The Elegance of Writing Right

IMG_1850Not long ago I wrote a column highlighting ten common spoken grammatical mistakes. It struck a chord with many readers who appreciated attention to the subject. Although this may be a case of preaching to the choir, I’m following that column here with ten common written errors.

Certainly, the informality of texting, email, and messaging is taking a toll on proper grammar. If we are in the elegant business of continuous self-improvement, as I believe we should be, then we must take it upon ourselves to refine our grammar, especially when the idea seems to be falling out of fashion.

The following errors are all related to writing the wrong word. English can be difficult because of its many homophones, words that sound the same. Most of these errors aren’t obvious when spoken, only when written. Here are ten groups of words that frequently cause mistakes, followed by explanations and examples.

  1. They’re, Their, and There – They’re is a contraction for they are. They’re moving to Colorado. Their is a plural possessive pronoun. It shows ownership. Their house is for sale. There usually refers to a place. If you can point to it, this is your word. Put the sign there.
  2. It’s and Its – It’s is a contraction for it is. It’s hot outside. Its is possessive. This is confusing because we usually use an apostrophe to show possession. The dog chased its tail.
  3. You’re and Your – You’re is a contraction for you are. You’re so sweet. Your is possessive. Your mother is so sweet.
  4. Effect and Affect – Effect is a noun. What was the effect of the discussion? Affect is a verb. The discussion had an affect on me. Here’s a trick: If you can substitute the word influence, you probably need the word affect.
  5. Alot, A lot and Allot. This one is easy! Alot is not a word. She has a lot of friends. Allot is an entirely different word that means to set aside. I will allot $20 to spend on food.
  6. To, Two, and Too. Here we go again with those maddening homophones. To is a preposition. Think of it as a destination or an action. I threw the ball to third base. He is going to throw the ball home. Two is a number. She ate two cookies. Too means also. I like cookies, too. (Notice the comma before the word too.)
  7. Lose and Loose. These are two completely different words that really shouldn’t cause so much confusion. Lose ends with a z-sound. Lose is a verb. I hope I don’t lose my tooth. Loose ends with an s-sound. Loose is an adjective. My tooth is loose.
  8. Complement and Compliment. These words are easily mixed up because they do sound the same. Complement means to complete or enhance. The wine complements the meal. Compliment refers to praise or admiration. My compliments to the chef.
  9. Then and Than. These words are not homophones, but they sure cause a lot of confusion. Then is an adverb related to time. We went to dinner and then a movie. Than is a conjunction used to make comparisons. I enjoyed the dinner more than the movie.
  10. Whose and Who’s. Whose is the possessive form of who. Whose book is this? Who’s is a contraction for who is. Who’s going to the party tonight?

I’ve found there are two kinds of people. Those who really care about proper grammar, and those who really don’t. If you don’t, take pity upon the rest of us. Like Sisyphus and his rock, I’m afraid we are doomed to an eternity of futilely correcting people’s grammar, either silently or enthusiastically. I do have a bit of advice when you’re in the position of comforting grammar nerds. Gently put an arm around them and softly say, “There, their, they’re.” §

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”
~Joan Didion

Featured Art ~ Portrait of a Woman, Adelaide Labille-Guiard, c. 1787

The Elegance of Hats

IMG_2199Each day, a little elegance comes directly to my inbox. It’s called The Object of the Day, and it’s a photograph and brief description of a piece of art in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum. On any given day, I learn about a priceless painting, sculpture, or artifact. This Sunday, the Object of the Day was this amazing High Lama’s Summer Hat.

Coincidentally, at church that very morning I noticed not a single person was wearing a hat, and I found myself wishing we all were. Perhaps I was thinking about hats because I’ve been spending hot summer afternoons indoors watching period dramas where characters’ costumes always include a variety of beautiful hats.

For the past twenty years or so, I nearly always wear a hat outside to protect my face from the sun. This is to atone for the previous forty years of tanning until I was, as my grandmother would say, as brown as a berry. The hats I wear are generally baseball caps or straw sun hats that are not nearly as attractive as I would secretly like to wear.

