Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Unwritten Thank You Notes

Why am I spending so much time writing my near-daily blogs when I haven’t even written a single thank you note for my Christmas gifts yet?
by Charlie Leck

This past autumn, while doing some Christmas shopping, I was in a neat little book store very near my home town; and I saw a little gift book called The Art of the Thank You Note. Having been sent out to do a few chores for Santa, I thought it would make a neat stuffer for some one of the 18 stockings that hung from the mantel and a dozen other places in the living room during Christimas-time. Once at home, before hiding the little gifts for Santa’s later retrieval, I decided to read through the little volume about writing thank you notes. Frankly, no one needs it more than I. It’s kind of sad, too, because I really am appreciative of all the gifts I get. It’s just that I find it difficult to take pen in hand anymore because of all the hours and hours I spend at a keyboard. If one does not keep up with writing by hand, one’s handwriting can certainly deteriorate.

Well, it was a good little book. It had some neat things to say about how to make a thank you note sincere and meaningful. I didn’t want to then, after finishing it, just shove the book away, so I included it in one of the stockings. On Christmas morning that person, of course, took the gift as a backhanded way of saying that she didn’t write very good thank you notes. I abdicated myself from all blame and placed it squarely on the shoulders of Santa. Whew! That was a close one.

We are steaming along, well into February now, and I still haven’t put pen to paper to write my own thank you notes. I received a host of wonderful gifts. My dear wife gave me a number of shirts and the v-neck sweaters that I love to wear autumn, winter and spring. Santa chipped in some really neat slippers and one of the dear kids put together my traditional Italian deli box from
a fantastic shop way across the city. It’s stuffed with far more goodies than I could ever consume before it goes stale, yet I refuse to share any of it and hide it away so no one else can get into it. This year it included a container of Tuscan Paté that is made at that marvelous deli. It’s the first time I had ever tasted it and it is spectacular. The same kid, and her husband, gave me a stack of books that would keep the normal guy busy for the year. I would have finished them all by now, but there is one I just can’t get enthused about (The Downhill Lie by Carel Hiaasen) and another (Good Book by David Plotz)that I’ve just put over on "someday pile' on my "someday table." The hit of that stack of books was Death of a Writer by Michael Collins. It was really a creative and captivating murder mystery that I highly recommend. Soldier’s Heart by Elizabeth Samet was a really creative work by an English professor at West Point. If there was a central question in the book it was likely a matter of how one teaches great literature to soldiers who will be going off to war. How does it prepare them? How does it help in making it all sensible? How does the experience change her – she who teaches this literature? Her students often write back to her about their reactions to some of their readings now that they are hunkered down in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Unlike many soldiers in Iraq, Andy had no email access, and our correspondence had a distinctly old-fashioned feel. Anticipating a shortage of paper, he planned ahead by taking a lot of blank notebooks to Iraq. Writing, short stories but especially poetry, provided an escape and ‘something to fuss over’ whenever he was not conducting police patrols and raids, building desks for schoolchildren, or defusing land mines. Andy’s letters are funny and finely crafted, just as his essays had been: ‘The Fertile Crescent,’ he reports in one, ‘is fertile compared to the desert, but not compared to say, France or Ohio. In this way, I think it is a misnomer.’"
There’s a long section in the book about her correspondence with Andy. It’s pretty remarkable stuff. The reader is drawn into a friendship with both the soldier and the professor. And the soldier is not always Andy. It might be Tom or Phil or Joel or a number of other surprisingly touching relationships the professor builds with her students. Believe me, this one is worth the read. It’s a really neat book.

What the World Eats
My grandkids in Chicago, who have very bookish parents (one’s an English professor and the other a librarian), sent me a couple of books, too. Both of them are worth telling you about and they’re probably books you may want to look at.

