Top 10 Tuesday: Goals for 2016

I didn’t plan to make a resolution list for 2016. I planned to just continue concentrating on my ongoing life goal list, but I have a confession. I love lists. I’ve written about this before. I love the way that lists present a fragmented, free-form, less intimidating way to write down thoughts.

Some people write in a linear fashion; some people, like me, write the way children finger-paint: stand back, throw a big beautiful mess at the canvass, let it sit, and then scrutinize it for the main focal point to draw out. I love the way that lists tell stories in bite-sized nuggets, fragments of narrative that we can then stich together with imagination.

I stole today’s list idea, Top 10 Tuesday, from the Broke and the Bookish via Gin & Lemonade. The blogosphere is an open market of thievery. So, here are my top 10 goals for 2016.

1. Write more for pleasure

I think I’ve forgotten how to do this since I began marketing myself as a writer; not that I don’t enjoy professional writing, but sometimes exercising my writing muscles for pure pleasure has its own rewards. It might be a blog post, or an entry in my private journal, or a fragment in which I wax rhapsodic about how looking at Colin Firth’s eyes is like looking into a river swirling with all the secrets of the world in its depths.

2. Stop feeling guilty about having fun

I work hard. I deserve to play equally hard. Never mind that my definition of playing hard consists of crashing on the couch and binge-watching the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. (Don’t judge).

3. Guard my “me” time ruthlessly

I don’t dislike people (or rather, I don’t dislike a select group of people). In general, the human race baffles me. People who know me tend to classify me as an extrovert. I prefer to think of myself as an outgoing introvert. Yes, we do exist. Sometimes I thrive on human interaction, but sometimes, I need to erect my personal space boundaries, and when I’ve had enough, don’t take it personally if I go Captain Picard on you. The line must be drawn here, if ya know what I mean.

4. Keep better track of the books I read

In 2015, I fell into a rather Emma Woodhouse-like habit of making ambitious lists of all the books I’d read. Unlike Emma, I finished them, but I typically forgot to tick them off when I did finish them. Remembering to do so would have created a more efficient indexing system and also eliminated the problem of purchasing books I already own. And I have to own them; I can’t just borrow them. Unowned books are orphans waiting for a home. I’m doing a good deed.

5. Correct people when they mispronounce my name

My upstairs neighbor likes to call me Frances. I like to pretend I have gone magically deaf when he does. I have a problem with confrontation. (5.1: confront awkward situations head-on instead of scurrying into the corner like a frightened mouse or feigning deafness).

6. Read at least 5 books on Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf list

Yes, Hermione Granger has started a feminist book club, and all the cool kids on the internet are joining, apparently. Emma Watson is the kind of feminist in her 20s that I want to be when I grow up. This might be a good place to start.

7. Stop envying people who visit England

So many of my friends and colleagues have visited England during the last few years. I love hearing their stories about trips to the British Museum and the Tower of London, but I also invariably feel a twinge of longing, like homesickness for a home I never knew. Fortunately my friends try to dull the ache by returning with gifts of Cadbury and souvenirs from the Jane Austen Museum.

8. Regularly clean out my refrigerator

Do you know what zucchini looks like after you’ve abandoned it in the vegetable crisper for three weeks? Unfortunately I do. I thought the Hulk was scary, but rotten vegetables take big green monster who a whole new level. I’d rather not relive that.

9. Drink more tea

A friend gifted me with a sampler of loose-leaf tea for Christmas. Because I’m apparently not as hardcore of an anglophile as I thought, I didn’t own a tea-strainer. I’ve since remedied that, so I might as well make it worth the investment. I also committed myself to listing ten goals, and I’m losing steam.

10. Clean out my inbox

If emails had the same perishable properties as vegetables, I’d have a Hulk zucchini situation on my hands, and the Board of Health would probably have confiscated my inbox five years ago. Most of the time, I avoid confrontational emails (see number 5). Maybe there’s a pattern developing here.


What are your goals for this year?

5 Classic Christmas Stories to Read This Season

Deck the halls and gather round; Christmas time is upon us once again, and amidst the hustle and bustle of Black Friday, big deals, packed shopping malls and parking-lot disputes, I hope you’ll take the time to pause, pour yourself a glass of mulled wine or a cup of hot coco and curl up by the tree with a classic Christmas tale. This festive season has yielded some of the most magical stories Literature has known—celebrations of family, friendship, hope, and healing, all in homage to the one season, as Charles Dickens famously writes, when we see one another for who we truly are: “fellow passengers to the grave.” If you’re looking for a bit of Christmas cheer, here are five classic stories sure to fill your heart with the spirit of the season.

