Sunday, June 26, 2011

In Defense of Mediocrity

At an early age, I got the mistaken idea that the only choices in life are to do things perfectly or not to do them at all. 

A wise woman once told me I was a perfectionist.  I laughed and told her she didn't know me.  I assured her that I seldom do things perfectly.  Then she gave me a real jolt by saying, "I don't mean that you do everything perfectly.  I mean that you're waiting to do anything until you can do it perfectly."  I've never forgotten her, and it took me a long time to forgive her.  Her comment irritated me for years until I finally admitted to myself that it was true, and that my worship of perfectionism was literally paralyzing me.

No doubt a high degree of excellence must be maintained in some areas - like brain surgery. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of life, there's a lot to be said for mediocrity.

The modern world has given mediocrity a bum rap.  Today if someone says your performance at some skill is mediocre, you feel insulted.  And you should because mediocre often means inferior.  Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines mediocre or mediocrity as "of moderate or low value, ordinary, so-so." The dictionary app on my iPhone pulls no punches and just comes right out and calls it "inferior."

Far be it from me to argue with the dictionary, but when I read these definitions, I said, "Bull!"  Something told me that mediocrity wasn't always a word of ill repute.

I lugged out the 1828 edition of The American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster. I bought this dictionary a few years ago just for these wordy occasions.
Here's how Noah Webster defined mediocrity 1828:
1. A middle state or degree; a moderate degree or rate. A mediocrity of condition is most favorable to morals and happiness. A mediocrity of talents well employed will generally ensure respectability.

"Men of age seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success." Bacon

2. Moderation; temperance.

"We owe obedience to the law of reason, which teacheth mediocrity in meats and drinks." Hooker

It appears to me that since 1828, mediocrity has gone from a virtue to a vice.  Yes, I know - language changes - it evolves.  Even so, there's something sinister about a perfectly respectable word evolving to the point that it means the opposite of what it once meant.

I think this is an indication that we humans have become full of ourselves.  We've got to be the best, have the most, climb to the top of the heap. 

I think Robinson Crusoe's father gave him some good advice.  He told his son that a middle state in life is best. The middle state isn't exposed to the hardships and sufferings of the poor, and neither is it "embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind."  In other words, Robinson Crusoe's old papa was a believer in mediocrity in the classic sense.  So am I.

Lately we've been putting mediocrity into practice right here on Bywater Farm.  We've committed ourselves to fifteen minutes of de-cluttering every day - a mediocre commitment to be sure.  But we're accomplishing more than we ever did with the "Gung ho!  We're going to devote a week (or two or three) to getting this place cleared out and ship-shape!"  Long live mediocrity!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

English Campaign Desk

English Campaign Desk - Photo #1
This nifty little writing box arrived in the mail yesterday.   I told you I was having a good mail week!  I ordered this online from Acorn, a website that sells a variety of gift items.  I also get the Acorn mail order catalog which is almost as much fun to peruse as J. Peterman's catalog. 

This box is listed as an English Campaign Desk.  Prior to the 20th century this kind of thing was a common item used by military men and explorers.  They moved around a lot and needed a compact box that was useful for storage as well as writing.

This is not a lap desk.  It's designed to be used on a table.  Photo #1 shows the front of the box in closed position.  In this position, the deminsions are 10.5 inches by 8.75 inches by 3 inches.

Photo #2 (scroll down) shows the writing surface open. This sloped surface is 10.5 inches wide and 8.75 inches from top to bottom.  If you like to write on full 8.5 inch by 11 inch paper, this might be a bit small.  Since most of my handwriting is done on half-sheet sized stationery, notecards, and post cards, it suits my purposes.

Before I got this dandy little box I had not had any experience writing on a slope.  I'm happy to say the slope solves a problem for me.  I wear trifocals, and the slope puts the paper in just the right position for viewing through the bottom lens of my glasses.  When I write on a flat surface, I find myself alternating between the bottom and middle lenses of my glasses and not having my writing in perfect focus either way.  But this, of course, is my personal problem. 