Currently on display at our local museum, Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, is a fanciful display of hats by Dianne Isbell, an award-winning designer and milliner. Isbell creates one-of-a-kind hats for people all over the country. Her custom-made hats perch on ladies’ heads at the Kentucky Derby, weddings, churches, theme parties, and other special occasions. Her hats have even been worn by Hollywood leading ladies, including Lady Gaga. (Learn more at

I’m glad such beautiful hats are on display in museums and still created by milliners like Isbell, but I do wish they were back in everyday fashion. I realize I would look fairly ridiculous wearing the High Lama’s Summer Hat to water the roses, play golf, or walk around the neighborhood. So for now, I’ll don my purely functional baseball cap and dream of a more elegant time and place where hats are de rigueur. §

“Next week I shall begin operation on my hat
on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.” 

~ Jane Austen

Featured Art ~ High Lama’s Summer Hat, China, late 19th to early 20th century
This hat has a rounded crown and a wide flat brim. The interior is made of woven bamboo covered with bright yellow silk satin damask featuring roundels with five-clawed dragons. The top ends in a red silk knot above a border with stylized fungus forms. The hat’s brim is edged with a key-fret brocade and its underside is covered with red silk damask. Hats like this were made in China for use by visiting high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist monks known as lamas. The use of bright yellow silk and five-clawed dragons are strong indications that such hats were commissioned by the imperial court at Beijing, a city with a number of important Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries. It was presented as a gift to the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1986 from Mr. and Mrs. F. Russell Fette in memory of Helen Campbell Fette.

The Elegance of Golf


IMG_1804In what might be seen as a risky move, my husband gave me golf clubs for my birthday last year. At 59, I never had any desire to take up the sport, but I graciously accepted the gift as a way for us to spend time together in our retirement. Although I’m still learning to play the game, I have discovered golf is an exceptionally elegant sport. 

Nature was initially what got me on the course. While Mike recalls each hole by his shots, I remember the wildlife. “The second hole was my best drive,” he says. “Oh, that was the one where we saw the great blue heron. On the third hole, there were turtles,” I reply. There are golf courses all over the world known for their breathtaking scenery, but even an inexpensive neighborhood course can be a great place to appreciate flora, fauna, and animals in their natural habitat.

I was quickly impressed by the etiquette of golf. There is a clear tradition of customs and rules designed to make the game safer and more enjoyable for everyone. After thirty years in noisy middle school classrooms, I was thrilled to discover silence is golden on the golf course. Other elegant practices include punctuality, thoughtfulness, a respectful dress code, and self-discipline. 

Self-control and golf can seem antithetical. It’s a frustrating game that can cause the most stoic player to lose all sense of dignity and restraint. At one Mt. Vernon golf course, a club dangles thirty feet high in an overgrown tree. Forty-five years ago my husband’s buddy threw it up there after an exceptionally bad round. Professional golfer Walter Hagen said long ago, “They called it golf because all of the other four-letter words were taken.” Golf is a great game for anyone wishing to practice the art of self-discipline. 

Golf strengthens both the body and mind. The perfect swing requires smooth and graceful control of the physical body from head to toe, but most golfers agree, it’s a mind game. Golf teaches concentration and equanimity. Keeping a clear head when water taunts on the left and a sand trap teases on the right requires mental focus. Jack Nicklaus said, “The game of golf is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.” 

This elegant game can bring together people of all ages and genders. Children can learn to play and keep playing the rest of their lives. Mike frequently plays with his 83-year-old father, who can still hit the ball straight and far. I’m personally encouraged by female golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias who said, “Golf is a game of coordination, rhythm, and grace; women have these to a high degree.” 

Like many sports, the game of golf possesses a unifying spirit. Personal politics and discord can be left off the course while players bond over 18 holes of shared challenges, simple victories, and friendly competition. In a testament to golf’s bipartisanship, former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both love the game. 

Life and golf have a lot in common. Every day on the links is a chance to practice as much poise, precision, and elegance as possible, and that practice can be extended to life in general. As golfer Ben Hogan said, “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.” §

“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening, and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” 
~Arnold Palmer


Elegant Inspiration from our Poet Laureate & the Stars


Two different things worked together to bring elegance to my life this week ~ images from the James Webb Space Telescope and a poem by the United States’ newest Poet Laureate, Ada Limón.

The James Webb Space Telescope sent us celestial images I can only describe as poetry in motion. It’s impossible for me to fathom a 10 billion dollar satellite taking photos from one million miles away. According to NASA, the very faintest blips of light in the photos are of galaxies as they existed more than 13 billion years ago. The images confirmed for me that we are part of an incomprehensibly elegant universe.

