The Elegance of (Finally!) Organizing Our Family Photos

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Did you hear that deep sigh of relief? It was just me, basking in the satisfaction of finally organizing heaps and heaps of family photographs into labeled storage boxes that fit perfectly in a single living room cabinet. I’m feeling as light as a feather and breathing deeper than I have in a long time.

I like to keep a home that is fairly minimal and well-organized, but our messy stash of family photos became my dirty little secret, much like Monica Geller’s closet on Friends. I think what pushed me to finally deal with them was a book on Swedish death cleansing. Don’t worry, it’s not as morose as it sounds. The idea left me totally inspired to get all of my personal things in order. (Look for an upcoming post on the topic.)

I did make cute scrapbooks for my children as they went from birth through their high school graduation, but that barely made a dent in our photo collection, and another decade has now come and gone. I’ve tried to tackle the ever-growing heap, but I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the photos and the emotions that inevitably come along with a trip down memory lane.

After our last move, all the photos ended up hidden away in six deep drawers of a large bedroom dresser. We’ve since randomly tossed in more and more photos, greeting cards, notes, and special memories.

But wait, it gets worse.  When my mother moved in with us, she brought along a big cedar chest filled to the brim with thousands of loose photographs spanning more than 100 years. Stick your hand in the chest and it might come out with a picture of my grandfather as a baby, my parents’ wedding, my first loose tooth, my sister’s prom date, a pet from 1972, my daughter’s college graduation, or someone nobody knows.

If you can relate and could use some inspiration, let me share my process. It’s certainly not the only way, but it got the job done.

Sort Photos:
This took me a full week. I dumped manageable-sized heaps of photos on the floor where I sat sorting into piles around me. Me…my daughter…my stepson…my husband…my mom… my sister…my grandmother…my niece…my son… my step-daughter…my dad…with a cadaver! (Seriously, he was in dental school.) Everybody’s family is different, so just start making piles and see how they start to shape up. Take a break when your head or back starts to hurt or you feel emotionally drained. It can be an exhausting process even without pictures of cadavers.

Purge Photos:
While you go through each and every picture, have a criteria for what to keep. I decided to immediately toss photos that are:
*duplicates of the same event/people
* blurry, dark, or unclear
* unflattering of the person in the photo
* shots of nature or tourist sights
* of people you barely know
*of cadavers

Give Photos Away:
I don’t think we are obliged to run around giving people photographs we come across during our sorting. However, since I was doing this project on behalf of my family, I was more than happy to box up and ship hundreds of photos to my two sisters who live in other states. I told them the photos were coming and to feel free to do with them whatever they wished.

Organize Photos: 
There are lots of ways to organize photos. After careful consideration, I think I did the simplest thing. I went to Hobby Lobby and bought all of the large-size photo storage boxes they had. It turned out fourteen boxes worked perfectly for us. In case it might help, here’s how they’re labeled:
*Alicia – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Mike – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Woodward – family photos
*Fry – family photos
*Alicia & Mike – our photos together
*One box for each of our children and grandchild
*One box for each of our daughter’s weddings
*Alicia’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters
*Mike’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters

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My Thoughts On Digitizing Old Photos:
I know a lot of people recommend scanning and digitizing old photos to get rid of the physical clutter. In fact, that’s what I was going to do, but I decided against it for several reasons.
*Services like Legacy Box are expensive.
*We have photos from 1900 that still look fine, so I’m not particularly worried about our photos aging.
*I love the idea of pulling out a box and looking through the photos.
*I suspect any digital format available will eventually become obsolete.
*I like the ease of having the physical photos and not having to log on to a computer to find the photo I’m looking for.
*We can easily add to the boxes or add more boxes, if needed.
*Finally, I like knowing that upon my passing from this realm, our children can easily take the boxes they are interested in.

If your family photos are in order, I applaud you. I know it’s a huge job. If it’s something you’ve yet to do, I hope this encourages you. It really does feel great to have it done, and I was surprised by something unexpected. I truly feel I’ve honored the people in those photographs, especially the ones who are no longer with us, by making it easy to open a box and see their smiling faces again. §

“Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you”

~Jim Croce

The Elegance of Live Music

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngIt’s a fall afternoon and pianist Brian Woods fills the small performance hall with soul-stirring classical music that beckons autumn leaves to dance and transports the audience to another time and place. For a brief magical time, we are lifted above our everyday lives and united in the joy and elegance of music. 

The pianist from St. Louis ushered in the first of four concerts at our local cultural arts center, each of which I look forward to attending. I am no music expert; I just know how it makes me feel. Experiencing live music is different than listening to it at home or in the car. There’s something special about joining an audience of diverse people who come together specifically to experience the emotion and awe of a live performance. 