Photo #2

Photo #3 shows the little "file" section open.  You can store stationery here, but there are some things to consider.  If the stationery is too big and sticks out of the file slots, it will be damaged when the box is closed.  If post cards are dropped down in these slots, you can't get hold of them to get them out.  I'm going to solve this problem by custom making a mini file folder for each slot.  These folders will stick out just enough for me to get hold of them.  I can keep post cards and small notecards in these folders and be able to reach them by lifting the folders out.

My only criticism of this box is that the file folder section does not stand up on its own.  It appears to stand up in this photo because its leaning on the side panel of the piece of furniture that its on.  My handy husband says this can be fixed with two little eyelet screws and a little bit of chain.  He's gathering the supplies to make this modification.  When it's done I'll make another post with a photo and a report on how it works.

Photo #3

Photo #4 is a close-up of the middle section, showing all the neat little compartments.  Underneath the compartment at the bottom of the photo is a little drawer.  You'll want to keep things you don't get to often in here because whatever is in the center section has to be taken out to get to the drawer.  It's a little unhandy, but the drawer is a way to make use of space that would be wasted otherwise.

Photo #4

Let me add that this writing box has a slight odor about it, although I don't find it to be unpleasant.  Is this a funiture oil that was applied to the box or is this the natural smell of teakwood?  I don't know. 

Although this is a new item, it is made in the distressed fashion so that it will look like an antique - and it does.  I think "English campaign desk" is a mouthful so I'm calling this my safari desk.  I can picture Stanley in his tent - sitting at his safari desk - penning a note to Livingston.  No, wait - he couldn't pen a note to Livingston.  He was trying to find Livingston.  Oh well, you get the idea. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Good Mail Week!

I'm one of those people who measure a good week by what they find in their mailbox.  And this week has been a postal bonanza! 

I've received letters from California, Texas, and New Jersey; post cards from Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Peru, and a birthday card from north Louisiana. 

Of course, I did my part to brighten other people's mail boxes by sending letters to California and Hawaii; post cards to Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Australia. 

I've had even more than post cards and letters in my mailbox.  My Noodler's flex fountain pen arrived yesterday!  It lives up to all the good reviews.  It produces quite a range of line width and is a nice looking pen, too.  Since it's a piston filler, it holds a lot of ink.  All this goodness for $14.00!  Unbelievable!  I've loaded it with Noodler's Iraqi Indigo ink and plan to put it to work writing a letter before the day is out.

My membership packet from the Letter Writers Alliance arrived, too.  It included a membership card, a cool pin with the LWA logo, and LWA stationery.  Membership in LWA also allows you to download nifty notecards, stationery, etc., from the website and print them on your own paper.

I'm off now to write a letter to the 2011 Letter Project - with my new Noodler's pen, of course.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gardening, Anyone?

When your rake is rusty and a stray vine is using the handle as a trellis, it's hard to convince anyone that you're a gardener.  I am not a gardener.  Although I have a great appreciation for green growing things, I am more drawn to animal husbandry than to gardening. 

My interest in gardening usually comes in spurts in the spring and fizzles out when the summer heat arrives.  This year I didn't even experience the spring spurt.  The heat has set in now, so the prospects for serious gardening are slim until things cool off in the fall. 

In the relatively cool morning hours this week, I have made a stab at gardening.  In other words, I've been removing dead plants and healthy weeds from pots on the deck - the pots I mentioned in my last post. 

The moss roses have already put out a beautiful yellow bloom.  They are looking very perky this morning after the water I gave them yesterday.  I'm always amazed at what water will do for a plant!  That in itself proves that I'm no gardener.  A true gardener is never surprised at what water can do. 