Meanwhile, life here on planet Earth unfolded as usual. The antics of our fellow earthlings brought bad news, sad news, infuriating news, confusing news, and worrisome news. Among some good news this week was the appointment of Ada Limón as the country’s 24th Poet Laureate. Coincidentally, Limón published a poem titled Dead Stars in 2018.

In the poem, Limón contemplates what amazing creations we are. She believes that in the midst of our ordinary lives, we have the potential to do big things for each other and for our planet. You might even call it everyday elegance.

Excerpt from Dead Stars by Ada Limón ~

We point at the stars that make
Orion as we take out the trash,
the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.

It’s almost romantic as we adjust the
waxy blue recycling bin until you say,
Man, we should really learn some new constellations.

And it’s true. We keep forgetting 
about Antilia, Centaurus, Draco,
Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re
dead stars too, my mouth is full
of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising –

To lean in the spotlight of streetlight
with you, toward
what’s larger within us,
how we were born.

Look we’re not unspectacular things,
We’ve come this far, survived this much.

What would happen if we decided to survive more?
To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said,
No. No, to the rising tides.
Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain
for the safety of others, for earth,
if we declared a clean night,
if we stopped being terrified,
if we launched our demands into the sky,
made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows
they make in their minds

rolling their trash bins out,
after all of this is over?

I urge you to read the poem more than once and think about what our Poet Laureate is asking us to do. As we try to comprehend those spectacular photos sent to us by the James Webb Telescope, let’s consider our human potential and be inspired to shine a little brighter. §

“But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars, too.” 
~Ada Limón, Dead Stars

Featured Art ~ The James Webb Space Telescope’s image of the Carina Nebula, 2022

The Elegance of a Handwritten Letter

IMG_1824I sit at my desk in front of a blank sheet of stationery and a brand new pen prepared to write a letter to a woman I have never met. We have at least one one thing in common. We both recently signed-up for a penpal program organized by Jennifer L. Scott, creator of the blog and YouTube channel The Daily Connoisseur. Among other elegant practices for fine living, Scott encourages the lost art of letter writing.

I probably use the post office to correspond with family and friends more than most. Instead of emails, texts, or facebook messages, I prefer sending beautiful greeting cards and thank-you notes through the mail. I enjoy the ritual of carefully addressing an envelope, sticking on a pretty stamp, walking it to the mail box, and popping up that little red flag. However, writing a letter is a little different.

Early in my teaching career, the secondary English curriculum included how to write a friendly letter, but it was eventually squeezed out by more modern forms of communication. The format for a personal letter comes back to me slowly. In my best cursive, I carefully write my name, address, and date in the upper-right corner. I start my letter with a greeting and contemplate what to say in the body of my letter.

I’d like this letter to begin a deep connection not easily found these days. In The Art of the Personal Letter Margaret Shepherd says, “Writing by hand sets the gold standard for making yourself truly present to your reader.” A handwritten letter, she says, “offers unimpeachable evidence that you believe the reader, the message, and the relationship are worth your time and undivided attention.” That’s the feeling I want to convey to my new penpal.

In general, the body of a friendly letter should be personal, positive, and focus on mutual interests. The purpose of the letter should be clear from the start. The point of a personal letter may be friendship, connection, condolence, advice, love, congratulations, thanks, or apology. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The tongue is prone to lose the way. Not so the pen, for in a letter we have things to say, but surely put them better.”

Beyond thinking about what to say in the letter, consideration must be given to letter-writing materials. Both writing and receiving a letter is enhanced when written on quality paper with a matching envelope. Like clothing, stationery can express one’s individual style and is available at all price points. Postage stamps come in many designs and can even be personalized. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect pen that moves smoothly across my paper and does the most for my rusty handwriting.

Messy handwriting shouldn’t be an excuse for not writing letters, but we can try to improve it. Shepherd recommends exercises to refine handwriting including warming-up with circles and coils, individual letters, words, and phrases. To write straighter, she suggests placing a larger sheet of lined paper under stationery to provide guidelines on both sides. Finally, take time to write a rough draft to get mistakes out of your system.

Like anything we want to do well, letter writing takes practice, but don’t insist on perfection. “You don’t have to reach impossible standards of eloquence and beauty,” Shepherd warns. “If your intention is to connect with your reader in the most personal way possible, just the extra effort put into ink on paper will be greeted with appreciation and delight.”