In a world fraught with conflict and division, music can bring us together in a delightful way. This summer, my daughter and her husband took us to a popular piano bar after a baseball game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. People of all ages, sporting Cardinals and Cubs gear, belted out Elton John’s Benny and the Jets at the top of their lungs. If those die-hard rivals can put aside their differences to sing together, there is hope for harmony. 

“Music has a great power for bringing people together,” said media mogul Ted Turner. “With so many forces in the world acting to drive wedges between people, it’s important to preserve those things that help us experience our common humanity.” Music genres can be diverse as people, but with an open mind, lovers of jazz or rock may discover they also enjoy Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. 

Opportunities to experience live musical performances can be found at regional schools, churches, universities, libraries, bars and restaurants, and cultural centers like Cedarhurst Center for the Arts in my hometown.*

According to Americans for the Arts, there are many good reasons to support the arts, including boosting local economies, strengthening communities, and improving academic performance among students. The organization points to research that shows participation in the arts reduces depression and anxiety and increases life satisfaction. In the 1700s, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter said, “Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” 

On the sunny afternoon the pianist swept his audience away with stunning musicianship and stage presence, I took a moment to notice the expressions on the faces around me and knew we were  experiencing something significant. As composer Aaron Copeland said, “So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning.” §

“In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.”
~ Sean O. Faolain

*If you are in southern Illinois, tickets for the 2022-2023 music series at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts are available online at cedarhurst.org/music-series/. This year’s line up includes a Brazilian father-daughter duo Oct. 15, a standards-singing trio in March, and a dynamic flutist, pianist and educator in April. You won’t be disappointed! 

The Elegance (and Poetry) of Space Clearing

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The beautiful change in the weather energized, motivated, and inspired me to take care of two projects on my list ~ refresh our home for fall and prepare for a haiku workshop I’m teaching this weekend. I didn’t expect the separate to-do items to intermingle, but that they did.

As part of my seasonal cleaning routine, I did some space clearing. Space clearing is the art of removing stagnant, negative energy from a building. It’s not as woo-woo as it sounds. There are many techniques, but it can be as simple as opening all the windows with the intention of releasing stale, heavy air and replacing it with bright, positive energy.

After cleaning, decluttering, and opening all the windows for a couple of hours, our home was absolutely sparkling with clarity and good vibes. I felt a boost of creativity, and planning for my poetry workshop was a breeze.

Here’s a simple haiku I wrote to express the feeling ~

open window day
breeze floats in on angel wings
heart and home renewed

“And the sunsets of autumn – are they not gorgeous beyond description?
More so that the brightest dreams of poetry?
~Charles Lanman

The Elegance of Changing Seasons

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As summer turns to fall, I feel an equal sense of sadness and anticipation. I will miss warm sunny days spent outdoors but look forward to cozy chilly evenings curled up by a glowing fire. Similar mixed emotions can appear when we say goodbye to one season of life and step into another.

As we travel through our lives, we are like tourists passing through towns and villages with names like childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood, empty nest, retirement, and old age. As much as we may wish to permanently settle in any one of those places, we must move on.

Do you find the journey through each season of life speeds up as we get older? Looking back, my first twenty years or so seem to take up the most space on my personal timeline. The same number of years spent raising my children was a blink of an eye. Thirty years as a teacher was a snap of my fingers. It’s as if I’m looking at life through a car window and watching it pass by in a blur.

When I’m not quite ready for the next season, I think of a favorite Bible verse, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Its author, King Solomon, was known as an elegant seeker on a quest for the meaning and purpose of life.

He  employs the poetic device of repetition to illustrate the ceaseless, often antithetical, changes in life. “A time to break down, and a time to build up…A time to weep, and a time to laugh…A time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

King Solomon reminds us there are good times and bad, and just like the meteorological seasons, we are not in control. The verse encourages us to enjoy each season of life, no matter what it brings, and rejoice in all of our days.

On my personal journey, I know I spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror. Doing so can fill me with a deep sense of longing and regret that keeps me from paying attention to the road I’m on. I suspect I’m not alone in this struggle. Perhaps that’s why Ecclesiastes 3 is a compass for so many of us sojourners.

The seasons of life pass so quickly. The carefree, verdant spring and summer of our youth fade to a season when daily responsibilities, chores, and chaos scatter endlessly like falling leaves. Suddenly, we are older and days can stretch before us as empty as winter’s bare branches.