The first is a photographic essay written by Faith D’Aluisio and photographed by Peter Menzel. It’s title is:
What the World Eats. By clicking on that link, you can take a look at a dozen or so pages from the book and get an idea about how this very creative work was put together. The author and photographer paid visits to 21 countries around the world and spent time with families in each nation and report back to us about the things that each of these families eat. The families are photographed and so are their meals. It's a brilliant work in all respects and I’ve spent hours and hours going through the book, learning about the vast differences in diets and menu in various nations. For instance, an Australian eats approximately 247 pounds of meat each year. A person in Butan eats less than 7 pounds. Try this on for size: In Chad only 42 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water. The life expectancy in Chad is 47 years. It’s 78 in the United States and 81 in France.

There are a couple of dozen very unusual recipes in
What the World Eats and you’ll find them fun to read through and some you may want to try. For instance, how about Hubert’s Knuckle from Poland. The authors picked it up on a visit to the Sobczynscy family in Konstancin-Jeziorna. Next time you want to cook Pig’s Knuckles, let me know and I’ll send along this recipe. My old man loved this dish and my mom would frequently cook it for him. As a kid I wasn’t attracted. Now, as an adult (or somewhat an adult) I’ve tried the meal and really like it. While we’re looking at the Poland section of the book, I’ll report to you that that nation has a 100 percent literacy rate. Not even the United States has that.

I definitely keep this book on the coffee table and I find myself picking it up a few times each week and leafing through it to another country and family. I loved meeting the Madsens in Greenland, where I tried seal stew, and the Cabañas in the Philippines, where we had a Karaoke lunch of chicken, crab and spring rolls. Our visit in the United States is with the Revis family in North Carolina. We paid a visit to the neighborhood Subway shop and we tried Mrs. Revis’ stuffed green peppers.

Within the Frame
Now another gift that came in from Chicago was a book I had hinted about because I’d heard so many good things about it. Don’t turn away when I tell you it’s a photography book, because it’s really so much more than that. David duChemin is the author/photographer of this very, very special book called Within the Frame. It is not about how to take photographs. It is about trying to put soul and feeling in your photographs – the soul of the subject, but also the feelings of the photographer and his subject. Joe McNally, one of my favorite photographers and a highly recognized photographic artist, says the following about the book in his foreword:
“This book is like a great photograph. It is seamless, intuitive, and filled with minor details blended with larger themes. It has impact – the color play is so strong it’s like a hard, fast punch to the visual gut. Still, there is nuance and subtlety that shimmer like a catchlight.”
I agree. Above, in the title section of this blog, without the permission I’ve tried to secure, I’ve included one of duChemin’s photographs to try to provide an example of his work. I hope he’ll forgive me and consider it a promotion of his extraordinary book.

Mr. du Chemin tries to help the photographer understand that the frame must be filled with more than just a photograph. It needs to be filled with feeling, drama, soul, spirit and a story. Take the time, he urges us, to do more than snap a shot. Take the time to capture a moment in real life. Many photographs we take have been taken hundreds of times by other people. Why not search for that special photograph – that special moment, or that look in someone’s face, or that place that no one else would think to photograph. It’s powerful stuff that duChemin writes and his photographs are even more powerful.
“I need to both hang on to my wonder and explore it from every angle until I’ve found the one that best allows me to communicate my vision.”
If you like to take photographs and would like them to have a more original and satisfying look, this would be a book with which you should spend some time.

Original Artwork Arrived from Portland
The grandkids in Portland (Oregon) did up something original for us. They put together frames and canvasses of bright and differing colors and then set their hands in paint and pressed them upon the textile. There they left beautiful images of beautiful little hands. We cherish the pretty works and have hung them in our kitchen, where they brighten things up and remind us so often of little loved ones we wish we saw more often.

Oh, to all of this I can add the snow shovel, the bottles of wine, the new socks, the tie rack, the photographs, accessories for my camera, and dozens of little tasty looking items that were put away in the pantry.

It was a remarkable Christmas morning and I’m filled with gratitude. It’s just that I haven’t spent the time to write to each of these dearly loved ones to thank them for their gifts. What a lout am I!

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