Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Words Matter

I'm a language nerd. I love words. And I really believe that choosing the best words to convey one's meaning is very, very important. That sounds like a no-brainer, I know.

scrabble letters spelling out "words."

When I was still teaching, my favourite unit in my writing course was one where students used their skills of observation and, over the course of a week, recorded in their journals five short passages, describing small moments they had witnessed that week which evoked a certain emotion. I asked them to use specific, concrete language to show each moment, and hopefully evoke the emotion in the reader, instead of telling the reader what to feel. "Showing, not telling" is every creative writing teacher's mantra. 

While the kids practiced being observant outside of class, in class we talked about imagery, language usage, and word choice, and each day we analyzed student passages from previous years. We talked about how changing one word in a paragraph could make a big difference. My favourite exemplar was a passage that tried to evoke a mood of nostalgia, and innocence, and which described several young children walking home at dusk, talking quietly, the sun setting behind them. One child dropped a toy gun and it was described as "clanking" on the pavement. I'd always ask the class, "What is the sound a plastic gun makes when you drop it?" They'd debate and usually someone would say, "thunk," or "clunk." And I'd reply, "Now, what makes a clanking sound?"  And someone would respond, "Uh... something made of metal?" I can still see the looks on their faces when realization dawned. "Yep," I'd say, "Changes the mood a little bit, don't you think?"  

I always felt that I had done my job as a writing teacher if students began to think more about the specific words they chose to employ, and understood how powerful one connotative word can be.

I still remember a student struggling to revise her final project, a children's book. And her telling me that searching for just the right words to show her character's actions was driving her crazy: "I can't decide if Teddy should skip down the stairs or thunder down the stairs. Should he slouch into the room or sidle into the room?" I knew she was overwhelmed, but I loved that she had discovered the power of a single word. 

sunset over a marina in South Carolina
Sunsets can be peaceful or ominous depending on the words used to describe them. 
I think we all use language carelessly. And most of the time that's understandable. We're chatting with family, we're tossing off an e-mail to a friend, we can't be expected to watch every word we say, all the time. Otherwise conversation would simply dry up for fear of offending, or saying the wrong thing. Sometimes we just need to relax and talk. 

But, you know, sometimes the words we choose to communicate with bear closer examination. Because our words often say so much more than the speaker, or writer, thinks they do. 

For instance. Pronouns. Pronouns are very important. When I was still working, one of my jobs as head of the English department  was to chair a multi-department committee whose aim was to foster literacy skills in students. We ran numerous activities inside and outside the classroom. And we needed full participation from every department. The idea was that literacy wasn't just the job of the English teacher. When I asked a particular head to send someone from their department along to our meeting, it was immediately obvious that the woman who showed up was a reluctant member of our group. In response to each topic of discussion, our new member would say: "Your problem is... If you only .... What you should do is...." Eventually I snapped, "WRONG pronoun, L." That got a laugh, but made no difference. She never attended another meeting. I don't know if she even noticed that she had effectively distanced herself from the rest of us with that one pronoun. But everyone else did. In fact, if committee members wanted to make a joke about an issue we were discussing, they'd say, "What you should do, Sue..." And we'd all laugh.

Here's another example. Many years ago my boss made a staffing decision that had a big effect on my career, at least in the short term. I asked him informally several times for the decision to be reviewed. And when nothing changed, I decided that, if the situation persisted, I would apply for a position that had just been advertised in another school. When I sat down with him to formally discuss my concerns, he seemed surprised and a bit impatient, and said, "My goodness, Susan. If I'd known you were fussing about it, I'd have changed it sooner." Fussing? Well, that word certainly put my concerns in their place. I was angry, feeling undervalued, willing to move to another school.... but, I wasn't... just... fussing. Did he use that word deliberately? I doubt it; he was a kind man. Still, the word "fussing" made me feel a bit diminished, as if my concerns were unimportant. Silly old me, to be fussing.

I know, I know. It's one word. And there are so many other crucial, catastrophic things happening these days to worry about. But sometimes words matter. One word can change the whole meaning of a passage. Alter the mood of a conversation. Alienate the reader or listener, subtly diminish them, or demean them, or sometimes escalate a brewing conflict without even trying.

Like a few weeks ago, when the President south of the border said in reaction to a question about the ongoing trade negotiations between our countries and Mexico: "Things have to change... Canada has been very spoiled up to now." Spoiled? Children are "spoiled." His using that word said so much more than was intended. It showed that he does not perceive the relationship between our two countries as one of mutual respect between equals. Clearly, to him, one country is the dad, and the other the spoiled child who needs to be reined in, or punished, or something. 