It’s fine to warm ourselves with yesterday’s memories and look forward to the future, but we are wise to show acceptance, gratitude and enthusiasm for each and every day of the season in which we find ourselves. George Santayana so elegantly said, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” §

“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be
are full of trees and changing leaves.”

~Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

8 Questions to an Elegant Fall Wardrobe

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I’m excited about my very simple (hopefully elegant) fall wardrobe. Want to know what’s in it?

Ten dresses.

Yep, that’s it. No jeans, pants, skirts, blouses, T-shirts, tank tops, tunics, blazers, vests, cardigans, dusters, sweatshirts or any of the must-haves in most capsule wardrobes. Just ten casual dresses.

What a relief it is to open my closet and not be overwhelmed by clothes that are superfluous, irrelevant, and confusing to me. After a lot of trial and error and wasted time and money, I came up with eight questions that helped me pinpoint precisely what to wear every day to make me feel and look my best.

Once I defined exactly what I want to wear, I realized anything in my closet that didn’t meet those qualifications was just a distraction. Putting together my fall wardrobe didn’t require a lot of shopping. In fact, it mostly required subtracting, not adding. I donated many items. Others are stored away for another season of the year or season of life. The few things I purchased this fall had to meet a very specific criteria unique to me and my life.

Here are the eight questions that helped me discover my perfect fall wardrobe. I’ve included my own answers to better understand the process. Although we will each have different answers, I think these questions can lead anyone to their own personal version of an elegant wardrobe.

  1. What’s Your Look?
    My mother once said, “You’ve gotta have a look!” Keeping that in mind, I’d like to look simple, polished, and modern. I believe elegance can be achieved with many different styles, from classic to romantic to avant garde. What’s your look?
  2. What Will Give You That Look?
    For me, nothing beats the simplicity of a dress. Dresses make me feel polished and pulled-together. For a more modern look, I stick to dresses with clean lines. They need to be casual enough not to feel too dressy for my everyday life, but I have to remember I’m okay with being slightly over-dressed.
  3. What’s Your Best Silhouette?
    The dresses that work best for me are tailored, knee-length or slightly longer, with some waist definition.
  4. What Fabric Do You Prefer?
    I like smooth modern fabrics that can be machine-washed, hung dry, and only need a little steaming, if that. For fluctuating fall temperatures, my dresses are medium-weight and can easily be topped with tights, a sweater, or a coat.
  5. What Are Your Colors?
    For simplicity’s sake, all of my dresses coordinate with black shoes and accessories.
  6. What Patterns Will You Choose?
    I prefer solids and simple, contemporary prints.
  7. How Many Outfits Do You Need?
    I like the idea of wearing a uniform of sorts and keeping a fairly minimal wardrobe. I think ten everyday dresses will give me more than enough variety for the fall season.
  8. What Specialty Clothing Do You Need?
    In addition to my everyday wardrobe, I have clothing for exercise, messy chores, and yard work. I also have a cocktail dress, a conservative dress, and a couple options for more formal events. Beyond that I’ll remember what Henry David Thoreau said, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

I hope these questions help you formulate your own simple and elegant fall wardrobe. We can’t control everything in life, but we can all be the boss of our closets so we can get on with more important matters. §

“To thine own self be true.”
~Polonius to his son in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

The Elegance of Knowing Your Learning Style

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngEven though I’m retired from teaching, I still get excited about the back-to-school season. Whether or not we are headed to a traditional classroom this fall, we should all think of ourselves as lifelong learners. Discovering our individual learning style can help us elegantly continue our education throughout our lives.

In one of my earliest teacher education classes, I was fascinated to find out we don’t all learn the same way, and that’s okay! Learning style refers to the way a person processes information. Some of us find it easier to learn something new by hearing about it, others need to see it, and some need to physically interact with it. Understanding our unique learning style can help us enjoy learning and be more successful.

It should be noted that education, like most fields, is prone to an abundance of research that is sometimes contradictory and confusing. While there are many different theories about learning styles, most research confirms we all have preferred ways of learning based on our individual interests and talents.

Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Let’s take a look at the most common learning styles.

  • Verbal (linguistic) – You learn best by using words in both speech and writing. You want to read and write about it.
  • Visual (spatial) – You prefer to use pictures, diagrams, images, and spatial understanding to help you learn. You want to see it.
  • Musical/Auditory (aural) – You like using music, rhymes, and rhythms to help you learn.  You benefit from listening to new information repeatedly. You want to hear about it.
  • Physical (kinesthetic) – You like to use your hands, body, and sense of touch to help you learn. You might like to act things out and enjoy a hands-on experience. You want to touch it.
  • Logical (mathematical) – Learning is easier for you if you use logic, reasoning, systems, patterns, and sequences. You want to prove it.
  • Social (interpersonal) – You like to learn new things as part of a group. Talking things out with a group helps you learn. You want to work with others.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal) – You like to work alone. You use self-study and prefer your own company when learning. You want to do it by yourself.