There is nothing wrong with communicating through the telephone, email, texts, and social media, but there is something so elegant and enduring about a handwritten letter. In the foreword of Letters of a Nation Marian Wright Edelman writes, “Let us all then leave behind letters of love and friendship, family and devotion, hope and consolation, so that future generations will know what we valued and believed and achieved.” §

“I truly believe that the penpal is a lost art, and it is such an enriching relationship.”
~Jennifer L. Scott

Featured Art ~ La lettera, Gianni Strino, 1953

Wisdom ~ a good intention and a good book


At the end of 2021, I published a column about choosing a personal word as an intention for the new year.  My word for 2022 is wisdom. I was still 59 when I wrote, “I’m turning sixty this year and poised to embrace the wisdom I’ve gained from growing older. At this stage of my life, I’m pleased to say goodbye to things that used to seem so important, and I now count wisdom as one of my greatest values.”

Now that the year is more than half over, it’s time to assess how I’m doing with a lofty goal “to apply wisdom to everything I think, say, and do.” My best guess is that I’ve succeeded and failed in equal measure. I feel better after reading a quote by Lord Chesterfield, “In seeking wisdom thou art wise; in imagining that thou hast attained it, thou art a fool.”

I do recommend a book that has helped me move forward in my quest for wisdom. It’s called The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. It has lived on my nightstand all year and has a great subtitle, Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class.

This book offers 365 scholarly lessons from seven different fields of knowledge: history, literature, visual arts, science, music, philosophy, and religion. Here’s what I learned about last week:

Monday – The French Revolution
Tuesday – Moby-Dick
Wednesday – Joseph Mallord William Turner
Thursday – Stem Cells
Friday – Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 Choral
Saturday – Social Contract
Sunday – Protestant Reformation

It’s amazing how often topics I read about in The Intellectual Devotional are referenced or related to things I encounter in my daily life. The book has definitely added to my knowledge base, piqued my curiosity, made me think, and encouraged me to be a lifelong learner.

We’re only half way in, but I’m glad I chose wisdom as my word for 2022. The year has so far brought unexpected sadness, disappointment, and confusion as well as plenty of happiness, hope, and clarity. A focus on wisdom has helped me accept it all with a little more perspective and elegance, though I know I still have a long way to go. §

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
~ Socrates

Featured Art ~ Lake Lucerne at Light with the Rigi, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1841

Thank you for reading, my friend! Do you have a personal word for the year? How is it going? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts. Wishing you a day filled with simple elegance. I’ll be back on Sunday. Love, Alicia 

The Elegance of Friendship

IMG_1851A close friend and I meet for an early morning walk every Sunday morning. Exercise is secondary to spending time together. As we make our way down the sidewalks of the town where we both grew up, I sometimes imagine us as two little girls with matching brunette ponytails and hair bows walking to school together more than fifty years ago. We’ve been friends our entire lives.

Together we’ve experienced birthday parties, sleepovers, boyfriends, homework, graduations, weddings, new homes, children, grandchildren, aging parents, and a few things we’d never admit. I recently gave her a little sign that said, “We’ll always be friends. You know too much!”

Research has long shown friendship is an important factor in well-being. Loneliness and social isolation can increase risk of health conditions like depression, anxiety, heart disease, and stroke. A 2010 study at Brigham Young University concluded loneliness is as harmful to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Being in a true friendship gives us the opportunity to practice elegant social behaviors. Friendship requires us to be loyal, thoughtful, vulnerable, forgiving, and unselfish. A good friend shares life’s joys and sorrows and helps us become our best selves.

Friends can be people we’ve known forever or just recently met. We can make new friends anywhere there are people – work, museums, gyms, libraries, clubs, churches, parks, and classes. I have a wonderful new friend with whom I share many interests. Shortly after meeting her, she reminded me of that old Girl Scout song, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

We don’t have to be the same age as our friends. Some of my closest friends are over eighty. I value their experience and their wisdom. They’re fun to hang out with, and they inspire me to stay physically and mentally active. On the other hand, I have friends half my age who try their best to keep me young and hip.

Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be related to our friends. Parents, children, siblings, and extended family members can offer a unique form of friendship and support. I’m personally blessed to be married to my best friend. Of course, we can’t forget our four-legged friends for unmatched loyalty and companionship.