Image of Ebenezer Scrooge in 2009 Disney's a Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge, portrayed by Jim Carrye (2009) image credit Walt Disney Pictures

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Possibly one of the most famous Christmas stories of all time with numerous adaptations starring everyone from George C Scott to Kermit the Frog, Dickens’s tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey through his past, present, and future in search of Christmas spirit still speaks as poignantly to us today as in Dickens’ time, if not more so because of the ever-increasing commercialization of the season. With a host of memorable characters including the kind-hearted Bob Cratchit, gentle Tiny Tim, the elfishly exuberant Fred ,and Miserly Scrooge himself, this classic story is sure to remind us all how to keep Christmas and keep it well.

2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

Another classic from celebrated American author O. Henry, this story tells of how Jim and Della selflessly, if impulsively, sacrifice their greatest treasures to buy each other a special Christmas present. As you’re haggling over the price of the latest apple Watch, remember the girl who cut off her hair to buy her husband a chain for his precious timepiece. “Of all who give and receive gifts,” O. Henry reminds us, “such as they are wisest.”

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Join the Whos down in Whoville and give a great cheer. No time to be grinchy, for Christmas is near! The good doctor delivers a dose of wisdom in this well-loved story of how the Grinch discovers the true meaning of Christmas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the perfect pick-me-up when your Christmas spirit seems lost in the clamor of commercialism.

4. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

First published in 1993 and later made into a television movie starring Richard Thomas and Maurine O’Hara, The Christmas Box tells the story of a young family who comes to share the home of the elderly widow, Marianne Parkin and discovers a secret at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, particularly poignant against the backdrop of the Christmas season. This story reminds us to pause and celebrate the true gifts of Christmas—family, friends, and the ribbon that binds them all together–love.

5. “Christmas Every Day” by William Dean Howells

The department stores would probably love this concept, but this, as the wise Papa in the story reminds us, is a tale with a moral. “Christmas Every Day” is a story about a little girl who wished and wished for it to be Christmas every day, until her wish came true and she discovered that the whole thing was really quite a bother with all the presents and the turkeys and everyone running themselves ragged buying presents for one another until they didn’t know what to do with them. The kernel of wisdom, of course, is quite simple; it is Christmas every day without all of the material reminders, if we keep its message in our hearts.


What are your favorite Christmas stories?

Making a New Start: or, How I Discovered the Wisdom of Bridget Jones in a Fortune Cookie

Several weeks ago, I met a few friends for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, and as usual, at the end of the meal, each of us broke open our fortune cookies to read aloud, between crunches, the nuggets of wisdom tucked inside. I generally put about as much faith in fortune cookies as I do in my weekly horoscope; neither have ever contained phrases like “A million dollars,” “You’ve won an all-expenses paid trip to England,” or “full time employment.” They’re slips of paper baked into a hard pastry shell, after all, not the Amazing Kreskin. This time turned out much the same. “Welcome the good change coming into your life soon,” my cookie prophesied.
“How suitably vague,” I mused. “That could involve anything from winning the lottery to ‘The Big Bang Theory’ returning to Thursday nights and thus restoring order in my universe.”

On the drive home, I found myself chatting with my friends teenage daughter about relationships. In a mojito-inspired burst of Bridget Jonseian wisdom, I suddenly heard myself declaring, “Never settle for someone who makes you want to do everything they want to do. Don’t sacrifice your identity for anyone. (unless he’s 6’1 and English. Then maybe you can negotiate, but just a bit). Nobody makes you whole. You’re an individual with or without anyone else. You don’t need anyone to make you a whole person.”

“Why,” I wondered as I got ready for bed, “is it so easy to give advice to others and not follow it ourselves?” Everything I told my friend’s daughter I’ve learned from my own experiences. My bruised, battle-scarred heart tells a story of resilience. I’m proud of those bruises. They remind me that I’m brave enough to fall in love and strong enough to survive and climb out from beneath the rubble of crushed dreams. I thought again of my flimsy fortune and suddenly recalled that this month, I will celebrate what I’ve affectionately termed my “Bridget Birthday.”

Anyone who’s seen the 2001 film adaptation of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary knows that it all began for her in her 32nd year, and by “it,” she means everything. Between losing and gaining a job, losing and gaining a boyfriend, and learning how not to climb a fireman’s pole, Bridget learns that being a woman of substance doesn’t mean getting it right all the time; rather, it means learning how to fall, and how to brush yourself off when you do so you can try again and maybe, or maybe not, land on your feet the next time.

Bridget Jones writing in her diary
“It is a universally acknowledged truth that when one area of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.”- Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), image credit Miramax

As I thought about Bridget’s story and how much I’ve learned from her about how to be a woman in a world that seems full of wrong turns and roadblocks, I made a resolution to make this year, my 32nd, the year of Bridget. So, to start things off right, I’ve made a list—not exhaustively long because I’m nothing if not practical—of my Bridget year resolutions.