Oh, I know I sound anal. Of course we all make mistakes, bloopers, blurt things out we should have bitten back. Me. I have to watch what I say when I'm hungry. When my blood sugar drops, my filter evaporates. I am particularly blunt at 4:30 in the afternoon. I remember one after-school meeting when I blurted a comment, and my friend elbowed me and murmured, "You do know you said that out loud, don't you?"  "I know," I grimaced, "I need a cup of tea and a snack." 

sunrise over the Rideau River, near Manotick, Ontario
Sunrise on the Rideau. No filter. Ha. 
 I don't expect that we filter every word we utter all the time. I just think that we should use language judiciously in certain situations, when we know our audience is upset, sensitive, or liable to be injured by a thoughtless word. I'm not talking about rampant political correctness, or washing all the colour and vigour out of language. Perish the thought. I just mean that we should be more aware of the power of word connotation. For good and for bad. Poets understand that. In poetry every word counts. 

And we should be aware that our words may reveal more to our audience about ourselves than we might realize. 

And... and this is important... we need to understand that language can tell us much about another person's real, sometimes unspoken, attitudes and beliefs. Especially language used by people in positions of power... in unguarded moments. 

Words that powerful people use... we should pay very close attention to those. 

So, I've had my little rant. I feel much better getting that off my chest. Thanks for reading, as always. Now...anything you'd like to get off your chest, my friends? 

Linking up with Thursday Favourite Things,  #SaturdayShareLink-up, and #fakeittillyoumakeit 

Saturday, 16 June 2018

How We Decide What We Wear

Alyson Walsh over at That's Not My Age has a new feature on her blog. A series of posts called What Women Wear. She says her intention is to talk "to a range of women about their personal style and what they wear." 

This kind of thing is such a breath of fresh air in the blogosphere. I love to read about what other women wear, and why, and how they come to decide what to wear. And knowing Alyson (not personally, mind, but through reading her blog), the women she will be talking to will be chic, and quirky, and an inspiration to those of us who no longer fit the Forever 21, fast fashion, mold... if we ever did. 

So I'm looking forward to this new series because, as far as I can see, real women like me need help deciding what to wear. 

When I'm trying to decide what I want to wear, I look to a wide variety of sources for inspiration: fashion shoots in magazines, images in blogs and on Pinterest, my own memories, or glimpses of other women in real life, or in films or television. Sometimes I simply see an item hanging on the rack in a store, and it suggests ways to change up my wardrobe. Often, an image in my head inspired by something I've seen, coalesces with what's actually hanging in my closet, and a eureka moment produces an outfit idea. Sometimes I already own everything I need for the outfit, other times I shop long and hard to find the final perfect piece to fulfill the image I have in my head. And sometimes achieving this image requires a change in mind-set, and the expert skills of a seamstress. 

woman in a navy pantsuit, white tee, and white sneakers sitting in a red Adirondack chair
Max and me together again. 
Let me explain. This is my navy Max Mara suit. I've written about it before on the blog. It's over fifteen years old and in perfect shape. I've been wearing the jacket again with my jeans for a while now. But inspired by a photo in the Fabiana Filippi Spring 2018 look book that my buddy Liz gave me, and reinforced by one of Alyson's posts on trouser suits, I really, really wanted to wear the whole suit again. I had an idea that I would pair it with my new sleeveless Vince tee shirt, and my Stan Smith sneakers.

But, sadly, I couldn't do the pants up anymore. When I unearthed the suit from my closet in 2016, the pants were uncomfortably tight around the waist. And this year... well... there wasn't a hope that the button on those pants and the corresponding button hole would ever meet again. Not without a major weight loss program or turning back the clock five or six years. Neither of which was going to happen. I also knew in my heart of hearts that simply setting the button over was not going to make enough of a difference. 

woman in a navy pantsuit, white tee, and white sneakers leaning against a chest of drawers
I like the now loose-fitting pants with the tee loosely tucked in. 
Then, sometime around my 62nd birthday, I faced facts, and took the pants to a seamstress, who let them out. Well, actually, she had to put a whole new piece in the waistband at the back. Now they fit again. Phew. That was tough, you know, admitting that those pants needed a good two inches more fabric around the waist. But I just practiced deep breathing, and kept telling myself that I'm a bigger person... in more ways than one. Ha. The drama of getting older, wiser, and wider, folks. 

woman in navy pantsuit, white tee, and white sneakers
Since the pants don't have pockets, I like that the jacket does. 
Now I love my old suit again. And with this kind of slubby, casual sleeveless tee from Vince, with my white sneakers, minimal jewellry, and the sleeves of the jacket rolled up... I think it looks casual, comfortable, and current. So thanks to Liz and Alyson for the inspiration. And to the seamstress at Prestige Tailors in Barrhaven for making my vision a reality. 