As much as I love being with friends, I enjoy my own company, too. I think we each instinctually know our best balance of time spent in the company of others and time spent in solitude. It’s true if you make friends with yourself, you will never be alone. We must learn to treat ourselves well, speak kindly to ourselves, and lift ourselves up as we would a close friend.

Joan Walsh Anglund wrote and illustrated a charming children’s book in 1958 wonderfully titled, A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You. That’s really all a friend needs to do. Like us. Care for us. Have our back. And remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” §

“A good friend is like a four-leaf clover, hard to find and lucky to have.”
~Irish Proverb

Featured Art ~ Childhood Idyll, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1900

Poetry & Posters for Peace in Ukraine


A couple of months ago, the creative director of a design agency in Berkley, California asked to use a poem I had recently written in reaction to the War in Ukraine for a global competition called Designers for Peace. This project is a perfect example of my vision for creating more elegance in our lives and in our world.

This juried competition invited designers, art directors, photographers, artists, and illustrators from around the world to create a collection of posters to support the people of Ukraine. Entry fees go directly to nonprofit Ukrainian humanitarian aid funds of World Central Kitchen and International Relief Teams.

The entry form states, “With the recent unprovoked incursion into Ukraine, we have received numerous inquiries about how the creative community can come together to support and aid the victims, the people of Ukraine.” The competition is sponsored by Graphis International, B. Martin Pedersen, and Kit Hinrichs, along with International Design Masters.

Of course, I was thrilled to be included in such an important and creative project. A couple of weeks later, I received a screenshot of the poster featuring my poem that Trinity Brand Group is entering in the worldwide competition. I was immediately drawn to the poster’s bold simplicity, the Ukrainian colors, and the hopeful mood of the design. The company’s creative director, Paul Kagiwada, explained, “We were inspired by traditional Ukrainian embroidery, which uses motifs of garlands of flowers, to show the interconnectivity of the people to create a strong community.”

Whether or not the poster with my poem wins the competition is of little importance. What matters to me is the elegance of this worldwide collaboration to bring awareness, support, and aid to our fellow global citizens experiencing an unjust war that should deeply concern us all. It is my hope and prayer that by the time the posters are judged the war will turn to peace, and the real winners are the courageous people of Ukraine. §

“The art of peace begins with you.”
~Morihei Ueshiba

Featured Art ~ War Can Turn to Peace, design by Trinity Brand Group, 2022

The Elegance of Community

IMG_1847 (1)Six-year-old Mariah sat perfectly still as I carefully painted a swirling green vine across her forehead and around her soft cheek. We chatted breezily as I added yellow sunflowers to her sweet face. A touch of gold glitter made her smile sparkle all the more.

I recently jumped at the chance to volunteer with a local museum, Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, at a community event held at our town’s park. It’s the same park I frequented as a child. I still remember sitting at the small concrete amphitheater listening to someone dressed as The Cat in the Hat read a Dr. Seuss book. I was just about Mariah’s age.

On this sunny June morning, local groups gathered to kick-off a state-wide collaboration called the Sunflower Project. This community project will beautify the area, regenerate soil, and increase natural pollinators like butterflies and bees.

The park was buzzing with people of all ages planting sunflowers, browsing educational booths, devouring funnel cakes, and getting their faces painted. It warmed my heart to see people coming together at a time when we see so much division. A Saturday morning in the city park of one little community painted a different picture.

I’m inspired by the good citizens of our community. They volunteer at hospitals, schools, churches, museums, and other charitable and service organizations. They donate their time, food, money, and other resources. They attend events people work so hard to bring to about. Their support of local government, businesses, athletics, the environment, education, and the arts makes a real difference.

Being part of a community requires the elegance of our participation. Involvement is what makes any community more successful, whether it’s a family, school, workplace, town, state, nation, or planet. Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”

I can hardly wait to watch the sunflower seeds so carefully planted in our park grow and bloom into a joyful patch of yellow flowers. What a perfect symbol for a thriving community filled with strong and happy citizens. Wherever you spend this fourth of July weekend, I hope you take pride in all of the various communities you are a part of and look for ways you can get involved to make a difference in your life and in the life of others. §

“Alone we can do so little; together, we can do so much.”
~Helen Keller

Featured Art ~ A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1886.