1. Stop obsessing about your job

You have one. Many people don’t. It will lead to bigger and better opportunities in its own time. Life is a marathon, not a 50-yard dash.

2. Stop comparing yourself to others

When you set other peoples’ lives up as the gold standard for your own, you set yourself up for disappointment. Tell your own story. Live your own life.

3. Stop obsessing about being single

Just because you haven’t gotten married, bought a house, or had a baby, you’re no less of an adult than anyone who has. (Re: stop comparing).

4. Stop thinking of your heart as broken

Your heart may be bruised, but it beats, and it feels, and it remembers how to love, if you’ll let it. You’ve been hurt, yes—badly. So have a lot of other people. Your heart is whole, beautiful, and full of love. Your love is a gift; give it where you know it will be treasured.

Before you offer your heart to someone, check to see if he’s holding out his hand, ready to take it. If he’s not, it doesn’t mean you’re unworthy; it just means he’s not ready to hold something that precious and cherish it the way it deserves to be cherished. Don’t stand there thinking one day he’ll decide to hold out his hand and take it. When and if he’s ready, he will come to you and ask you to share it with him. If he never does, someone else will, because you’re worth it. Your heart is a one-of-a-kind, limitted edition jewel. It deserves to be treated as such.

5. At least once a day, tell yourself that you’re a strong, confident, woman of substance, comfortable with who you are, just as you are

Tell yourself this as many times as you need to until you believe it, and even when you do believe it.


Do you make birthday resolutions? What have you resolved to do this year?

5 Times We Fell in Love with Colin Firth

He’s left audiences spellbound with his Academy Award-winning portrayal of King George VI in “The King’s Speech.” He’s displayed a surprisingly impressive set of stunt skills in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: the Secret Service.” He carved a permanent place for himself in the hearts of women the world over with his tenderly authentic portrayal of Mark Darcy in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” But there’s a bit more to Colin Firth than a dive into a lake and the fact that thanks to him no one else can ever win an ugly sweater contest ever again. Ever.

Photo of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy wearing his reindeer jumper in Bridget Jones's Diary
Colin Firth as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), image credit Miramax

In honor of his birthday today, here’s a look at 5 times the world fell in love with Colin Firth.

1. His 2011 Golden Globes acceptance speech

When he scooped up his Best Actor award at the Golden Globes in 2011 for “The King’s Speech,” the first of many accolades, it was easy to forget for 50 seconds that Firth was drawing on the talent for which he was being awarded. Nonetheless, post-gameshow press recaps praised him for essentially showing showbiz how it’s done.

Go home, Hollywood. Colin’s got this one covered.

2. His moment of gallantry at the 2012 BAFTA Awards

Colin Firth doesn’t break the Internet very often, but we all remember flailing when Meryl Streep, in an adorable if inadvertent Cinderella impression, lost a shoe while mounting the stage to accept an award, and Firth, in true Prince Charming mode, retrieved it for her while his wife Livia looked on with an expression that clearly said, “Sorry, ladies. This one’s mine.”

On a side note, reenacting this scene in the rain while running to teach a class doesn’t conjure Colin from the shadows to save you, as I discovered, to my acute embarrassment. But that’s another story.

3. His jab at Ricky Gervais at the 2012 Golden Globes

Colin Firth is the king of deadpan, and that is all. When Ricky Gervais, albeit jokingly, called him a racist kitten-puncher at the 2012 Golden Globes, this was Firth’s response.

Colin Firth 1, Ricky Gervais 0.

4. His moment of appreciation for Jane Austen

In a 2006 interview, when asked to name the women in his life, Firth replied, “my wife, my mother, and Jane Austen.” While some of us have since speculated that this was largely a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fact that his role in the BBC’s wildly popular adaptation of Pride and Prejudice forever entrenched him in Darcy mania, I have to confess that despite my healthy skepticism, I allowed a tiny piece of my heart to drop into his hand at that moment. You’ve said it, Mr. Firth, and you can’t take it back.

5. His flawless improvisation as Mark Darcy

We’ve all seen “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” We all remember that fateful snowy kiss that was likely the primary catalyst for my decision to drag my last boyfriend with me to a wedding in Wisconsin in the dead of winter in the hope that he might be similarly inspired. (He wasn’t. Because you were wondering. And he’s not my boyfriend any more, for entirely unrelated reasons. Let’s be clear on that). But many people don’t know that Firth ad-libbed Mark Darcys forever classic line at the conclusion of that snowy kiss scene.

Pro tip, nice boys: that’s how it’s done.

So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Firth!


What are your favorite Firth moments?

Mark Twain and the Magic of Reading: a Reflection on International Literacy Day 2015

One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.

When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.

As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, image source Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”

So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”

And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.

I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.


Who are your favorite storytellers?

Writer and Teacher

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