I resisted the urge to buy very many plants this spring, knowing that my life was too hectic to even pretend to care for them.  I did buy some Blue Daze plants.  I'm a big fan of Blue Daze.  This is no sissy plant!  It bears neglect like a real trooper.  When it doesn't get the miraculous H2O, its little leaves may curl up and wither a bit - but it doesn't throw in the towel and die like so many other plants.  No, indeed!  When it finally gets some water, it bounces right back and doesn't seem to hold a grudge.

It even bounces back after a light freeze in the winter.  Although it's an annual, I've had Blue Daze to come back three years in a row - in spite of me!  Even though we had several hard freezes last winter, one of the three plants in the pots at my front door has reappeared.  I removed the dead bodies from the other two pots and put in the new plants. 

I cut the dead heads off the miniature rose on the deck yesterday morning.  I noticed spider webs and tiny crawly things on the leaves so I squirted it with some insecticide that's supposed to kill all the critters that like to torment roses.  I feel sorry for roses.  It seems to me that while you are in the very act of planting a rose, there are hundreds of insects watching.  As soon as you turn your back, they pounce on the poor defenseless rose bush.

My useful knowledge about roses would fit in a thimble with room left over.  Two or three years ago I decided I'd like to plant a rose that would trail along the picket fence that surrounds our back yard.  I bought a climber called "Don Juan."  The label said it would produce fragrant red roses.  Just what I wanted!  

Jerry planted this rose for me, right where I told him to, by the fence.  I had the vague notion that you have to "train" roses, so I set out to train Don Juan to grow horizontally along the fence.  But Don has proved to be contrary.  I want him to grow horizontally, and he's determinded to grow vertically. 

As usual, the problem is my ignorance.  After doing some after-the-fact research, I see that what I really wanted was a rambling rose, not a climbing rose.  Did you know there's a difference?  I didn't.  According to the rose experts who write articles for gardening websites, it's easy to tell them apart.  A rambler's leaves are in groups of seven while a climber's leaves are in groups of five.  Who knew?

So now - what am I going to do with Don Juan?  Like Jack's beanstalk, Don is determined to reach the sky and is never going to trail along our picket fence.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Coming Out of the Doldrums

Sometimes you can be in the doldrums so long that you don't even notice when the wind picks up and it's time to hoist the sails.  This morning I think I feel a little wind, and I'm putting the sails out - figuratively, of course. 

Summer is here, and the sights and sounds are unmistakeable.  The early morning sun dances on the little ripples in the bayou.  The horses' coats are shiny and sleek.  The table in the tack room is full of tomatoes from Jerry's garden.  The clack-clack of the big fan in the barn aisle, the swish of the sprinklers in the pasture, and the hum of the tractor are all signs of summer.

My breakfast this morning was red grapes and saltine crackers, eaten out in the pasture on the tractor.  A big part of horse-keeping on a two acre hobby farm is the moving of manure.  If your horses are running free on twenty acres, picking up manure is not an issue; but in a small pasture, you can't afford to let too much manure accumulate and kill what little grass you've got.  I drive the tractor while Jerry scoops poop into the bucket.  When the bucket is full, it's lifted up and emptied over the fence on the midden heap where it decomposes and makes good fertilizer.  If you're a persnickety city type, the idea of eating breakfast while a manure-moving operation is going on probably doesn't sound appealing.  What can I say?  There's a wide gulf between city people and farm people. 

The flower pots on our deck are a sad sight.  I have to walk across the deck when I go to the barn, and the sight of pots of dead plants and healthy weeds has been nagging at me for quite a while.  I noticed the other day that our two ferns appear to be dead, but two different varieties of moss roses are springing up in the fern pots.  Where in the world did they come from?  It's been several years since I cultivated moss roses.   Oh well, I won't question a nice surprise like this.  I pulled the few stray weeds growing with the moss roses and loosened the dirt with a hand spade. I watered these little volunteers and look forward to their colorful blooms.

