it's important to sometimes think, too.