Do you see yourself, or your children, leaning towards one of these learning styles? Many people find a combination of approaches works for them, and some research indicates that being presented new information in a variety of ways increases longterm retention. Knowing our learning style can steer us toward our best learning environment.

Let’s say you want to learn a new hobby, such as knitting. You might want to read a book on the subject, watch YouTube videos, go to a group class, take a private lesson, or just dive-in and learn by doing. By honoring your own learning style, you will likely be wrapped in a cozy handmade scarf just in time for winter.

Even when our school days are behind us, we can still join in the back-to-school fun. Armed with a little self-knowledge and a couple of freshly sharpened pencils, we’ll be on our way to learning with style.§

“Once you stop learning, you start dying.”
~ Albert Einstein

The Elegance of Queen Elizabeth II

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngAs I reflect on Queen Elizabeth’s death this week, I recall a story my mother loved to tell about a time when I was about ten. Apparently I was displaying less than desirable table manners at dinner one evening. My mom asked, “Is that how you are going to eat when you dine with the queen?” To which I replied with all the audacity and seriousness only a ten-year-old girl can possess, “What makes you think I won’t be the queen?”

While I do admire the spunk of that little girl, she clearly had much to learn about ascension to the throne as well as dining etiquette. It’s hard to imagine fifty years later I would have become a bit of a royal watcher and big fan of Queen Elizabeth.

There’s little I can add to the conversation about the queen’s life and how beloved she was by those close to her as well as those who watched her from afar. To say she was elegant is an understatement. While she did not coin the phrase Keep Calm and Carry On, it does seem to embody Queen Elizabeth’s fortitude, composure, and self-discipline.

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The now famous British phrase was one of three posters the Ministry of Information created in 1939 in the event of war. On September 3, 1939, in response to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Only a small number of original posters survived as most of them were recycled in 1940 to help the British government face a desperate paper shortage.

In 2000, a copy of the poster was discovered in a bookshop in Northumberland, England and reproductions began to sell a year later. The poster and its message has since become ubiquitous with many imitations and parodies.

As a student of Stoic philosophy, I find the British stiff-upper-lip attitude admirable. Not everyone appreciates the sentiment of the poster as I do, but it has helped me get through many life challenges with a bit of the queen’s strong spirit.

Were my mother still living, I know she would be glued to the television this week and mourning along with the rest of the world. She would retell stories about growing up and living during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. I also know she would still be laughing about when I was ten and actually thought I had a shot at wearing the Crown. §

“When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat;
instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.”

~ Queen Elizabeth II

The Elegance of Being Woke

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngI am a sixty-year-old white woman who lives in a small midwest town. I don’t have any social media accounts. My idea of pop music is the Macarena. I don’t know who is on Hollywood’s A-list, and I couldn’t care less about the latest fashion trends. I don’t try to be cool, but I do try to be woke.

I can hear the collective groans of people who think I shouldn’t be, or can’t be, woke. I am nervous about broaching a subject that is clearly out of my lane, and I am sensitive to the cultural appropriation of a term that is firmly rooted in African-American Vernacular English. However, unless you’ve been asleep, you’ve been hearing this word used and misused more and more in political, cultural, and social conversations.  

As a concerned and active citizen, I feel a responsibility to understand the origins of the word and its implicit and explicit meanings. To this retired English teacher, the word woke is the past-tense of wake, as in to wake-up or be awake. It’s easy to see how it could evolve to mean something more metaphorical and important.

According to several sources, the term woke emerged in the United States by at least the 1940s as slang within the black culture. A 1943 article in the Atlantic quoted a black mining official using woke related to social justice. By the 1960s, woke meant to be well-informed and politically aware, especially in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, the term was used in a New York Times article titled If You’re Woke You Dig It. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a commencement address at Oberlin College called Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.

While the term continued to be used, it hit mainstream vocabulary in 2012 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young unarmed black man. The social media hashtag #staywoke appeared in 2014 and became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

In 2017, an additional meaning of woke was officially added to the dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines woke as, “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” Merriam-Webster similarly defines the concept as, “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.” I don’t know about you, but I find ideas of equality and justice the ultimate in elegance. 

There are those who may be right in thinking I’m a wide-eyed Pollyanna who is oversimplifying a complicated issue. I will never know what it’s like to be a black person. I’m not in the minority by race, religion, or sexual orientation. However, I know these people as my relatives, my friends, my neighbors, and my brothers and sisters in humanity. How can I possibly close my eyes to injustices they face? Should I stop caring in fear of doing it wrong? 