I learned about a new pen as I was browsing around on the Fountain Pen Network yesterday - Noodler's flex fountain pen.  I love pens with flexible nibs.  If you press hard, you get a thick line.  If you let up on the pressure, you get a thin line.  All this variation in thickness and thinness makes for very attractive handwriting.  But some flex nibs are troublesome.  I once paid over $100 for a pen with a 14k gold semi-flex nib.  It wasn't the pen for me, and I ended up selling it to someone who appreciated it more than I did.  Noodler's flex pen has a steel nib and is only $14.00.  Needless to say, I've ordered one and it should arrive by the end of the week. 

While googling for reviews of Noodler's flex pen, I was led to  a fantastic blog - "Painted Thoughts," the creation of an artist named Laure Ferlita.  All her blog posts include sketches or watercolors.  Check it out here:

The afternoon is flying by - I'm off to write a letter!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Scattered Thoughts

I keep waiting to collect my thoughts and make a profound blog post about a single deep subject.  It appears that it's not going to happen any time soon so here are my scattered thoughts.

There are lots of little twists and turns to grief.  When you lose someone you love, you grieve over the loss; but you grieve over other things, too.  I miss my father, but I also miss my position as a member of the middle generation in our family.  Now that both my parents are gone, I'm no longer the middle generation - I'm one of the old folks.  It's a sobering fact.

We are almost back to normal after lightning eliminated several pieces of technology a little over a week ago.  We had to replace our modem, router, and a printer that was barely a year old.  We also had to get Cox to come and replace some bad wiring.  Everything is back to working like it's supposed to, and we are back to our nerdy pursuits.

There's been quite a bit of traffic - coming and going - in my new Addis post office box.  I received a beautiful square post card from Spain with a wax seal that arrived in perfect condition all the way from the Old World!  I've been sending post cards made from photos that Jerry and I have taken.  I received an e-mail from a homeschooling family in Pennsylvania, asking if I'd like to exchange post cards.  They think sending and receiving post cards is a good way to learn about other places - and they are so right! 

I've joined the Letter Writers Alliance, and I'm anxiously awaiting my membership packet.  It's good to know that there are lots of people in the world who still like to write letters.  Check out the Letter Writers Alliance website here:

I've just got back to watching the news and listening to talk radio after several weeks of being away from these things.  I tuned in just in time for the Anthony Weiner shinanigans.  I wish male politicians would behave themselves.  They are prompting some feminists to make the outrageous claim that women in high places don't misbehave.

I'm reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe for the first time.  When I was very young I got the idea that this was a dull book, and so I didn't even consider reading it.  But it's summer time, and I'm drawn to seagoing novels in the summer.  Robinson Crusoe popped up on a reading website that gives a list of nautical novels.  I'm happy to report that it's far from dull. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Old Soldiers Never Die . . .

Silas Richard Barker
1916 - 2011

         My father passed away on May 5, 2011, at the good age of 94.  He would have been 95 on May 15th.  For many years my Wednesdays were spent visiting him at the retirement home in Baton Rouge where he had lived - off and on - for about fifteen years. 

 He was a restless soul in many ways.  He moved in and out of the retirement home several times during those fifteen years.  Maybe he just wanted a change of scenery - but he always returned and that's where he spent his last days.  He wanted to be buried in Emory, Virginia, beside my mother so we made arrangements for his body to be flown there.

As long as I'm alive, I don't plan to get in an airplane so we made our plans to make the long trek by car.  I felt like I had a little bit in common with the Joseph of the Old Testament who told Pharaoh, "Now let me go and bury my father; then I will return." (Genesis 50:5)  I have buried my father in Virginia and returned to Louisiana, and life goes on.  I miss him and will, no doubt, miss him even more in days to come - especially on Wednesdays.  But I'm grateful for his good long life and that he was up and about, in reasonably good health, until the last few weeks. 

He served as a 1st Lieutenant in the United States Army during World War II.  He was wounded in the Philippines and received a Purple Heart.  There was an Honor Guard at the cemetery.  As the three rifle volleys sounded, I thought of that old saying, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."  Godspeed, Daddy.