And here's my point about this new series on Alyson's blog. I know how I decide what I want to wear, and how I go about achieving my vision. But, I want to read about other women like me, who aren't twenty anymore, who don't have an ideal body and maybe struggle to find clothes that fit and which look good on them, who don't have unlimited funds or the sponsorship of brands, and who still have a personal style that I can admire and possibly even emulate. What do they want to wear? How do they decide what they want to wear? And most importantly, how do they then achieve their vision? I want to read what other real women say when they are "thinking out loud about clothes," to use Linda Grant's phrase.

In the first post in her new series Alyson features London houseware designer Snowden Flood. And Snowden says, "Clothes make me feel like myself, like I'm saying who I am that day." I love that line. 

I'm the same. Each morning I dress to convey who I am on that particular day. And considering the shot below, with the white tee, shades, and that mop of hair, I think that yesterday I was definitely channeling George Michael, circa 1984. 

woman in navy suit, white tee, and white sneakers, on a lawn in front of a river
Wake me up before you go go. 
I don't always include shopping links to the pieces I'm wearing (or to similar items) in my fashion posts. Partly because, while I might have an affinity for a particular brand, I don't have any formal brand affiliations. I did try to see if I could find some current Max Mara suits on line, but I couldn't find any shopping links. I found a couple of really cool suits on the Jigsaw website which you can find here and here. And here's the link to the page of trouser suits at Matchesfashion.com. Plus, Alyson has all kinds of great links on her trouser suit post

And now, as George says, "before you go go," have a look at this little video below, featuring some of the looks from Fabiana Filippi Spring/Summer 2018. The blue pinstriped suit that I found so inspiring is in there. I know the models are really young, but the clothes are timeless. Not that I can afford Fabiana Filippi suits, but a girl can dream.

Time to hear from you now, my fashionable friends. What inspires you? How do you decide what you want to wear? And how do you set about turning that vision into reality?

Linking up this week with: Visible MondayFake It Till You Make It#IwillwearwhatIlikeTurning Heads Link-upStyle Me WednesdayThursday Favourite ThingsFabulous Friday, Fancy FridaySaturday Share Link-Up.   

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Tales from My Travel Journal: One More Portage

Years ago when Hubby and I were on our first canoe trip in Algonquin Park,  I thought we would never, ever get to our campsite. Paddling is slow business, and takes endurance and patience. Like the proverbial kid in the backseat of the car, I kept asking, "how much further?" And he replied, that we could stop right then, if we chose, and take a nearby campsite. But the best fishing, the best campsites, and the best wilderness camping experience depended on us going "one more portage" than most people. So we did.

For those who aren't familiar with Canadian history, the term portage originated with the early French-Canadian voyageurs, fur-traders who transported their cargo in canoes, and by times had to "portage" or carry it overland between navigable waters. For us these days, it means when rapids or some other impediment requires that we stop paddling, unload all our packs and fishing gear, and carry everything along with the canoe through a trail in the bush to the next lake or river. 

Over the years of canoeing with Hubby, I've walked a few portages, and in time came to believe that the idea of pushing yourself to go "one more portage" is a pretty good motto for life. 

Most of the time. Ha.

woman holding two packs in a wilderness setting
Not looking like a happy camper, July 2014.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Summer Dresses and Feeling My Age

I've been feeling my age lately. Maybe I should say, noticing my age. And not in a bad way. Not in a "woe is me, I'm getting old" way. Rather, in an objective observer, almost out-of-body-experience way. A kind of... huh... I'm sixty-two... waddya know... way. If that makes any sense. 

woman in denim jacket and black dress
Noticing my age: the lines on my neck, around my eyes, and on my upper lip. 

Monday, 4 June 2018

Dressing Like a Grown-Up.

I love to look at clothes, even if they're clothes I can't afford to buy, or clothes I'd never wear myself. And I usually love how designer collections, and the fashion shows that introduce them to us, are built around a discernible theme or idea. But what gets up my nose are the shows and the collections that depict women in ways that... well... get up my nose. Let me explain.

I recently saw on-line the Chanel 2019 Cruise Collection. And as I scrolled through the pictures of models strutting down the runway in an array of outfits, I couldn't help thinking that Karl Lagerfeld was taking the idea of "cruise" literally when he designed this particular collection. Dressing models in various interpretations of sailor suits, with wide-legged sailor pants, sweaters with the iconic inter-locking Cs that look a bit like anchors, navy double-breasted jackets, white skirts, and what looked to me very much like a sailor's midi-blouse under a couple of the jackets. Don't get me wrong, I love some of the clothes like the pink suit, and the navy jacket, below. But something was niggling away at me as I continued to scroll. 

two models in nautical-style jackets and skirts
Two looks from Chanel's 2019 Cruise Collection