I admit it’s my nature to strip down words and ideas to their simplest, most elegant, terms. By understanding woke’s history and meaning, I am more aware of those who conflate, politicize, and weaponize the word and more attentive to issues of racial and social justice. Unless someone convinces me otherwise, this retired, middle-class white lady will continue to do her best to stay woke. §

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
~ John 15:12, New International Version

The Elegance of Spirit Animals

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I wake in a bit of a funk and linger in bed longer than usual. For some reason, I click on a YouTube video about spirit animals, a subject I don’t know much about. The thirty minute video is fascinating and encourages viewers to pay attention to animals that show up in our lives and consider what messages of guidance they may be offering.

My husband strolls into the room surprised to see me still in bed. “What’s your spirit animal?” I ask, fully knowing how he will answer. “Elephant,” Mike says without hesitation. He embodies an elephant’s methodical, steady, and gentle strength.

I sigh deeply, lean back on the pillow, and stare at the ceiling knowing my melancholy is due to worry over some creative projects I’ve recently taken on. As I continue talking to Mike, I absent-mindedly watch a small black spider slide up and down an invisible thread directly over the bed. It stops to dangle two feet above my head.

It takes a few seconds before the spider’s appearance sinks in. Mike peers around the bathroom corner wondering why I stopped speaking mid-sentence. I point to the spider over my head, my eyes wide, not in fear, but amazement.

I’d just learned from the video that spiders symbolize a strong feminine energy associated with creativity, balance, and connection. Charlotte, the obvious name I give the spider, synchronistically dropped in to offer me reassurance and confidence. Just as a spider has the ability to weave beautiful intricate webs, she reminds me of my own innate creativity. On a metaphorical level, the spider guides me to integrate the individual threads of my life into a coherent and meaningful work of art.

I allow Mike to place the spider outside the bedroom window. I tell Charlotte goodbye and vow to be more aware of animals that come into my life and grateful for the elegant wisdom they can bring. §

“Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul.”
~Pythagoras

(Click here to watch Christina Lopes’ video on spirit animals: https://youtu.be/5e00XKNcdCY)

The Elegance of Courteous Driving

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngIt’s a beautiful morning, and I’m sitting at a red light waiting to turn left. My car window is down and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy quietly plays on the radio. When the light turns green, the driver behind me continuously blares her horn while I wait for a string of oncoming cars to pass. Once I’m able to safely turn, the car speeds around me and the driver gives me the infamous one-finger salute and angrily tosses her cigarette towards me.

Aggressive driving is extremely common and has increased in recent years. In a survey by the American Automobile Association, 80 percent of drivers reported committing at least one act of aggressive driving in the last year, including tailgating, yelling, or honking to show annoyance with another driver. The most common reasons given for driving aggressively include being upset, stress, running late, and anger.  

When taken to the extreme, aggressive driving is known as road rage, and the statistics are sobering. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, in 2021, aggressive driving was the cause of 66 percent of traffic fatalities. It was the deadliest year for road rage with an average of 44 people per month shot and killed or wounded during a road rage incident. Road rage deaths due to gun violence have doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels.  

There are some specific things we can do to prevent becoming a victim of road rage. According to WebMD, never return rude gestures or show anger toward an aggressive driver. Don’t make eye contact, as this can further stimulate the perpetrator’s rage. Stay behind a driver displaying aggressive or dangerous behavior. These responses might go against our gut reaction, but they could defuse a deadly situation. 

So what can we do to bring more elegance to our own driving? Inspired by Town and Country magazine’s long-running etiquette column, Car and Driver magazine compiled a list of forty gracious driving rules. Here are ten ways to be a more courteous driver and return civility to our roads and highways.

  1. Don’t drive under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or emotional distress.
  2. Give driving your full attention.
  3. Use your car horn judiciously.  
  4. Use your turn signals.
  5. Pull over for emergency vehicles.
  6. Obey speed limits and other traffic signs. 
  7. Yield to pedestrians.
  8. Don’t throw trash, including cigarette butts, out car windows. 
  9. Give helpful drivers a wave of thanks. 
  10. If another driver is inconsiderate, take the high road.  

National Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, recently said our country is experiencing “a national crisis of fatalities and injuries on our roadways.” Elegant, courteous behavior isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a habit that can save lives, and there’s no better place to practice elegance than while driving. §

“Show respect even to people that don’t deserve it;
not as a reflection of their character, but as a reflection of yours.” 

~ Dave Willis